Monday, January 21, 2008

Sleeping Across China

We took the slow train from Urumchi in Northwest China to Beijing. 66 hours over the poop strewn tracks down the Chinese section of the Silk road past the 6.6 million people of Xi’an who guard the famous terra-cotta warriors from the 7th century and the 6.3 million people in Louyang famous for being the center of Chinese Buddhist history. The only repeating sounds were the click and clack of metal wheels on metal rails, the whoosh of toilets at the ends of each car marking the land claimed for the use of humans, and the nasal call of cart pushers announcing the passing presence of orange flavored drinks, processed tubes of meat, disposable bowls of ramen noodle, and big green bottles of Xinjiang beer. Every once in a while the sun stands in naked silhouette to our left -- the only thing between us and it the layer of gray smog which is a prerequisite for China’s industrial boom.

Chinese civilization is pretty dense. Countless hours of Chinese poker on this train with my bunkmates, a young railroad engineer and car salesman, attest to that. Only the familial obligations of husband to wife occasionally trump the filial obligations of new friends to new friends. And so most of the time six of us crowd onto two bunks so four of us can play the hours away while the two alternates cheer and jeer and keep score. There is no opportunity for such a solitary pursuit as reading a book or staring at the landscape streaming by without coming across as a lone ranger, a Western oddity.

Speaking Chinese helps a lot when trying to make friends on a Chinese sleeper train and the position of being-in-relation, but sometimes just being an American prompts welcoming smiles and, later, handfuls of nuts and raisons. Particularly from Uyghur transients after they hear I’m studying Uyghur history and am married to the quiet girl who smiles all the time that they assumed was my girlfriend. It's interesting to hear the same Uyghur refer to Mao Zedong as “crazy insane person” and a young English student mention that our current president Bush scored the lowest of any of our presidents since the invention of the IQ test.

The community here is a little demanding but nice. We don’t lack for warmth, Chinese teachers, various fruits, and curious looks. If you’re sure you will still make you flight out of the country by a few hours, I think the slow train across China in the middle of the Chinese holiday season is a great way to end a trip to the Middle Kingdom and the 25th year of your life.


Blogger Meredith said...

Welcome back to North America! I read your article today in Global Accents.
Good Job! ~mil

7:01 PM  

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