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SPECIAL TRAVEL ISSUE

A Return Trip on the Iron Rooster

Some Journeys Are Best Taken by Train, Even at the Risk of Crowds and Smoke. Think of it as Giant Pajama Party.

March 18, 2001|MIKE MEYER

The train's pulse - click-cluck, click-cluck - resounded in the tunnel and into the window below my berth, accompanied by a heady brew of exhaust fumes. I put down Paul Theroux's "Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China" and rose from my top-shelf bed to climb down and shut the window. Whack! My forehead met the coat hook for the third time in as many hours. Falling back, rubbing the welt, I narrowly avoided the bare blades of the electric fan that was doing its best buzz-saw imitation inches from the pillow.

Theroux never hurt his head in "Rooster" and fans never snared his hair, but that may be because he rode the rails through China in a soft sleeper, the most luxurious class and the only one open to foreigners in the 1980s. I was riding in a hard sleeper, a class better suited to my schoolteacher income but not my 6-foot-2-inch American frame.

We were five hours out of Chengdu on the 20-hour ride northeast to Xian. When nothing but the flat, boring wheat fields of Sichuan could be seen outside, everybody in my compartment had climbed into their bunks for a group xiuxi (siesta).

I wasn't the only one napping with his feet angled over the aisle. As I walrus-flopped my way out of my berth, with its 10 inches of clearance between my torso and the ceiling, I saw nothing but feet hanging over the sides of bunks, all sheathed in the thin nylon hose favored by Chinese men and women.

Theroux's book, published in 1988, is still required reading for Americans interested in China, and retracing some of his steps had seemed like a good idea: Measure how far China had come by comparing his train-riding experience and mine. I had seen China and long-distance travel evolve between 1995, when I arrived here to work in the Peace Corps, and 1999, when I left to resume life in the States. Now I was back on personal business with some time to kill mid-trip. Footloose and fancy free. That was the first big difference: Theroux had been stuck with a handler assigned by the Railway Board. I could go anywhere.

When the train emerged from the tunnel into a plush valley hugged by jagged peaks, the stockinged feet bounced up in unison. Light from a fading orchid sunset swept into the open window along with ash. I spilled down from the bunk and leaned out the window and into what looked like a different country.

The Min River spun far below, the color of jade and completely still, save for a flock of white geese and its gentle wake. Behind them, a man in a pointed straw hat poled a skiff so smoothly on the water that he made no ripples. Rice paddy terraces scaled the mountainsides, illuminated by bonfires of burning stalks. A temple stood high above the valley, keeping watch over a girl tending a row of waddling ducks. Ahead, the train's engine entered a curve, allowing a perspective of the 25 cars behind us as they emerged from the tunnel and onto this rice-paper painting of agrarian life.

I thought: China shows itself best in the passing glance, in the stumbled-upon encounter, in the unplanned moments between destinations. It is a country where getting to a place is all the fun and where moments of tranquillity like this are savored and squirreled away in memory to soothe the frazzles of daily life.

A tap on my shoulder broke my reverie. A man behind me demanded: "Hey, how tall are you? Foreigner, hey! How tall are you?"

The smell of feet filled the air. The click-cluck of the wheels grew louder, and the train plunged back into darkness, roaring and smoking all the way.

I was glad to be out of Beijing. The city I had left less than a year earlier felt more Americanized now, more choreographed, less authentic. The automobile had triumphed over the bicycle, and street-widening was mowing down the city's few islands of charm. Marketing was the new propaganda, and "socialism with Chinese characteristics" the buzz phrase; in practice, it looked like something concocted at the Dairy Queen built where the Democracy Wall once stood. I once spotted a banner proclaiming, "Serve the people all over the world wholeheartedly!" It turned out to be an advertisement for vacuum flasks.

Cities aren't inert; like all living things, they change. I understand. I just wish Beijing's transformation hadn't happened so fast. I began dogearing the particularly crabby passages of Theroux's book, which I, when living in China, had dismissed as well-researched misanthropy. Since then, I've shed the influence of Peace Corps training, which absolves Chinese annoyances such as public phlegm-hawking, staring and catcalls of "Big Nose!" with, "It's their culture." Now Theroux's assessment of a cultural corruption seemed remarkably prescient.

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