Sunday, May 08, 2005

Shanxi Province - Part I: Train Departure

Angela and me left our apartment in Beijing at about 8:30AM on Sunday morning, catching a taxi to the Beijing West Raliway Station (pictured here). The sky was clear and blue, and our spirits were high. Our train for Datong was scheduled to leave at 10:10AM, and we arrived with plenty of time to spare. The station was a massive, impressive building, and quite crowded due to the hordes of Chinese people traveling for the Labor Day holiday. Our train, already waiting, was one of the longest passenger trains I have ever seen, and we could see that it was packed. Not only were all of the seats taken, but the aisles of every car were also lined with people. As we walked to car #3, many people were leaning out of the open windows smoking, smoking between cars and on the platform. It was a festive atmosphere and people were talking loudly in the spring heat.

The ride itself was pleasing and I got to see a part of China that was completely different than city life in Beijing. We passed through a number of small villages and towns, most of the buildings built of grey or red bricks. Everywhere, people working in the hot sun: men shoveling rocks, pounding boulders with sledgehammers or laying bricks; older men driving mules, horses and oxen across dry, rocky earth; women carrying baskets on their backs or squatting near plastic basins wringing out their wash. While we were passing through the countryside, I began to understand the Chinese love of plastic. The fields and trees, the bushes and broken yellow stalks of dried plants, the littered ditches along the tracks and roads, the fences and branches all seemed to be clasping onto plastic bags which fluttered as the wind pulled at them. All the colors of the rainbow, like buddhist prayer flags, could be seen as we rolled along the dusty fields and plains.

Angela had warned me that a Chinese train ride was something different, but I really hadn't been prepared for it. We had reserved seats, fortunately, and didn't have to stand for the six-hour trip. The over-booked cars were obscene, though, as people shoved by one another to get to the restroom. One passenger leaned against me, quietly singing to himself, for nearly two hours. By the time we were about halfway through our journey, the train's occupancy had settled down to a reasonable level and we had a little more room to stretch our legs or stand up if we felt like doing so. Angela struck up a conversation with an older Chinese woman from Datong who had been sitting across from us, and who recommended lodgings and a typical dish to try after we had arrived. While they were talking, I noticed all of the trash on the floor of the train: wads of tissue paper, plastic wrappers, glass and plastic bottles and juice boxes, sunflower seed shells, orange peels and cigarette butts. Chinese people don't think twice about throwing something on the ground, inside or out.

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