On the train to Yellow Mountain.
This is a piece of China I have never seen before.
The train is violent. It cuts through mountains and scales over their rocky skirts with relentless indiscrimination between these mighty structures and the open fields. Every now and then, another train tears past us, and it is the energy radiating between them, like when two blades scrape against each other, in sparks and harsh metal lurches, that rattles us. We hold onto the rails of our hard sleepers and press our eyes closed.
In glimpses and flashes, the train’s windows show me images as a seer does. Outside, as we jolt in and out of tunnels, I see a thatched hut crowning a field of rice shoots, water buffalo swaying their heads and swatting their tails. Then, I see the swift swallows of darkness, a dilapidated village strewn with rubbish and fish-hooked laundry lines; then, a quaint spell of mud sheds and cherry blossom trees, flowers greening into summer leaves. I see the hood of darkness and the shadows of manmade structures—the upper curves of a giant garbage pit, partially obscured by thistle and track, lining the earth like teeth. All of these things I see in rapid succession, within little more than a minute’s time. There are no people to be seen, just the smears of red earth poking through the green coverings of the rice terraces.
But what about in the train? The people are here, people from fields and factories, the people who do not fly in planes. Smoke wafts about, nosily exploring every compartment; its musky tendrils are inescapable. Every hour or so, one hears the shrieking succession of a snack peddler, of a fruit peddler, of a dinner peddler. Rice, steamed greens, sweet pork. The intermittent hawking and spitting and burping greet the mosquitoes, gnats, and flies that occasionally swoop by. I note how the floor gradually crowds with the stamps of piss-yellow shoe prints. In front of a compartment in which seven people have gathered to sit on the bottom bunks, a man sits at the window chewing dried peas, interchanging the spitting out of jokes with the spitting out of crunchy pods. The artificial saltiness of freshly filled ramen bowls sends a savory steam down the narrow corridor.
My eyes glint with awe and envy at the well-dressed, high-heeled Chinese women, while I am encased in sweatpants. Later, I will sleep across from an old woman in dirty yellow socks. She coughs and keeps a glass of hot water with a Q-tip at her bedside. She has not eaten anything at all; she just groans and holds herself in various positions, as if she plans to sit prisoner, curled up in the corner until we reach our destination.
I suddenly realize that I am alone on a crowded train that will hurtle forth for twenty hours before I reach my destination. For some, this is life; for others, this is nothing. But for me, I did not get to this point easily. To have gotten to this point, as a young American woman, took training. Training in picking out a few keywords in Mandarin, the reading of cues and body language, the resourcefulness of fatally accurate problem solving, the courage and resolve to enter a place one has no place in. While unpleasant at times, feeling the vibrations of train life make me feel included; an old man offers me sesame cakes to eat and a woman admonishes me for not keeping my purse safe under my pillow. I return the favor with gluten-free chocolate granola bars, which are gently refused.
I shove them in my bag and wish I had had red bean cakes instead. It takes training to observe and learn the cultural codes of another; to know when your own no longer matter or hold any bearing in this vast countryside.