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China 13: Steaming into the wilderness

gobi desert

Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China

We’re travelling on a steam train, westward. When I woke up this morning we were running parallel with high snowy mountains, rising straight out of a flat brown plain. They went on, straight as a ruler, like theatre scenery, and then just stopped.

The plain is divided into tiny cultivated plots, and dotted here and there are neat villages; houses smoothly plastered in mud, each with its own little walled courtyard.

Every so often there are factories. The Chinese have strict rules about who moves where in their society. They are determined that their cities will not end up, like those in other parts of the world, surrounded by shanty towns with nobody left to work the land. They need their farmers to keep the land cultivated to feed their ever-growing population. Villagers are forbidden to work in towns. University graduates are assigned jobs by the state. Industrial development has been encouraged everywhere, so it is almost impossible to find a city, or even a small town without a fringe of factories.

From the train, everywhere you can see is brown. The sky is clear blue, like a July morning in England, but outside it is bitterly cold. What water there is, is frozen. For the first time I have seen a river that is completely solid. Now we are passing through a land scored by rivers that have dried up, with a back-drop of terraced hills. In the fields by the track there are mounds like large mole-hills, all in straight lines. What on earth are they?

There goes a shepherd with some goats. A baby grand canyon is running parallel to the track now, and the mountains behind are rising in steps, and behind them, more mountains. A donkey is wearily plodding up the foothills. And not a blade of grass to be seen. There must be some in the summer; each hamlet is stuffed with haystacks.

We eat egg and fungus, pork and spring onion and cabbage in the dining car. The cook has a couple of woks going on a blazing fire, and the food tastes wonderful. As we eat, we can see the front of the train, curving way in front of us, puffing away across the plain.

But later I realise I must have eaten too much. I spend the rest of the night clinging giddily to the top bunk before I give in, get down and brave the appallingness of the train toilet to chuck up. It’s not really a toilet, as such; more a hole in the floor with a steel plate over it. You just untie the chain holding the plate and everything lands on the track underneath. Or not.

About elainecanham

I started blogging because I'm a writer, and I thought I ought to. Now I realise that I blog because I lwant to; even when I can't think of much to say. I do a lot of work for local businesses - get in touch if you like my style.


12 thoughts on “China 13: Steaming into the wilderness

  1. “An’ the dawn comes up like Chunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!” – Kipling adapted.

    Posted by Bruce Goodman | February 26, 2015, 9:50 pm
  2. Love your descriptions. Sorry you had to donate your dinner to nature or the train tracks, or not.
    When I first came to Canada in 1950, we were on a train which had an open exit to the tracks but at least it was a pedestal type with a seat. Weren’t you afraid to fall and face-plant into said hole. I imagine the ride somewhat shaky.
    😮 o_O

    Posted by Let's CUT the Crap! | February 26, 2015, 2:26 pm
  3. There’s something quite ironic about your commentary regarding the Chinese decision that cities wouldn’t turn into shanty towns, that there would always be people to work the land… when you consider how things look now. Beautiful descriptions, Elaine.

    Posted by Tara Sparling | February 26, 2015, 1:28 pm
    • Thanks, Tara.
      Yes I thought of that irony, when I first re-read my diary. You see China on the TV these days, and the place I experienced seems a completely different country.

      Posted by elainecanham | February 26, 2015, 1:45 pm
  4. The resilience of the Chinese people is amazing given that their whole lives were dictated to them and freedoms were unheard of. Life was very cheap in a system that brooked no argument. Here you were forging your way through China like this and enjoying the luxury of a moving loo, sorry, hole in the floor and the opportunity to taste these different foods designed to ensure you get to visit thee facilities. It’s quite a miracle you still manage to see beauty everywhere.and allow yourself to be prodded and pushed as a curiosity.
    Clearly you survived the experience and clearly China did too.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

    Posted by davidprosser | February 26, 2015, 12:05 pm
    • I think we just accepted what was happening as reasonably normal, in the circumstances. And the people generally, were ok, once you got your head round their point of view. xx

      Posted by elainecanham | February 26, 2015, 12:22 pm
  5. I am loving this account of your trip across China and applaud the bravery and independence which made it possible. I too, as you may recall, have experienced a period of “toilet-euphoria” after a snack in China, although I believe my toilet came with an impressive water based flushing system. A detail I noted earnestly in the midst of my convulsions.

    Posted by Peter Wells aka Countingducks | February 26, 2015, 11:04 am
    • That’s awfully nice of you, Peter. Yes, it’s amazing how much plumbing detail you learn after eating some dodgy food. Do you think, these days, that would count as ‘upskilling’?

      Posted by elainecanham | February 26, 2015, 11:19 am

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