Saturday, March 28, 2009

Riding the Chinese Cattle Car

I'd planned to take the bus from the Stone Forest back into Kunming. I learned that the train was full, but my new Dutch friends convinced me that it was easy to get a ticket. We arrived at the station about half an hour before the train was scheduled to pass through. With some trepidation, I approached the ticket window and asked for a ticket. One of the girls leaned over and spoke a few words of Chinese and the woman behind the window asked for a paltry amount of money. I had my ticket!

We weren't allowed to go out onto the platform to wait, but instead had to stay inside or cross the parking lot to the cluster of standing stones around which a small park had been constructed. When the train approached, the doors were opened and we all filed out onto the platform.

People were queuing up orderly lines painted on the concrete. Looking at the ticket, I could see that I had an assigned car and it corresponded to the lines. “Clever bastards, these Chinese,” I though, misquoting Peter Sellers. My car was not the same as the girls, but they assured me it didn't matter as there was no assigned seating.

I got up near the tracks to get a long shot of the train coming in. The uniformed station conductors started blowing their whistles gesturing me to get well back from the dotted line on the ground. Sheesh, I mean, the train is no where in sight!

I noticed that the woman in front of our line had a particularly nice basket. For some reason, I've acquired a fetish for baskets lately and a Chinese basket would fit nicely in my collection (of one basket so far). There wasn't much in it so I thought she might be willing to part with it. Between myself and the Dutch girls, were were unable to make her understand that I wanted to buy her basket. Well, there are bound to be more on the train.

When the train finally approached, everyone stood very still. The half dozen or so female conductors on the platform stood at attention, facing the train. As it pulled in, they all did a snappy left turn to face the train. Cool.

The moment it stopped and the doors open, mayhem, total mayhem erupted. The neat lines dissolved in chaos as the passengers dashed for whatever open door was nearest. Never mind the people trying to get out of the train, these folks wanted in as quick as possible. I looked back to see if some unspeakable horror had entered the station and prompted the panicked flight to the train. Nothing.

We tried to find a door that was not so tightly corked with people. The last car looked promising. There were very few people at the rear of that car. The door, however, was clogged with passengers. I asked the conductor if she would open the back door. No doing. I pointed out that the front of the car was sardine packed while the rear was nearly vacant. It was like the train came to a screeching halt and all the passengers were thrown up to the front end. Her response was to start shouting at the people to move back. They just stood and stared, not moving.

The girls managed to squeeze in. I was the last person on the platform and in real danger of being left behind. Were it not for my backpack, I would have grabbed the sides of the doors and climbed over the top of the people inside. Hey, if they want the pleasure of being in the doorway, they can experience the pleasure of my knees on their shoulders.

The conductor was not going to open that rear door for me, so I took off my pack, held it overhead and barged into the throng of people blocking the door. Seeing there was no stopping me, they made room and I plowed through the lot of them.

Once I'd run that gauntlet, all that remained was to make my way to the rear of the car. It was then I saw what I'd really gotten myself into; I was in a stripped down sleeper car. The ceiling was a good three meters from the metal plate floor. Simple wooden benches lined the walls and racks supported baggage overhead. The passengers squeezed onto the bench while the rest squatted on the floor or sat on whatever bags they had. Trash was scattered about the floor.

Train bumped and cranked to a start and we were rolling through the countryside. Since there was no where to sit, we stood at the end of the car. Our attention was equally divided between the marvel of the karst landscape we were passing through and the curious people with whom we were traveling.

After an hour of standing, I turned to my companions. “I forgot to ask how long this ride lasts.” They thought it was around three hours. Ouch. We passed a lake I saw from the bus. I figured the lake was only a half hour from the stone forest. That meant it was taking about three times as long as the bus!

We went through a few tunnels and turns. Looking out the window again, I saw another lake. It looked … familiar. I didn't recall two lakes on the trip out. Seeing the power plant on the north side of the lake confirmed it was the same lake. I realized that for the past hour we were simply snaking our way up to the top of the mountain to the east of the lake. Ouch.

There was a girl trying to get into the toilet behind us. It was locked and there didn't seem to be anyone inside. A few people tried to open it, but it was sealed with a mechanism that required a triangular socket wrench. We all took turns using a pocket knife, keys, bottle caps and pen caps to get the door open. When we next stopped, I gestured for assistance from one of the station conductors. She shook her head, unwilling to come aboard or loan me her wrench. Eventually, someone managed to pry the door open and a lineup for the toilet immediately formed. I guess there were more than a few people in the car with watery eyes!

People occupied themselves in whatever distraction they could. Between conversations, playing games, talking or texting on their cell phones, listening to music on their MP3 players, those who could, managed to snooze while propped up against a friend. In front of us was a group of about eight people playing cards (some played while other watched). After observing them for twenty minutes, I concluded that I had absolutely no idea as to the rules or objective of the game.

Arriving in Kunming, the passengers all crowded for the door at the front of our car. One of the Dutch girls wisely elected to exit by way of the window. In the station we followed the crowd through the passageway to the exit. There were a lot of people tying to get out; old, young, peasants, well dressed city folk, lots of different people.

Some people struggled with loads too big to manage. How they got them on the train is a mystery. One woman was trying to juggle a baby and a heavy box while carrying her luggage. As we came to a long stairway, I took the box from her. My hands were free so I could carry it to the top. She tried to resist my assistance, but quickly capitulated when I gestured to the top of the stair. I carried the box up and she took it from me gratefully. I didn't see a lot of people helping each other.

Apart from the crowded car and having to stand for three and half hours, the trip was an interesting slice into Chinese culture. We saw a bit of the countryside and watched the locals interact. Certainly an adventure, however tame it might be.

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