Oct. 8 - 9, 2014
Days 83 - 84
Northern Inner Mongolia Trip, Part V
The train left on time. It was only half full, and I had two seats to myself. I knew this comfortable situation was temporary – I wouldn't step outside the confines of this train until it reached Beijing, thirty-two hours hence.
After leaving the city, we passed sprawling fields with grazing cattle and a few little towns of identical five-story apartment towers. In one of these towns, there was a Russian onion-domed building, under construction, of course. This was the land I had become accustomed to over the last two weeks. How strange it would be to return to a city of 21 million.
At our first stop, a fellow passenger greeted me by waving his ticket in my face, obviously disgruntled that I was in his seat. I've come to accept in these situations that I'm probably in the wrong. I can't read, write or speak Chinese, so I'm basically a four-year-old without any parental supervision. I apologized, grabbed my backpack and soon learned that I actually was in the right seat, but the wrong car. My ticket was for an aisle seat, so I wouldn't even be able to sleep leaning forward with my head on a table. This was a significant downgrade. Five people already occupied my new seating area. Luckily, the guys sitting across from me were friendly. We communicated using hand gestures for the rest of the trip.
After the sun had set, I tried to explain a special event that was about to take place: a total lunar eclipse, where the sun's rays would be refracted upon hitting the Earth, turning the moon red. I took out my phone and showed my new friends the Chinese character for “eclipse.” Then I showed them the character for “blood,” since this type of eclipse is known as a “blood moon” in English. One of the men immediately understood and explained it to his friends. Some people sitting near us overheard the discussion and started making comments about the eclipse. Soon everyone in our car was looking for the blood moon.
It was a cloudy night, so I was afraid we would miss the show. Then the clouds began to dissipate. A woman sitting across the aisle from me grabbed my attention, looking excited. I gazed out of her window and saw the moon, mid-eclipse. Strangely, it was streaking across the sky, as if time had accelerated. At this rate, the night would last about twenty seconds. Then I figured out the illusion: we must have been banking at angle that was shallow enough for me not to notice. In this dark and remote corner of the planet, only the moon betrayed our gradual turn.
I wanted to take a high-quality photograph of the moon during the eclipse, but now I realized that this would not be possible. It was too dark and the train was too bumpy. Instead, I joined the others in the shared experience of admiring the moon. With the unpolluted sky and the train's huge windows, this was an excellent venue for viewing the eclipse, photos or not. For the next hour, the blood moon danced back and forth across the sky, much to our amusement.
When the eclipse ended, I jotted some notes from my trip in my notebook. Many people leered over my shoulder to watch me write. I figured they were doubly curious – not only was I writing in English, but I was using my left hand. Their curiosity surprised me because I see English all the time in China. Many road signs have English words under the Chinese characters, and every sign in the subway system is written in both languages. Many people even wear shirts with English words. I have yet to see a Chinese person with an English word tattooed across his bicep, though.
At around 11 p.m., a group of men boarded my car and sat a few seats in front of me. They took out a deck of cards, popped the tops off of their beer cans (yes, they still have pop-tops here), and lit cigarettes. They shouted, drank, smoked and slammed their cards on the table for hours on end. I sat up straight in my seat, trying unsuccessfully to sleep. Eventually one of the guys in my section crawled onto the floor and went to sleep underneath the seats. I splayed my legs across three seats and finally fell into a fitful sleep, coughing every few minutes from smoke inhalation. About an hour later my friend got up from the floor and took back his seat. I did what came natural – I slithered onto the floor and passed out.
When I woke, I saw that one guy had been sitting with his knees bent, feet pressed against his butt so he wouldn't have to put them on my hip. I was grateful. I climbed back into my seat, trying to shake the fog from my head, and noticed that the outside world was foggy as well. Soon I realized that even though we were in the middle of nowhere, hundreds of miles from Beijing, the “fog” was actually a thick cloud of pollution.
For breakfast, one of my new friends opened a package of three green boiled eggs. The guy next to him pulled out a vacuum-sealed chicken foot. He opened it and peeled its wrapping like a stick of beef jerky, then bit into the claws. He chewed it and spat the cartilage onto the floor (yes, the very floor I had been sleeping on a few minutes earlier). I was just happy he didn't offer me any. Instead, I ate a bucket of ramen noodles the size of a tub of movie theater popcorn. The chicken foot was almost certainly a healthier breakfast.
By the afternoon, we were back in “civilization.” At least once per hour, we went through a megalopolis, full of unfinished apartment towers, thirty stories tall, twenty at a time. At one point a salesman with about twenty leather belts hung over his arm walked into our car and gave a long spiel about his product. After a good ten minutes of talking, he handed one end of a belt to a potential customer. He twisted it into a helix, then played tug-of-war with the customer to demonstrate how strong this belt was. Finally, he announced the price: 10 rmb, less than $2. This indeed did look like a nice belt and I would have bought one if I didn't already have one. All told, he was in our car for about twenty minutes. He only sold a couple of belts before moving to the next car. I wondered how he could possibly make ends meet.
Later in the afternoon, an interesting character walked aboard and sat across the aisle from me. He was wearing a matching Adidas sweatshirt and sweatpants, a hat pulled low over his eyes, large-gauge earrings, a stylish watch and multiple necklaces. But most interestingly, he was carrying a Canon 70-200mm f2.8 lens, one of the most conspicuous lenses in that company's lineup. In a country where most people dressed plainly (standing out can be dangerous here), this guy was ultra-stylish. I asked him about the lens and he said that he shot sports. He seemed like a friendly guy, but I did get annoyed with him after a while – he was constantly on his phone, and whenever he got a text, our whole car had to listen to the sound of two silenced gunshots, followed by the cartridges clanging against the ground.
When the sun set for the second time of this train ride, I knew we were getting close to Beijing. Finally, the city's highrises, along with some hutongs, came into view. At least that's what I assumed I was looking at. The Air Quality Index was over 400 (extremely hazardous), so visibility was quite low.
The train stopped in central Beijing, I said goodbye to my companions and mixed into the throngs of people walking toward the subway. The locals didn't stare at me, and one person even said, “Excuse me” in English. Hearing that confirmed it: after spending the last two weeks in rural China, I was back in the big city.
What's next? How about reading Part VI of this series.