On the China, Tibet Train
May 29, 2010
In China. Continuously orienting and reorienting myself in space and time; time traveling and space transcending. All the while wondering how to convey the “unconveyable” to my reader (you), torn between staying in the present and tearing myself away long enough to write about my experiences since the beginning of my Asia trip; then if I do, how. The moment is so frail, sometimes not even long enough to fit a picture of a landscape on my China-Tibet train ride that I am on at the moment; my thoughts delayed through the abyss of my sleepy, yet excitable mind. Bottom line: no words can adequately describe what I am seeing, feeling, thinking. I selfishly clutch onto this moment, take in the sights that I dreamed of a mere week ago. My inner world map stretched, forever expanded. Set on the high shutter speed of mind and being, with my senses heightened.
China, Tibet train ride – one of the best meditations of my life. I am happy to sit here for three days straight and watch the landscape change from my “soft-sleeper” car. This is undoubtedly the best way to see China.
“I’d be crazy not to follow; follow where you lead” (listening to Radiohead in China)
I prefer rural China of green and stone mountains, towns with tightly packed gray brick roofs of small houses, and farmed parcels of land with farmers working in them at 6 am this morning when I woke up to my first dawn on this train ride; the remaining uniqueness of the world rests upon their shoulders. I am frightened by the urban sameness drowning out the difference of our world. Perhaps I am just seeing things on the surface, an illiterate traveler unable to read the nuances that exist under these seemingly familiar layers of China. Many of my sights today have been the nameless cities of Western China (trying to catch the names on white boards at railway stations as our train slows down, with Xi’an being the most recognizable) - tall buildings lining the railways in rows from here to beyond, with flat roofs and weathered sidings. Cranes and bricks everywhere, signs of construction and destruction (cannot have one without the other, Alexis). I have this momentary fear that if I did not see the characters or Chinese people, I could not tell I was in China.
On this trip, I have been experiencing this terrible fear and dilemma over uniformity, the world becoming the same, suffocating in its sameness; simultaneously, I depend on that sameness to survive in a country whose language I do not speak or read; I depend on the recognizable to guide me safely through; yet I despise that same sameness and my engaging with it; participating in globalization when searching for a Starbucks in Beijing, my “withdrawn” self knowing I can find coffee there for sure in moments of dire need, or asking everyone if they spoke English at nearly every interaction in order to find my way.
I am not quite sure what I expected China to look like, or how I would act in it. I knew Beijing would be urban, but the authentic Chinese towns are hardly in my sight. China has made me reflect on my place within the globalized world. Generally, I blame New York for spoiling me by heightening my comforts to unprecedented levels, because I did live life in rough conditions growing up in Bosnia, and after the war in Serbia. I breathe a sigh of relief when my view returns to the rugged mountains, rivers and thatched roofs with carefully manicured parcels of farmland. Perhaps the untouched nature in its true state is the last breath of unique, before we (the humans everywhere) touch up everything with out magic wand of global sameness. Have we reached a plateau of our imagination when building, or have our ideas of functionality and efficiency spread too wide like a panacea? Bringing myself back to look out the window at the rugged mountains puts me at ease again, and I wonder how this journey will continue to alter my sense of the urban self, my global participation, and my inner humanity.
I feel guilty at my privilege, even if manifested in the smallest ways, such as being on a more comfortable train car, while others are sleeping in a sitting position or on the floor. I would never have known what other cars contained had I not walked to the back of the train. I embrace this as a metaphor. I would never know until I have gone and seen.
Stepped off the train for the first time. Purchased water and orange juice to continue to hydrate and the sweet lady who sold it to me told me the price in Mandarin; I gave her 20 yuan not knowing what she had asked for and took the change back. That was my first time outside in 19 hours, and I returned to the car to Keesler telling me our neighbor (top bunk above her in our room) gave us fruit that I now saw him eating. Actually, the fruit and vegetable cross may be called (sp.) “xiguala” by the sound of it (we asked him the name) and it tasted like cantelope/tomato, while looking like a miniature squash. It was delicious and a nice gesture. Earlier we got an apple from them. Meanwhile, all we have to offer them is “junk” food we picked up at the supermarket yesterday, mostly consisting of 7 boxes of Pocky that I purchased due to a) the multitude of new flavors for me (including green tea, coffee, blueberry, banana and wine!) and b) 2 yuan per box price (a few cents per 1:6.67 exchange rate). Of course, when we humbly received our gift, we sat there wondering about a polite way to go and wash the fruit for about five minutes, as there were specks of moisture from the fruit being washed for us.. Keesler finally took the fruit to the sinks to rinse with our bottled water and we decided the best we could do to appear polite is eat it with relish in front of him.
5:00ish – 5:50ish pm
Lost in translation
The conversation took place with our neighbor! It all started when Keesler asked how he had the internet on his laptop on the train, and he did not understand the word internet. So he pulled up a translating program on his computer and started conversing. He would type in the characters in Chinese to receive an English translation and we would read it. Then I pulled up this document (see below) and began typing for him in English, which he would then transcribe in his application and translate into Chinese. Our every question took about 3-5 minutes to go around, but it ended with pleasantries such as saying you are nice and we enjoy meeting you to each other. We just snapped photos together with both of them (his friend who speaks a very sparse English joined us). It is funny that they like us, considering that last night, at midnight, when the train boarded them at our first stop (the journey started at 9:30 from Beijing West Railway Station for us) and we grouchily forbade them to use the bottom bunk that belonged to one of them when we got woken up (at which point we also had our suitcase and backpacks all over their beds). The most poignant part of this conversation experience is the fact that the one who feeds us fruit (healthy snacks) “wanted to ask us some questions” and turns out to be a civil servant; the questions were normal to a point, all about our travel but they are raaaather detailed – do we have a guide in Lhasa? Are we traveling with a group? Do we have a tour guide? At some point, Keesler and I looked at each other in reaction to these questions, having a funny notion? Naah. But it would be funny if they were here on purpose, our nice civil servant and his friend the engineer.
“If you spoke Chinese, we could speak freely,” says the engineer
“Yes, we know” say Keesler and I with an affirmative laughter
“And we are sorry we do not speak it” say I..
Phrases in the raw (as I wrote them out to our guy):
New York City
Where do you work?
Yes, very much; we study international affairs
In the future
Do you travel a lot?
Where? In China only? Or other places?
What would you like us to mail you from New York?
You are really nice. We enjoy meeting you.
How do you say “jade” in Chinese?
Inexpensive at the market 40RMB
Someday I will buy good jade when I finish school and have more money
Will stop at Mount Everest
Are you going?
May 30, 2010
Early to mid morning
Ben Folds and the Himalayas
Woke up to a chilly tundra feeling. We have reached the Himalaya region. The peaks are covered in snow and we spotted our first yaks. We had our traditional multi-coffee breakfast, and the “head of the dining car” girl already knows our crew’s needs well. The landscape is so vastly different from the one we closed our day with yesterday. We have several hours until we reach the Tibetan border, and until this evening to reach Lhasa.
I love sleeping on this train. Last night’s was the best sleep I got since the beginning of the trip. The coziness of our room and the natural feeling of winding down as the day turns to night, the subtle lulling motion from the train, the sense of being somewhere isolated and away from the known - all of these make me feel peaceful. I dreamt a lot. Among the details of my dreams was being at a café somewhere with Ben Folds playing live in the background. I am listening to his songs that I have on my iPod right now. My eyes are still hungry for more. The Himalayas.. I am seeing the Himalayas right now. I want to take the Trans-Siberian train and go to Kazakhstan someday. This landscape makes me think of Russia. China is an enormous expanse of land covering all types of topography.
“Leaf by leaf, page by page, throw this book away” Away, away.. so, so far away.
This Earth is so big and beautiful. The mountains I am seeing right now seem surreal. We are so high in altitude that the air feels visibly thinner. The mountains are covered in snow and the sky is pale blue color. At times, it is difficult to separate the line of clouds/sky from the tips of the mountains. Before the white layer is the expansive red-gray ground with grazing animals (mostly yaks and sheep, and we spot antelopes at times). What’s the use of trying to separate the line between the mountains and the clouds – we are the clouds.
P.S. I’ve never seen anything like this before.
In Tibet now. Just exchanged my e-mail information with our Chinese neighbor (you know, so we can write to each other in the languages neither one of us speaks; smiles). The scenery has gotten beyond beautiful - persistently tundra-esque with some really green mountain lakes (Cuo Na (sp.) the biggest we passed), red earth, stone mountain peaks covered in snow, wavy topography, and some sparse tents and objects in places amidst pasture lands. Keesler and I enjoyed a long lunch and coffee in the dining car looking at the landscape and conversation. We have three more hours to go on this amazing train ride. Nobody asked for our permit yet.
I reiterate: China is a massive and beautiful country. It is ironic that the parts I am seeing are so unpopulated in one of the most populated countries in the world. I wonder about the lives of those I saw herding their livestock. A movie I saw recently comes to mind, although about Kazakhstan, "Tulpan," as a reference point for my imagination. It seems rough here, but people truly do manage to make a living everywhere/anywhere, which speaks to the resilience of their body and spirit. There was only one strip we passed earlier that was utterly void of all life, and it felt really cold on the train. We are now above 4,000 meters in altitude and I am getting excited for seeing Lhasa next with a day to explore tomorrow, and taking other trips in Tibet through June 5th, including camping at the Mount Everest Base Camp! I will pack the memory film of what I have seen in the last two days so tightly in the safest banks of my mind. I never want to forget the wonder, and I highly, wholeheartedly recommend this trip to anyone who wants to see China and another amazing part of our globe. See you in Lhasa.