Tuesday, September 22, 2009

On a train between Nanjing and Xining, 9/1/09

I don't usually travel like this, unaware and uneducated about the terrain I'm passing through; uncertain of east or west, mountains or sea. I think it is adding to the wonder, a welcome companion on my second lengthy train ride in three days. This time it's 27 hours, but at least I have a hard sleeper. As I said, I don't know where we are right now, but it is beautiful. We most recently passed a sign for Xin Ta Shi, so I'll have to look up what province we're in later.

Without knowing the attendant characters, and without knowing the tones for the words, I want to add a letter and mistranslate the name of that town as "New He Is." I find that name fitting if inaccurate. This is all new to me, even with my previous experiences in China. Our train is cutting through valleys and tunneling through mountainsides, following the winding path of a sluggish river. It's smallish now, but a half hour ago there were wide gorges sculpted by eons of erosion that left marks on the quietly green mountains rising into the mist. We are riding through clouds, tunnels, clouds again.

The people along this route look to be exceedingly poor. This part of China I recognize. Here are houses made of mud bricks that match the clay beneath. There are healthy looking crops that lie dangerously close to a river that would flood with a good afternoon rain. Despite the dreary landscape, satellite dishes occasionally dot the rooftops. Between tunnels, little scenes of the everyday emerge -- a line of young girls sport brightly kerchiefed uniforms with matching backpacks and climb the steep hillside to get to school; a circle of old mean and women kick and stretch in preparation for tai chi; a woman with a baby strapped to her back fills a washtub with water for dishes or laundry; workers sit and laugh on their break.

All of them dependent on one another, dependent on this polluted river which is nonetheless a source of life. I go back to my statement that they are exceedingly poor and I challenge it. They are all smiling. They have what they need for today and lacking that they have each other. At least so one could think watching from a train window.

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