Few travelers recount their time in China without waxing poetic about the train rides.
The view from a hard-sleeper bunk bed can make one feel like an intergalactic voyager, passively observing China's dramatic environmental and demographic variations.
Meanwhile, the tight quarters become the social space for a sampling of Chinese middle-class society. Laptops and Palm Pilots are rare sights, and instead the passengers are forced into deep interaction. The train becomes a test tube where the commonalties and schisms of national politics and culture come to the forefront.
I traveled China's length this past summer, riding the train from Beijing to Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in the northwestern corner of the country. In 48 hours, we saw a near-total transformation. The crowded east-coast cities gave way to rice paddies and farmland on the first day. The second day, we arose to the view of a vast rocky desert. The barren environment was broken only by the sight of mud-brick villages and giant oil derricks, working hypnotically in the distance like black ants. The following morning, we finally reached the oasis metropolis of Urumqi.
I say "we" because China stubbornly holds onto travel as a collective experience. Contact between passengers was sparse during the first 12 hours of the train ride, with only brief communication to resolve issues of physical space. Such conversations naturally arise when six adults and several children are fit tightly into compact quarters. But the Chinese have a way of overhearing, staring, and interjecting into others' conversations that Americans might find rude. In time, however, these customs created moments of community with cross-generational discussions that I find lacking in American life. It was not long before our living area had become a forum for debating all kinds of national issues, intertwined with loud games of Chinese poker.
Conversational topics included politics, the educational system, my Chinese name, the differences between local and "foreigner" culture, and the recent (but very limited) phenomenon of open homosexuality. During a discussion, the group would often split into two camps. There were the loud types, who loved to argue and to lead discussion. Then there were the quiet types, generally the elderly, who would participate with long, friendly smiles and affirmative nods. Occasionally, when asked their opinion, the "friendlies" would slowly insert an anecdotal viewpoint that neither confirmed nor undermined the opinions of the "leaders." A brief silence would then follow, after which the high-pitched discussion would resume.
It so happened that on this train ride, we were a week away from the International Olympic Committee's decision on the site of the 2008 Summer Games. A level of excitement filled China unlike anything I have ever seen in the United States, Amidst millions of T-shirts and daily news flashes, the train ride was the only time I heard skeptical opinions about the Beijing Olympics. I was reading a book when a medical student and recent addition to our group called on me by a joke name: "Mistah Leeee! What do you think of the Olympics?" I said I thought that people were perhaps making too big a deal of it, and asked him his opinion. He then began to describe the fascinating phenomenon of Luan shufei.
According to those around me, Luan shufei, or "forced donations," is one of the largest problems in China. …