When in China, Take the Slow Train

When in China, Take the Slow Train

I had only the frigid  Beijing air and my large suitcase for company as I waited for the 7.30 train to Chongqing.

30 hours and over 1,800 kilometres separate Beijing from Chongqing via the slow train. Of course, I was well aware of the direct flights available as well as the high-speed rail, both of which would have more than halved my travel time. But it was neither speed or convenience that I wanted. Departing Beijing wasn’t motivated by a desire to arrive in Chongqing. To tell you the truth, I wanted everything in-between.

As a keen China watcher in 2019, I’m constantly fed an image of a new China. A China where advanced facial recognition software is being rolled out in cities filled with millions of first generation urban citizens, where e-commerce has taken off to the point that attempting to pay for street food with anything but your mobile phone is considered backward.

These developments are sold as necessary stepping stones to a more modern and prosperous society, but there is also a sense that with the achievement of each successive developmental or technological milestone, a subsequent chunk is being carved from the China that doesn’t fit this image.

Having spent two months interning in Beijing’s bustling CBD I wasn’t sure if this China still existed – I just had a feeling that if it did, the slow train could take me there.

Each room was fitted with six beds, stacked three high with a narrow corridor between. The five empty beds in my compartment filled quickly after I arrived. Amongst them, an elderly man with an intensely wrinkled face, which broke out into a warm toothless smile as we made eye contact.

He fished around in his pockets for his ticket, and with the grace of an Olympic acrobat, hoisted himself up to the third tier bunk bed, using only the ladder and his inconspicuous upper body strength. After dropping his things and swapping his shoes for slides, he gracefully dropped back down for a chat. Or should I say, an attempted chat.

His thick Beijing accent and toothlessness made his remarks near incomprehensible, and I’m sure my textbook, Aussie-grown mandarin was just as bewildering for him. For the remainder of the journey, our interactions were simply whittled down to him asking “Ni chi fan le ma?” (Have you eaten?), a common expression used by Chinese parents to show concern towards their children.

As night fell, we were granted 10 minutes at Xinxiang station to stretch our legs. The station and surrounding apartment complexes were blanketed in a crisp layer of white snow. Hopping back on the train I was greeted by my elderly friend, who seemed to have appointed himself as my caretaker for the journey.

Ni chi fan le ma?” he inquired.

“I’m glad you asked,” I felt like saying, because in fact I hadn’t, and found myself looking on enviously at other passengers wolfing down their two minute noodles.

He escorted me to the dining cart, which, to my surprise, was completely vacant. That is, until I received my dinner, at which point the vacancy, and the decision of everybody but myself to stock up on two-minute noodles, made perfect sense. The only option on the nonexistent menu was an odd concoction of several snacks: a mantou roll — a tasteless, white-bread roll popular in northern China; a small pile of fermented cabbage; a handful of salted peanuts; and a hard-boiled egg. Nonetheless, I ate the entirety of this curious arrangement, and once back in my bunk, fell asleep in a matter of minutes.

I slept right through the night and into the mid-morning, and as I rubbed my eyes and came to terms with my surrounds, I soon realised the landscape rushing past the window had completely transformed. The barren vista of the north was no more, and in its place were green hillsides in every direction, the sky almost unsettling blue, having come from two months of dreary city smog coverage.

My first taste of Sichuan province. Still China, apparently. But even with the memory of boarding the train in Beijing 15 hours earlier, there was a distinct feeling of having been transported to a whole different country, or continent, even.

I ate my breakfast gazing out at small hamlets nestled between postcard-worthy green pastures, trying to ignore the sudden urge to abandon my plans in Chongqing, jump from the train and explore the narrow alleyways that snaked through the town.

Train travel grants the people of China a rare slice of idle time. The reputation of gruelling work weeks and six-day school schedules is a reality for most of the nation’s citizens, with millions having to move to distant cities for better work opportunities. But there’s no work to be done on the train, no early morning six-lane traffic jam to contend with, no deadline, only a destination. In fact for most the train represents a rare chance to return home and see family. For these reasons, the train is a particularly good place to strike up a conversation.

In the carriage next to me were two university-aged students. I introduced myself and got out my notepad so they could write out their names. Chen Zhi was the more talkative of the two; we bonded over basketball and he told me excitedly that he and his friend Jiewei were travelling back home to Zunyi to see their family.

I wrote out my English name for them in my notepad, at which time Chen Zhi told me, with some sadness, that he had never been able to find an English for himself which he felt suited his character. After some deliberation, we both agreed that from that day he was to introduce himself as Lebron.

Before long I was surrounded by a large group of eager eavesdroppers, all listening closely to the foreigner that suddenly spoke their language.

A mother with her small child asked me a series of questions concerning the cost of living in Australia. A lanky man in a suit was curious to know my hourly rate of pay, and how much my parents earned. A glasses-wearing 40-something-year-old man introduced himself as a professor of Chinese history at Tianjin University. He wanted to know where to travel Down Under.

I did my best to answer everyone’s questions, using my phone occasionally to translate certain words, or handing over my notepad so they could illustrate their meaning. Every time, the conversation strayed into an area of vocabulary beyond my range; we’d do our best to rephrase, before breaking into laughter when words completely failed us.

We were all taken by surprise when our arrival at Chongqing station was announced over the loudspeaker. I had spent 30 hours on that slow train, yet still a big part of me was reluctant to disembark. I bade everyone a collective “Zai jian!” (goodbye), and added Lebron and Jiewei on WeChat. My elderly friend helped me take my luggage from the train – he shook my hand with one last smile before he made busily for the exit.

Travelling China today means being ferried to a string of destinations more or less out of your control. You are as much aware of the places you can’t go, as the places you can. I saw a lot of great things whilst in China, a lot of the things people tell you have to see. But if I’m honest, it was the China I saw between departure and arrival, in those 30 hours, on that slow train, that was the China I was looking for all along.

Cover by the author

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