China has one of the world’s biggest rail networks. With 20% of the world’s population that is hardly surprising, and it still comes nowhere near meeting demand on existing networks, or on actual network coverage in densely populated provinces like Henan with its 100 million + people. It is a mind-bending logistics operation, greatly improved since I last knew it (1998–2000) when you couldn’t even buy a return ticket. At that time the rail system, like China itself, was an assembly of feifdoms, each jealously guarding its influence and finances. Things have mellowed a bit, though around 20 people a day are killed somewhere on the network (better than 600 or so deaths a day on the roads, according to the OECD). From time to time even a main trunk line may be virtually closed for hours at a time as some “leader” flashes through under maximum security in his special train. At its worst, as in the Chinese New Year, you can have impossible crowds fighting for non-existent seats. 100,000 were camped out around Guangzhou station this year. At its best, on the main line bullet trains (D-trains) there is air conditioned comfort with airline type uniformed hostesses.
I just had to make an unwanted trip back to South Korea to rescue my savings from an outrageous Korean bank. The cheapest way was a train to Tianjin, then a 24 hour ferry to Incheon in South Korea. That little circuit reintroduced me to some of the best and the worst of China Rail. From Zhengzhou to Beijing it was premium comfort in an airline-style seat. I was sitting next to a surly fellow, which was a bit of a disappointment. Sometimes travelling in China you can get into very interesting conversations, perhaps because foreigners are safe creatures from the moon who aren’t going to morph into con men, policemen or some other dangerous-to-know type. Outside the misty windows the view was much less comfortable. Northern China has an incredibly bleak winter landscape, flat lifeless fields brushed with snow, railway stations full of ragged crowds that look like refugees from a bombing holocaust at the end of WW2.
The second leg on one of these D-trains from Beijing to Tianjin led to an extraordinary adventure. The Tianjin stop was a nowhere looking platform (they are rebuilding the main station). Hardly anyone in the carriage moved, and we only paused for a couple of minutes. I assumed it was some quick stop on an outer ring road or something, for I was sure the train terminated in Tianjin. As the train gathered speed again, an awful realization dawned. Someone had boarded, and wanted to claim my seat. Confused, I waved my arms helplessly at a train guard, She was a pleasant looking girl in her late twenties, wrapped up to look official in the military style uniform of China Rail. Amazingly she spoke excellent English. She pondered the problem, made a couple of phone calls, and my future was mapped out. She seemed a little crestfallen at having failed to warn a dumb foreigner to get off in time. The quickest way back to Tianjin, she said, was to stay on the train. It was now 3.15pm, and I could expect to disembark sometime towards midnight. The D-train was making a huge swing across a great swathe of China, mostly Shandong province. She could stay with me to Jilin, the capital of Shandong, where she would clock off for the night, and I would be handed over to another keeper. I settled down on a green plastic stool by the exit door as the train rocked underneath, and we fell into conversation. The poor girl had a university degree, but this gig was the best she could get. She was going out of her mind, dressed up like a cupie doll every day and plodding through the mechanical routine of playing clockwork train keeper.
It was already dusk as we roared into Jilin. The guard on the new shift, a pale, well-padded lady, didn’t seem nearly as eager to pick up responsibility for someone else’s mistakes. I stood wordlessly on the chilly platform, hoping the great white dragon wouldn’t suddenly rush off leaving me in the middle of nowhere. After all, I didn’t have a ticket for this adventure. At the last moment the pasty lady impatiently beckoned me to follow, and I found myself thrust into the train buffet under the care of four bemused buffet girls in red hostess uniforms. They eyed me warily, then motioned me to sit at one of the tables. The buffet was empty, except for a couple of sleazy young guys trying to chat up the girls. They treated this boy-trash with proper disdain. Curiosity killed the cat. You don’t get a captive foreigner every day. Shortly I was offered a paper cup of tea, and the first of the girls tried a passing question in rough and ready English. Things progressed to a mini-English lesson, and the other girls edged around. The boy-trash across the aisle showed signs of despair and disgust. By the time we got to Beijing I was adopted, owned and a kind of mascot, probably considered too old to do any harm, but definitely a prize.
We became a ghost train in Beijing. The shouting and the tumult died, the passengers departed in a rush. Our trip Tianjin was just back to the rail yards, where great white dragons are put to bed. As we pulled out of the nation’s capital the girls all had to stand to attention facing Mecca, or wherever the earthly Chinese gods live. They found this pantomime hard to explain. Nobody had ever asked “why?” before. But it had to be done. Duty accomplished, they bustled about with a microwave, and presented me with a free dinner. It was about this time that the party pooper arrived. He came bearing a ticketing machine, he was young, and he was moderately handsome. It was pretty clear soon enough that he thought buffet girls rather tasty game. There was another pantomime going on, and it was all in fast Chinese. The universal human elements, boy wants girl, were easy enough to figure out from the body language, but there were other parts to this drama that took a while to understand. Gradually I realized that I was the elephant in the room. The girls were arguing with him furiously, verging on tears, and finally cut the sook cold. For whatever reason, he was in the doghouse. With a slightly hang-dog but determined air, he came across to my table. My joy-ride across half of China wasn’t on his watch, but in the name of China Rail and Big Brother, I would have to pay for the ghost train leg from Beijing to Tianjin rail yards. It came to about Y43, not a fortune for me but as I was to find out, a kind of blood debt in the minds of the girls.
Tianjin rail yards in the middle of the night, in the middle of a northern Chinese winter, are not a fun place to be. The air was rancid, and painful to breath. The enveloping blackness of a freezing, deserted industrial wasteland where I didn’t know a soul, and there wasn’t a soul to know seemed the sort of place where life could merge seamlessly into hell. However, I wasn’t about to be deserted. “Don’t worry”, the girls kept saying. “We will look after you”. We stood around on the freezing platform while some bozo with a flashlight checked off the paper cups and uncooked dinners on a palette, then at last we headed off into the darkness. Well, not instantly. A heavy chap, florid with cold, collected the ticket from the train’s only paying passenger at a security gate. A van was waiting to whisk away one of the girls. “Her boyfriend”, they explained. So three of us trudged through the unlit laneways for an eternity. I hoped they knew where they were going.
Eventually, miraculously, one of those little red taxis appeared, nosing down a hutong. We piled in, and shortly afterwards got dropped under an overhead motorway. This too was Blade-Runner country. However, it seemed that my three lady minders felt it was the verge of civilization. The dusty, empty pavement and shuttered buildings across the street offered no welcome that I could see, but one of the girls had memories of a bing-yuan, a kind of cheap hotel, in the area. They had persuaded themselves that I was destitute, cleaned out by the outrageous ghost train ticket. My mild protests that I was solvent, and any modest hotel would be fine were brushed off.
At last, they pushed at a door which I would have walked right past, and we crowded behind a sort of counter just inside the entrance. Three middle aged ladies in dressing gowns and hair curlers were banging mah-jong blocks noisily around a table. Cigarettes hung off their lips, and the air was heavy with blue smoke. We were spoiling the game, but a foreigner did look like money. I stood by the door, ready for a quick exit, as the bargaining began. When it comes to parting with money, the most demur Chinese girls can become raging harpies, and here we had a small army of professionals. I had learned the drill on shopping expeditions with my nursing students. In no time at all we had a shouting match going. We stormed out of the door three times, swearing never to return.
At last a sum was settled upon, and as I reached for my wallet, the girls as one tearfully pushed me away. “We pay!” they insisted, handing over forty-two hard earned yuan to a lady in hair curlers. Still brimming with tears they told me to be careful. “We never talked with a foreigner before”, one said. And they bustled out into the night, out of my life, but warm in my memory. You can bet one passably handsome train ticket inspector is going to pay the price of a Beijing to Tianjin ghost train ticket with interest before he has the ghost of a chance of a date.