Saturday, August 15, 2009

Taking a train across China was one of those things I've always wanted to do. I took a train from Shanghai to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province (often spelled Szechuan on menus). The trip is over 2,500 km and takes about 40 hours, so I came prepared. I bought a copy of Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat, as well as Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, and enough food and iced tea to three days. I reserved the middle of three bunks because my guide said the bottom bunk is used as a seat by everyone, and the bottom bed is too hard to sit. I expected all sorts of hooters, howlers, hawkers and hookers at the train station, which is horrendously marked, with little English and completely inaudible announcements.

I was ready for all that. I wasn't ready for the train, which was tiny, cramped and crusty to be charitable. The triple bunk beds were maybe 2.5 feet wide and a little under 6 feet long. There was a narrow aisle with a maybe 15-20 seats for 100 people on the car. "This isn't it, is it?" was my reaction. That was it, home for the next 40 hours. Eventually it would stretch to the point, where I didn't even realize how small it seemed at first.

It was coarse and chaotic. The sink was filthy, the bathroom was filthier, the little tables by the seats were dirty, and the first thing I did was put the blankets they gave in a corner. And that was it, I sat there. For the first 20 hours or so, nothing happened. People just stared at me. When I got up, when I sat down, when I read a book, when I looked out the window, when I stared at them. I stared at them a lot. I thought they were really dirty. And smoked a lot. And the really good-looking woman in the bunk above me had more armpit hair than me. Finally, someone asked me if I spoke Chinese. I said I didn't. He laughed at me and said "yes!" about a dozen times.

On day three (this was a two-night, one day affair), the guy in the row of bunks next to me noticed that I wasn't Chinese. He taught the kids around me some English. One boy kept saying "I love youuuuuuu!" Finally, we talked. The guy was 30, traveling with his cute 3-year-old son and well-mannered wife. Then they found a high school student from down the car who also spoke English. I became a celebrity. About 30 people watched me talk in English, and also the other Chinese talk in English. I even found an old man who spoke Korean, though he called it by its North Korean name. We all took pictures. They asked what I did, where I was going, how much money I made,how old I was, if I ate breakfast, if I was boring (they meant bored) because they always saw me sleeping, and why I took the train instead of flying (which is how they do it in Canada).

Now I'm in Chengdu, which I like a lot more than Shanghai. It's neater, simpler, cleaner. The appeal of outdoor activities in the mountains is intense, and that's where I'm headed next, though sadly only by bus. Chengdu is, I'm not surprised to learn, ranked as one of the best cities in China to live. The money might not be as good as Shanghai, but it doesn't have Shanghai's chaos and ubiquitous peddlers.

Parenthetically, since I haven't been on a computer in three days, I have to say that I actually love the peddlers. Every time I see someone selling something for what amounts to loose change, my heart breaks a little. I knew China was not a developed country, but I can't believe how little some people have (I was told that food was very expensive on the train, I bought lunch for $2). My favourite kind of peddlers are the ones that sell food on a stick. I'm strongly considering switching to only eat food that is served on a stick, namely kebab and melon.

The kebab sellers are often Muslims from the far west of China, obvious from the hats and appearance. And they know their kind. I bought a couple today, two shishkebabs for 25 cents. A burly man wearing an unbuttoned shirt, sweaty belly exposed, offered his hand: "assalam-o-alaikum". The boy next to him offered his hand too. "Pakistan?" "Jia-na-da," I replied. He replied again with "Pakistan?" The Chinese woman selling socks next to him sharply corrected him. Not buying it, he asked me again where I was from. I said Canada. We exchanged greetings again. He said something in Uighur. I said sure, and walked away.

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