My 32-hour train trip from Beijing to Chengdu did not begin auspiciously. There was my meltdown at the hotel, and then, after getting off the subway I got contradictory directions as to which way to go to find the train station. I found an idle taxi, and the driver let me out at a spot he said was directly across from the train station – only as soon as I started walking, I realized you had to go underground to get there.
I never did figure out what that underground area was for. I just walked as fast as I could in the direction a young man pointed until I came to some escalators. Up top, I got more conflicting directions until two women who spoke no English collared a train official for me. She looked at my ticket and pointed to an enormous display of train numbers and waiting areas and times. It was extremely clear where I needed to go once I knew where to look.
I decided to use the bathroom off the waiting area for my train – and darned if it wasn’t just like at the Seattle Opera. The men whisked in and out of their bathroom, while there was a long line to use the women’s bathroom. By the time I got in and out again, the train had begun boarding. I scurried along to find car 9 and the compartment with berth 28.
I stepped into the doorway of the little room. There were two bunks to the left, upper and lower, and two to the right; between the bunks was a window with a sheer white curtain and blue drapes; beneath the window was a metal table with a vase of plastic flowers. A woman somewhere between 60 and 70, with short, graying hair and sedate jacket and pants, sat on the lower left bunk, and a woman perhaps 40 or 45, with dark, flowing hair and a shirt with bright-colored flowers, sat on the lower right. They were talking, and I thought perhaps they were mother and daughter. I said “ni hao” with the last bit of cheer I could muster, and they looked up at me.
I have no idea what they thought when they saw me; they can’t have expected that they’d be sharing their journey with an American grandma wearing a backpack. But they greeted me, and I think the younger woman sized me up and decided that she would need to take me under her wing. She showed me where to sit, how to climb up to my bunk, what to do with my trash, where the toilet was—and she made me feel welcome.
I cannot say that the trip wasn’t a long 32 hours, but it was memorable in many ways, and I felt I was safe and among friends.
Three women and some chicken feet
The train left on time, shortly after 11 a.m. We had been joined by our fourth compartment mate, a young man who knew enough English to tell me that he was traveling on business, but that it would be too difficult to explain what that business was. He spent most of his time either with coworkers a couple of compartments down or sitting on a little pull-down seat in the aisle reading a serious-looking book.
So most of the time, it was just the three of us women in the compartment. I learned that both of the other women had been visiting in Beijing and were headed home. The older one would be getting off before I did, I think at Suining, although I’m not sure anymore; the younger would be going farther, I think to Xichang, although again I’m not sure. (I have a hard time holding multi-syllable Chinese words in memory for more than a few seconds.) I learned that the older woman had a daughter and the younger woman, a son, and I showed them a picture of my children and grandchildren on my iPhone.
The women began breaking out the food they’d brought with them, and they wanted to share. I passed my almonds and took some of the older woman’s edamame (soybeans cooked in their pods) and half of a sweet bun. I turned down the apple the younger woman offered—raw fruit!—whereupon she brought out her stash of chicken feet.
Each foot had been commercially packaged in its own little plastic bag, but, hooo boy, I had no idea where those bony claws had been! However, to refuse a chicken foot seemed more like an international incident than an option, so I accepted it, tore open the package and chawed away—and found it to be, well, actually quite tasty. The part to be eaten, the part that wasn’t bone, was gelatinous, not quite gristle—and the flavor was good. My companion grinned as she indicated that she had given me a mild one; the chicken foot she was eating was much spicier.
Red earth and tidy greens
I watched out the window as the train dropped mostly south and a bit west. The light brown earth of Beijing turned brick red. Farming areas were a patchwork of small fields, punctuated by an occasional flock of white ducks pecking in the dirt. I saw rice being grown, which I expected, and also small stands of corn, which surprised me, as I think of corn as belonging in the Americas. I shouldn’t have been surprised; I’d seen vendors selling ears of corn on wooden skewers in parks in Beijing.
Amongst the rice and corn were many small fields of a dark green leafy plant the color of spinach but somehow more robust—fields with nary a weed. Just plant after plant in tidy rows. So neat, so dark green, so beautiful. So unlike my garden at home.
Then, all of a sudden, rising out of the rice or veggie fields, there’d be a stand of pencil-like apartment buildings. Were we in the country or the city? It was hard to say.
Eating and sleeping
I had thought I would eat dinner in the dining car, but I was never actually sure if there was one. My companions ate food they’d brought with them, including noodles that they reconstituted with hot water from a dispenser at one end of our car. I could have purchased a tub of noodles, but I wasn’t sure about the hot water—in retrospect, I think it would have been fine—so I bought dinner for 20 Yuan (a little over $3) from a cart that was being pushed from car to car.
Dinner comprised a huge mound of white rice scooped into a plastic take-out tray with some greens and a couple of other dishes that are gray and unidentifiable in my memory, but that tasted good at the time. My compartment mates watched as I ate using the chopsticks provided with the meal. Eventually the younger woman leaned over and tried to show me the correct way to hold chopsticks. I tried, but my fingers felt like sticks and I wished I had a fork.
As woebegone as I had felt when I boarded the train, by evening, I had actually laughed. As we were getting ready to go to bed, the older woman tried locking the compartment door—and then couldn’t get it open. The three of us worked on the lock together and figured it out. Yes! We were women triumphant! We all laughed.
I slept that night. I had worried for many weeks that I might not, that I might lie there for hours unable to sleep, with no place to go if I wanted to get up. But I slept the immediate, stone-dead, dreamless sleep that I slept most of the nights I was in China. My bladder woke me in the middle of the night, and I lowered myself down from my bunk, put on the slippers the train had provided, and made my way down the dimly lit aisle to the squatty potty at the end of the car—a trip I had been dreading even more than not sleeping. I peed, returned to my compartment, locked the door, hauled myself back up into my bunk and surprised myself by immediately falling asleep again.
The next morning I awoke, as had become my custom in China, at 4:30 a.m. Everyone else was still asleep, so I went out into the aisle. I was standing by the window, looking out into the dark, when I noticed a red spot on my cheek in my reflection in the glass.
Oh, no! A bite! And there was another on my neck. They didn’t particularly itch, but that was beside the point. I had been bitten! I and all my belongings must now be infested with bedbugs! I would be Bedbug Barbara, spreading blood-sucking bugs wherever I went, bugs that would be extremely difficult to get rid of, bugs that would hide in the tiniest crevice, waiting to feed again. How could I go to Martin’s apartment? How could I go anywhere?
I was stricken. But there was nothing I could do except continue to stand there looking out the window. I decided to try doing some small universe qigong, guiding the energy with my mind instead of my hands. That helped. My panic abated—but I still wished I had never left home.
Eventually, it became daylight. More or less. I had known that the train would go through mountains to get to Chengdu, but I had envisioned it climbing craggy cliffs, then dropping into valleys, with breathtaking scenery at every moment. The train did indeed go through the mountains. It went THROUGH the mountains. For a long time it seemed we were inside tunnels more than we were out. Sometimes when we were in a tunnel, the train would slow down, and get very quiet, and I would think it had stopped. I would recall having read many years earlier about a train that got stuck in a tunnel in the mountains, and everyone on board died. I would look out the window and try to determine whether there was enough space between the train and the tunnel wall for people to walk out.
The sock that bonds
Clearly it was time to knit. I brought out a sock I had started knitting shortly before I left home and began knitting and purling away as the two women watched. I didn’t have any Chinese words to explain what I was doing, so I held out the sock’s completed mate and said, in English, “socks.” I was sitting at the foot of the younger woman’s bunk and she was leaning in, watching my every stitch. Then she reached out, clearly wanting to take the knitting from my hands. “Oh, no,” I thought, “she’s going to drop a bunch of these teeny tiny stitches.” But I put the knitting in her hands and hoped for the best.
It quickly became apparent that the woman was a better knitter than I am, and much faster. However, she had never knit cables, and there was a cable down each side of this sock. So I taught her to knit cables, and she knit six inches of the leg of the sock in the time it would have taken me to knit two.
I got really excited about her learning to knit cables, and I think I said “very good, hen hao” quite a few times. Then I heard her say something that sounded like a growl followed by a “guh,” almost under her breath. She was looking at me uncertainly, and she repeated the growl and the “guh” a bit louder—and I realized she was saying “very good.” So I said, “Yes, yes! Very good! Hen hao!”—and in that moment I knew how everything I had said in Chinese must have sounded to her.
In the afternoon, the young man joined us in the compartment for a time, and we all studied my list of the stations on our route. The man had some sort of translator application for his cell phone, and the women got him to ask me some questions.
The first question, fed into his phone app, translated as “What is your ability?” I took that to mean they wanted to know what my career had been. I was afraid to tell them I had been a journalist—somehow that seemed equivalent to telling them I’d been a spy—so I just said that I’d worked in a school. Then they wanted to know how big my house was, if I lived in it alone, and how much it cost. I felt uncomfortable, like a greedy, rich American, and I didn’t know what to say, so I did what comes easiest to me and told them the truth. At 1,200 square feet, my house is small by the standards of the community in which I live, but I have no idea how its size or its cost seemed to them.
One of my biggest regrets about my trip to China is that I do not know more about the two women I traveled with on the train, especially the younger one. She was a remarkable woman—bright, outgoing, able to relate to each of us and probably everyone else she met with ease—and I don’t even know her name. I bowed and thanked her as I left our compartment when the train arrived in Chengdu; I hoped she knew how grateful I was.
I followed the crowd as I left the train, walked through the station and emerged into an open outdoor area, beyond which waited a throng of people. I was very happy to see Martin and his wife at the front of the throng. The burden of having to go it alone had been lifted.