“Max knew that a bunk bed was the perfect structure to use when building an indoor fort,” began the Dave Eggers story in a year-old copy of The New Yorker, a riff on “Where the Wild Things Are.” I would have laughed out loud, but I didn’t want to wake the two Chinese men beneath me.
When I opened the magazine, I was stretched out in an upper berth of a “soft sleeper” on the “air-conditioned fast train” from Zhangjiajie in western Hunan (the National Forest Park there is the home of the Floating Mountains from “Avatar,” which are a sight to see) and Changsha. The sunset landing at Lotus International Airport three days before had been breathtaking, and no doubt the sunrise takeoff that morning would have been, too, had I realized I was supposed to be on the plane. But I misread my departure time as 6:50 p.m. instead of a.m., possibly because my mind is incapable of believing that anyone would do anything at 6:50 a.m. Since there’s just one flight a day on that route and I was due at oral finals at 8 the next morning, there was only one option: take the afternoon train.
It was my maiden voyage, solo, on Chinese rail other than the new high-speed line to Wuhan. (“Fast train” does not equal “high-speed; this ride would take just over five hours.) It was also one of the worst possible times for such an impromptu journey, the last day of the three-day Dragon Boat Festival, a major national holiday. The day before, there had been an hourlong wait for the cable cars into the mountains, and I expected much the same at the train station. But the mammoth modern structure – when the Chinese build train stations, they don’t fool around, at least on the outside – seemed surprisingly empty, and only a few people waited at each ticket window. Apparently the Chinese had, uncharacteristically, planned ahead; all the seats, hard or soft, were sold out. “You will have to stand,” the English-speaking student enlisted to help the wai guo ren explained sympathetically. “Are there any sleepers available?” I asked. There were, I was told, but only uppers. I cheerfully handed over the extravagant sum of 156 yuan (about $22).
In the waiting area, passengers were regimented into rows of seats by car numbers, giving way to the usual free-for-all of jockeying and pushing when the single platform gate was opened. I found my car, compartment and berth with no trouble. One of the men was already ensconced in his lower berth, the fold-down table by the window covered with a crisp white tablecloth and set for tea. He helped me lift my bag to the upper and I settled in for the ride. From my perch I surveyed my surroundings: not as good as the sleeper in Italy, better than Serbia’s, definitely better than Amtrak.
The padded, hence “soft,” berth was more comfortable than the bed on which I’ve been sleeping for nearly four months now. The uppers, dressed in blue dotted underskirts with pleated dust ruffles, each came furnished with a comforter and two pillows; I wished I were brave enough to liberate one of the pillowcases, with its navy-blue logo. The backs of the lowers were draped in white eyelet coverlets. Comfort aside, the sleeper was a serendipitous investment in privacy: there was no one constantly walking the aisles, no 50 or 100 cellphone conversations going on around me simultaneously, no screaming babies, no one wanting to practice their English. I could read in peace and work if I wanted to. I should have been lesson-planning, but the fact was, all I wanted to do was look out the window, even if had to crane my neck a little to see the view.
And that view was stunning as the train crossed Hunan from west to east. The green mountains stayed with us for a good hour as the track hugged the Lishui River, much as Amtrak hugs the coast from New Haven to Providence. The train ducked in and out of tunnels cut to speed its journey, so the view alternated between darkness and steep green slopes, as in the southern Alps. Lying back and looking down at the landscape as it unfolded like a scroll painting let me take in, and appreciate, each detail:
The rice paddies, their borders as sinuous as dragons; seen from above, each slender stalk stood out as an individual against the brown water. The alternating fields of corn, doing very nicely for mid-June, sometimes planted up and down hillsides. Houses perched directly above the river. Little round islands, some covered with green, some with pebbles, apparently produced by dredging. A shallow fishing boat piled with nets. The elaborate tomb built into a hillside with an entrance that could rival a movie marquee. The bushes, rushing by too quickly to identify, studded with deep-pink flowers. Buffalo sunken in the water to stay cool, one right up to its neck, resembling a floating head. The erect green paddle-shaped leaves of lotus plants being grown commercially – well, where did I think all those crunchy lotus roots I’d been eating came from, somebody’s backyard garden? Tile-roofed farmhouses. Chickens scratching in the dirt. A single white heron or egret gracefully stretching its neck. Kites and squares of white fabric flying in the breeze, probably to act as scarecrows. Big-leafed plants yellowing at their tips — could they be tobacco? A man working a rice paddy in his straw hat, who looked as if he could have stepped out of practically any century in China’s 5,000-year history, except that the young woman next to him was wearing a T-shirt and short-shorts.
As the train approached Changsha, the view across the rice paddies grew somewhat more suburban: freestanding houses, the occasional new villa, one with a stunning blue-tiled gate. Sooner than I expected, the conductor knocked on the door and announced (I presume), “Next stop, Changsha!” I put on my sandals and climbed down for the first time in five hours. The men indicated it was way too soon, and one motioned me to take a seat on his berth. They tried to make conversation, but I shook my head. “Wo shi mei guo ren,” I explained. “Mei you . . . zhong guo” – “I don’t have Chinese.” “Wo shi . . . yingyu . . . laoshi . . . ke da . . . Xiangtan” – “I am an English teacher at the big school Xiangtan,” no preposition. It was my longest statement in Mandarin to date.
At last the train pulled into Changsha. “Zai jian!” I said, waving. “Xie xie!”
“Bye, bye!” they answered.
From the platform I navigated my way out of the train station, across the street to the bus station and back to campus as if I’d made that trip a hundred times before, instead of twice, with a great sense of accomplishment. Missing the flight that morning meant missing a boat ride on Baofeng Lake, and maybe the Huanglong Cave. But I’ve been on boat rides and seen caves before, and I wouldn’t have missed that ride through Hunan for anything.