China tends to be a pretty restrained society. This might have something to do with it. So it was thus bizarre that as I was about to board my train to Chengdu I witnessed two employees at an adjacent coffee shop to my terminal having an outright brawl. Fists were flying, headlocks were being utilized to great effect. It was like a live WWE show. Someone approaching sternly bellowed at them to stop and it ended with each employee retracting to their corner of the roughly 8'x5' space; an awkward, long day of making lattés ahead of them. To this day, I still wonder what it was all about.
As the rush of the previous hour died down, I boarded my train. It was nothing like the Shanghai-to-Beijing route that I previously took, fully modernized to impress the numerous international tourists that frequented it. This train and it's decor looked straight out of 1973: linens stained yellow from all the cigarette smoke being filtered through the interiors, crew members pushing around carts of warm milk and noodles and using the same ladel to distribute both. I made my way to my cabin and met the roommates I would be sharing a relatively intimate space with for the next 30+ hours. While we couldn't verbally communicate, I made use of my English-Mandarin dictionary and attempted elementary conversation with them. I learned that one was a jeweller in the Szechuan province who was very proud of his car (a silver Japanese sports model) and the other was enroute to visiting his family after spending time away seeking work in the capital. Train travel is great for having authentic interaction with locals. By the end of my journey, the jeweller gave me a solid jade buddha for good luck that is one of my most valuable possessions, if only because of back story.
The day faded into night. The night...remained bright. The florescent lights in my cabin would not turn off. Being on the top bunk, I had one shining in my face all night as I attempted sleep but it wasn't meant to be. On top of lack of slumber, I was starting to feel ill. I don't know if it was all of the smoke or the after-effects of my newfound msg diet, but this train was definitely starting to feel claustrophobic. I left the cabin to explore and soon realized how good I had it; I, at least, had a relatively private cabin. The other areas of the train were packed to the hilt with people barely able to move. I went to the one place where I could truly be alone: the washroom.
The majority of toilets in China are mere holes in the ground. Train travel is no exception. The balance and aim that one must perfect exponentially increases in difficulty in a moving vehicle and was a feat that the individual who used this receptacle before me had failed miserably at. I rushed to open the window and was met with a greater wall of stench: at that very point in time, we were traveling through the most polluted region of China. The most disgusting, vile, toxic cloud of metallic haze hit me in the face. It was so thick, it left residue on my lips and tongue that I could taste for hours. Over the month I spent in the country, I became used to not seeing a blue sky, however, I could never, ever get used to that level of pollution. It's unreal. After adding my vomit to whatever else was on the floor, I left unashamed. For I was in China and that's how they roll.
To be continued...