Sunday, January 14, 2007

Shanhaiguan, part IV - The Train to Xingcheng

The next morning, we woke up at 7AM, showered, quickly dressed, and went down to the lobby to checkout and get breakfast. We were the only two dining in the large dining hall with gigantic windows, which had a delicious view of the First Pass Under Heaven, an ancient Chinese gate. We sat down to a typical Chinese breakfast, didn't order anything, and the waitress just brought us the morning's fare: tea, a few pieces of fried bread, a large bowl of rice porridge, pickled julienne vegetable matter, and hard-boiled eggs. We finished everything and then walked through the ruins of the old city to the train station. We purchased tickets for the one-hour trip to Xincheng the day before, which cost 9 RMB each, but our train was delayed by about 30 minutes. We were praying that we could find coffee at the station, located some of the canned stuff, and sat down to drink the coffee and wait in the blue plastic seats.

The train was quite crowded, we had only been able to purchase standing tickets, but we were lucky enough to find a few vacant places next to a group of raucus yahoos who were joined by a few others right before the train departed, making their group much larger and bringing with them cold beers, baijiu (akin to Chinese moonshine), sunflower seeds and plastic wrapped sausages which they squeezed into bowls of instant noodles. Quite a breakfast combination. Everyone seemed to be in great spirits, though, including us as the train began to move, and we were on our way. Someone turned on a small radio and soon they were all spitting shells and smoking and talking and singing marvelously.

The countryside through which we passed was a variety of shades of brown. Barren, tilled fields, twiggy broken remnants of dried plants, decomposing cornstalks, defoliated birches, white patches of frozen water, old stone markers or gravestones, barbed wire, brick works, stretches of low brick housing, telephone lines and electrical wire attached to concrete poles, solitary figures in the fields or dirt roads pushing carts or stooping to examine things on the earth, yellow weed-tufted gullies, wooden fences, scattered red blue white and black piles of trash, balding rock along the track and its withered brown hair of winter, beasts of burden behind wooden limb-fences, a black cat sitting in an empty field of husks and stubs, hills off into the horizon fading in and out of view in the haze, great black swathes of control-burn and the painted white trunks of trees, greenhouses and rolls of hay, shepherds and their flocks of sheep, little brick villages each the same unfinished fashion as the next, clothes hanging out in the frozen light of the day, here a town with its apartments and its smokestacks billowing...

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