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Day 92 – Please Don’t Touch Me (24-Hour Train to Beijing)

June 3, 2010

Dateline: Train between Nanning and Beijing, China – Thursday, June 3, 2010

I spent all day today on the train. I had a quick breakfast of instant noodles in a bowl. I stuffed two more bowls into my backpack for the train journey and hauled myself to the train station at 7:30 a.m.

I stood in line for security and immediately three Chinese people cut in line right in front of me. I girded my loins and adopted the local custom of shoving my way to the front. It’s taking more than I expected to overcome my Western desire to say excuse me and apologize for elbowing past people.

I ended up in a train car with an older guy and a middle-aged couple. All Chinese. None spoke English. I was on the top bunk and could not figure out where to sit. I ended up huddled against the wall at the foot of what was the middle-aged guy’s bed. After a while, I just crawled up to my bunk, settled my bag into the storage compartment above the door and slept through most of the morning and afternoon.

I can’t say much happened today. I sat on a fold-down chair in the sleeper car’s hallway and watched the world go by while listening to podcasts, but that’s about it. Nothing too exciting.

A few observations, though, from my second 24 hours in China:

• There are lots of block houses in China. Tall, concrete, formless, housing buildings which look like they could hold a small city. I haven’t seen this many since 11th grade when I went to former communist East Berlin or last year when I was in New York City.

• Everyone eats bowls of instant noodles on the train. There’s a dining car, but as far as I can see, few people use it. Everyone brings their own food. Much of that food is instant noodles. All the shops near the train station are heavily stocked with all varieties of the stuff. I picked mine out by color. Green and red. They were pretty. Everyone cooks their noodles using a spout at one end of the car that has hot water. I saw a train stewardess use the same spout to soak her mop. It’s supposed to be safe for drinking, though.

• People have no problem bumping into each other or knocking people’s heads with their elbows as they pass. I was sitting on the fold out chair in the hall and people would just barrel past me hitting me in the shoulder, clocking my head, or leaning into me a bit as they squeezed past. No one said excuse me. No one apologized. No one even bothered to make eye contact. It’s like I was a ghost. This happened to everyone, not just me. Guess they’ve disposed of that kind of thing otherwise, in a crowded country like this you’d be apologizing all the time. I just think it’s funny Chinese don’t seem to try to avoid contact. It’s like they welcome it. Bizarre.

• That night, our cabin traded out the middle-aged guy in the bunk below me for a mother and her daughter. She must have been three or four years old. I was sitting on a fold out in the hallway when I felt a hand run up my back. It was the little girl. She said something to me in Chinese and I smiled. She grabbed and hugged my leg and kept babbling. Then she ran off. Weird. But it got weirder. She returned and ran her hands up my thigh and rubbed my arm. I smiled and said, “Hello.” Since I’m a stranger in a strange land I had no idea if this was normal. It was creepy as hell, though. At one point she and her mother walked by and I found myself praying that she wouldn’t touch me, lest her mom think I was some kind of child molester. Can anyone confirm whether this is normal Chinese kid behavior? Please God I hope that it is otherwise there’s some scary stuff going on with that girl.

And that’s that. I slept a lot. A whole lot. There’s nothing else to do on a train other than stare out a window and watch the climate and scenery change. I love trains, though. They’re romantic in a way that buses just aren’t. You only stop every few hours or so to drop or pick up people from train stations so the trip flows almost seamlessly. You can move around, stand up, and watch actual scenery through the window, unlike an airplane. Since you can see things whiz past, you have a better sense of your progress. You can feel yourself traveling. The clickclackclickclack of the tracks gives the journey a rhythm section. A drummer providing a beat to your travels.

In the soft sleeper it was quite a luxurious trip. I’d consider this just about my favorite transport journey on my travels so far. Other than not speaking the language and the adult-molester child.

GALLERY: Click through to today’s gallery to see more block houses and a picture of a hallway.

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