Xinran and I sit on the lowest bunk. We are in the middle of China heading for the coast. We eat deep fried tiny fish out of a greasy plastic bag and spit the bones out the window (broken, held open with a Carrefour bag full of bananas). We share the cabin with men that pull sweaty feet out of Mizuno sneakers and play with dull grey Motorolas, while noisily sucking lychees and reading sci-fi magazines. One of the men asks where we're going. "We're going to Yantai, then taking the ferry across, north."
When the fish is done, Xinran climbs to the middle bunk. We fall asleep on the outskirts of Xuzhou, rumbling above and through grey haze and the suburban sprawl of scavenged cinder block houses and abandoned factories. The stops wake me up, gently. I hear the same sound each time: ceiling fans (a rusty whir) and a gang of men down the corridor tearing apart the Chinese retirement system while playing checkers on a fold-down table (passionate "let-me-tell-you" conversation and the click of their wooden discs on the plastic table).
We wake up in Shandong Province – endless Shandong. It feels like you're rolling across the wild hairy chest of the world, with a fat juicy red heart beating a mile under it. It's a flat, vast place. Everything moves. Everything. And everything is infinite: mountains, hills, rivers, streams, men, women, cinder block and corrugated metal villages and low, grey cities, dogs, oxen… Fields of wheat are harvested and burnt to ash in early summer, cherry orchards are covered in sky blue netting, boys are fishing in brown ponds, tomb mounds are decorated with paper umbrellas and pictures of dead men and women are in black characters, people are bending over to transplant tender bundles of green rice plants.
The train begins to stop more often. The countryside gives way to houses with courtyards and gates and kids chasing roosters, girls on mopeds and men with parked tricycles selling watermelons. Beige apartment blocks and smokestacks compete with the burning wheat fields to turn the air into a yellow-grey haze. A rush of people comes onto the train, hoping to occupy the empty seats.
We witness scenes of
– women minding children, tucking an arm of a shirt over their shoulder to feed a baby at their breast and gossip as they browse
– gangs of workers with their canvas sacks on their backs, pointy leather shoes on their feet, cigarettes stuck unlit in their mouths, sneaking glances at girls from places without names
– girls hiding under beautiful umbrellas to protect dark, flat faces, playfully pushing neat little men of the People’s Liberation Army with square shoulders in honeydew and long legs in moss
– girls watching the shirtless boys, who watch them back while they scratch their hard, empty stomachs with Motorolas and long fingernails, checking their reflections in the tinted glass of the station windows, carefully moving long strands of colorful hair up and down
The men in our cabin get up, bring out toothbrushes and soap, change their shirts, disappear into the bathroom and return, cigarettes hanging from lips. They don't say anything. They look out the window.
At Yantai, we get off under a steel tent, on a grey platform like everyone else. We can smell the ocean.
We walk to the beach. We're at the tip of the Shandong Peninsula. The Koreas are out there, so is Japan and Russia – across the grey Bohai Sea.
Xinran saw the ocean for the first time last month, at Lianyungang. She carried a bottle of seawater back home and kept it beside her bed. We buy crepes at a kiosk called Tokyo Crepes – peaches and chocolate and whipped cream. They're delicious.
In an alley near the sea, a woman, born in 1929 asks if I'm from Finland. Her home is a strong brick cube built the same year she was born. She remembers that it was the Finnish consulate. She was given a room there, much later, when, as far as she knows, there were no Finns in Yantai. Eventually she came to own the building, renting out the front half of the first floor to a shop selling pearl powder, polished seashells, starfish and sand dollars. The back half of the first floor is an office, her office, where she sits during the day and shuffles through papers and sips tea. The second floor is her home.
Around her district of alleys and decaying inns, around the sea wall and soft beds, waves slowly roll into the concrete. Tourists are under umbrellas, taking pictures with the Bohai behind them. A network of straight, neat streets moves back from the seaside district of narrow alleys and tides. You can see poplars, bus stops, old ladies sitting on benches, Citroens, students rushing orderly with books pressed against their chests, shops selling imported Korean strollers, quiet and compact squares.
Further out is a cluster of downtown, high rise department stores, a WalMart, rows of shops and fast food joints. The the apartment complexes are guarded by high walls and statues of gods in chariots with names like Paris Commune and European Lifestyle Area. Beyond that are the suburbs, separated from the downtown, from the quiet alleys of the seaside, grey apartment blocks, corner stores and complexes engaged in the business of the city, in sending things back and forth across the ocean, big lots full of blue, red, grey containers.
Korean tourists, conspicuous, drag Samsonite up clean, quiet streets. We hang around. We sit on a low wall and watch the opening of a carpet store. A marching band plays and there are fireworks. A man walks by and asks if we believe in Jesus Christ. He's tanned dark, smiles nonstop. Xinran says she doesn't not believe, and I say I'm sure I don't believe, He's barely discouraged. He crouches down in front of us, asks me about church in Canada, who's a Christian, what do Christians do, how about that new Pope that used to be a Nazi, what do they say about this and that. He says his grandfather became a Christian fifty years ago and his whole family is part of a small church.
He asks me if I can quote something from the Bible. I say the Apostles' Creed, then the Our Father in English and French. Without thinking I cross myself before I say them. I teach him to sing "Yes Jesus loves me, yes Jesus loves me, yes Jesus loves me, for the Bible tells me so," translated by Xinran. He says I could be a missionary, even if I don't believe in God, no problem. He tells me to convince my wife to become a Christian and says God bless us and that he has to go right now but, if God wills it, we'll meet again.
We take a bus to the ferry terminals. There are two massive grey buildings. One is the domestic terminal; the other is the international terminal. Big boats come in straight from Incheon. There are lots of Koreans. Formed around the terminals, there is a hastily constructed border town, ready for the Northeasterners, for the Russians, Koreans and Japanese loading and unloading. There are the whorehouse strip malls. Every train station in China has them: rows and rows of shacks lit up in pinks and purples. Dark, flat faces painted white, with red lips and black eyes smeared on, with bruised bodies wrapped in shiny, short dresses or tied up in lingerie, breasts pushed up. The women lie out on couches in the doorways or crouch in the street.
Between the whorehouse shacks, there are restaurants, empty and bright with doorways of plastic sheets and signboards jammed into the mud, Korean characters on them reading, “Dog meat hotpot fifty Yuan". There are shops with narrow doors and more Korean signs, advertising Chinese medical cures for impotence. There are signs outside of closed doors that say in English, “Wholesale condoms sex love DVD love love love". Xinran says, "I'm glad I knew China was… like this… or I'd be shocked."
We buy a common, overnight ticket on a ferry to Dalian, north across the Bohai Sea. We walk up metal stairs, following unsteady women in high heels. Xinran is excited. "Will we get seasick? How fast does the boat go? Will they have those hanging beds?"
"Mmmmm, no. Probably not."
We cruise out, watching the lights of Yantai disappear. Men throw steamed buns and chunks of soft pink sausage to the seagulls, clanking the metal deck with their pointy leather shoes. Inside, space is sold on mats on the floor. Seats are occupied by passengers and re-sold. Migrant workers strip down to their undies and make sheets out of newspaper.
Xinran and I watch a loud, short man from Luoyang take pictures of a woman from Kaifeng. He holds his phone at arm’s length and makes the sound of a camera shutter, “ch-chik". She’s fifteen or twenty years younger than him, just stepping into her mid-thirties. She could be a renovated woman of his own age, acting outrageously, teeth bleached, eyes surgically folded, hair dyed orange and short, short dress same color as the red paint of the deck railing. She shrieks happily and her eyes dart around, checking to see who might be watching. And the man sings a funny old song. They grab each other and stay stuck together, giggling. She whispers to him, “This dress is so cold. I’m so cold.” He gives his chattering laugh, which ends: “ha-ha-cha-cha-cha.” They’re happy.
A boy with a stiff, expensive haircut rests his forearms on the deck railing, leans back, takes off his shirt, puts it around his neck, rubs his bony chest, takes out a pack of cigarettes from his pockets, lights one. Beside him, a man hums softly to himself in Japanese. An old man with big screen Jiang Zemin glasses and heavy black frames, a cowboy hat, a big, black, expensive camera, Dockers takes a picture of the boy, who looks back at him with no expression.
Xinran and I tear paper out of my notebook and write a message in a bottle in English, French, Chinese and Japanese. I write: "I am with my wife. We just got married. I'm in love. We are on a big boat between Yantai and Dalian. Where are you?" Something like that. We toss it out into the darkness and speculate about currents and wind and such.
We look for seats below. We give up and eat roast chicken and Snickers to stay awake. We finally sleep in shifts on formed plastic seats out on the deck. The exhaust from the diesel engine keeps us warm.
We wake up to a bright sky with the sun still down below. The world is endless and grey. We're wet and sticky and salty. We watch the sun come up through heavy clouds and take pictures of it. Dalian and the sun behind it roll up onto the horizon.