14.1 The Art of Train Rides

The experience of riding a train is like none other. It hasn’t the nonsense of the horribly cold, dry artificial air, the plastic-like food, or the prison-cell of a toilet that characterizes the horrendous experience of a plane ride. It doesn’t need to deal with the traffic, the frequent stops-and-goes, or the loneliness that sometimes come with a car ride. It can cover longer distances in a shorter time than a car, but also contains a wonderful on-board movie right outside the windows, unlike planes.

Last weekend, I took a high-speed train ride out of Beijing, heading toward Xi’an. The modernity of travel that comes with China’s incredible and sometimes deadly economic rise, cut the usual 12-hour journey by half. My ticket was for the second-class of the bullet train. At 300km/hour, I was able to comfortably settle into my seat, and observe. This was better than my coffee shop runs.

A lady’s voice carried over from behind me. She was speaking on the phone with someone whom she was going to meet in Xi’an. It sounded like she hasn’t seen this person in quite a while, probably due to the busyness of her life in the capital. Above her, I could see she had brought a huge box of fruits with her as a gift to this person and perhaps his family. Or perhaps, it was her elderly mother she was talking to and she was finally able to find the time to visit her.

An older man’s voice intercepts hers. He was speaking rather too loudly for the etiquettes that normally come with train rides and being in such close proximity to so many fellow travellers. He was lecturing to someone on the phone as well, about how they never responded to any of his emails. From the tone of his voice, maybe it’s his child who’s currently in her first year of university, who is so busy trying to fit in, finding her circle of friends, getting along with her roommate, that she neglected her filial piety duties.

 A middle-aged man in a black dow jacket walks by, probably on his way to the washroom. His pace was lent, maybe fitting in a bit of leg-stretching on his toilet run. Or perhaps, he was trying to solve a rather difficult math equation, and think better on his feet than sitting next to a stranger.

I look down the aisle, and a little boy’s face pops into view. He was standing in his grandmother’s lap while she fixes his pants. He seems no older than 5, and in his left hand, was a tightly-grasped on-board magazine. His curious black eyes scanned the surroundings, but fixated themselves eventually on the flashes of land outside. For a few seconds, his stare was unmoving. And then, he let out a little scream, and opened the magazine, putting on top of his head as if it were a hat, or maybe a shield. A shield protecting him from the rows upon rows of construction crane dragons that flew pass the window.

I will never know the truth of these people’s moments, but the lives on-board these trains are infinitely interesting, especially if you add imagination to the mix.

Outside the large windows of this journey, lies even more stories. Here is where my love for train rides truly stem. Although sceneries shoot by in seconds-per-frame (which is mainly why I still love the slow-crawling sleeper trains more) on this most high-speed of trains, it still grants me glimpses of stories. A family of billboards, a community of empty new or abandoned apartments, a maze of factories and the white snakes it sends up into the sky through its energy-generators, a plot of farmland as far and wide as the eyes could see, with a single, lonesome house in its midst. The occasional hazy protrusion of a cityscape on the edge of the horizon, the splitting effects of a running river down the flatlands, the roads that lead to mysterious places of my imagination, the never-ending lines of electricity that are powering the lives of people I will never meet, the bridges of other train tracks going elsewhere, the expanse of land turned over and awaiting a grander future, and on windy days, the waving of rows upon rows of trees.

The passing of these landscapes can tell me more about a country than I could ever hope to learn on paper. Plus, watching the scenery morph from the hustling, crowded skyscrapers of a metropolis into the openness that comes with countryside topography gives me a certain kind of tranquility and freedom. The windows and the people provide me with a point of departure for my imagination. What stories I encounter, I never know. But one thing I’m certain of is where they lead me to: Wonderland.

I do love a good, long train ride.

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