Short Story #2 comes to you from China. When we hear “China”, most of us think about the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square or the terracotta Warriors. But as I promised, my series of short travel stories won’t be focusing on the more common aspects of visiting a country. Instead, I want to take you onboard an overnight train journey I took from Chongqing to Xian.
First and foremost, let me set the scene… It was late afternoon and we had made our way to the main train station in Chongqing. As usual, the platform was crowded and full of locals who for one reason or another felt it was necessary to transport all of their worldly possessions with them on this relatively short journey. We were tired from days of walking and the crowds and pushy nature of the Chinese were starting to get to us.
Amongst the boxes of oddly smelling food, the screaming platform guards and the throng of people, we found our carriage and boarded. Once onboard, we were confronted with a large Chinese family who seemed to be moving the contents of their entire village to Xian. They had boxes stacked in the aisle, children tearing through plastic bags of clothes and all kinds of exotic vegetables piled on the communal table. It was glaringly obvious that it was going to be a long night.
After politely gesturing to one of the male members of the family to kindly remove his plastics bags from my bed, I realised that my allocated luggage spot was jam-packed with yet more plastic bags of god knows what. I didn’t have the energy, or the language skills, to ask them to move their belongings so I sat my backpack at the end of my small bunk and proceeded to lay there for over two hours in a position that can only be described as “The Human Accordion”. I had about as much chance of getting any sleep as I did the getting rid of the putrid fish smell that had filled our nook of the carriage. As each minute ticked by, my fuse grew shorter and shorter.
With all burning fuses, there comes a point where enough is enough. Without creating a scene, I sat up on my bunk and decided to undertake some rearranging of the luggage rack. As I put my tetris skills to work, I could hear the up until now loud conversation behind me cease. They were on to me.
In order to be able to lift the bags on the rack, I had to stand with one leg on one of the upper rungs of the ladder that lead to the top bunk, with the other leg positioned across the aisle and on the window sill. Just as I realised the conversation was coming to a sudden silent end, the family patriarch took it upon himself to jump from his seat, race across the few metres between us and begin yelling in Mandarin while flailing his arms every which-way. My attempts to explain my motives for touching his belongings were lost on him and everyone else in the carriage now stopped what they were doing to look at the rapidly unfolding spectacle before them. The more I tried to explain, the louder his yelling grew.
After what must have been a minute of back and forth, the man’s patience finally wore out as he jumped in the air and let fly with a punch to my stomach! Not expecting things to turn physical, and being at such a young age (I was 19 at the time), my initial reaction was to let fly with my right foot and proceed to kick the patriarch. Upon reflection, and taking into consideration my precarious positioning on the ladder and straddling of the aisle, this was the wrong thing to do.
In the flurry of fists that followed, one of the younger family members decided to pull down my shorts and underwear from behind just moments before the man pulled me down from the ladder and onto the floor. There I laid, the only foreigner in the carriage, on the floor of the aisle, being kicked and whacked from every angle, wearing nothing but a torn t-shirt.
As the carnage continued, I eventually gave up on fighting back as this only seemed to prolong the attack and give my aggressors renewed energy to continue their beating. My rescue came in the form of a uniformed man blowing a whistle. Just like a football match, the whistle separated the two opposing teams to their respective ends of the carriage. Me up one end, alone and scrambling to dress myself and the family and every other occupant of the carriage at the other.
The Conductor managed to speak some broken sentences of English and promptly informed me that I was to blame for this incident and should I not make a formal apology to the man and his family I was to be kicked off the train at the next stop. My attempts to reason with the Conductor were made in vain and at the risk of being left along oon the platform of some rural station in the Chinese countryside in the middle of the night, I swallowed my pride and apologised to the family. Just for one last dig at my dignity, one of the children pointed at my crotch midway through the apology and said a few words in Mandarin, to which the entire carriage laughed.
What I was expecting.
What I got!
The scene of the stoush.
Sleeping after the exertion of humiliating the foreigner (not really).
Assault and humiliation aside, train travel in China is quite rewarding.