The Chinese and their trains

from: car 12 seat 55 Xi'an to Luoyang Train

The streets of China are garbage strewn, filled with people ambling without any obvious sense of urgency, and like everything else in China, worn out and dusty. This, I would claim, reflects the reality of the Chinese people. In contrast is what is projected as the Chinese National self image, best evidenced by the government and its' politics, propaganda and first world aspirations. Such a tidy little revelation about this most ancient of the worlds civilizations could only come after just two weeks in China and a handful of encounters with the rail system - an appropriate metaphor for the dichotomy of this country's' two personalities (and a funny little story about riding the rails in China to boot).

The average Chinese on the street walks at such a leasurely pace that Julie and I, the ones without the jobs to be late for, are constantly bobbing and weaving through the streets like crazed Rockys in training. The National rail system on the other hand, is so zealously prompt that the 'departure' time on your ticket should actually read 'just departed.' The trains to date have set off so precisely that every departure elicits our approving nods and admiring whistles.

True, train stations need a fresh coat of paint but are, for the most part, large, fairly modern and well designed for ease of use. The state employed staff keep an abundance of ticket counters open for extremely long hours and efficiently book and accept payment for travel. The other side of the counter, where the masses vie for tickets, is another matter entirely. The concept of politely queuing and being served on a first come first served egalitarian basis has apparently lost out to the free market system - the strongest shall survive by pushing, elbowing and cutting in line wherever possible. For this reason westerners should abandon all pretense of politeness and throw their hat in the ring with full vigor. After all, what we lack in mob experience we make up for in size - just compare the average height/weight ratios of corn fed Nebraskans to rice-fed Shaanxians. The counters reserved for foreigners are often just as crowded with Chinese as the regular counters. That or with Swedes, Brazilians and Ghanans who speak fluent Chinese, have black hair and dress and have the mannerisms of Chinese*

Beijings' wide main boulevards flanked with gleaming glass buildings notwithstanding, Chinese streets are generally dusty, smoky, smelly and strewn with a wide variety of fermenting garbage. The trains, though modest, are kept very clean, smoke free and tidy. We were not two minutes underway when a woman began mopping the aisle. Later, when the attendant came by to empty the silver trays provided for rubbish for the fourth time, the woman opposite me was admonished for dropping a sunflower seed husk on the floor. All this was in the hard seat section of the train - the lowest class possible**.

Finally there is the matter of atmosphere. The streets of China, for all their drawbacks, have one great plus - they are never dull because people live their lives in the streets; women stretch or dance, old men walk their birds or play Mahjong, cars only stop their honking when they are parked on the sidewalk and everyone eats, sits and does business between. There are people and bicycles everywhere. The train atmosphere must seem like a wonderful holiday from the street atmosphere - it is calm, polite, comparatively quiet and organized. Just after getting under way, a car attendant of impeccable neatness moves center aisle and with hands folded behind her back, delivers a lengthy and sincere speech to which all give rapt attention. We of course don't understand a word of it, but do know that these speeches are considered good oratory as they are met each time with polite applause and smiles from all within earshot. Julie and I think this is such a nice gesture on the part of the passengers that we clap and smile for them.

Music begins. Selections range widely but at the time of this writing (around lunchtime)fairground music is deemed appropriate. This lends the train car, now with a constant parade of people plying their wares up and down the aisle, a carnival atmosphere that puts everyone in a very jolly mood indeed. This music is frequently interrupted by stentorian news-type messages that very likely uplift passengers still further. That is if the English language CCTV (government broadcasting) channel and it's constant flow of news-style propaganda that tells of award-winning Chinese successfully excelling in all fields is any indication of the Chinese news diet.

Which brings us back to the question of which is the real China? The clean and efficient train system run by the government or the elbowing masses surging in from the bustling dirty street to buy their tickets? The answer is, of course, both. Understanding the powerful and long standing Chinese tradition of 'face' helps make reconciliation of the national identity with the individual reality less problematic. But that is another more serious story that will take at least another two weeks to get wrong, and besides, my stewardess just politely announced our stop.


*I would still recommend that anyone visiting China take advantage of the foreigner counter wherever they are available - usually in the bigger cities- at least the person behind the counter may speak a little English.

**I have read that there is a class below hard seat, though as yet I've been unable to ask for it with my slurring fractured Chinese. Of course class does not exist in Communist China so asking for a certain 'class' of travel is met with blank stares and we always seem to settle for whatever ticket we are finally issued - it makes the whole experience more. . . interesting.



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