The Iron Rooster and The White Dragon


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.


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