|The kitchen on a Chinese train.|
Sleeping with Three Strange Men
As the train left Beijing station on its overnight journey to Changchun, I felt very alone and lost. It was
a big step to be
going out into this strange world alone apart from Chen, my interpreter. The other two,
belonging to the Railway Publishing House, were remaining in Beijing.
‘You’ll be fine,’ PBW had said that morning as we hugged goodbye. ‘Just beware the carriage attendants and, whatever you do, don’t get drunk.’ I wasn’t in the habit of getting drunk so I was quite affronted by this but then I’d never had a glass of Mau Tai before.
Each carriage had its own female attendant guarding the steps onto the train and the one for our section smiled at me as I tried a polite ‘Ni Hao’ in greeting before boarding. I felt reassured and laughed off PBW’s warning until five minutes later she came into our carriage to check Chen’s and my tickets and roared at me for putting my suitcase on the wrong bed. ‘You put your case on that bed, you pay for that bed,’ she said. I got the message.
Chen and I were travelling soft class lying, which consisted of four white covered bunks per compartment with washbasins and loos at each end of the carriage. As the train started off, we sat on one lower bunk with two complete strangers on the other, both burly Chinese men who did not know whether to stare at me or not. Manners obviously forbade them to ask Chen about me and there was certainly nothing I could tell them myself
Normally, in those days, white people ate alone in the dining room of a train, either before or after the Chinese, just as in the hotels. However, Chen persuaded them to change the custom, explaining that there was only one of me and that I was relatively harmless. I was quite an attraction, a bit like a Panda bear in the UK so after some hesitation, a couple of men came and sat down with us. Chen was happy to talk with them while I amused myself trying the differing dishes on offer and the sweet wines of China together with the ubiquitous tea. We had fatty pork soup with cabbage, bean curd with sesame seeds, pak choi and chicken’s feet. The men sucked on those with relish but I declined politely and finished up my rice.
‘You must be careful in Changchun,’ said Chen. ‘To finish your rice means that you have not been well fed. It is very rude. As a guest you should hardly eat any.’
Chastened, I considered the very real possibility that these two weeks might turn out to be a very effective diet.
After supper there was little to do by the dim lights in the cabin but talk or read or go to bed — but of course if you are sharing a compartment you can only go to bed by common consensus. I wanted to read but Chen wanted to ask questions. By the time the lights went out — and they did go out at 10pm and you had no option of turning them back on — I was exhausted and feeling like a very poor representative of my country. That was a state which was to last for the whole of the rest of the trip.
The problem was two-fold: firstly Chen’s total lack of anything approaching a sense of humour and secondly, his profound intelligence and diligence. He was determined that, by the time I returned to the UK, I should be a credit to him and that he should be a credit to me. I should know Chinese history, art and politics to degree level and, as a light alternative to this barrage of information, he would interrogate me night and day in what proved to be a rather vain attempt to improve his knowledge of British art, politics and history.
To start with, we discussed the history of England with particular reference to the Hundred Years War, the Industrial Revolution, the Jacobites, William and Mary and both world wars. For the first time in my life I wished that I had not opted for Art ‘0’ level rather than History and my lack of knowledge was sadly felt. My interest in the Tudors did raise Chen’s hopes about my value as a source of information but that led to an hour and a half on Protestantism, Catholicism, Luther, Calvin, the Pilgrim Fathers, the Holocaust and the Huguenots during which I was, frankly, out of my depth.
It did however allow me to turn the subject to a spirited discussion on the existence of God where I, amateur though I was, almost managed to hold my own. God wasn’t officially allowed in China at that time and Chen was appalled that I, a modern woman, believed in such an anachronism. He was very put out by my assertion that the Chinese people’s lack of belief did not have any effect on God’s existence per se and certainly did not hinder God’s belief in Himself
Surely, he said, if God did exist, the very fact that so many people knew that He didn’t would be enough to make him doubt Himself. And anyway, he could not exist in China because He was not allowed.
At which point I felt a distinct desire for a gin and tonic.
Apart from debating Life, the Universe and Everything, it was quite tricky getting used to going to bed in a Chinese railway carriage with three quite unknown men. All of them slept in their shirts and underwear and it took me ten whole minutes to explain to Chen that I needed a few moments’ privacy to change into a nightgown. Once he had the idea, he chivvied the other men out as though he had always known of this quaint Western custom and I realised for the first time how very proud and how very terrified he was to have a foreign woman in his care. Half of his nagging and fussing was because I was such a completely unknown quantity with my inexplicable laughter and my long brown curly hair; my pretty frocks and my way of dancing and making jokes. He did not know that it was just me; he thought it was all Western Women and it was so important to him to tell other people that he had acquired this strange and esoteric knowledge of the habits of the female Foreign Devil.
For all that, I did sleep well and, before I dropped off, I was amazed and relieved that I felt comforted and happy with the thrum, thrum, thrum, cer-lick, thrum, thrum, thrum, cer-lick of the wheels over the tracks and content to be lying in this strange, foreign bed on a strange foreign train with strange foreign people.
It took me some time to realise why I was so content until I realised that, as a baby, I had been lulled into slumber, more often than not, by tape recordings of steam engines and of the clunkety-clunk of bogies going over the gaps in rails echoing up through the floorboards from PBW’s study below. But it was more than that. Communication challenges apart, I was on the other side of the world, having a real experience of life where there was no opportunity to take anything for granted. It was scary but it was great. And the reason why it was great was because there was actually something to be scared about.
I’ve spent most of my life in a kind of low-grade fear. I suspect most of us do. Certainly, working as a journalist and radio presenter meant that I raced around on deadlines, competing with other journalists. That didn’t help but I think I was attracted to that nerve-wracking kind of world because I was nervous anyway. In some strange way, I felt better as long as there was a real reason behind my fear, even if that reason was dealing with Margaret Thatcher or a fierce news editor. Once, when I worked as a newsreader at Beacon Radio in Wolverhampton, I continued reading the news after the fire alarm went off because I was more afraid of the news editor than I was of burning to death.
It’s also true that sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between fear and excitement. Perhaps the line is very thin indeed. I’ve often found it useful to ask myself which of the two I was feeling at critical times and often the answer has often surprised me. Sometimes I’ve been resisting something which could actually be very uplifting or releasing or just plain different by thinking I was registering fear instead of excitement.
However, it was not exactly exciting to be woken at 5.30 am by the blaring of the train radio and tannoy system coming on loudly in my ear. There was no ‘on’ or ‘off’ switch and the suddenness and the volume of the alarm were an unwelcome shock. The train radio had been on the previous evening but, then, it had just seemed part of the overall strangeness and it had stopped for the night as soon as the lights went out.
At breakfast the Chinese ate a mixture of meats and pickles with tea but the train staff, aware that they had a Female Foreign Devil aboard made a special effort for me. Hot, sweetened powdered milk accompanied two slices of cornbread fried in beaten egg, sandwiched with pickle and sugar and topped with two fried eggs.
To my shame, I couldn’t eat it. As the China years went by, I learnt to greet such a feast of carbohydrates with gratitude for it might be all I could eat that day. This time I picked at it and, when Chen had gone to the kitchen to ask for some more tea for me, I wrapped it in tissues and hid it in my bag.
Windows didn’t open on Chinese trains, but the lavatories opened straight onto the track so I was able to dispose of the evidence and sneak a Mars Bar from the stock of pemmican that the all-wise Dad had insisted that I packed in my suitcase for times just such as this. Nutritious, it was not. Comforting it was.