Previously on Trains of Our Lives, our fair heroine (me) survived a death-defying descent from the upper berth of her miniscule train compartment. She has just made it through a trip to the filthiest loo on five continents.
Today’s episode is once again brought to you by haemorrhoid cream, incontinence pads and of course, ointment – because what is life without a good, all-purpose ointment?
Back in the compartment, my cohabitants had awakened. The other couple, after hearing my tale of woe regarding the western toilet in this car, with the wailing French woman providing back-up, went in search of something possibly cleaner in another. My spouse merely went to the Chinese toilet in our car, being male and therefore able to point rather than sit.
A porter arrived with a flask of boiling hot water and we made ourselves a breakfast of ramen noodles, tea and a small Mars Bar. Sated, we dressed and set out to explored the train.
We passed through a dozen cars like ours, a very narrow corridor with a dozen or so compartments opening off it. I peered inside some of the open doors and saw as many as eight people crowded into a compartment that contained six berths – with no mattresses, just wooden berths that folded up to the wall when not in use. The Chinese have a reputation for inscrutability, but these families – parents, grandparents and one or two children were busy and excited – I felt a little ashamed for grumbling about my quarters.
We finally reached the dining car. It was crowded to capacity, standing room only with men smoking. The air reminded me of a 70’s New York nightclub. At the doorway, a vendor sold rice porridge and noodles, neither of which looked inviting. We bought a couple of Cokes.
The train rattled through interminable towns, wheat fields, coal mines and the occasional nuclear power plant, stopping every hour or so to exchange passengers. Though we saw so much of China during our stay, this long train ride was an uncensored glimpse into ordinary life. But it was the Golden Week, there were virtually no workers in the fields .
A passive-aggressive conflict arose between east and west – the Chinese do not care for open windows – drafts are not good Feng Shui. Westerners prefer open windows and those drafts dispersed the cigarette smoke produced by those (mostly Chinese men) who did not care for the dining car. A westerner would walk along the corridor opening all the windows. When they returned to their compartment, a Chinese would come out and close them all. I amused myself for 20 minutes observing this from the end of a corridor.
Every three hours or so, a porter came and cleaned the loos. This was the only time to go. I imagine there was one porter assigned to all the loos on the train and that is how long it took him to complete the task before starting all over.
China is so very beautiful. It possesses a strange quality of being veiled.
Up close, colours are almost unbearably vivid, but long before your eyeshave reached the horizon, the world has disappeared into the mist. So this vast country has the curious quality of seeming very small.
Having cultivated the land for 6000 years, every hill is a sculpture, no spot of land goes to waste. They are the most efficient people I have encountered.
And going back to that inscrutability – also the happiest. Nowhere else on earth are people so inclined to break into song or laugh so freely. They can find the humour in almost anything. And despite some of the hardships, are truly appreciative of what they have. I spoke with a few people old enough to remember the days of the Cultural Revolution, though not many of my generation speak English, but those I talked to wanted to tell me about it, and that things are so much better now.
At 4.30, Eric our guide told us we would be arriving in Xian in half and hour, so we should pack up and be ready to disembark. We would go directly to our hotel, where we would have an hour to shower and change before our dumpling dinner and Tang Dynasty show. We packed up and once again Mother Nature called. I debated whether I could hold it for another hour – no, I couldn’t.
The loo was nearly as bad as my morning nightmare. I pulled down my pants and positioned myself again so no part of my body came into contact with the toilet. When I stood up, I realised something was terribly wrong – my pants were soaking wet. In my attempt to avoid the seat, I had leaned too far forward and missed it completely. I did not have a change of clothes with me. Using all my entire roll of toilet paper, I sopped up as much as I could and returned to the compartment just as we pulled into Xian. One long, hot, stinky, soggy-bottomed trip to our hotel – and this nightmare was over.
For me – the romance of overnight train travel is ended for life. Strictly day trips from here on out!