Friday, February 19, 2010

Soft Sleeper

The companion of Mao's final days was a woman called Zhang Yufeng. In his last few years Mao was afflicted with a type of motor neurone disease that gradually paralysed his left side and eventually prevented him from speaking. Only Zhang Yufeng could make out what the chairman was trying to say and it gave her extraordinary power. In effect she was Mao because only she was allowed to attend him, so all his orders came through her.

Zhang Yufeng had been attendant on a train, and I think of her now as I recall the attendant on the train to Yizhou. 'My' attendant was solid-looking, her only acknowledgment of my passing a sharp bark that I had money showing from my money belt, and she watched impassively as I stuffed it back in again. My guide Joanne exchanged a few words with her and I manhandled my luggage past her down the narrow corridor to my cabin.

The cabin contained four bunks in pale blue dralon with white cotton drapes over the back. Beneath the window was a small table, also with a cloth, and also by this time another occupant's magazines and thermos. The cloths were all slightly grimy and stained, and the floor carpeted and sticky with dirt. But on top of everything the sheets and pillow-cases were clean, and although the place smelt dusty, it was, I thought, dry-dirt.

Joanne had a word with the other occupant - a grandmother, probably just a little older than me with her grand-daughter who was about three or four.
'She's going all the way, to the end of the line.' Joanne told me.
I grinned at her, and although she didn't grin back she didn't seem unfriendly.

I was supposed to put my case in the space above the corridor, but my case was too heavy so I shoved it beneath the table. The grandmother didn't seem to mind. She was slightly chubby, about the same height as me with wavy collar length hair. She was dressed for a her long journey in jogging pants, and she had already removed her shoes and was reclining on one of the lower bunks. The little girl nestled against her rather like a solitary pup, and already knew how to be coquettish. Her short hair was fastened into two small bunches with pink ribbon at the top of her head like ears. She could count to twenty in English and also sing London Bridge is Falling Down. Apart from doing a little drawing for me

she spent most of the time eating a bowl of pot noodle which was certainly as big as her upper torso, maybe her head as well. This eating of the pot noodle seemed to go on for hours. She sat on the edge of her bed with her chop sticks and seemed to eat one at a time with a great deal of concentration.

But before that, Joanne departed - I had only known her for a couple of days but already she seemed a friend - and I unpacked my small rucksack and made the other lower bunk my home.

In the two upper bunks were two young people. Nobody spoke much. Apart from the music piped into the carriage, it was quiet. Each bunk had a couple of pillows and a quilt. After a few hours into the journey the ceiling light faded, as did the music, and we all pretended to sleep. I think the grandmother and the child actually did. They were curled up around each other on their bunk. I think I might have slept too, I certainly dozed, the rhythm of the train quite soothing and lulling.

The main advantage of a soft sleeper is that you can close the door so it is more secure. The trouble with closing the door is that it rapidly becomes stuffy. So we left it open. Even so I felt quite safe. Joanne warned me to keep my valuables on me and to watch my case, so I did. I kept my money belt out of sight and I could constantly feel the heavy presence of my case beside me.

Whenever the boy in the bunk above me moved it sounded like rain falling - even this was calming. The toilet was only as bad as the toilets on any British train, the open window keeping it all smelling sweet. Once I went to find boiling water and walked through the canteen. It had beige oil cloths on the tables and the only people sitting there looked to be generals in a tatty green uniforms. Each was frowning at a calculating machine and writing in numbers. Another time I went past the kitchen and heard the pans crashing and smelt the steam and oil as the chefs prepared breakfast.

When it was still dark the attendant opened our doors and nudged the two occupants of the top bunks awake. They stirred quietly. About half an hour later the train came into the station and the two almost silently disembarked. The grandmother, who was fairly round, climbed nimbly up to the vacated bunk and went to sleep leaving her grand-daughter still curled up in the bunk below her.

Dawn came with a few gentle chords from a zither, and I washed my hands again with the medicated wipes, ate some of the fruit and snacks I'd bought in Chongqing, and watched as we stopped at another station. An assortment of people disembarked - girls in heels and the high fashion shorts I'd seen in Shanghai, older people in more traditional clothing of jackets and trousers, vendors selling combs and cooked sweetcorn, and men carrying an incredibly large number boxes on their backs . When we moved off again - accompanied by a series of clanks and creaks - the smell of cigarette smoke (the army personnel all came through nonchalantly smoking through the 'no smoking' soft sleeper section) was displaced by diesel fumes. Everyone coughed. A guard, in a pointed-roof box that was such a close fit that it seemed to be built around him, waved us out with flags. He looked as serious and as impassive as a guard outside a palace.

I took out my book and started to read. Outside was still the gloom of a foggy dawn. The scenery disappeared and then reappear again as we were swallowed by tunnels. Then, all at once, it was light.

Through the train windows I saw terraces and those strange small mountains of China's Karst.

Each scrap of land terraced.

Old adobe cottages with painted yellow walls and tiled and patched roofs, ugly newer buildings of bricks and concrete - perhaps a relic of Mao's time, a paddy fields.

and then people in conical hats and ploughs with water buffalo, everyone busy working, just as they've always done - century, after century after century.

The trained slowed. The attendant grunted something and pointed at my bags. It was time to make myself ready. Then, at precisely the time it said it would arrive, eighteen hours after I had left Chongqing, my train arrived at Yizhou.

There was no hurry. The attendant watched me heave my over-large case down onto the platform, and then I waved good-bye to the grandmother and my friend, her grand-daughter. The platform was almost empty and the air was hot and humid. At last I had reached the silkworm country.


Blogger Anne S said...

What an interesting journey, though maybe at the time it was not, but your account of it certainly enlivens the scene - all the sights and sounds.

Sun Feb 21, 02:29:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thank you Anne! I have to admit that even though the journey was 18 hours long I loved it. The best moment was the Karst scenery appearing through the window - my photographs only go part way to capturing it. I found everything about that train journey fascinating - I would definitely do it again.

Sun Feb 21, 05:21:00 am  

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