Train Trip During Chinese New Year

Winter 2011

In China, a huge amount of movement has taken place from the countryside into the city.  Discovering no work outside the cities and relatively plenty in, because of industrialization and streamlining of production I suppose, leaving the now old fashioned work of agriculture (where the jobs have probably been taken by machines) basically obsolete, millions of Chinese born in a rural area have moved into the cities to work.. This means that many people live far away from their families in this, a very family-centric culture.  The child has to take care of its parents once it has grown, and now that means moving into a big city, living in a small room with twelve other migrant workers, and sending money home.  But they of course like to go home once in a while, and the most logic moment to do so is the most family oriented Chinese holiday, the new year, which falls sometime in late January or February every year.  Logical, until you take a moment to contemplate the sheer volume of human beings attempting to travel across the country at the exact same time, that is, the month or so before the new year, and especially the week before.  Any guidebook on China will therefore expressly discourage you to travel within the country during this period, while stipulating that if you can secure an invitation to someone’s new year’s celebration you should definitely try to be there, or just enjoy it inside one of the somewhat emptied but nonetheless extremely raucous cities, assuming, that is, that you aren’t afraid of fireworks being set off on your street.  (A totally burnt out skyscraper in Beijing prompted an anecdote from a friend about how it had been built to be a hotel, but had been totally fire blasted a few days before it was set to open.  The wreck had been apparently standing there for two years, and the theory behind this was that its neighboring building was built on the same foundation so they couldn’t pull it down.  This logic fails me, but so did lots of reasons for lots of things in China.  It was agreed that it had been burnt on purpose by the company who built it, because of some structural faults or some other error, in order to collect insurance money.  It had burned during new year, when an enormous rocket had ‘accidently’ made its way inside and effectively blew it up.)

I was one of the lucky foreigners this year, because I had been invited to celebrate the new year with a Chinese family in a village in Yunnan.  Technically I personally had not been invited, but rather was invited along by an American friend in Beijing, whose kind-of-ex-girlfriend’s brother’s girlfriend was from this village, and the couple, my friend, and me were going to see how the new year is celebrated.  The couple lived in Guangzhou, across the border from Hong Kong and one of the business capitals of mainland China, so they would be coming to meet us for a few nights in Kunming, along with another American friend of theirs from Guangzhou, after which we would all continue on together to the village, four hours or so north of Kunming by bus.

One can easily travel around China by air but it is not particularly cheap.  The preferred mode of travel in China is still by train, which, for an American with some fantasies about the way things used to be, cross country train trips, wild west, etc, is pretty romantic.  There are sleeper and first class sleeper cars (the only difference between which, it seems to me, is that the first class beds are only stacked two high and have frillier bedcoverings), sitting trains, and standing room.  The normal sleepers are stacked three high, and sleeping on the top bunk, as well as being slightly cheaper, is delightfully reminiscent of a jungle gym.  There are little steps to climb up, with a certain amount of searching around with your dangling foot, clambering, and swinging required to mount, and especially, to demount.  Above the top bed there is also usually extra space for baggage, which is convenient for playing cards, eating, and stretching out.

My sense of distance has been severely altered by my travels, morphing extremely so that I finally find it to be as relative as time.  In Europe, friends would inquire about Boston’s situation, asking for example how far it was from there to New York.  I replied that it was quite close, a short drive of four hours.  Four hours!? They would burst out.  In Europe, in four hours you can cross your whole country, or pass through different three countries.  In China, I asked how far Shanghai was from Beijing, and I was told it was quite close, only a12 hour train ride.  That put things into perspective.

Anyway I like traveling on trains for some reason, Chinese ones especially, where everyone slurps instant noodles, eats sticks of pink mystery meat, cracks and sucks up sunflower seeds (the Chinese have incredible technique and skill at eating them, cracking them and drawing out the seed, barely breaking the outside shell, and eating a huge handful in a mater of minutes.  I got some ideas of how they did it, cracking the thing on its seam between the front teeth, but never quite mastered that noble art) and hot meals and snacks from the carts that periodically passed by hawking their goods (I wish I could say the meals were excellent, in a country with such good food, but they are of course quite mediocre).  In fact everyone basically just eats constantly on a Chinese train, and I like any situation that allows you to eat continually (baseball games, parties, and celebrations are a few other examples).  I like the endlessness of train travel, the beautiful but monotonous rural landscape constantly whooshing by outside the window.  I like that you are traveling but can still walk around and laze about, have a conversation, play cards.  It’s that ticklish, curious, in-between space, neither here there, where you are accomplishing something even as you snooze on your bunk, hoping not to roll off onto the Chinese grandmother down below.  I had several very enjoyable train rides in that country, with one notable exception.

My friend and I were devising our trip to the southwest.  The Sichuan region is just north of Yunnan, and famously has some of the best, and spiciest, food in the country, so we thought we’d go to Chengdu, the capital of the region, and then make our way south, maybe even seeing tiger leaping gorge on the way (we were obviously too ambitious, and it was surely the wrong season to do such a trip, so we didn’t end up making it over there.  I would love to go someday, since it is supposed to be one of the most incredible natural attractions and truly something to behold.)  So we knew we needed train tickets Beijing-Chengdu, and wanted to leave two weeks or so before the new year after my friend’s semester was finished.  Everyone urged us to buy as far in advance as we could, but we were informed that tickets were not available for purchase more than five days in advance.  In typical Chinese fashion, it turns out you can indeed purchase tickets more in advance if, you know, your uncle works for the railroads, or you have enough money to convince them to sell you one (but probably not much convincing to do- in China, money is connections, so you would probably already have your source if you were that wealthy), or, would that we knew!, you can buy tickets through your university.

So we dutifully waited until five days before we wanted to leave, and got to the ticket booth in the student district at 7:30 in the morning, since it opened at 9.  There was already a line when we got there.  It was very cold, January in Beijing, and we took turns running to the McDonalds on the block to warm up and drink hot, horrible coffee.  We agreed that second class sleeper tickets would be ideal, and if those were gone, then sitter should be fine too.  The trip would be something like 22 hours long, so sitting wasn’t ideal, but doable.  We knew that tickets went fast during new year, but we were leaving two weeks before the start of it, and figured everyone else had to wait until five days before too, and we were there good and early that morning.  The office opened late of course, and I had to run to class while my friend generously offered to stay and buy us the tickets.

An hour later he texted me.  When he had arrived at the front of the line, there were no tickets.  The train had been totally, entirely sold out.  Not even any standing tickets remained.  He was totally flabbergasted, and thought the trip might have to be  cancelled.  He had asked if there was anything he could do, and was told to try going directly to the main train station.  So he had gone all the way down there and asked again and was told the same thing, the train was totally sold out.  There were a few standing room tickets for the train to Chongqing however, a city two hours away from Chengdu, inexplicably about the same price as a sitting ticket, but available at least, so he had bought two.

Friends commiserated and recommend we buy the small wooden stools available at a booth near the station, essentially wooden stakes hinged together and decorated with some safety belt material stretched across to provide the seat.  I optimistically remembered the ‘standing room’ situation I had found on European trains, that is, three or four of you unlucky bastards that got there after the seats ran out, chilling between the compartments, leaning against the luggage, and stealing a seat once someone got off at some station.

Naturally, this was not the case.  After buying our little stools and a reserve of snacks we went to board the train.  We found a bustling car, people in every seat, and as many people as there were in the seats huddled in the aisle.  Some stood, leaning against the seats, and most had scouted out and claimed a spot of floor to sit on.  We pushed our way into the center of the car where I had noticed a hole in the sea of people, and there we wiggled our stools and our rear ends onto the floor, our bags tucked between our knees and on our laps.  We looked at each other in dismay, finally aware of the hell the next 22 hours would be.

I thought of the food carts and figured they must cancel the service with so many bodies cluttering up the space.  Wrong again, they came through all right, and we contortioned ourselves to let the wide silver carts pass through.  Going to the bathroom took ten minutes, to push through the crowd and then wait for the toilet in the corridor between cars among the smokers and people stretching their legs, a slight breeze from outside providing a much needed breath of fresh air.  Sitting among us were old and young, babies crying, whole families, old men sitting on buckets that doubled as their suitcase.

Although they probably went through this ordeal every year, everyone around us looked the way we felt, exasperated and supremely uncomfortable.  Later in my stay in Beijing I took on a job writing children’s textbooks, dull work in an airless office being bossed around by my superior, a Chinese girl who thought her English was better than it was and who seemed to enjoy having people to boss around (although eating lunch at a local canteen with my food loving coworkers almost made it worth it).   But I realized that the real reason I left that job after only a few weeks was the commute in the morning.  I had to be in the business district of Beijing at nine in the morning, and so did a million other people.  At each side of each entrance of each door to the line 1 subway were twenty people waiting to take the train.  Whenever a train arrived it was always full but a few people were squeezed on with the help of subway employees in orange blazers whose job it was to push people into the car.  Once a man’s jacket got caught in the closed door, and the worker poked at it with her fingers to try to push it back inside.  It took many minutes just to get on the train, and once on the people were pressed so closely together one could barely breathe, faces and bodies squished up against each other, the bars, and the seats.  Once the movement of getting onto the train and the density of the crowd were so much that my messenger bag was yanked in front of me and my hand was pulled through so that it was left just hanging around my neck by the strap and the bag part stuck between the people in front of me, from whence I had to maneuver it back towards me.  I felt it choking me for a moment and I wondered what would happen if I was just strangled there and died, and no one noticed until everyone else got off the train and I just fell onto the floor, dead.  But the thing that struck me the most was the look on the other riders’ faces.  I saw a woman trying to come off a train where ten others were trying to go on, and her face held a look of pure horror at the immensity of the human movement pushing against her.  Other times I saw people giggle uncomfortably, wide eyed smiles, hiding what was obviously extreme discomfort.  Everyone displayed some degree of pretty intense unhappiness.  These people had surely been taking this commute every day of their adult lives and they were still not used to it; I  realized that you cannot get used to such conditions.  They are unnatural and unlivable and your humanity is threatened each and every time you experience them, even if you go through with it every day of your life.  Happily, the New Year’s commute is only twice a year, once there and once back, but again what shocked me the most was how everyone else looked as horrified as I was.

I slept very little that night, my friend even less.  I ended up putting my bag in front of me and my purse on my knees, and collapsing with my head on my arms.  People pressed up against us on all sides.

Finally passengers got off the train at other stops late the next morning, more in the afternoon.  When we finally arrived in Chongqing we felt the liberation and exhaustion of having completed a great ordeal, and we felt proud and strong to have gotten through it.  Stumbling out of the train station we tumbled into a cab and directed it towards the hostel we were staying at.  We checked in and collapsed in our beds, blissfully private and spacious, and slept for the rest of the day.

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KTV in China

KTV In China

I lived in China for 8 months but miraculously was only dragged to Karaoke once in the entire time I was there.  I had always been averse to the idea, in the US or China or anywhere. I imagined a room full of drunk people singing horribly to overplayed pop songs, either ruining ones you liked or irrevocably lodging ones you didn’t like into your head, where they would play over and over again for the following three days like some inner ear inferno.  I love singing in a more formal context, where I can pay attention to what is coming out of my mouth, and if in front of an audience at least not a totally intoxicated one.  Besides, my knowledge of the songs included in the karaoke booklets is somewhat pathetic in the United States, and in China virtually null.

I have since been once in the US and must admit to enjoying it- ham that I am, singing in front of anyone gives me a certain high, and I found a Bonnie Raitt song hidden in the selection that I knew well enough to get into singing.

In Asia KTV is extremely popular, drawing huge crowds of college students, friends, even business men, the favorite pastime and most relished activity for a Saturday night.  It was amazing that I had avoided it for as long as I did.  The circumstances in which I finally found myself in front of the flickering tv, little ball bouncing along the tacky font, remains with me as one of the closest views I ever had of a certain side of China, the one making it the polarized, complicated, metropolitan country it is: extreme power and wealth.

We were in Kunming, the capital of the Yunnan province, in the Southwest of China, having just returned from Chinese New Year celebrations in a village a few hours north.  Kunming was one of my favorite cities that I visited, and I often wonder if things would have turned out differently had I stayed in that fair city instead of returning to Beijing.  We were there in February and enjoyed spring-like weather: balmy days, warm but not hot, soft and refreshing breeze maintaining an ideal jeans-and-tshirt temperature.  Yunnan is a fascinating region, boasting an incredible variety of terrain, including rainforest in its south leading finally down into Laos, mountains in its north, and desert in the southwest, all the way to the border of Tibet.  It is home to almost 30 of China’s 56 ethnic minorities, groups whose ancestors are not the Han, unlike the majority of Chinese.  In my limited understanding, they are given a certain distance by the mainstream population, are left largely to themselves and function as strong independent communities, are often plagued by poverty and sometimes racism, but have certain privileges in contemporary China such as an exception to the country’s one-child policy, in an effort to keep the groups and their traditions alive.  They also have some of the best food- no surprises there, so many marginalized communities do.  The Dai food we ate in Kunming was probably one of the best meals I had while in the country, and different from most mainstream Chinese cuisines. Among the many dishes, we ate a kind of hot grilled cheese similar to Greek Halloumi which you dipped into a mixture of salt and spices and that squeaked pleasantly between your teeth. They have other unexpected ingredients in Yunnan, including a salt aged pork haunch similar to prosciutto, eaten sliced off the bone or cooked into stews and stirfrys. They even grow coffee in that region. I cannot recall the rest of the dishes, except that they were excellent- some fish stew, herb based dishes, pork, vegetables, rice, all deeply flavorful.

We were still wheeling from our experiences of the New Year and were unwinding in our hostel, the strangely named Hump Hostel, predictably pleasant with an outdoor terrace and laundry. I was on the trip with my friend H from Beijing.  H’s ex-ish-girlfriend’s brother was also living in China, and his girlfriend B was from a village in Yunnan, which is where we had gone for New Year.  They were on route back to Guangzhou, a large city in South China just across the border from Hong Kong.  B’s friend was in town, was it all right if he hung out with us? He grew up a few villages over from hers, and they had been childhood friends.  We merrily acquiesced, glad to have a night on the town, imagining him a student type or local low level white collar professional. She summoned us, saying he was waiting in his car below to pick us up.

We made our way down the funky graffitied staircase, past the hostel restaurant on the first floor and out onto the street.  There waited what even I knew to be an extremely expensive car, recognizable even to the car-illiterate like me by the lack of a license plate: if you’re rich enough to have a car like that, the police wouldn’t dare stop you- you must be very well connected and thus immune to petty law enforcement. Who could this childhood friend be, with a car like this?

We were welcomed into the cool interior, and I sat in awe with no idea where we were headed. My limited Chinese picked out the word karaoke, so I couldn’t fathom why we were pulling into a tree lined driveway in front of what seemed to be a hotel. Indeed, we were informed, this was the nicest hotel in the city of Kunming.  We were led through a shiny-floored potted-planted main lobby and up a red-plush lined elevator, finally down an elegant hallway to a private room.   I caught glimpses of the hotel workers, scurrying around catering to invisible customers behind other private doors.  The same thoughts came as I had had in so many dirty, brilliant banquet style restaurants in China- who were these enigmatic masses, where were they from, how did they feel about serving this rich clientele? They were likely migrant workers, from the countryside, come to the city to make money, waiters by career. In the restaurants I had been to, all relatively humble ones after all, the waiters mostly ignored you, scowled, picked their nails or teeth or their uniforms, gossiped and giggled.  Here though, the clientele was clearly much richer, and much more demanding, and had much more money to spend, and was a much rarer breed- a tiny clan of outrageously wealthy people, the .001%. The service was acquiescent and impeccably subservient.

Up an elevator and down a carpeted corridor, into a private salon with lush leather couches, coffee tables laden with snacks (an enormous bowl of all different kinds of fruit; chips; some meaty spicy finger food), and of course an impressive television.

We sat down on the plush seats, the four of us, the rich friend, and what turned out to be his bodyguard.  He asked us what we would like to drink, wine perhaps? He would drink only a cup of tea, since he was very tired and had to fly to Thailand in the morning, and our friends noted that since heavy drinking is such an integral part of business interactions in China, most businessmen almost never drink for pleasure, being worn from the constant consumption their job requires.

Three bottles of wine were procured.  There is now a limited amount of domestic wine production, the most popular and noxious of which being the Great Wall wine.  This was imported wine, evidence of the desirability of western things and above all of dispensable income.  The wine was very good, and clearly expensive.  We were attended by a charming Chinese hostess, well dressed and available for our every need, and I could not help but wonder if they provided other services as well, in other rooms, with other intoxicated male clients. She opened the first bottle. We were appalled by her suggestion that we take ice in our red wine. She seemed to regard it as a sort of red version of the fiery clear moonshine-like Baijiu, a Chinese spirit that tastes a lot like nail polish remover smells, which can only possibly be ingested in small, rapid quantities, from a shot glass or directly from the bottle. Its taste is not to be lingered over. Indeed, baijiu can be literally translated as ‘white alcohol’, and the Chinese word for wine as ‘red alcohol’.  No surprise then that our hostess presented Bacchus’ introspective liquid as a shot, a small pour in our glasses, and a glass for herself with ice.  Then an elaborate process of cheersing, glass in both hands, bowing and clinking glasses with her, with each other, consuming the wine as if it were so much vodka.  I was surprised that she too was drinking, another cultural difference among so many that I encountered on this strange evening.

After a few rounds of toasts, we settled back to chat. I understood bits and pieces of the conversation but was glad for a translation from my friends.  The rich friend recounted his life story and his work.  He had grown up in a small village and then joined the army, made a  series of connections with important people, and ended up in business.  His company imported seafood from southeast Asia, which is where he had made all his money.  He offhandedly supplied the secret to his fortune- he only did business in a sector where he had a monopoly. Well. No wonder then.

High on the wine and the riches of our surroundings, as well as a complete sense of disorientation in what seemed to be a crazy dream, we scrolled through the options on the ktv.  There were very few songs in English but we scouted them out (mostly Madonna), and the Chinese girlfriend gave us her rendition of her favorite Chinese pop songs.  The rich friend left early with his bodyguard, and the hostess then quietly disappeared since the owner of the credit card was no longer there to impress. Left alone to our own devices in a luxurious hotel ktv suite and two bottles of good wine, we did what anyone sensible would do- we got drunk, sang loudly, and danced crazy.

It got late, we got sleepy.  Back to the hostel? No, to the spa! For the rich friend had apparently left us his spa membership card.  I couldn’t believe the spa would be open so late, but Chinese girlfriend said they were open all night, and even had beds, and since Chinese girlfriend and American boyfriend had a flight to catch early in the morning, they would simply sleep at the spa and leave there for their flight. So back to the hostel, we collected their bags, and took a cab to the spa.

Entering the lobby, we were given a skeptical look, but upon presentation of the membership card we magically gained royalty status, since we were friends of a Very Important Person, and were whisked into the antechamber.  Tired and overwhelmed, I floated wherever I was directed: a very hot shower in an impressive tiled shower, hot steam, a vigorous scrubbing to remove dead skin and toxins (so I was informed), special spa clothing, booties and robe, a female pampering salon, an array of beauty products available for our noble consumption.  An elevator ride somewhere upwards, into this temple of comfort.  An unlit floor, Chinese girlfriend told me we would now be given a massage, but by whom? It was already past 2 or 3 in the morning, quite late for China.  But Chinese girlfriend summoned the manager, and insisted that we receive massages, but no one was in the building, the manager bemoaned, but we must receive massages! We were friends of a Very Important Person so massages would be procured, the manager sighed deeply and retreated, we were shown to a room like a hotel room (were there special services delivered in this establishment also, I wondered? on these beds?) Exhausted, I laid down, at some point two young ladies shuffled in, and as they started to rub our shoulders, my last thought was to wonder where the hell they had been when they had been called to work so late at night before I fell deeply asleep.

I awoke as Chinese girlfriend was wheeling her suitcase out of the room to go catch her plane. It must have been only six or seven in the morning, but I was wide awake with a deep sense of strangeness.  I peeked out into the hallway and found my friend from Beijing, filled with an equal sense of not belonging. Lets get the hell out of here, we said, we slunk out, and went back to our hostel.