As I stand on a crowded train platform in Beijing, baking in the summer heat waiting for a train that hasn't arrived for an alarmingly long time, a very tall Western male with shaggy gray hair approaches.
“We should travel together, it’s safer that way,” he says with a strong Australian accent. I had never met an Australian before.
“What do you mean?” I stall and try to figure out who he is and why I would need to travel with this widly exotic individual. But I also might be lost and don’t speak the local language. “My train should have left 20 minutes ago. I’m not even sure if this is the right platform.”
“You are going to Urumqi, Xinjiang?”
“Then you are in the right place. The train will arrive when it wants to,” he says philosophically and looks at the people waiting around us. “Everyone here is going to Urumqi.”
“Then, let’s stick together.” The man looks like he knows what he’s doing.
His name is Gary and while waiting another hour for the 10:45 am train to arrive, I fill him in on what I have been doing in Beijing up until now.
Three months earlier outside of a day trip to Canada I had never left the United States and had barely been out of my hometown. I had recently graduated university, and having not found a job yet the future was looking uncertain when I was notified I would receive a small but unexpected financial windfall. Possessing a moderate amount of savings for the first time in my life, this might be a narrow window of opportunity to see more of the world before responsibilites tie me down. At the local bookstore I picked up a stack of Lonely Planet guidebooks, the only source of information about cheap lodgings and hotels around the world in the 1990s, and next week booked a flight to China. My ambition was to start in Shanghai and travel from Asia to Europe by land on the cheap.
In Beijing, at the crowded train platform, people around us begin picking up their bags. The Xinjiang-bound train soon arrives and everyone pushes for the doors. People getting off the train do gladitorial battle to get their suitcases past the people pushing in. Gary, with his bulk and commanding presence, powers through the melee and I follow in his wake.
Marching through the aisle of a 2nd class train carriage, he commandeers two bunks. The car is partitioned into groups of 6 beds stacked 3 high with a narrow space between them holding a small table. The top bed is 7 feet above the ground. A local man climbs up and disappears from view for the next three days. Myself and Gary take the 2 bunks below him.
Across from us, a Chinese family group of a middle-aged mother and her two teen children spread their belongs over their 3 beds.
After we organize our belonging, they convert the bottom beds into chairs and we all sit facing each other. The Chinese mother smiles at me.
“Hello, I am Chen, I am a doctor,” she says. ”You are American?”
She talks while writing Chinese characters and slowly translating them into written English.
“Yes. Ni Hao,” I say.
“America is very rich...” she hesitates. “What is your salary?” Her two children are looking at me waiting to hear my answer.
I reply, “I don’t have a job right now so I don't have a salary.”
She looks disappointed at this answer and then explains her income. “As a doctor I make 200 renminbi, a month. But the government gives us an apartment and food coupons.”
I calculate her salary is about 20 US dollars a month. I say it’s great she has a free apartment.
She continues to grill me and asks, “How much money do you have in your bank account?”
I avoid answering, afraid my answers could make them feel bad about themselves, or about me. Or possibly attract criminal attention. I pull out my travel guide and look through it without answering. She goes back to organizing her family’s belongings.
Gary nudges me and says, “I’m a journalist. Right now, I’m freelancing for The Lonely Planet.”
“Really? That’s fascinating,” I say feeling fortunate to have such an illustrious new travel companion. “Where have you been to?”
“I’ve been on the road 7 months. I’ve written parts of the Laos and Cambodia editions,” he says. “China is an amazing country. Have you been to Yunnan, Chongqing, or Yangzhou?”
“No, as a tourist, I’ve only been to Shanghai and Beijing.”
“We are not tourists. The proper word is traveler.”
“Yes. I am a traveler! That sounds a lot better.”
“Tourists come for a week and stay at 5-star hotels,” he says, “Travelers live with the people and experience the culture. If we spend an hour to wait for a train, that’s not a problem for a traveler. As a wise man once said, the pauses in the music are also a part of the music.”
Gary has an enormous backpack. I ask him what supplies he has but he doesn’t say. For the 3-day 2-night journey to Urumqi, I had obtained 3 cans of Pringles and 2 packets of M&Ms from the street vendor below my hostel. I bought 2 flat breads from a vendor who handed them to me in a loose plastic bag. Looking at them now, I see they have become dirty.
As the train begins moving, my bowels are also set into motion. I venture down the rattling train carriage and find a toilet at the far end. I open the door and see the toilet is merely a hole in the floor. Below, the railroad ties are flying past at 70 miles per hour. Defecating over a violently moving commotion feels unsafe. As I squat down holding onto the railing tightly, I see the movement of the train has caused a lot of previous occupants to miss the target. For the rest of the trip, I drink as little water as possible to limit trips to this nightmare scene. I don’t realize it yet, but I will have the worst dysentery of my life in 3 days.
When I return to my seat, Gary is in a talkative mood and tells a story. “China is a wild country. Last month, I took a bus in Tibet from Lhasa to Nagarze. There were 2 buses. We were in the front bus. After a three hour drive we arrived at the village but the bus behind us never showed up. We sat eating and drinking beer at the local cafe late into the night when we saw lights coming up the road. People from the other bus were walking into the village carrying flashlights and their suitcases. A foreigner told us what happened. Going down a hill, the bus driver yelled something in the local language and jumped out the door. The locals on the bus started jumping out the windows. The brakes were shot. Well, the foreigner didn’t know what the driver said or what was happening, but thought he’d better jump out the window too. A few seconds later, the bus went off the road and rolled down the mountain. Luckily, it stopped about 50 meters down the slope, so they climbed down and fetched their suitcases off the top of the bus.”
I’m gripped by the ethical dilemma within the story. “I’m surprised the driver jumped out first instead of trying to guide the bus,” I say.
“Everyone for themselves here. Life is cheap.”
Later that night, when I take my shirt off to change clothes, everyone else looks away, but I see Gary looking at my torso. It feels odd.
On the second morning, I run out of Pringles and M&Ms. I must have looked forlorn as without asking the Chen family begins to offer me things to eat. It starts with watermelon slices, then sunflower seeds and hardboiled eggs from the bag they’ve brought along.
She asks me to sing and begins humming ‘Yesterday Once More’ by The Carpenters. The song fills me with nostalgia for weekend drives in Wisconsin with my parents, and I sing the words I remember.
Later that afternoon she gives me an instant cup of noodles made with boiling water she obtained from somewhere while telling the other 30 people around us she is feeding The American. Gary refuses her offer and says he will stick to his own food supply.
I eat the cup of noodles hungrily. After I’m finished, I hold the empty styrofoam bowl in my hands. Mother Chen gestures to throw it out the window. I grin sheepishly not wanting to litter. She gestures toward the window again. I give in and throw the plastic cup out the window.
“What the fuck are you doing mate?” Gary grunts, and stares at me with a mixture of shock and anger.
“They, are throwing them out the window,” I say.
“We need to set a good example for them,” he says sternly.
He walks over and makes a show of putting the plastic wrapper from his packaged meal into a dustbin in the aisle.
After lunch, we watch the desert terrain west of Xian fly past, enveloped by the sounds of rattling windows and doors, and the aroma of watermelon juice roasting in the sun, day-old roast chicken, machine oil and a distant stench from the toilet.
I notice a cleaner coming into our carriage doing a superficial attempt to pick up the worst of the watermelon refuse and eggshells on the floor. When she reaches the middle section of the carriage, she picks up our dustbin and carries it away.
Out of curiosity, I wonder where she is taking it and poke my head into the aisle. The cleaner walks to the end of the carriage, holds the dustbin out the door with two hands, and shakes out its contents, sending them flying in an airborne trail fluttering in the wind alongside the train.
Gary is reading a book and hasn't seen all of this. I consider telling him, but decide it's more diplomatic to save this information for later.
The train goes past the industrial city of Lanzhou. The scenery has gradually grown drier and dustier as the train moves West. The nights are now frigid cold while the days have become scorching hot.
“Keep on eye on your belongings at all times,” Gary says.
I turn my gaze from the window and listen what he has to say.
“A mate of mine, Paul, was on a train like this, travelling alone. He went to the toilet and told the family next to him to watch his bag, but when he came back the backpack was gone. The family said they didn’t know anything.”
I ask Gary, “The family was there, did they take it?”
“Good question! So Paul goes and finds the police on the train. Every long-distance train has two policemen on it.”
“Did they help him find it?”
“The police come talk to the family and put the screws in. They point out another man on the train. They search the guy and sure enough, find the backpack and give it back to Paul.”
“So all was fine?”
“The story’s not finished yet. The train was travelling through the middle of nowhere, somewhere like here.” Gary points out the window. “The police stop the train. They take the man into a field. And shoot him dead.”
“Oh my god. Did they just leave him there?” I ask.
“Yes, just like that. Bam. The man who had his backpack stolen said there wasn’t even anything important in it. He never would have asked for it back had he known that would happen.”
“This story is almost unbelievable. Shot a man dead for a backpack?”
“I knew Paul. A solid guy who would never lie about anything. True story mate.”
The next day, we arrive at Xinjiang’s central city of Urumqi. The Chen family politely says goodbye and wishes me the best on my future travels.
As we’re getting off the train Gary asks, “I’m staying at the best hotel in the city, the Grand Hotel, do you want to split a room, $50 each?”
“That’s out of my price range. I’m going to a $10 hostel,” I reply.
“Well, We’re going in the same direction. Let's share a taxi.”
We get into a car and Gary directs the driver to drop him off first.
After a long ride through the large city of Urumqi, which appears divided into Chinese and Muslim districts with a heavy police presence throughout the city, our taxi finally arrives at the Grand Hotel’s palatial entrance. For a man who has been very verbose the previous three days, Gary says goodbye very tersely, grabs his bag and walks toward the entrance. Perhaps he’s eagerly looking forward to a hotel room and a warm shower. Then, I realize he has forgotten to pay his share of the taxi fare. I get out of the taxi and chase him into the lobby. He says It's slipped his mind, and hands me ten dollars. As a backpacker, ten dollars pays for another day of travel.
For the next several years each time I go to a bookstore I visit the Travel section, find a shelf of Lonely Planet guidebooks and flip through the front pages looking for Gary’s name but never find it.
Was Gary a spy using me for cover? An international drifter telling stories to impress rubes? Is receiving food when hungry more important than issues of geopolitics? And is plastic waste thrown out of a train window any different than that sent to an unseen landfill? I simply don't know. This story is merely a retelling of my personal experiences on a train journey in a unique and vast country 27 years ago.