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30 December 2011

To Inner Mongolia

银川 Yinchuan


Cold water slaps the tiles at my feet. I find the soap and washcloth by the streetlamp light filtering in through my bathroom window. I expect the slightly chilled winter-time shower to be uncomfortable at best, but instead find it refreshing. I rinse and cut the water.

Lathering up my face, I wonder how effective my shave will be without any light. My headlamp is dead. Been dead for weeks. Dripping and naked, I scurry about the dark apartment until I ferret out a lighter with a small LED built in the backside and flick the switch. Ducking back into the bathroom I deem the pathetic beam grossly ineffective. Then a light goes off in my head (but not in my house). One more scramble and return and I have a beautiful orange glow radiating out from a candle stuck into a jelly lid. I happily set razor to skin and find the light source to be far superior to my powerless ceiling-mounted heat lamps. The mobile candle-stick can be variously positioned along my sink-top, for an unprecedented shadowless neck shaving experience. I am quite pleased.

Beita, North Tower, Yinchuan.
In two hours I am catching a train out of Yinchuan bound for Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia. During my final stages of packing and preparation, my pre-paid electricity ran out and *poof* lights out. I foolishly hadn't recharged my electricity card (I hear Sabrina laughing in my head, "You are such a 猪头, zhutou! [pighead]) and had no time to go out and take care of it now. Ergo, cold shower and shave by candlelight.

A brief errand to school, two buses to the new city, and I meet Sabrina in front of the train station. "You know there is a new train station opening soon?" she tells me. I had heard something like that, and ask her where. "Just the next street over," she points. "Right next to this one."

Sabrina is seeing me off because all the tickets are sold out. She tried to get a ticket for me a week back since she lives much closer to the station than I, with no luck. So she rang her friend that works for the railroad, and told me he would be able to finagle a spot for me on the train, I just needed to be there. Sabrina has the 关系, the guanxi, the connection to the goods.

An Yinchuan sunset.
Over peanuts she tells me her friend isn't working tonight, but her friend's friend is going to help us out. She has his name. I am relatively unconcerned. If I can get on the train I'll find somewhere to pass the ten hours to Hohhot.

The electronic board signals that the train is arriving. We queue up and watch with amusement as my fellow passengers sprint to the platform to board. It doesn't seem that essential to take off at race pace to get on the train, but seeing as I still don't have a ticket we decide to compromise and approach at a brisk jog.

Sabrina spots the first available conductor and asks for her friend's friend. He points us further down the line of cars. We proceed. She asks the next conductor and he relays the news that her friend's friend is not working tonight. Sabrina politely explains my predicament. The railway man, though rushed and hastily dispatching a swarm of other passengers and their questions, tells us to step on the train and wait for him in the dining car. He'll be by later. Sabrina has the foresight to check his name tag before we board. 张建华, Zhang Jianhua.

在火车上 On the train

The dining car is well lit and a few of the kitchen and rail staff are seated within. Some are chatting, others are punching numbers and copying information into log books. I sit in an empty booth. Sabrina sits across the aisle, nervously checking the time. Departure time is 9:13 pm. We have eleven minutes.

Almost immediately a very large, box shaped man wearing white cooking clothes takes a fancy to me. The female employees surrounding him giggle as he pokes and prods me with inquiries and meaty gesticulations.

"Where are you from?"
"Oh! America! Excellent! You speak Chinese very well!" He thrusts a leg-sized forearm up into the air to demonstrate the level of excellence.
"No, no. Not very well."
"What do you think of China? Good or bad?"
"Extremely good."
"Yes, China is good." His square face and squinty eyes nod approval. "Are you a student?"
"No, I'm a teacher."
"How much do you make a month?" Sabrina tries to interject out of politeness, but it is typically the third question I am asked by everyone I meet, so I am used to it.
"Six thousand yuan a month."
"Not enough. Not enough." A deep frown creases his lined face and he shakes his head. "You're a foreigner, you should be making more."
"No I think it's enough."
"Not enough!" he barks. "How old are you?"
"Are you married?"
"No, but I have a girlfriend in America."
"You should get a Chinese girlfriend."
"No, no..." I begin to reply but he stops me short.
"Yes, Chinese girls are very gentle. Extremely gentle. Much more gentle than American girls."
"How do you know that?" A bit of incredulity creeps into my voice.
He slams his beef-fist onto the table for effect. I feel the aftershock several booths away. "Much more gentle!" Case closed.
After the S-waves have subsided, I add, "American girls are gentle too." Wenrou, loosely translated as gentle, is one of the highest virtues for a traditional Chinese woman to have. He looks skeptical.
"Are you used to Chinese food?"
"I am. I like it."
"How about mutton?" The region is known for its mutton.
"I don't eat meat."
"You don't eat meat!? Why not?" he demands.
"I'm Buddhist."

My forthcoming friend contemplates this for a moment then heaves his refrigerator of a frame out of his booth and crashes it into mine. He grips one of my hands that had been resting on the table and turns it over. He pets my soft palm with his coarse meat patty. Releasing me, he cocks his arm up, elbow on the table, and indicates he wants to arm wrestle.

"You eat vegetables. I eat meat."
I'm not sure how this plays into his proposition for a competition.
"Come on. I'm fifty-nine. You're twenty-eight. I eat meat. You're a vegetarian. Let's go."
"You're about the same age as my mom," I tell him. This seems to rouse his enthusiasm.

Meat. (photo from here.)
We clasp hands. He says something I assume regards the rules, so I nod. We begin. After a tense start, he raises an eyebrow and points to my other hand on the table, indicating I can't apply counter-pressure with that one. He clearly has his game face on. I maintain a reasonable defensive position for a while but it's clear from the beginning I don't have a chance. I stick it out for a few moments longer then fold. My large companion is pleased.

"It's because I eat meat and you eat vegetables," he adds his conclusive condolences. "You should eat meat." He hefts the refrigerator once more and throws it down in his original location, filling the booth with his mass.

During our match, Sabrina had walked over to the door, spoken briefly with a conductor, and returned. Now she sits across from me, looking more nervous and eyeing her phone every two seconds. We have five minutes. Conductor Zhang still hasn't shown and we are approaching departure time.

The white-garmented carnivore pulls a victory cigarette from a crumpled pack and offers me one.
"I don't smoke."
"Ah!" He exclaims approvingly. This particular abnegation passes inspection. "Chinese people. We all smoke." He lights up.

All of a sudden the station scenery begins to creep alongside us, pillars becoming mobile, platform a flowing river of cement. "Oh no!" Sabrina cries and runs to the door. She implores briefly with the doorwoman to let her off, but to no avail. The train left three minutes early. Sabrina's shoulders drop and she drags her feet back to me. "Oh shit." Her forehead is creased with worry, she nervously fingers her phone.

Sabrina reenacts her on-train frustration. Photo by Chris.

With various queries directed throughout the dining car Sabrina gathers that she can get off at Shizuishan, half an hour away, wait an hour at the station and catch an Yinchuan-bound train home. She'll get to her apartment around one am. I feel like an ass since she is here to send me off, to do me a favor. The fridge chef has continued his questioning throughout the ordeal, but I have turned my attention towards Sabrina, and the inquisition gradually loses momentum.

The train workers disband and go about their duties. We sit quietly for a few minutes. I try to reassure Sabrina. Conductor Zhang approaches us down the aisle and is shocked to see Sabrina there. She explains what happened, and he offers what he knows. He arranges a ticket for me. We thank him and make our way back to car 14.

We arrive and are escorted into the employees' car, which is quiet and dark. I am surprised and delighted. I deposit my belongings on my bunk, fold down the stow-away seat in the aisle, and plop down next to Sabrina. We chat in hushed voices until her stop arrives. We hug and say goodbye.

Uniformed and plainclothed workers file past me in both directions. I swing my legs back and forth to make room for their passing, smiling at their mildly shocked faces. I hear mutterings of laowai, and waiguoren, both words for "foreigner" in Chinese. One woman stops and asks where I'm from, and is quite taken aback when I answer her and continue the conversation. After our chat concludes, I hear the mutterings change to, "Wow, this foreigner can speak Chinese." I smile. I feel welcomed and privileged to be traveling in the VIP car.

The hard sleeper cars have three-walled, open cabins with six bunks per cabin, three lining each wall. A low bunk near the floor, a mid-bunk, and I high bunk squished up against the ceiling. I had slept in a high bunk once before and found it claustrophobic. The low bunks turned into communal sitting areas until the lights were extinguished. So I opted for the middle bunk for a bit more privacy without sacrificing breathing room.
Looking out of the West Tower, Baisi Kou, near Yinchuan.

Fortunately, the beds are long enough for my greater-than-the-average-Chinese height. Nice and firm, they are equipped with a thin pad, blanket and sand-bag pillow, bound in by a railing so itinerant sleepers don't end up assaulting their down-bunk neighbors. I strip off my multiple warm layers and settle in to sleep amidst the rocking of the train.

What seems like moments later, I am torn from sleep, the air rent by what sounds like a Paul Bunyan-sized weed whacker. The kind with the raspy, scathing pull-cord that never seems to get the motor started. Over and over the pull-cord saws through the cabin, through my ear drums, through my groggy brain. What the hell is that?

I roll over and gaze down through my sleep cloud upon a whale of a man, pasty white flesh flowing out of his bunk in all directions. His face is smeared along the rear wall and his limbs are twisted and contorted in a variety of extremely uncomfortable looking angles to fit in the narrow space. And I thought my bunk was tight. It's warm on the train and the Chinese Michelin Man has stripped down to his tight, white briefs, bulging at maximum capacity and threatening to burst and spray underwear shrapnel into oblivious victims' cubbies.

The swollen girth of my cabin-mate endows him with unusually voluminous snoring capacity. The titanic pull-cord tears through the otherwise still night air once more. I can't tell if it's the locomotion or the resonation that's vibrating the walls around me. With each heave of the cord, the metal, glass and plastic surfaces enveloping me shudder violently. I ponder if the structural integrity of the car will be compromised by this incredible force, shearing the protective shell in twain and sending us soaring into the night.

He tosses and the sawing abates. His nasal cavity must have cleared out the phlegmatic pileup that was preventing passage of oxygen. I too toss and bury my head in my pillow. Nodding off in the rediscovered tranquility, I wonder how Sabrina is doing. My rumination is shattered by renewed eruptions from the human volcano, shards of thought raining out of my middle bunk. I bury my head deeper and dream of easy breathing.

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