I’m up early to get ready for this wonderfully awful train trip back to Beijing. Everything is the same. Same type of train, same times, and 21 hours of no seat. I have to say that even though I gained some good lessons on the way here, I’m feeling resistance to do this again.
An hour ahead of the departure time, I can see people start to line up, so I run up to join the growing crowd. Just as the workers are coming around to open the gates, I can see a scary look of determination on everyone’s face. The gates are open and BOOM everyone’s off like horses out of the starting gates. Somehow, I manage to squeeze in before the bulk of the crowd. After I get through the gate, I break out into a hurried jog. I start to laugh when everyone else does exactly the same, just at a slower pace. The laughing isn’t making this easy. I get around the corner to the train and see that we’re at car 10 and I need to go to car 1, all the way in the back of the train. I also notice that there are quite a few people who managed to get in front of me, so I pick up my pace and really start to run. No more laughing.
Okay, I can’t keep that up for long, the giggles return as I’m passing by people with too much luggage or those who are already too winded to continue. I tuck everything into my body and pick up my pace again, to the point of bounding down the track. I spot the guy in the front of the pack and am determined to beat him and everyone else onto the car. With about 100 meters left to the car, a worker holds up a loud speaker in our direction and the guy in front stops. I stop also within a few strides of him. Then, I catch a glimpse of someone who managed to get in front of us and is still running, right past that worker. Maybe this guy next to me just got tired. Either way, I’m far from tired and determined to get a place to sit, so I start to run right past the woman yelling and hop onto the train.
It even looks exactly like the last train, everything in the same place and I swear I can still see some of my battle wounds smeared on the walls. I skip past the entrance to get to the very back where there won’t be interruptions as people get on and off the car.
My heart sinks as I see a group of old people already spread out, claiming the exact spot I was headed for. I get close just to make sure and peal back at the sight of their scowls. I go back to the doors where I just entered to peak into car 2, but see piles of bags and people already set up. I want to go further down, but worry that there won’t be room or that the car 1 on my ticket is a fixed position. I double back and sit on the opposite door which I sat last time. However, this time I throw down my bags and immediately pull out my seat to make sure I spread out over enough room to be able to get some kind of stretching room. Success… Somewhat.
An old man pulls up next to me and sets his stuff in the same way. We’re occupying the same space that four of us did the last trip. He smiles and then we begin to talk a bit. When he answers me, he leans in so close that I’m afraid our eye lashes might tickle each other. Despite the total stiffness taking over my body, I manage to keep eye contact and enough attention to somewhat understand what he’s saying. When I ask him to repeat himself he get even closer and I can’t bear it, I have to lean back.
The trip starts and I feel really grateful that I don’t have to begin the trip with 5 hours of standing, like last time. Another old man comes up and kneels down to talk to the one sitting next to me. I turn completely in their direction to watch their interaction as closely as I can. Neither of them has an ounce of self-consciousness, so they don’t even notice that the three of our eye lashes are now almost touching. I don’t catch a lot of the slurred speech, but I do understand that the old man who is kneeling down keeps asking the other guy to repeat himself. The guy sitting is doing the same. I can hear them exchange a few, “I’m hearing you, but I don’t understand what you’re saying”. This is amazing! I think I was doing about as good as this new old guy was with communication. Okay, definitely not as good… This guy has the confidence not to lean back.
From my seat I’m able to get into the routine of sitting for an hour and then standing up for a nice stretch and half of the next hour standing. I do this a few times, who knows for how long, I’m scared to death to look at the clock. Then, the conductors come up to me and tell me something about a seat up in the front of the train. I ask them if I’ll be switching seats and they tell me no. I’m confused and they can see the look on my face, so they tell me to wait for a minute. I say thank you and then when they leave the old slurry man turns to me with an excited face and says that something will be really good for me. Okay, I’ve pieced enough of this together now to know that they’re not going to kick me off the Chinese-person-only train. It certainly seems that way at least, no trace of any foreigners.
The conductors come back to fetch me and I quickly pack my stuff up and begin to follow them down the aisle. Last time on the train, I didn’t dare to get up and explore, so this is the first time that I left that little corridor. I really wish I hadn’t… Even with that time standing on the last train, it’s no where near as bad as the condition for those who didn’t get the door spot. I was really lucky to get that spot! I’m barely squeezing past people, more of a squish I’d say. That’s a squish for them not me, I’m twice as big as the people I’m passing. Thank you European traits! There are people standing everywhere and strewn about in every possible space of floor that’s left to occupy. It feels like I just entered the car where they keep the animals. This is embarrassing. It really makes my stomach turn. I can’t believe that people are being treated this way. My stomach goes back to normal when I get up to a group of men who all wildly greet me and push me down onto an empty seat next to them. I look back at everyone else stuck in their horrible situation… Suckers!
They hand me an a few oranges and begin to grill me. I hold my own for awhile until the guy talking starts to get too confident in my Chinese ability. He starts to speak quicker and with more of his Sichuan accent. They pronounce words different and even in some cases they will use entirely different terms. I’m no match as we soon all give up on this conversation.
They give up on the conversation with me, but among them, the conversation is just as lively as ever. I try to listen a bit, but I drift in an out. As they’re talking a young guy comes up to me and speaks English. I find out that he’s a first year at a military university. He looks like he just won the lottery with finding me on this train.
After some time, he invites me to go with him to eat at the canteen. Woah, I had no idea there was a canteen on the train. See, this is exactly what I missed by sitting in the same spot last time. I climb through the next train car with him and, in most cases, the people would have to get up, pack up their seat, and press themselves in to the other people lining the walls to let us by. I couldn’t imagine having that spot and having to do that for everyone that passed for the whole 21 hours. I guess it’s better than not having a seat at all. Since the military guy is young, Chinese, and in obvious good physical shape, he’s left to stand the entire time. Now that’s real torture. No wonder he wants to go to the canteen. At least he’ll be able to sit down for an hour as we eat.
He orders and pays for our food. According to the Chinese culture he invited me, so that’s expected and if I offer, it’s puts distance between us by being to polite. Especially since this is the first time we’ve met. The food is pretty good for a train, but just coming from the farm, it’s like liking the carpet. I go back and my seat is immediately surrendered as the group beckons me to come back. I don’t know if it was just because we were in the canteen, but it suddenly feels more crowded then it did before. There’s someone standing just to my left, leaning on the head rest of my seat, so I have to lean up a bit. But, that’s no problem. There’s also someone sitting right in front of me on a small portable seat, so I’m not getting any leg room at all. Also, no biggie. There are some people to the right and left of that seat, so I can’t stretch out beyond the one in the middle. Still, nothing I can’t handle. The main guy who looks like the one who had the idea to bring me over and took the lead on all my questioning is also the one that won’t stop talking at a level that sounds like they’re having a heated debate. Good thing I can tune people out really well. Sitting in this position, I really feel immersed in this type of train travel in a way that I didn’t get to experience on the last trip. Even with those first 5 hours where I was standing, it wasn’t as intense as this. A few hours go by and nothing changes. I’m still packing in to the seat and the guy still won’t stop his rant. A few more hours go by and he’s completely chipped away at my patience. Now that I’m irritated, and the people around me start to bother me. I keep leaning my head back, and hitting the guy, and bouncing back up to an upright seated position. He never moves to give me more room. I start to feel my skin crawling from the inside out and every inch of my body is trying to scream at these assholes who won’t give me an inch of space! I can’t take this anymore! I’ve got to get up and get away from these people or I’m going to do something I regret. I look up the car to the canteen and see all those people who I made get up before, settled back down in their spots. I can’t bother them. I turn around and see the wild jungle that is our train car with people in every square inch they could fit, including some siting on the backs of the chairs. Then, I spot my military friend with his head phones in, still standing in the midst of the chaos. Suddenly my rampaging anxiousness melts away at the thought of how bad his experience must be right now. All I can think about is how the seat that I had first was much better than the situation that I’m in now, instead of about how everyone else around me is in a much worse predicament and the part that really gets me is that we’re all in it together.
That realization gets me to relax my mind and feel more connected to everyone around me. My body doesn’t want to lash out anymore, funny how all that is generated from the mind, not so much from the situation itself. Who knows how much more time goes by and then the guys who invited me over, goes up to talk to an attendant and ends up buying a bed to spend the rest of the 9 hours we have on the train. I’m tempted to do the same, but now I feel bad leaving all these people to wallow in this situation. I decide to stick it out in this seat position. Especially now that I can breathe a little bit.
Some middle aged guys come over and take the seat before anyone has time to take a breath. It’s a shame that they don’t give it to this young boy and his little sister, who’s been sprawled out over him and half way into the aisle the entire ride. An old guy comes to sit on that portable seat that’s right in front of me, and I can’t bare to sit here anymore as he’s crunched onto the seat, so I give him my seat and head for the canteen car. There was some extra space there that looks like it might have been off limits, but maybe I can use my foreigner charm to be there anyway. I get up to the car to find that other Chinese people had the same charming idea I had and now every corner is taken. Now I have absolutely no seat and have to stand. I spot my military friend and it seems like we both had the same idea. We stand around for a few hours before he gets me a seat. I’m not sure where he went, but I’m so tired, I can barely keep my head up. We’re sitting four to the table, just like I went out somewhere to eat with three other strangers. However, this time there will be no eating. The couple across from me collapse on each other and I put my head square down on the table and am out like a light. My friend wakes me back up and says that it’s time for me to get up. He tells me in an excited voice that even though we have to leave now we got a good four hours there. Four hours of solid table sleep, that’s what I’m talkin’ about! Since it’s still only six in the morning and I only got about four hours of sleep, I obviously am not feeling so happy at the moment. I ask the guy attendant behind me to open the door to the sleeper bed cabin, so I can use the bathroom there instead of climbing over all the people in the aisles back down toward the seated area. After I come back, I realize that the guy is so distracted he forgets to lock the door after me.
I get an idea and without telling my friend I pick up my bags and slip past the busy attendant into the sleeper section of the train. There’s got to be some empty spot I can take for the last few hours of the trip. We arrive at 8:30, but those two hours of sleep in a nice bed sounds amazing. I make it up a few cars and even pass some attendants who don’t seem the least bit interested in me or that I have all my luggage in my hands. Another good thing about being a foreigner, they all assume I belong in the fancy section. I finally see an open door with a woman who is packing her bags. I ask her if the empty bed is hers and she confirms and says she’ll get off the train at the next stop. I try to wait for her to finish packing, but more attendants are walking by and I don’t want them to come to try to help me and find out I shouldn’t be here. So, I throw my stuff up on the bed and at the first opportunity I jump up there, take my shoes off, and before my head can hit the amazingly soft bed, I’m out.
My alarm goes off at 8:15 and I get my things ready to get off the train. I head back down to the canteen and see my military friend standing in the same exact place. He sees me, smiles, and says that he thought I left already. I told him about going to get the bed and he said that he wouldn’t be allowed to do the same. I sit there for a second in guilty silence and then shrug and am still happy I made that decision to get those few hours of comfy sleep. He says the train will be delayed an hour, so he invites me to come sit with him on one of the canteen tables. He takes out a big bag of snacks and we eat one last time together. As the train is nearing the stop, I get my bags and he disappears in the opposite direction. I don’t dare go back down that crowded aisle, so I get off the train by the canteen and don’t catch a glimpse of my friend again. I’m a bit disappointed that I didn’t get to say goodbye to him, but am happy at the opportunity to meet such a kind person.
Off the train and onto the bus to get back to the school. Iftikhar also got back today, so I spend the rest of the day in the lab, insistent for him to get rest. I drop my stuff off in the lab and say hi to Kevin and feel good to see him again. Then, I go up to the lab with all the PhD students and feel a really cold reception. I haven’t been here for a month, but their reactions seem like I just came back from the bathroom. I have to admit, it feels really bad. This is exactly the opposite reception I get when I arrive at the Lin farm in Sichuan.
Linxi’s words about my strategy for living in Beijing are ringing in my ears as I’m thinking about why the hell I’m even here. It feels as though everyone is too busy here to care about each other, or at least just me. Maybe I’m just tired, but I feel quite bad about being back here.
Iftikhar comes down to the lab and he, Kevin, and I talk as he shares some things from Pakistan that he brought back. Then he tells me to come back to his room with him. He makes us tea and gives me some really delicious local Pakistani snacks. I see a couple of his friends and immediately feel so much better. Iftikhar and his Pakistani friends clearly aren’t as wrapped up in school or work and really care about each other. It makes me feel warm again and gives me hope for being back here again. Maybe there’s a big lesson about living in a place so emotionally cold. It makes me appreciate friends like Iftikhar, who without this experience, I might have under-appreciated our friendship.