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Tuesday, September 13, 2005


Before I get into where I am now, I have to say a few things about taking overnight trains. The train ride from Wulumuqi to Xian, though 40 hours long, was bearable as I was in a soft sleeper. I have not been so lucky (or willing to shell out extra cash) the last few nights. On Sunday night I took a train from Xian to Pingyao. The ticket I purchased was for a hard seat, which would have meant a night of horrible discomfort in an overcrowded car on, well, a hard seat, unless I could upgrade to a hard sleeper, which is usually possible on the train. Now, for my first digression. It seems that just about every time I have gone to buy a hard sleeper at the train station, they are sold out. On the train though, there are plenty to be had, or if not plenty, some. I am left to assume that travel agencies purchase most of the ticket so that they can charge ridiculous commissions and, for those tickets that do not sell, leave people to suffer the experience I was soon to have on that train ride.

I was told to go to car 10 to try to upgrade, and so I did. However, by the time I got to the hallway linking car 9 and 10, I ran into a bit of a people jam, as the desk was put right there. I managed to squeeze through and get right up next to the desk, or at least within arm's reach. I told the lady what I wanted, she looked at the ticket, at me, and said, Bu xing. This means, You can't. I said hard sleeper, soft sleeper, I don't care. Bu xing. Meanwhile more and more people with the idea to upgrade were coming up behind me. As my backpack is a bit wider than me, and as there were five people crammed into the spaces around me, not to mention a mother holding a child whose head was unfortunately kicked by the shoe tied onto my bag, it wasn't possible for me to move anywhere. A few guys in PLA uniforms decided that I would move, though, and proceeded to crush me into the desk and into another man. Everyone began sweating copious amounts and I knew that if I did not move soon it would look as if I had just stepped out of a shower. It would have looked as if all of us there, almost all men, had just enjoyed a fully clothed group shower.

Another woman came to the booth and she looked nicer. I asked her if I could upgrade and she looked at the ticket and said wait a moment, and then handed it to the other lady who right away said, bu xing. Why not? I asked. She did not give an answer. I was getting very angry and so I walked away. I set me bag down in the aisle way and stood under a fan and did what everyone else sitting in the aisles and sharing the hard benches were doing, watching the madness at the desk. After awhile, my sweat dried and I began to calm down. I talked a bit with some people sitting next to me and said I was sorry for squeezing next to them, not that anybody else would ever apologize for such a thing here. Then I explained how the lady said I couldn't change my ticket and I did not understand why. I was getting very angry I said, but I know that in China when you are traveling it is stupid to get angry. You can only laugh at how absurd it it. They laughed at that.

The nicer of the two women working behind the counter walked by again and now that we were in a calmer area I asked why I could not change my ticket. She indicated I could, although I was not sure what she said exactly. I waited a few minutes then went back to the counter, where there were still too many people, but they were no longer pushing. I held up my ticket, but then I realized they were calling out numbers and everybody's ticket had a number on the back but mine did not. Ai ya, I said, give me a number please. I was one of the first ones here, and I will be the last to buy a ticket! At this pathetic display, the nicer lady told me to give her my ticket, and a few minutes later I had my ticket out of that hellish number ten car. I know I should spend at least one night in a hard seat car, to really experience train travel in China, but after that little taste, you know what? No.

In my new car, I had a long conversation with a guy in Chinese. The cool thing was, he knew enough English words that he could tell me things he was saying when I did not understand. We soon had a crowd around us. We talked for an hour, and then I went to the bathroom to change my shirt and brush my teeth and such. When I came back, I had the privelege of listening to my life story being told in the third person in Chinese to a captivated audience of about 10 people. This would be repeated the following morning. At least I knew he understood what I had been trying to say.

So, I arrived in Pingyao, only a half hour later than scheduled. I spent the morning walking around town, which I will write about more later. I had been told on the train the night before that there would be a train running from Taiyuan, the largest city of Sanxi Province to Qingdao at 4 PM, and so at 12 I took a bus to Taiyuan. The bus was empty at first but was soon filled up the aisles with burlap sacks of belongings, pots and pans, grain, who knows what else. We got to Taiyuan after two hours and I went straight to the train station. I managed to buy a hard sleeper (miracle!) at the train station, and then I was left to wait an hour-and-a-half for my 15-hour train to the coast.

This time, I had a few people engage me in conversation on the train, but not as many as usual. This was nice because I had not slept much on the train from Xian to Pingyao, and I was not feeling conversational. I was further depressed by this sight: I guess it is indicative of the general financial situation in China that most children do not wear diapers. Instead they wear pants that are slit along the butt crack and up around the front so that wherever, whenever the need arises, relief is only a squat away. Well, within twenty minutes of this train ride, the cute little girl on the bed across from where I was sitting began to pee as she sat on the bed. Ai ya! her mom cried and then picked her up and set her squatting on the floor. I watched as a large puddle of urine spread across the floor, rolling and spreading with the motion of the train. The parents never looked for a mop. They never even asked for one. A few hours later, the urine was dry, but the memory, for me, remains.

Then, later, in the dining car, I am eating. I am looking at my food and not wanting to talk because I am hungry and I am eating. But the woman across from me insists on talking. Fair enough. I answer her questions. Then she asks me the same questions. I answered with all the patience I could muster. Than a fei chang hong lian de he jiu ren (extremely red-faced drunk man) decided to sit across from me. He proceeded to ask me three times where I was from, and then ask the woman next to him twice to verify I was from America. The last time I flat out said to him...Look, I am from America. Ive told you that four times. Ok? Let me see your passport then, you don't look American. I thought about using some of those bad words I've been learning, but I did not. I laughed and said no. I was hoping my clipped tone would be enough to dissuade him from further conversational attempts, but to no avail. (And thank you to Peter in Xian for mentioning his girlfriend's curiosity about the usage of that quaint but nice word clipped).

The hong lian man left after awhile and I took out my notebook to write. Peace at last. Except that after a half hour the woman who had still not left said, are tired. No, I said. I am not. What is your name? Alan. Rest, Alan friend. No.

Three minutes later. What is your name? I told you, Alan. My name is really Alan. YaLun if you want to use Chinese. Oh, rest, you are writing too much. No, if I was writing too much I would stop and I would get the hell out of this car. Well, I didn't say all that...anyway...I feel bad when people catch me at times when I am engaged in personal activities, and really writing in a crowded dining car is not the best idea, but...the problem is, these people meet me once and have one chance for these conversations. I have people ask me the same questions thirty times a day. I can't be excited about each one. Any desire I had to be a celebrity now seems silly.

Now, speaking of Peter in Xian...he is a guy I met in Langmusi about a month ago, a Canadian. [Here is a post from Langmusi.--ed.] We met for a coffee on my last day in Xian, and what a wonderful day. A nice, well lit coffee shop with newly built traditional Chinese building across the street (in the tourist area around the Big Goose Pagoda). A large iced latte that had me shaking and rolling pieces of paper uncontrollably, bouncing my legs up and down and just plain looking as if I had just snorted a few lines in the bathroom.

We talked a lot about life in China and he told me a few secondhand stories which are very educational, stories of professors driving imported cars that salaries alone would not afford. Also tales of guanxi run wild, of CEOs and bosses and managers, the people in power not going to work, going on three to four day E or ketamine binges and then sleeping for a few days after. Stories of people having to bribe doctors, and of one woman who bribed the doctor but forgot the nurse and so had to go home to get more money before she could have her operation. From these little stories you can draw your own conclusions as to what may or may not work in this society.

So, I am in Qingdao now, on the east coast of China. Hard to believe I was in Xinjiang just over a week ago. I have come a long way. Today was a great day. The architecture here is so diverse, with a lot of European-style large rambling apartment complexes and houses...and some Chinese-style bathroom tiled apartment buildings with European style roofs, which I particularly enjoy. Then there are ultra-modern skyscrapers up and going up, buildings that might fit into Hong Kong's landscape. This is going to be the setting for the 2008 Olympics boating events, I believe, and it would seem a lot of money is coming in here. Near the May Fourth Park (a commemoration of Japanese occupying certain Chinese areas, including Taiwan) there are some faux rich condominium buildings that look as if they have been imported from the area around the Polaris Ampitheatre exit just north of Columbus, OH. There are also some old German homes that look like they could come from Clifton, or Hyde Park, or some of the nice neighborhoods on the west side of Cincinnati, near Mercy H.S. And then there are some huge pastel-colored apartment buildings that fit right into a coastal city's color scheme. The people seem really to enjoy the outdoors, as there were countless people walking along the beaches and in the park as the sun was going down today. And, while I did not go to the brewery, I did enjoy a Tsingtao beer in its birthplace...and it tasted good after my two very long walks.

This is the nicest city I have been in yet, I think. It is the one that has the most residential feel to it, and with its hilly streets that have yellow lines in the middle and the abundance of leafy trees and pine trees it fes like it could be a different continent, except for the fact that just about everyone you see is Chinese. It is really a contrast to be here one day after being in Pingyao, which looks like it belongs not on a different continent but in a different century. And further considering that ten days ago I was in Hetian and Wulumuqi, the idea of the diversity of China's landscape and her cities becomes ever clearer.

I am not going to write about Pingyao now because this is a bloody long thing and I need a shower. One last mention: on the train ride here, watching the landscape. I was struck by the thought that Nebraska and West Virginia had mated, and so there were lots of wheat fields and low hills with cities built into them, with huge piles of coal sitting out front, and coal burning factories sending thick clouds of smoke high into the air, and black faced men using shovels and pickaxes to go through and collect coal. It feels a shame to leave China's heartland behind so fast, but it was too hot and too humid and I am too eager for the northeast. Besides, I have seen other parts of that area and will be pretty close again later. Now to the northeast, and then along the coast. Now to the cities that may not be in the heart of China, but are at the very heart of her emergence as a potential ecomonic and world power...Qingdao, Dalian, Harbin, Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing...There will be other places, too.


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