Part 2: Travelling first class on a Chinese train, with a twist

Carpeted floors at the first class cabin 软卧
Carpeted floors at the first class cabin 软卧 for viewing the scenery

In my last post about the epic train ride across China, I talked about how I spent the first 6 hours of my 19 hour train ride in the lowest class carriage. Dealing with spit, baby pee, poo and shrieks, while feeling sad, a strong sense of sympathy, yet feeling exasperated and pissed off at the same time.

When I finally squeezed my way past sacks of rice/ potatoes and unknown substances to reach the first class cabin, it was like a breath of fresh air.

Travelling first class on a Chinese train
Travelling first class on a Chinese train, with a twist

The first class cabin had no cigarette smell, and I could take a deep breath. It is a room with four berths. When I entered, there were two grown adults, and a boy who seems to be about 15-year-old.

The two adults were sleeping, while the boy was looking out of the window, as if he was thinking about something.

first class chinese train cabin 软卧
Looking out of the window – from the first class cabin 软卧

With my pair of strong “Huangshan” legs, I easily climbed up the step leading to the berth on the top. It was lovely. There were two pillows, a comforter, and more than enough space to put your luggage. I closed my eyes, with a smile on my face thinking..  it was the best $50 spent in a long, long while. Away were the trickles of baby urine, spit.. and the prying uncle reading my diary.

There was also a free flow supply of hot water. (The water dispenser in the last class cabin had run out and for some reason had not been refilled). The toilet was spacious and was equipped with the metal sort of Western toilet bowl. There was an area to wash up. It had three sinks with a bottle of soap and a flower in a vase (unheard of in an Indian train). I spotted someone watching videos on his laptop, with the adapter plugged into the socket meant for shavers.

When I returned to the first class cabin, the boy’s father had woken up. I saw him tying the shoelace for the boy. Immediately, the first thought that came to my mind was, “This China one child policy is really too much. Kids nowadays are so pampered – even shoelace cannot be tie by themselves?”

I climbed back to my berth. From the top, I realised how wrong I was. The wooden crutches by the side wasn’t for the older men, but for the younger boy. He had to make his way out to use the toilet. Each step was excruciating. There was a grimace on his face mixed with determination, the expression that you would see on the faces of accident survivals trying to get their feet back up.

At 8.30pm, I went to brush teeth, intending to sleep at 9pm. (The train was due to reach Beijing at 5am.)

When I returned, the older man in the group asked me where I was from, and where I was going. I learnt that they were from the city of Huangshan, and were going to Beijing to find a doctor who could possibly cure the leg ailment of the boy. It seems almost casual, in the way they said it. “带小孩看病”. Only that in Singapore, bringing your kid to the doctor is a mere 15 minutes a way, at most 1 hour, definitely not 19.5 hours.

They told me the Chinese term for this disease. I honestly have no idea what it was, only understood that it recently got worse. That’s why they are making the way to Beijing, to visit a physician who might have a cure for this. I just did a Google search and it the disease might be this –

How I wished that I understood some of this. Pardon me for being naive, but Singapore does seem to have a cure for a wide range of diseases.

Later, I found out that the group of 3 come from a family of stone carvers. (Must be earning quite a lot to afford first class? I thought to myself.)

Stone carvings on Huangshan
Stone carvings on Huangshan

In very exquisite Chinese terms, I figured they could be responsible for the stone calligraphy words on top of Huangshan – see picture above. I was told that it was an art that was learnt since young.

Since they were from Huangshan, quite naturally, I asked them if they had climbed Huangshan before. The answer was no. Then I thought of the boy and his condition and felt a little sad, because I don’t think he might not ever have the chance to see Guang Ming Ding (The summit of one of the peaks).

Guan Ming Ding 光明顶 peak in Huangshan 黄山
Guan Ming Ding 光明顶- one of peaks in Huangshan 黄山

The conversation got a bit drier after the older uncle started telling me about Jia Gu Wen, (an ancient way of writing) and dwelling into ancient Chinese literature and culture, the stuff of my Chinese literature classes in secondary school. (I didn’t do very well as you can imagine.) But of course, “Jia Gu Wen” rang a bell, and I nodded when he asked me if I understood what was that. He said that he was sad that Fan Ti Zi had been change to Jian Ti Zi. “Every stroke in a Chinese character means something,” he said.

He told me that they were believers of “Dao Jiao” Taoism? I think. I told him that in Singapore, Taoism and Buddhaism have very little distinction. He didn’t seem very happy to hear that. But oh wells, it was 9pm, and I was feeling rather sleepy, wishing he’d end the conversation soon.

I asked them if they had plans to travel out of China, to Taiwan, or Hong Kong maybe. They said no. I don’t think they were very excited by Singapore’s casinos too. In the words of that older gentlemen, “There are so many things about China’s history and culture that has to be learnt. That should be the priority first.”

As I prepared for a good night’s sleep, I thought to myself, “硬座和软卧的乘客真是不一样.” (People of the last and first classes are really different.) On the same train, chugging its way to Beijing, a baby’s cries resonate the cabin at midnight, while an old lady is struggling to sleep on the lone seat she has. Five carriages away, an old gentleman is pondering on the enormity and depth of Chinese culture.

And in one first class berth, surrounded by fluffy pillows and a thick, warm comforter, a boy grimaces in pain, yet his heart is filled with hope – that his legs can be cured in Beijing. That someday, he may be able to climb the mountain where is home was named after.