The Train to Qujing

Qujing is the second city of Yunnan Province, an hour and a half east of Kunming, unremarkable as far as I can judge, and a chosen destination only because of a friend there, of the Naxi minority, who is studying English at the teachers’ training college.

The train-ride to Qujing is remarkable, in its cluttered, chaotic, inimitable way. In China, I leave some margin of time to accommodate the unexpected, and so arrive at the station early.  The waiting room begins to fill as departure time draws nearer.  Throwing admonitions of racial blindness to the winds, I strain to discern the telltale features of countenance, dress, or decorations which might give me a clue as to which ethnic minority the bearer might belong, in this melting pot at the juncture of China, southeast Asia and the Tibetan plateau.  Oh, for a set of the eugenic measuring devices of my predecessors!  The triangularity of face, the set of the eyes, the bridge of the nose, the prominence of cheek-bones, all precisely measurable quantities, at which my furtive eyes can only guess and not record.  Or better yet, a set of the eugenic measuring devices of my contemporaries, a DNA sequencer! Is there some wee difference? Or is it all a matter of ethnic identification?

More obvious, if more ephemeral, are the badges of social status.  That smartly dressed chick whose vanity is easily confused with erudition; that scruffy lad with nonhereditary orange hair and dangling fag; that diminutive crone dragging a huge, shapeless, plastic sack, presumably enclosing her mortal possessions; that sun-browned, possibly-young woman toting her young, pappoose-like in a colorful rucksack; that budding-capitalist-type, who has deliberately left the label tacked to the sleeve of his expensive suit — all wanting to travel to Qujing this morning, most preoccupied with their mobile phones.

Twenty minutes before departure, the platform gates are opened, and the crowd surges, with little sense of an orderly British queue, towards the waiting train.  I wrestle my way over boxes and sacks to my reserved seat, experience only the slightest twinge of conscience as I evict the squatter in my seat, a tired-looked laborer who doubtless purchased a stand-up-ticket and hoped for a no-show, and settle into my north-facing window seat.  Lots of chatter of my seat-mates from which I mostly pick out parents explaining to their children ‘ta ting bu dong’.

At nine, precisely, the train moves out.  We pass, alternately,  piles of urban-renewal rubble and the slums which probably should be renewed, the ring of factories and heavy construction equipment, a further ring of modern apartments and elevated highways.

Finally we emerge into the Yunnan countryside.  The terrain is hillier.  The farming villages pick up the brilliant morning sun with their whitewashed building, all of which seem to have yellow trim, in fact, yellow ears of corn spread out on any and every surface — roofs, cornices, window sills, enclosing walls — exposed to the sun.  The fields are mostly bare at this time of year, a few newly plowed, a few still with dried corn stalks, others with sheaves of harvested wheat or rice straw.  Here and there a few horses and water buffalo scavaging the remnants.

The hilly land is not amenable to mechanized agriculture.  The terraced fields, neatly separated by small dikes, creating an intricate mosaic, are simply not compatible with tractors.  Buffalo-pulled plows, hoes and adze cope with the irregular shapes.

My bucolic trance is broken as a huge prison complex fills the landscape.  How many cells must there be?  How many inmates?  Who? For what crimes?  Liu Xiaobo?  The Tiananmen Tankman?  (Naturally, my Google search for other “Chinese prisoners of conscience” yields only “problem loading page” messages. )

The children opposite me are getting restless, bugging their weary parents for still more junk food, their apparent favorite being a wurst of sorts, extruded from its plastic casing under pressure from their little fists directly into their little mouths.  Luckily, the first urban arm of Qujing comes into view, and we soon arrive at the station.

With a journey like that, who cares if the destination is a little humdrum?

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