|Photo by Mike Fenton|
THEY QUICKLY PASSED THEIR BULKY parcels through the wide-open windows, and spoke loudly, in bursts, to be heard over the noise steadily rising from the crowded platform. It was June 1991, and we were in Canton, sitting in a hard-class sleeper amid the rush before the train's 10:30 a.m. departure for Shanghai.
All the windows of our car yawned open throughout the journey, and we savored the merest breeze as the summer sun crashed down on the train's steel hull and the hot, humid air rested heavily upon us. Through those open windows, too, my husband and I witnessed the extraordinary rural landscape far beyond the outer reaches of Canton. Dark, brooding mountains like sleeping giants surrounded vast valleys carpeted with wedding-cake terraces of lush green rice paddies. Dirt footpaths threaded between the emerald fields, the rich earth itself a deep, meaty, almost fluorescent shade of red. Outcroppings of rugged rock stood tall and immutable in the soft terrain, with the weathered roots of pine trees holding fast to their ridges. As cool dusk descended, mist crept around the mountains and hills, rose from rivers snaking over the valley floor, and hung in ragged tufts in the foreground of the classic brush painting that stretched out around us.
The sleeper car was partitioned into several open compartments of six bunks each, three on each side. One's bunk was furnished with a straw mat, a pillow, a large bath-sheet-type blanket and a small towel. A tiny, temperamental oscillating fan graced the top of each compartment; it whirred on and off following its own fickle, internal dictates.
Our compartment was at the end of the car, near the toilet and three metal cold-water-only sinks. We were also hard up against an industrial-strength loudspeaker that emitted Chinese ballads, comedy routines and official announcements at top volume from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., with the onboard disc jockeycumtrain car attendant taking occasional breaks. One song on the playlist received a fair amount of rotation both on and off the train, it seemed, for the passengers in the other bunks knew all of its lyrics. They wistfully sang along with the haunting melody, their mood momentarily matching the bittersweet sadness in the balladeer's voice.
To cool off in the pressing heat, everyone frequently wiped the sweat and dust from their faces with hand towels wrung out under the cold-water tap and hung up neatly on rods above the windows, just below the luggage racks. With scalding water from a cafeteria-model samovar at the other end of the car, they made noodles or loose-leaf tea in wide-mouthed glass jars with screw-on lids. And they snacked on hard-boiled eggs, peanuts and oranges, dropping the shells and peels onto the bare linoleum floor, refuse that was swept up (along with cigarette butts and gum wrappers) by an attendant each afternoon.
What wasn't tossed to the floor was chucked out the window. Food carts careered down the train corridors sporadically throughout the day, and not long after one had made its rounds the vigorous display of garbage disposal would commence. During a stop at one station outpost, moments after my husband and I stepped onto the platform to walk about a bit, a lone watermelon rind spun sharply out of a window and skidded to a halt several yards ahead of us. A Styrofoam container soon sailed out of another window and cracked open with a thud to spill its ricey innards onto the concrete. Then dozens of other violently discharged projectiles issued from up and down the train, all of which would eventually join the moraine that spilled down the short slope at the end of the platform.
We had taken long-distance train trips before, and have since, but this particular journey maintains its magical hold on me, for every moment was rich and strange. On our return to Canton later that month we would travel soft-class, in an air-conditioned, upholstered sleeper where trash disappeared discreetly without a trace and tea was served to us in tall celadon-green cups with lids as we admired the familiar landscape. We slept very well. But we could no longer smell the wet earth or the dry fields, reach out to feel the large drops falling from clouds that suddenly obliterated the sun, or hear children and adults alike scampering under the stopped train to get to the other side of the tracks — for the windows were double-paned, and sealed shut.
The train moved on, and another day drew to a close. Farmers clad in varying hues of indigo withdrew from their fields. A hollow-sounding food cart clattered down the corridor. And as our train lumbered through the night toward the distant lights of Shanghai on the horizon, 36 hours after pulling out of a railway station in Canton, we had absolutely no idea what awaited us up ahead in the darkness.