Nineteen years ago this month, the Far Outliers were very much looking forward to some Chinese New Year vacation travel after a semester teaching English at newly established Sunwen College in Zhongshan City, China. The school was very much worried about the prospect of our traveling alone and wanted to get two students to accompany us. But we felt that would be a terrible imposition on both the students and ourselves, and we felt confident that we could negotiate the Chinese train system. After all, I had spent a lot of my childhood traveling on Japanese trains. How much harder could it be in China?
Somebody may have helped us buy the train tickets from Guangzhou to Hangzhou. We booked hard-class sleeper berths because we were being paid exclusively—and not very lavishly—in renminbi (‘people’s currency’), which was not yet convertible in those days. We hoarded our dwindling supply of dollar savings acessible via credit card, but nevertheless came back to the U.S. flat broke, despite getting substantially more renminbi during our second semester teaching there. The latter at least enabled us to afford a trip to Beijing and Xian before leaving China that summer.
Hard-class sleeping compartments had four berths facing each other across a narrow walkway. I was on a top berth and my wife shared a lower berth with our two-year-old daughter. There was another young child in our compartment who spent a lot of time playing with a pear, alternately holding it with his unwashed hands, dropping it on the grime-caked floor, and taking bites out of it. By Chinese standards, our daughter’s habit of thumb-sucking was just as unsanitary, but we always made sure to travel with a clean washcloth, rinsed in boiled water, and she soon learned to ask “Suck this thumb?” and get a thumb-wipe before indulging in one of her favorite contemplative activities at the time: sucking her thumb and twiddling her belly button. (As a babe in arms, she used to like to reach in and twiddle her mom’s nipple while sucking her thumb.)
By dinner time, the train was winding its way through mountain valleys beside terraced rice paddies. Vendors came down the aisles selling meals in styrofoam boxes, and about the same time we began to notice a lot of styrofoam scattered along the fields beside the tracks. After we had all eaten, we found out where it came from, as janitors worked their way down the aisles sweeping all before them with pairs of handheld brooms. At the end of each railcar, they would open a window and chuck all the rubbish out, then move on to the next car. They also seemed entirely to ignore the toilets, whose floors were awash in urine-tainted water.
We arrived in Hangzhou—so serene compared to bustling Guangzhou—early the next morning, a bit too early to check into the exquisite, Austrian-run Shangri-la Hotel Hangzhou on the north shore of West Lake. So we dawdled over bowls of hot jook (congee, 粥) in the warm hotel restaurant before checking into our rooms, where we found chocolates on the pillow and were offered complimentary glasses of warm glühwein. That stay was worth the precious dollars we spent on it. Over the next few days, we visited some of the scenic spots, bicycled around the lake, and sampled the famous Longjing (龍井 or 龙井 Dragon Well) tea grown in the nearby hills. What a welcome respite those days were.