Everything is packed, my stomach is stuffed full of breakfast, I have my back pack and duffel bags in hand, and now I’m headed out of campus to start my journey back to the Sichuan province, to the same farm where I started my Chinese experience.
On the road, I catch the first of two buses to the train station. It’s nearing 8, so I’m hoping I’ll just have to bear the tail-end of rush hour. My bus pulls up, shattering my hopes when I see the next buss stuffed full of sardines, I mean people. I hesitate, wondering if I should just wait for the next bus and then remember I’m in China and that means too many people and not enough bus. It’s time to get the half of my foot that will fit on to the bus entrance and hope the door doesn’t cut my body in half. Clearly my hesitation is showing how much of a rookie I am with buses at rush hour because people come in behind me and push me farther on so that now both my feet are on. As I’m passing the card scanner, I manage just to get it scanned in time before I’m pushed another three body lengths inside the small entrance area. Now I have both bags dangling from my body and just am barely holding onto them with the few fingers I could manage to extend free from the tangled mess. I press back on the crowd a bit so the girl in front of me doesn’t get completely compressed into the wall of the bus. She’s not screaming, so I figure it’s either fine or she’s just unable to make noise because I’m squeezing the air out of her. Either way, it’s not something I have to address at this moment.
More people get on at the next stop and we all press together even more. The good thing is that I’m not even holding my bags up anymore as the pressure of the crowd is keeping them suspended above the ground, but the bad thing is that I’m more concerned about this silently squished girl in front of me. The situation is rapidly moving up the “things I should address right now” list. Frantically, I look around for a way to relieve the pressure and find that, to my surprise, there’s actually quite a bit of room down the aisle toward the back of the bus. I start to press my way through and feel the weight of the bags return to my fingers. Now this causes a new problem because I can’t use the solid wall of body to hold me upright anymore. Oh and by the way, the bus drivers here are especially bad at either slamming on their gas or brake for no particular reason. I only have about 7 stops total, but at stop 4 my body starts to revolt against me. The people on either side are squeezing my shoulders inward, so I can’t stretch my body and stand straight. With all the weight from my bags it’s putting extra stress on my back and arms. I’m also still wearing my scarf and gloves, and by the time we pass stop 6, we’re stuck in traffic and I brake out into a dripping sweat.
Finally, we arrive and I literally pour out onto the street as I swipe my card to mark where I exit. If I forget that, then they would penalize me four or five times the price at the next bus I enter and scan the same card. I get down, put my stuff down, take off my gloves, and check which bus I need to take next.
The next bus is only 4 stops and I’m able to stand straight and relax a bit. So much so that I let go of the top railing with my newly found good-posture-confidence. Like clockwork, the bus driver slams on the gas and and the bus takes off. Interestingly, my body seems to be happy right where it is, because it stays put, meaning that, even though I’m in the bus, it seems to be leaving without me. Before I know it, I’m moving toward the back of the bus. I lower my center of gravity and end up on one foot, balancing with my duffel in my left hand and my right hand reaching out to brace myself against crashing into the girl next to me, just in case if he steps harder on the gas. She makes a loud noise because of my reaction, but I’m able to keep enough balance so I don’t end up crashing into her. Then I over-adjust and step on the woman’s ankle in the opposite direction, as I scramble to readjust my center of gravity. It’s a little like having a bowling ball in the trunk of your car. I apologize to both of them and then grab back onto the top railing again. Again, proving how much of a rookie I am.
Next, we get off for the train station and I’m two hours early, so I decide to explore around. After seeing enough, I get to the platform with a little over 30 minutes to spare, which, according to my knowledge from riding the train to and from the Mongolian border, still gives me about a 20-minute cushion. Not here! People are already in a huge crowd to board. I quickly file in and walk all the way down to my train car, which is car 1, meant for the people who probably shouldn’t have gotten a ticket and certainly won’t get a seat. (That’s right, I’m on a 21-hour train ride with no chance of getting a seat.) But, because of the holiday, they generously allow us to squeeze ourselves between the chickens and goats. This time (their New Year) in China is the world’s biggest annual human migration when more than 2.9 billion passengers journey nationwide for the 40 day period of the New Year festival- from January 24th until March 3rd. Because of that, I was forced to buy a STANDING ticket.
On car 1, I realize that I’m really late because the corners of the exit doors are already packed with people standing, and all the seats are full. I think I spot some room in the back, so I head back there only to find it’s next to the toilet and has absolutely no extra room, short of sleeping as the bathroom door mat. I head back to the place I entered to see if I can go up farther into other cars, but am soon stopped by the thick crowd of others trying to do the same.
I squeeze in next to the bathroom and then manage just to turn the corner to one of the exit doors. I’m squished in next to a young girl and guy who look like they’re college-aged. I somehow manage to set my bags down on the ground that barely has enough room for both my bags plus the constant stream of random roamers, people passing to smoke, or coming to use the bathroom. It just so happens that I can reach with one hand to grab the toilet door handle and grab the only ash tray in the area with my other hand. Which is worse, the smell of the bathroom or the smell of Chinese tobacco? I actually paid for this ticket.
I guess people must need to settle their nerves from being on the train for a whole 10 minutes because they’re all flocking to this spot, cigarette in hand. There’s also a constant stream of people pushing food carts and train attendants to keep the place in order.
Some people around us are sitting, but most of us are only able to stand. I get my feet positioned so I can lean against the wall and not have to put all my weight on my feet. I’m preparing myself to be in this position for the remaining 18 hours of this journey, although I can’t help but keep think “What the hell is going to happen when it gets to be nighttime?” There’s just no way I can stay like this the whole time, but I don’t see any other options available right now.
As we pass the four hour mark another man comes up to join us by the door. He puts his bag on top of mine and takes up the little room I had to adjust my feet. Who invited this guy? I figure a way to rest my body when I go from standing to leaning against the wall that I think I can keep up for quite a long time. At some point I’m going to have to use the small portable chair I brought and just pile the stuff on top of me. (This “chair” is made from two sticks of wood on each side, hinged in the middle with a screw, so that it opens into the shape of an X. On the top of the X is a small piece of cloth, the wood forming the legs of the chair and the cloth the seat. The width of the chair is equal to one of my butt cheeks. The height of the chair is just enough to keep me from sitting in the ever-growing liquid seeping from the bathroom.) The guy asks me in Chinese if I’m getting off the train and I’m not sure how to respond because my friends told me that this train goes nonstop to Chengdu, my final destination. I resist being sarcastic (“Yes sir, jumping off of a speeding train is better than spending one more minute with you”) and just pretend I didn’t quite understand him. Then after who knows how much time, the train actually does stop (oops) and then that guy and many others file off the train. Of course with the holiday, people are also filing onto the train.
With that guy now gone, I get some room to switch my foot position again, so I’m feeling like there’s a small hope I’ll make it out of this without going crazy. The young guy to my right doesn’t look like he’s doing too well as he’s been going back and forth between standing and crouched quite a bit. I offer him my chair, devising a plan for him to sit part of the time and then we can move my stuff so I can sit for awhile. He immediately rejects my plan, telling me that he’s getting off soon. (Wait. How many stops does this “non-stop” train make?) I nearly choke at the rejection of my offer. Wallowing in the destruction of my plan to sit, I notice a college student around the corner to my left, right next to the bathroom, who has her bag and rolling luggage and is constantly being bounced around as people try to get passed her in that busy hallway. I shift things around and manage to get her suitcase in front of me and get my bag on top of her suitcase. Now I get another inch and she can stay still for a bit, win win. Then, that young guy who refused my chair offer, leaves at the next stop. (It’s a good thing I didn’t take a “local” train or I’d still be in Beijing.)
I position myself so that I can quickly jump on that young guy’s spot as soon as the train is loaded again. Success. Now I’m in the same space that once had four of us, with one last young woman. I quickly spread out my stuff to make sure that people don’t stroll by and fill in the cracks with their crap. I get my seat out and when my butt hits it, I’m in total ecstasy. Being on my feet in general for 5 hours is much easier than standing in the same exact position with little option to adjust. Now I have enough room on the ground equal to four of my feet, side by side. But with the seat, I can put them in all kinds of positions, so I’m set. Maybe I’ll tap dance a little. Now I’m confident I can make it out of this, sanity intact, that is if I haven’t gone crazy already…
Now the hours seem to go much quicker because I’m not in agonizing pain. The train stops a few times, (yes, I’m still on the non-stop train to Chengdu), and the girl and I have to get up, but we’re both on the same page about keeping this spot for the two of us. When the sun starts to set I eat some fruit and snacks I brought along and get a bit sleepy. I put my head down on my knees and drift off a bit, only to wake up to spiking back pain.
I go in and out of waking up, to standing and getting back down, to scrunching down, and, only occasionally, sleeping. I shift stuff in one of my bags and ditch the chair to sit directly on my clothes-stuffed duffel. The seat put tension in my back and legs to hold it steady, but now sitting on the bag, I can really relax and enter another deep state of appreciation and relaxation. That puts me out for a few hours.
The girl in front of me gets off and that wakes me back up as people spill in to fill her spot. I find out we have about two hours until we arrive in Chengdu. My stuff is collected to let people off at the one hour left mark and then before I can set back up in my spot, a man comes back and ushers me to follow him. I’ve never seen him before, but an adventure sounds good right about now. We get a few spots back and then he takes my bags to fit around theirs and tells me to take a seat next to him.
I was just feeling like the last hour would be no problem and I’d just stand, but it’s really nice to get a cushy seat, even if it is only for a little bit. He drills me with Chinese and I hold my own for awhile, but he’s more curious than most, so we quickly reach the end of my ability and most of our conversation.
In the blink of an eye, the train is coming to a stop and we’re getting off. A few days ago, I set up to see my friend, the girl I really like, in Chengdu, which is also her home town. I turn my phone back on to find out her work plans changed and she’s not able to meet. At first, I feel really crappy, but quickly snap out of it to realize that there’s no use in feeling anything but hopeful, so I quickly bounce back and get ready to see my Chinese family again. I think it’s really important to feel like somewhere is my home in these new countries I travel to, and this farm is definitely the place for me in China.
Off the train I walk over to find the next ticket to the next large town over, closer to the farm I’ll be staying. Fluidly I get right onto the next train, in a seat this time, and message Lin that I’m on the train headed to their city. He tells me that he’s in town running errands and will be able to pick me up at the station to bring me to the farm. Perfect!
Off the train I’m walking through the station and get this strange feeling of tears welling up. I don’t feel sad or extraordinarily happy, so I’m a bit confused. Maybe it’s because this experience finally ended and I was able to just let it all, including not seeing my friend, just go. I think it’s more of a feeling of relief, probably also because I’m returning back to a place where the family really loves me for who I am and not anything else.
This train trip was exactly what I needed. It tested my patience and endurance and I remained mindful enough to understand how I react to situations, especially when they don’t exactly go my way. I have a lot to work on, but I feel a deep sense of appreciation for my progress in understanding myself for where I am and where I still plan to go. Sometimes it’s hard to explain to people why or what exactly I’m doing here in China, but this trip is exactly the kind of thing I’m looking for.