China Train Rides

Sometimes, travel is an ecstasy that sucks you from a casual, intellectual distance, and plunges you into a feeling, sensory, instinctive delight. I feel this most when I am in transport.

Hard Sleeper Class Train

I always push for longer layovers, because I so enjoy the public space of the airport. In Laos I chose to take a 33 hour bus rather than a one-hour plane, just to see the countryside. The slow take-off trains in India, the high-speed rails in Japan, the karaoke rooms on Korean trains, all of these bring me close to that feeling of ecstasy.

I’ve enjoyed the ecstasy of travel on 30-hour boat rides, 33 hour bus rides, but there is nothing quite like going to sleep with the clanking of rails, and a train whistle blaring into a starry night.

And then there’s the delights of the train stations. Like getting to watch this guy help his daughter take a dump in a public trashcan.

A long, frothy dump went into that trashcan

On the 33 hour ride to Shanghai, I practice my Chinese, and as usual, touch on political ground.

“Where are you going?”

—I am going to Shanghai to meet my girlfriend.

“Where is she from?”

—She is from Taiwan.

::smiling:: “But Taiwan is owned by China!”

Ever when I switch in Mandarin from “Taiwan country” to “Taiwan province,” Chinese still seem to insist on acting as voice boxes for the party-line.

In the U.S. it’s the opposite. We often don’t know how much we really own, or have previously owned (Puerto Rico, Guam, Solomon Islands, the Philippines).

The older people seem to roll their eyes at the man. They are of China’s lost generation, who once looked to Mao like a God, followed his call to destroy the old way of life and betray their own parents and teachers. After the market reforms of the late 80s, these former Red Guards have seen the hypocrisy of the party, and refuse to even engage with the partyline anymore.

But the younger Chinese seem ever more committed to the nationalist project. It is strange, to see such nationalism and blind energy coming from the young, while the older and middle-aged tend to quietly pass over politics, or just chuckle at the PRC’s propoganda.

Of course middle aged Chinese men will, from time to time, get you drunk.

Censorship plays a key role in shaping this discourse. The dispute over Taiwan and Tibet continues to displace any notion that China encourages free-thinking. Copies of most travel guides, including Lonely Planet, are confiscated by Chinese officials, since they have separate country-guides for China and Taiwan.

Censorship, for all its lack of freedoms, is quite an effective strategy. As I talk to the locals on the trains, especially the younger crowd, I am constantly faced with a lack of adequate information.

For example, Tibet has been closed to foreigners due to protests and media censorship. Yet young Chinese often ask why I am not going to Tibet.

 —Foreigners cannot go into Tibet now. It’s closed.

“No. They can. It is part of China, just go.”

—They won’t let me.

“They will! I can go!”

—Because you are Chinese!

At the point of boiling anger, I realize that thanks to the censorship laws, I have absolutely no proof whatsoever to back-up what I’m saying. I can’t simply look it up on Wikipedia. I can’t refer them to newspaper sites that hold this information. If can’t even refer them to the Chinese friends I’ve made, who are far more politically aware, since they entrusted their opinions to me in secrecy. I can only act like the misinformed foreigner, who must have missed out on something that for the locals is blatantly obvious.

High-school and middle-school students traveling by rail, just to travel. Incredible!

As another young man tells me that Taiwan is owned by China, with that ‘how could you not know that?’ smile, I wonder if I should feel pity for those living in such a censored society. Or should I feel anger that the censorship has been so effective?

I see the sincerity in his eyes. He really wants to help me understand a new fact, something that I must have gotten wrong. He wants to save me from my Western misunderstandings. The proud, ignorant American, raised in nationalist schools, going to state-controlled museums, watching Hollywood movies that naively praise the U.S. military.

As we pull into Wuhan, the same young man tells me: “I’ve never been to Taiwan. Perhaps very beautiful. They use the old Chinese script.”

—But the new script is more practical, I say, repeating the same party line.

Every character of the new simple script was, according to state narrative, approved by Chairman Mao. It is the people’s script.

“But the old script is must more beautiful,” he says. “I wish we still used it. Taiwan still uses it, so I want to go there.”

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