The Midnight Epress To Xian
In China you seldom hear the word communism. If you say the word you may be looked at as if youâ€™ve uttered a profanity, or at least viewed as being not current. Youâ€™re politely informed that people now say, â€œsocialist market economyâ€. Three words have replaced communism. Even words can fall victim to inflation. Fine. Iâ€™ve always found the spelling of communism, curriculum and Mississippi to be a challenge. Whether itâ€™s communism or socialist market economy, youâ€™re expected to live by the rules.
In the Forbidden City in Beijing, for example, we saw a large sign that read, in Chinese and English, â€œDonâ€™t Fall Downâ€! Could this be clearer? The Chinese donâ€™t mince directives like our â€œCautionâ€. If you fall, I expect the authorities will remind you that you were warned falling down is a no no. If you do fall, not only might you be injured, but you have also disobeyed – double trouble. If there are personal injury attorneys in China, this type of directive limits the scope of their practice.
I assumed there would also be rules or guidelines regarding sleeping with a woman for the first time. I didnâ€™t want to break any regulations, but I was at a loss at the possibility of sleeping with this rather no nonsense gal. When pressed, thereâ€™s a strategy a man can employ. Bring a woman you know. Four can play this game. You may be sure this will give the other woman and the other man pause for thought. I brought Joan – my lithe, agile and unflappable wife.
There we were the four of us, traveling together but never having slept together. Katherine and Rich and Joan and I, making our way through security into Beijingâ€™s main train station for our first experience of sleeping together. Weâ€™d be in a soft sleeper compartment – the best sleeping accommodations available on a Chinese train.
A Chinese man had told us that the main Beijing station is the largest in the world. In China youâ€™re often told that and it usually is true. (And it was in this case too). The station doesnâ€™t compare with New Yorkâ€™s Grand Central Station, major train stations in Europe and even European stations combined. Itâ€™s not huge or enormous but immense, and it has to be for the thousands of people who pass through it each day.
China Pat, our primary advisor regarding travel in China, told us Chinese trains are the most affordable long distance mode of travel for the average person. China attempts to accommodate train passengers with 43,000 miles of operating tracks. Each day additional tracks come on line as the government struggles to serve remote areas and to move freight.
People can wait for days for a ticket for a hard sleeper or hard seat – the least comfortable of train accommodations. Just like the directive, Donâ€™t Fall Down, the Chinese donâ€™t fudge the facts. There are four classes of service: hard seat, hard sleeper, soft seat and soft sleeper. Donâ€™t even think about complaining. You know what youâ€™re getting – hard is hard and soft is soft. Tourists or dinks (equivalent of a yuppie, or a member of the party usually use soft sleepers or soft seats).
We passed through a metal detector. Our bags were X-rayed. The uniformed screeners were polite, businesslike and bored. We made our way across the station through more security checkpoints.
This particular evening thousands of people, most of them wearing black clothing, sat in chairs, on the floor waiting and milling about. Because of the enormous size of the station, it didnâ€™t seem overly crowded. We appeared to be the only Westerners passing by. People looked at us with curiosity. Several smiled. Some gave us the thumbs-up sign.
We went down the longest flight of stairs Iâ€™ve ever descended in my life. I looked to my right. There were so many coaches; I couldnâ€™t see the engine. We turned left and down toward what I suspected was the rear of the train and passed coach after coach after coach after coach. Now and then there were conductors and attendants in smart, neatly pressed blue uniforms, smiling, eager to assist. In dress or manner, they didnâ€™t resemble the typical Amtrak conductor in the United States.
We located our coach. A conductor glanced at our tickets and waved us aboard. Once inside, a female attendant showed us to our soft sleeper compartment. It was clean, cozy and tight. There was a clear glass vase with a fresh red rose sitting on a doily on a small table in front of the window. There were two sets of bunk beds – white sheets, a white blanket and a pillow – neatly made. Iâ€™m six feet two inches. I weigh 214 pounds. There was an inch or two to spare and room to turn over with ease.
Recessed into the wall at the foot of each bunk was a color television. Each set had its own remote control and headphones. I turned on my television. There were American movies in English with Chinese subtitles, as well as Chinese programs.
Hereâ€™s the catch. If there are less than four in your party and you donâ€™t pay for all four bunks, you might have people you donâ€™t know from Adam or Mao bedding down with you. There are several ways of viewing that. Strangers wonâ€™t see you again if you do stuff in the night thatâ€™s embarrassing, but with friends, you might feel ill at ease. One way to cope is to follow American military policy. Donâ€™t ask and donâ€™t tell. Better yet, pop a sleeping pill. Even better, pass out sleeping pills to the other three people.
While the women were getting ready for bed, Rich and I set off to check out the bathrooms. There are two toilets to a coach – one at each end. Thereâ€™s a separate well-lit room with a sink, counter and large mirror, but no door. At one end of the coach is a western-style toilet. At the other end of the coach is an Asian style toilet – a hole in the floor. Sometimes, but rarely, there are support bars to make it easier to rise from a squat. If youâ€™ve squatted all your life, you can probably get up and down with little difficulty. On the other hand, a hole in the floor isnâ€™t what Iâ€™d call handicapped accessible, and also difficult for those who havenâ€™t spent a lifetime practicing the skill. In defense of the Asian toilet, thereâ€™s certainly less investment and low maintenance.
The train picked up speed, gliding quietly out of the station into the night. We saw a few lights through our window and even fewer people as the train quickened its pace. It soon became apparent we wouldnâ€™t see much staring out the window. One by one, we drifted off to sleep.
This was the first time Iâ€™d bedded down on a train with a woman I didnâ€™t know in a country with a socialist market economy and her big man, a geologist.
Rich and I awakened at the same time. He climbed down from his bunk. I slid out of mine. We had slept in our clothes. We opened the compartment door and peeked out in to the corridor. Not a soul in sight. We headed for the dinning car where we found the cook and a waiter asleep on couches. They must have sensed we were there because they woke up. The cook shuffled off to the galley. The sleepy eyed waiter, with well-practiced disdain, took our order for tea and cakes.
Our train was going slower. Overnight the countryside had turned lush. This was farmland. Not far from the tracks we could see a few people doing their morning chores. Joan and Katherine joined us. The waiter appeared quickly and we doubled our order. As we poured tea, we saw three elderly women doing their Tai Chi, fanning the air in slow motion as they worked their way through, according to Joan, the movement called, â€œcatch the sparrowâ€™s tailâ€. Two little boys ministered to a red kite. A pair of water buffalo chewed their cud,
An announcement over the public address system indicated we were about to arrive in Xian. If Katherine and Rich had done anything embarrassing in the night, I wasnâ€™t aware of it. If Joan and I had, Rich and Katherine werenâ€™t showing any signs. But I knew we were going to get ourselves a big jar of Flores de Cacahuate when we returned to the States.