Tuesday, January 20: Our overnight train to Jishou, in Hunan province, doesn’t leave until 5:20 p.m. so we have a leisurely morning in my shabby Nanning apartment, where I serve up scrambled eggs with cheese and coffee, made with the fabulous 3-in-1 coffee packets that are my mainstay here in China. Black coffee: forget it. It doesn’t exist except out of a Nescafe jar. In the late morning, I take Mike out for a walk around the Guangxi University campus, through the West and the East campuses and the Agricultural College. It’s about a 4 mile walk all around. Mike’s amazed by the huge athletic field with its multitudes of basketball hoops and nice track. We talk about how the Chinese love basketball, along with table tennis and badminton. He also wonders about all the elderly people who live in decrepit buildings on the campus. The campus is surrounded entirely by a wall and it’s said thousands of people live on the grounds (I’ve heard estimates of 20,000 but I have no idea if that’s correct). It seems the campus just plopped itself down in the middle of old neighborhoods during its 1928 establishment. Or maybe the elderly residents were once graduates of the university! I would love to know the history of this.
I still have to finish packing, so, as the weather forecast is calling for cold and rain in Hunan Province, I figure layers are the key. The forecast is for incessant rain in Zhangjiajie, but the temps are expected to be in the 50s and 60s Fahrenheit. I do pack one blue men’s size medium puffy jacket that I bought in the Nanning WalMart. It turns out I will wear that jacket a lot over the next two weeks. That is, until I abandon it in Myanmar!
All we eat for lunch are the leftover dumplings that we took away from our lunch yesterday. Neither of us is very hungry after our big breakfast. We do pack some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and fruit and other snacks for our train trip since we don’t know if we’ll be able to get dinner on the train.
We arrive early to the Nanning Railway Station, with its usual chaotic hubbub of activity. I really hate sitting around in Chinese train stations, especially the Nanning one, as it’s so filthy and uncomfortable. Yet I always like to arrive early because I’m terrified of missing connections. Since Mike is here only 2 weeks, I’ve planned everything precisely. It’s the Spring Festival holiday time here in China, so I booked all our train tickets, hotels, and plane tickets in advance, just to make sure we could get where we needed to go without hassle. Finally, we load onto the old train like a herd of cattle, and settle in to our four person soft-sleeper compartment.
We decide I’ll take the top bunk and Mike will take the bottom. On the other side of our 4-person compartment are two young men who don’t speak to each other; obviously they are strangers. We sit for a long time on Mike’s bottom bunk until it gets dark, which isn’t long after we chug off. We do get to see about an hour’s worth of scenery, mostly the city of Nanning.
We pass by the new Nanning Railway Station on the east side of the city (I live on the west side). I only just heard about this new station and it looks gleaming and fresh.
In the aisles outside the compartments are little fold-down seats in case someone would like to read or eat while the other people in the compartment are sleeping. Luckily on the soft-sleeper cars, we do have a door to our compartment. The hard-sleeper compartments have six bunks and no doors.
Various vendors walk periodically down the aisles offering snack foods. It’s possible there is a dining car somewhere on the train but as we brought our sandwiches, we’re fine with what we have.
The toilet is a hole in the floor at the end of the car. Like trains in India, it feeds directly onto the railway tracks. The doors are immediately locked by the attendants whenever the train comes to a stop.
Once it gets dark, there isn’t much to do and I decide I’d like to get in my top bunk to read. Each bunk has a little overhead light which makes this possible. The top bunk is so high that I can’t climb up; Mike has to push me by my behind like I’m a sack of potatoes. When I get to the top, I get under the covers and wriggle about trying to take off my bra and change into a sleeping shirt. I don’t know why I bother hiding under the covers as the boy on the top bunk across from me is totally engrossed in a game on his phone. I read awhile until I have to go to the bathroom. When I do, I have just as hard a time getting down from the bunk as I had getting up. At this point Mike gallantly offers to take the top bunk and let me have the bottom. Ah, much better.
I’m reading Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in the World by Rita Gelman Golden. I can’t totally relate to this woman, although the title seems appropriate to my life. Here’s the review I wrote about it on Goodreads:
At first I thought the author was annoying and spoiled by her high-class life in L.A. and her refusal to eat dinner alone once she separated from her husband and found herself in Guatemala and Mexico. She would stay in her hotel rather than face being pitied by fellow diners as she ate dinner alone and “friendless.” It seems she always needed to be surrounded by community, and that was the thing that made her happiest. I have trouble relating to this as I love my time alone and don’t feel the need to be surrounded by people all the time. The author easily talks to strangers and is able to win their trust, enough so to be invited to stay with them for months or even years! I am totally unable to do this and do admire her ability to make friends so easily, but I would crave my solitude too much to stay with random people all the time. Also, she is able to totally trust strangers; I can’t do this at all! I almost always distrust people at first, until I get to know them. So she is admirable in this respect, if not even a little foolish. However, her trust seems to have served her well.
In the end, I found the book lacking somehow; I don’t think I got a true sense of Rita and her emotional struggles; I found much of the book to be on the surface and thus it didn’t impact me emotionally. As a reader, I always want to feel the struggles and humanity of a person, and to sympathize with the characters (the author in this case), or at least relate on some level. I believe Tales of a Female Nomad missed the mark somehow as I always felt one step removed from the life Rita chose to live. I never felt any great bond with the author although we have both traveled extensively, due to the different ways we have chosen to travel.
Throughout the night, the two young men in the opposite bunks are awake either watching movies on their phones or playing games. The movie the one boy is watching must be hilarious, because he keeps laughing all night long. What I don’t understand is how they have enough battery charge in their phones to keep this up all night. I had to turn off my phone early in the evening as my charge rapidly evaporated. He was using a battery to charge the phone, but even when I’ve used such a battery charger for such a long time, the charge has run out. These Chinese phones must be better than my iPhone 5.
It’s a restless night of sleep, with numerous stops at many stations, but it’s a fascinating experience of one of the many modes of travel in China. 🙂