Da Train! Da Train!!
I’m writing this chapter on the train back from Shanghai, in a nice, first-class sleeper car which is brand-spanking new from Germany. There is a wonderful dining car here, the cabin is air conditioned, the linens are white and spotless, and it’s a mere 14-hour ride back to Beijing. You’ll likely not find a finer rail car in all of Europe. I bring this up because this is in stark contrast to my 21-hour train ride going TO Shanghai, which I think is much more memorable. You must first understand that, on National Day Holiday, EVERYONE in China travels to somewhere. So getting a ticket to go anywhere is quite difficult. Add to this the restriction that railway tickets can only be purchased up to 4 days before departure (no doubt for the convenience of the passengers), and you realize that trying to get train tickets to Shanghai for National Day Holiday is like trying to get good rock concert tickets – to get good seats, you either have to camp out or know how and where to bribe somebody.
Well, I couldn’t camp out and I apparently didn’t offer enough of a bribe, so what I ended up with was a “Hard Seat” train ticket – a nearly-vertical hard-back bench seat with a 1% protrusion for lumbar support. I shared this seat with two other people. I was lucky – there were many other passengers who had no seat, and ended up standing, lying, and sleeping in the aisles. It wasn’t all that bad; as seated passengers needed to get up and stretch the standing passengers would often rest in their place. But the car WAS very crowded, and navigating the crowds just to relieve yourself is akin to driving in Beijing – you must be very aggressive and forge your path, for nobody is going to volunteer to move on your behalf!
All passengers brought plenty of their own food with them, and many played cards to pass the time. The monotony was broken periodically by food carts which miraculously managed to plow through the crowded aisles, selling everything from rice, packaged meat products, and the biggest cup-o-noodles I’ve ever seen (half-way between a Styrofoam cup and a large bucket of chicken in size). The train was remarkably smooth, and piped-in music from China’s past and present reminded me of where I was. One guy also brightened my day by spitting on the floor every half hour, preceded by loud expectorating to announce the event. The train, which moved at an average of 45 miles per hour, passed through the green countryside, allowing one to see every conceivable type of home and farm, from squatters villages to large plantation homes to centers of industry. Just like the old days, every train station had an army of vendors who swarmed toward the approaching train to sell whatever they could through the open windows.
And also like the old days, nobody there understands the concept of opening the window a crack when it’s cold outside and all of the oxygen in the train has been depleted.
But I don’t want to paint an entirely negative picture. Although I am not used making long trips in trains, many around the world travel for days this way, and a worse experience can surely be had by taking a Greyhound bus from L.A. to New York. At least in the Chinese trains I could still make friends easily, learn everyone’s history and join in their card games!
“If you’re going to Shanghai, you simply must look up my friend who lives there!”
Before leaving America I was told this by several people, and so three weeks before my trip I contacted them all, hoping to get pointers on where to stay, and maybe get to see some of the more obscure aspects of the city. For one reason or another, none would be around during the holiday. I was all set to go alone when, 3 days before my departure, I get this email:
“Hey, I want to buy a Xaphoon, but I don’t have a credit card. Is there another way to pay? And what is the shipping charge to Shanghai?”
Huzzah! A local contact!! (And an independent thinker, based on his interest in the Xaphoon!) I immediately emailed him back, saying I can accept cash and I’ll hand-deliver an instrument to him if he’ll put me up for a few days. That evening the deal was sealed, and I went back to one of the music stores to buy back a Xaphoon (which, oddly, was still sitting unceremoniously on the shelf and hadn’t been sold.)
Shanghai is the only city I know of whose name has evolved into a verb. Back in the old days, Shanghai was such an attractive place for sailors that ships’ captains often had difficulty putting together a crew when it came time to leave port. So they would go down to the bar district, drug likely candidates and haul them back to the ship. When the sailors awoke, they found themselves on the high seas. The verb “to be shanghai’d” grew out of this practice, meaning to be carried away against one’s will.
Very little of the old Shanghai remains; it has been razed and replaced with a shiny, ultra-modern city whose buildings are proudly lit up each night the way America used to do before the first energy crisis. (Even the expressway bridges are illuminated in a beautiful yet distracting near-ultraviolet.) In spite of this, with the exception of the old and decrepit part of town that was preserved, little about this clean city actually felt like China.
My host in Shanghai was Manuel, an Italian expatriate, and his girlfriend Ling Xi. Manuel is one of those people who travel all over the world, stay for a few months, and then moves on to a different country when he gets bored. He is a talented musician and artisan and is currently working as a translator for an Italian furniture firm who subcontracts work out to China. (He tells many horror stories about how the Chinese can’t follow instructions and always try to work around him to cut out his commissions.) Ling Xi is a modern dancer for the Shanghai Theatre company, and she is the reason he has stayed in Shanghai for more than 2 years.
For 3 days Manuel and I spent time jamming on our Xaphoons (he LOVES his, and wants to learn to play Klezmer!) and wandering around the city taking pictures. He and I exchanged obscure music that was worth listening to. Once I even accompanied him on his didgeridoo. Because it was National Day Holiday week, he and his other Italian buddies had time to get together to smoke incessantly and drink beers until the wee hours of the morning, arguing loudly about ironic things like whether sleeping on your left or right side is better for your heart.
Probably the most interesting character I met that week was Marco, one of Manuel’s Italian friends and owner of the most famous Italian restaurant in Shanghai. Running a successful restaurant can be a very stressful job (even when your beautiful Chinese wife helps out), and so Marco decompresses by either drinking until his personality changes (which I witnessed one night – yeow!), or, more likely, get engrossed with computers of all sorts. It appeared that we had just a little too much in common. During our first conversation, for example, we discussed Linux servers, Token Ring routers, sendmail configuration, why Microsoft is so bad, how technology doesn’t really make people happy (he had a hard time believing that one), and Infrared imaging cameras (“The camera you bought at a surplus shop doesn’t work because it needs liquid nitrogen!”). I was told that if I ever return to Shanghai I can play the Xaphoon at his other restaurant. (Now I just need to assemble a backup band…)
My stay in Shanghai was way too short — 3 1/2 days if you discount the travel time. I don’t know when, but I will make my way back there, both for the scenery and to spend time with my new friends. It’s amazing how the Xaphoon can open doors of opportunities! 🙂
I had an ambitious plan for National Day. First, I would go to Tiananmen Square, the huge public park (made famous in America in 1989 when all the tanks were dispatched to squash the student protests) which would no doubt be filled with 100,000 people to witness the flag raising at 6:00 AM. I even packed my large tripod with the plan of holding the extended tripod high over my head, camera firmly mounted on top, and then releasing the shutter by remote control, all to get an overhead view of a VERY large crowd! After that I’d hop on the train to Shanghai.
Good plans don’t always go the way you expect. On the morning of National day I dutifully got up at 4:00 AM and was ready to leave the dorm at 5:00. Only one problem. The school was devoid of all students (they had all gone home for the holiday) and all the doors were locked. I was trapped inside! If there had been a fire I’d have been toast. The one person who was supposed to be on duty was apparently sleeping in a secret, undisclosed location. She didn’t wake up until 6:30 AM – late enough so that I missed the festivities and all photo opportunities. (Hmmmph!)
Having not slept much in nearly two days, after landing in Shanghai I was starting to feel the early symptoms of a cold. “Here, take these” Manuel said. “By the afternoon you will be feeling well again.” I looked at the container: “Nin Jiom® Herbal Candy” I took one every two hours or so. It worked!! I have no idea what’s in it, but wouldn’t this be a great product to import to the U.S.!
One thing I very much like about my trip here is that I am spared the daily noise from the news media. Lack of ‘noise’ brings inner peace. And when I do occasionally log onto cnn.com to find out what’s going on, it is always the same old things: Iraq is still a problem. Still no peace in the middle east. The California election is still an embarrassment, but on a larger scale than usual. Oh, and today (Oct. 9th), Arnold Schwartzenegger made headlines in the Chinese papers. (Double Hmmph!) Now I only tell people that I’m from America, and don’t volunteer to specify a state.
Until next time…
“Yours Truly, Gary Friedman”
October 9, 2003
In case nobody believes me, here is a sampling of newspapers covering the most important story in America – Arnold takes California. Absolutely everyone here is taken with this news. I even had one taxi driver who didn’t speak a word of English, but when he discovered that I’m from America, he started shouting “Arnold!” repeatedly as loud as he could. (Of course it took me awhile to figure out what he was trying to say. I was filtering for a Chinese word.) The novelty of this news was short-lived; a few days later China had successfully launched its first astronaut into orbit.