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It Takes a lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry – Train Stories Part 2

Japan’s most loved writer, Natsume Soseki once wrote, “Nothing shows a greater contempt for individuality than the train.” Considering how popular taking the train is in Japan and how much secret pride the Japanese take in their bullet train, it’s an odd thing for a Japanese person to write. Anyway the following train anecdote belies Soseki because it exemplifies how individual traits that stand in opposition to the group attitude can save the day.

In 1997 a good friend of mine decided to visit me in China and when I write China I mean the People’s Republic (ha) of China, and I don’t mean Beijing or Shanghai, I mean the back arse of nowhere China. I lived in a small city of about half a million people called Yueyang that is vaguely famous for a tower, its dragon boat races and being near Mao Zedong’s birthplace. What a fine friend to seek out a buddy in the wilderness and what an intrepid explorer to find my college armed with nothing more than a slip of paper with my address written in Chinese characters and a small photograph of what my street looked like.

You might scoff at this achievement but let me remind you that this was in a time before the so-called ‘economic miracle’ hit China. Although industrious (like only the Chinese can be) the citizens were hardly rich and certainly not savvy globally connected consumers. Outside the big cities neither love nor money could get you much in the way of non-Chinese and non-substandard products (excepting Coke Cola and fake Marlboro that is). This is a time when few owned cars and no one had mobile phones (beepers in those days) and hotmail seemed cutting edge. A time when my students were officially restricted in their place of residence, when few could travel abroad and not long after the ‘people’s’ government graciously decided to let foreigners use real Chinese currency and not FEC (foreign exchange currency). Nobody spoke English and few foreigners (excepting bizarre Baha’i devotees) were to be found living in the workers’ paradise of China. Into this maelstrom of alien-ness plunged my friend DJ, the Christian round-the-worlder. I digress somewhat because understanding what China was like back then and what DJ was and still is like is necessary to understanding the story I’m about to relate.
As soon as he arrived at the college where I taught, DJ fell ill. After a confusing visit to the campus doctor (he stared vacantly out the window while making his diagnosis and prescribed 100 pellets of medicine) and my best hospitality, DJ slowly started to recover. And since my holiday window was shrinking we hit the road shortly after DJ crawled out from his sick bed.

In total we travelled about a month and a half and spent around 30 days on Chinese trains in 4th class seats (otherwise known as ‘hard seats’). Back in those days you needed connections or cash to secure sleeper tickets. Since we lacked both we always grabbed any available tickets going in the right direction. And we were grateful every time we got tickets because orderly queuing didn’t exist. You pushed in from the side or blocked those who tried to outflank you, shoved your money through the gap in the teller’s window and shouted in mandarin where you wanted to go. And then those lucky ones with tickets were held in a pen before the train got into the station. Then the flood gates were opened and a free for all ensued where disembarking passengers were impeded by the maniacal mass trying to get on first and grab the few available seats.
The particular train journey I want to focus on goes between Hohhot in Inner Mongolia (even the name tells you that China shouldn’t own the place) and Golmud which in those days was the last train stop before Tibet (which incidentally is being culturally raped by the new train to Lhasa). For just this once I’ll talk about the scenery – the train goes through the Gobi desert and passes one of only 2 open cast mineral fields in the world. It looks like a sea of salt. Glistening white crystals lighting up the desert like a mirage. However I’m jumping the gun because we saw this awesome naturally occurring phenomenon after the night and early morning in question.

After the usual life and death struggle to purchase tickets and board the train I finished downing my bottle of over 40 proof ‘bijou’ (white spirits) and unfolding my cheap piece of plastic I proceeded to pass out under a table and thus relieve myself of having to deal with the masses of people crammed into the carriage. By this point in our travels in China, DJ had already decided that bijou was the devil’s brew (and indeed it is) and choose stoicism to a cheap anesthetic. And so passed another uncomfortable night sleeping on the filthy floor of a 4th class train carriage until I’m brought sharply back into the glaring early morning by DJ shouting, “Get up, get up!” Then he shouts, “Get up, John. There’s someone dying!” Naturally that gets my full attention and I stand up and assess the situation. There’s a crowd of 15 to 20 people around a middle aged man in a Mao top and shapeless pants who is writhing on the floor and turning blue in colour. He’s having some sort of seizure or can’t breathe. The white uniform in the gawping crowd belongs to our carriage attendant who definitely isn’t getting involved. In the brief instant that I take all this in DJ has already gone to the man’s side and performed mouth to mouth. Realizing that it isn’t working, DJ says to me, “Let’s find a doctor.” Body and brain focus and I kick into action and exit the carriage with DJ at a fast walk shouting, “Wo yao yisheng.” Three carriages down the train two men respond to my badly pronounced cry for a doctor. I proceed to further insult their mother tongue by trying to tell them about the man dying 3 carriages away. They rise elegantly from their seats and reach for their medical bags in the overhead rack. Infuriatingly they won’t run but instead choose to walk with us back to the scene of the asphyxiating man. However, what geniuses they proved to be. They immediately crouched before the certain goner and while one of them opened a medical bag the other deftly touched the patient to diagnose the problem. And then we saw what came out of the doctor’s bag – a set of pins. “Oh my God” I said addressing my maker, “they are acupuncture doctors!” The one calmly passed 2 needles to the other who after a couple more touches of the fast fading patient stuck one in the dying man’s arse and another in his lip. What fantastically Chinese behaviour! The previously nearly dead peasant instantly snapped out of it and started taking greedy gulps of air. The man made a rapid ascent to full health despite the rubber necking crowd wanting to close his airways again with a cup of tea. The 2 heroic doctors vanished like two super heroes who depart the scene after saving the day. DJ and I were left to corral the crowd and secure the geezer some much needed breathing space and a seat.

Ten minutes later I returned to my filthy space on the floor and passed back into a dreamless sleep with a self righteous smile playing on my lips. I had done my Christian duty thanks to DJ and proved to myself that pigeon any language can be a mighty handy tool when coupled with the force of will. (Sorry about the Nietzschian overtones).

And so to round the cattle up: while all those vastly hard working and decent 4th class train citizens were mesmerized by the spectacle of a man’s death throws, the sober Christian went into action by kissing the dying man and then eliciting the help of the tragically hung over and slightly incompetent VSO teacher to find a doctor and save the day. Now doesn’t that say something about trains and individuality?