China Stories and Tips

Running Out of Lines

Kunming Railway STtaion Photo, Kunming, China

A bit before 8:00 AM I arrived at Kunming, the city of a million bus stations. With no trash bin in sight, I took the nylon bag, filled it with my last dinner and spent a few minutes in the station searching for a place to dispose of it. There weren’t any signs around and I couldn’t find my terminal. Worse yet, the streets were marked only in Chinese and my map wasn’t very good. Feeling too sick from the earlier food poisoning to search for a hotel, I took a taxi directly to the Camellia Hotel, the backpackers’ headquarters. I sank into bed and kept my electric kettle busy all day, while increasingly developing a taste for CCTV9.

Next day, still worried about the food poisoning and thinking that I might be forced to shorten my trip in China, I decided to speed my way north. Kunming was the southernmost place reached by the Chinese railways, so I walked to the train station, at the southern side of "Beijing Lu" Road. The ticket windows were more difficult to locate and deal with than in the other countries I had visited. The first cashier refused to sell to me, and the second called a third who spoke some English. Finally, I bought a hard sleeper ticket, a code that means a second-class berth, to Xian for the same night.

I spent the next day touring the sunny city and ate in places serving tourists, which I assumed to be safer. Later, while waiting at the train station, the open windows in the waiting rooms left me cold and shaking, but at least free hot water and instant noodles in big plastic bowls were available. Two girls selling rice meals at a wheeled stall wanted to finish the day and were giving double rice rations to the happy clients.

The train was considered "K" class, meaning it was the second fastest in the system and boarding it was quick and efficient. An officer changed my ticket and put mine in a well-ordered file. The second-class cabins featured six beds in two rows with a small table in the corridor between them, and soon I felt glad to have requested a cheaper upper berth; the lower ones served as benches for the public’s benefit. Even before the train left, a vendor with a moving stall approached us selling fruits and drinks. Another one sold comics. A little later the wagon attendant passed with hot water. A man standing next to me said "Hello" and started to speak Chinese. I responded in English and he continued in Chinese to the others. They laughed. After the train began moving, I found the hot water samovar at the car’s entrance. The discovery allowed me to make coffee at will. The small table was next to the heaters where I spent a relaxed evening writing notes.

The train stopped in several stations during the night, once for a full hour, and people went in and out. In the morning the view consisted of the same mountainous terrain, but dryer. The leading color was brown and all the agricultural fields looked abandoned. There were brown, naked terraces and small vegetable parcels with half-dead cabbages. We crossed uncountable tunnels. At 8:00 AM the food vendors made another pass through the train cars, but I decided not to eat.

Half an hour later frost appeared around us and light snow fell in the mountains. In a deep valley an old woman with a black hat stood still, holding a pole on her shoulder with a substantial pile of food in buckets that hung from each side of the pole. In the car, a man was eating a fat round bun with a dark molasses filling and looked in my direction from time to time. In the following hours we traveled alongside a river flowing in a deep valley. Around noon the landscape finally became green, although it was still foggy.

A woman named Nana kept me entertained. She was born in Shiplin, was studying in Kunming and was traveling to some professional exams in Xian. Other neighbors came to talk as well: an aging music teacher, a young couple with an unfriendly husband, and a few others. After a while, I lost count. Writing while speaking with them became impossible. The talks took the expected routes and the many repetitions for the sake of the changing crowd tired me. In the afternoon, we stopped at Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan and a huge industrial center, and Nana asked me to go down with her to the station. Once there, it seemed like she wanted to tell me something, but she didn’t.

A few moments later, back in the train she said, "You know, that man is a member of the Communist Party. You are very lucky to meet one." She pointed at the man with the bun. He was short, well fed, and had a certain air of authority about him. The music teacher added something in Chinese to him and he approached me. After the introductions, he asked, through Nana, why I wasn’t eating.

Tired of that question, I told Nana, "Please repeat the story to him."

She did so, received a reply and added in English, "He says you should eat one of his breads. They have molasses inside and will make you healthy."

"Xie Xie," I thanked him, in my rudimentary Chinese.

After I finished another cup of coffee and the bread, he hung around, looking at me. Not knowing what to say, I asked Nana to translate. "Tell him that I did my secondary school in a kibbutz in Israel, which is a communist community."

Finding a common background would create the opportunity for an interesting conversation I hoped...

(Excerpt from Chapter 54. Running Out of Lines)

The Cross of Bethlehem is available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle edtitions.

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