Catching a cold in the high elevations of Yunnan must be all too common. The second the brakes lift and the train from Lijiang shoves off for its thirty-three hour descent into the Pearl River Delta, the cabins erupt in gastric burps, coughs and farts.
A young, spunky domestic tourists asks me to change seats so she can sit closer to her three other girlfriends. Her English has an impatient jabber; her sentences last only as long as the train’s horn echoing against the mountains. “Please. Please. please-can-you-change-seat-with-my-friend-so-I-sleep-here-now. Please?”
I break the flaneur rules, and scold her. “No. Take a chance. Meet someone new. If you really want to travel, you don’t need to take a train. Just talk to the stranger next to you.”
She looks shocked and confused, though I believe she understands the words, just not the intention.
“si ge ren,” I say, meaning “we’re a group of four.” The others stand up: Blake the Aussie, Mike the Greek and Lucky the Parisian. It’s the four of us staring her away.
At the stop in Kunming, a thin woman dressed in a black skirt and a tight black top stops at our cubby of bunkbeds, observes us four foreigners glancing at her, as well as the other Chinese, and the domestic tourists, and the train security, and the other women who give her menacing glares. She has no baggage, just a purse and a plastic bag full of ramen and water. As if to deny our eyes, her long straight hair refracts the sun, and we all shield ourselves from the rays.
Her cell phone rings a song in English: “Kiss me on the train, kiss me in the rain.”
Lucky whispers something to himself in French.
“Good Lord,” Blake whispers.
The woman turns to spider-climb her way to the top bunk, all four limbs balancing on the grip-pads next to her, while the train watches.
I start practicing Chinese with the man next to me. He has green streaks in his hair, a cut-up leather pocket hanging from his left side, and studs on his shirt that make a skull. We’re talking about hobbies, when he hits me with that familiar question: “ni de mama cong nali lai? Guangzhou ren ma?” (Where is your mom from? Is she Chinese?)
What he means is: “what race are you?” To do so politely, Chinese (and everywhere I’ve been in Asia) ask if my mom is Asian, never my dad. Somehow, it’s clear that my mother was the source of the darker gene. I get the question “what are you?” so often, especially outside the U.S., that to supplement it with “and your mother must have been the Asian” feels like a small fire after a wrecking ball has already demolished everything.
“Wow!” Lucky yells, stunned by the scenery. A waterfall bursts through a mountain, spilling into a river valley like an abscess. The train chugs high above the villages, hills and rivers below. Lucky’s camera goes “click-click-click” in a machinegun’s rapid tat-tat-tat.
We pass through a tunnel. Darkness blankets us. We burst out like a meteor propelling through different moments in history; we gaze up at the mountains above us like they are gods permitting us to pass. Then a dark tunnel. Darkness fogs the air. Then back out, shooting past mist hovering over lakes, past tall bare mountains silhouetted to look like ghosts. Abandoned, they plead for us to stay, but we follow the river. Then into a tunnel.
We stare at the scenery for hours; the whole cabin, the whole train, mesmerized by the fleeting, infinite beauty of it. A hike up a mountain lets one meditate upon a view, but these mountains shoot by like polygon jets in Star Fox. And Lucky, equipped only with his Canon camera, cannot shoot them all. He pushes his camera lens onto the window glass to focus on the mountains and not the glass stains. He folds his hands around the camera’s edges to keep out the glare. When we enter a tunnel, he cycles through old pictures, choosing which ones to delete, hoping to open more room for the next cascade.
Twelve hours into the ride, as the sun begins to set, a waterfall passes just below us, its thick stream like tea pouring from a kettle towards a vertigo-inducing drop. All the Chinese scream “Oh!” as if they have just got a glimpse of the afterlife. But Lucky’s camera misses it.
“God damn it!” Lucky screams, his left hand gripping his right to keep from tossing the camera down the hallway. “It’s that god damn glare!” Frustrated, he tells me to ask the lady from the middle bunk to turn off her reading light, so the barely-visible glare comes off the window.
The locals and domestic tourists start making ramen, tossing in crushed-up sausage, spicy chicken feet and preserved eggs. Mike makes one himself, starts shaking his head, hating how good everything tastes. “Even their shitty food is amazing!” he says in an ecstatic plea to god. “So much better than crap-tastic India!”
The rest of us, Blake, Lucky and I, were not smart enough to bring ramen. We eat fiber biscuits. And the water I bought at the last train stall tastes like medicine—it must not be water. Twenty hours to go.
And Blake says: “I’m just glad we have something to eat other than Yunnan mushrooms. So done with mushrooms. You’d think oppressed minority cultures could make better food.”
And Mike: “Maybe they weren’t oppressed enough.”
At night the full moon keeps the mountains alive and staring at us; the whole train stares back, a slithering beast beneath the weeds watched only by cattle. The moonlight shimmers off the river below like the Milky Way; streams above and rivers below. And the beauty. It never stops. The boundless beauty. Is this how it feels to be in a river? A molecule jetting among the fish and algae? Just moving along, soaked in an endless splendor.
“I’ve run out of room for pictures,” Lucky says, eyes tired but still staring.
“I’ve run out of room,” Mike responds.
“Are you reading?!” Lucky shouts at Blake, who lies in the middle bunk, his blanket shielding him. “Have you looked outside once?”
“Don’t get me started,” Blake responds from his bunk as he flips to the next page of his novel. “It’s all the same. A waterfall is a faucet, just bigger. You’ve seen one, you’ve seen’em all.”
Filled with the unfocused chi of the beauty outside, Lucky tosses the blanket off of Blake, opens the curtains of the nearest window, and points towards the river far below. “Confront the beauty, Blake! You may never see it again!”
“I’ve seen it all,” Blake says, his voice cracking as he turns to face the white wall. “Where have you traveled, Lucky? Thailand? You travel just to find women who love your accent. Don’t tell me what to do. The only reason we’re traveling together is because Kawika is here to translate. We don’t even know how to ask a Chinese person the time! So go do what you do, let me do what I do.”
The train chugs along, pulling us. The silent black-clothed woman on the top bunk shifts around, half-asleep.
“I don’t care!” Lucky screeches. “You must see this!” He lifts Blake out of the bunk with a superhuman strength. “You going to sue me?” Lucky says, pushing him out of the cabin. “You going to hit me, or are you going to look at this—look at this!”
Forced to sit near the window, Blake pushes his glasses in, wheezes, and looks at the scenery. I can’t help but watch as a flood slowly fills him, then infuses him with a bold energy, but keeps him paralyzed at the same time. I see it then: the sinking, the gasping, the drowning. The loneliness of the stark moonlight and the terror of the mountain and the crusading river. Thinking: there’s just too much there’s just too much there’s just too much.
And went into a tunnel.