There were two options. Inhale the stench of stale vomit to the left, or drown in curls of heavy cigarette smoke to the right.
My judgmental streak profiles the typical Chinese male passenger on board with swiftness. A red threaded jade bracelet adorns his wrist, a common amulet for safe journeys. He must be superstitious. He is devouring beef noodles for breakfast in carb-coma inducing quantities. He must be a farmer, or used to a life of hard labor. Taking deep drags of his cigarette, he exhales conversation in a bullish bellow.
The stranger on the opposite bed props his sock clad foot onto my mattress without so much as a second glance. He takes his time to remove his other shoe, while another strange man self invites himself onto my bed. He sits and stares into space without so much as a 'hello'. Personal space and formalities is non-existent here.
A Chinese woman clad in a flimsy mini skirt and translucent black stockings lies on her side in bed; her bum protrudes at an indecent angle. But there is an adopted measure of tolerance within this temporal community. They could care less for something so trivial as some exposure of human flesh.
The floor is greasy with the smear of dirty shoes, and wet from careless teeth brushing sessions. These people have been on this train longer than I have. A metallic, nomadic home barreling across 4000 kilometres of barren desert land.
It is early in the morning, so many of the passengers are still snoring in their bunks. Some of them peek at us newcomers through the slit of an eyelid. Who will they have to tolerate in their compartment next?
The soft crackling of pumpkin shells split open by teeth forms a rhythmic lull for falling asleep to. There isn’t much taste grinding up a tiny seed in your mouth one at a time, but it sure does help to while the time away.
A pleasant voice educates the public on train hazards through the overhead speakers. Generic, major key music fills in the gaps between intervals. It is Mothers’ Day, and a poem has been dedicated to these noble women. Reminders play on repeat, "don't forget to call your mother upon arrival. Bring a grateful attitude along for reunions."
This is in stark contrast to the English pop songs blaring from the taxi we took to the station earlier. The songs were familiar, but the voices were syrupy sweet with thick Chinese accents. Silent spaces censored the 'bad' lyrics, rendering the songs a cheesy staccato -
“Stop callin’, stop callin’, I don’t wanna think anymore, I left my head and heart on the ***** floor”.
Why is 'dance' censored? Why is fun a dirty word?
The recycled cabin air thickens as the sun rises. Why are the windows locked? I feel discomfort for the man dressed in a checkered long-sleeved shirt, with proper pants and a belt.
The uniform smell of instant noodles wafts down the alley at noon, processing within their plastic cups. 'Sour vegetables' seemed to be the preference or only option; all the cups had it printed in bold red Chinese characters.
The train conductor is unmistakable in a standard blue uniform and bright yellow gloves. He stomps down the aisle and shrills at those who are about to miss their stop. A passenger in bed hollers back, furious to have his nap interrupted by the commotion. Between the calamity of stops, he sweeps up the mangy blue carpet and empties the trash.
Vertical space is precious within this metal box. Flimsy iron ladders connect the skinny bunk beds in rows of three. The top bunk is about 2.5 metres off the ground, and requires some agility getting into. Train rides do bear a delicious, dreamy quality to them. All the people sleeping in the mid and top bunks were comatose from whence I took a nap, and even after I woke.
Hard mattresses with thin cotton sheets are used in the sleeper carriages. They lend a worn and crumpled quality to the environment, a feeling of age with nostalgic undertones.
The cabin cools as it submerges underground. We are finally parting ways with the desert flat land of the past few weeks. I look forward in anticipation to what lies beyond. To more fluidity, humidity and familiarity. A new chapter in culture and landscape awaits as we delve from the far reaches back into the heart of China.
This post was originally published on: http://www.journeyjot.com.
I am from Singapore but my ancestral roots are from China, and I speak Chinese as my mother tongue. I believe that lends me an interesting perspective while traveling there. It is like having one foot in, and the other out the door.
I have tried to capture my observations on Chinese train culture within a short time span of 24 hours in the piece. I hope it transports you to another world, and inspires you to new travels!