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.