<A> The train from Chengdu

Written by Jun 23, 2005 11:06
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You know what, I used to think we were all the same. From my big house in the countryside I firmly believed that all people were created equally and were equal. I was willing to take on anyone who professed otherwise and this view allowed me to be sure of an indisputable justice in our world, a natural justice suppressed only by tyrants and dictators. From my big house I treated everyone equally, I believed in myself, that I abided by and promoted these unwritten rules of fairness, treated all men equally because all men were equal.….but then I took the train from Chengdu.

I arrived in Suzhou train station early on Sunday morning but not early enough to get a seat on the hour long trip to Shanghai. I was going to pick up some books, buy some clothes, maybe even take in a museum. The spring festival was imminent, everyone was either coming or going and every seat on every train in China was sold.

Standing, shivering in the queue as I waited to buy my ticket, I was reminded of the man who, the man himself, the man who set the whole thing in motion, Vladimir Illyich Lenin, father of communist Russia , who was on a train himself once, from Zurich to Moscow. He was on his way back for the October Revolution sometime in 1917 (early November, I think). It was going to be quite a party and he was the DJ, the man calling all the tunes. On the train he sat in a compartment by himself, wearing a new suit and occasionally polishing his bald head with a specially oiled cloth, to ensure it’s optimum shininess for when he would face the crowds in Red Square. He was embarrassed by this of course (in fact it has never been made public until now) but his compartment was empty and as his later annexation of Russia would prove, he rarely hesitated when granted such oppertunities. When the ticket inspector knocked he quickly put the cloth away and returned to the book which had been resting on his lap and then grunted for the inspector to enter.

The inspector was a humorous sort of man, not one to be intimidated by his more serious and often more illustrious passengers. Recognising Lenin immediately, for with victory in Russia a certainty his shining bald head had become famous all over Europe, he joked that he was surprised to find Lenin sitting in first class along with the bourgeois. Lenin rubbed his hand slowly over his ebullient scalp as though coaxing his head into thought but he was a clever man, sure of his philosophy and he answered that to him communism meant that everyone would enjoy first class, it was the lower classes which would be removed. This little known strand of Marxist-Leninist theory has obviously been missed by Beijing.

The ticket office in Suzhou was dirty and crowded but I didn’t notice, everything in China is dirty and crowded. I walked up the desk, rested my arms on the counter and waited for the person before me to finish. The people behind me, queued beside me their arms squashed against mine, shouting Chinese at the glass window. I just waited my turn. The man behind the counter was dressed like a solider complete with shoulder pads but the battles for position stopped at his window. Finally victorious, I asked for a ticket to Shanghai. Though my Chinese is bad and broken, I can manage to buy a train ticket. I wanted a return ticket but he said I couldn’t buy the return ticket there today. Today I could only buy the return ticket in Shanghai but if I wanted to return tomorrow he could sell me a return ticket. By now such things should amuse me but they don’t and I plodded off to the waiting room, annoyed that I would have to spend another half hour queuing in Shanghai to get myself home again.

When I was younger I used to go to the mart with my father and walk around the pens seeing all the cows, covered in cow shit, with piss running under my feet. The cows mooing impatiently for green fieldsvon faraway hills unaware that their next meal would be their hind legs. I liked it though, I could pet the cows (in the fields they would run away) and the smell of cow shit isn’t so bad when you get used to it.

The waiting rooms in Chinese train stations are a bit like that. There isn’t any cow shit I admit but there is the sense of being squeezed into a tight space waiting to be moved on, only announcements intermittently disturb the indecipherable chatter. They are all complaining, it stinks and it’s dirty. People spit saliva and sunflower seeds out on the floor, they leave orange peels and peanut shells, on the seats, on the ground or anywhere really except in the non-existent bins kindly provided by China Rail. Those few there are, are so overflowing that there is more rubbish piled up around them, than in them and eventually I suppose people just give up and leave the rubbish where they sit. The rubbish accumulates and it’s disgusting but no one seems to notice except me. Eventually the train from Chengdu arrives and thousands of waiting passengers get up out of hundreds of seats and line up while our tickets are checked.

In the train stations in China, there are signs informing passengers that it is forbidden to bring explosives on board trains while others say that spitting is forbidden, I hope the former is adhered because the latter certainly isn’t. The seats were green on the train from Chengdu. That is to say that the seats were green on the train from Chengdu but now they were more a shade of turquoise, footprints, ashes and cigarette burns providing the patterns.

On the train itself there were more signs that said “No Smoking” and signs reminding people that there was to be no “No Spitting” but all I could smell was smoke, all I could hear was flem being hocked out of it’s throat. People were spitting on the floor and I wanted to be in first class, making jokes with the Ticket Inspector about having first class for all. I could see that many of my fellow passengers were not educated and they were poor. I didn’t talk to anyone but I could see it and this made me uncomfortable. It was mostly families in my carriage on the train from Chengdu. They had bad teeth, yellow teeth, some had no teeth at all. The clothes they wore told me they were poor. Cheap, plastic, no-way-was-it-real leather. The old people wore Mao suits, their skin was browned from spending too long working in the hot sun. I wanted first class, I was willing to pay for it and I could pay for it.

The remnants of every type of food lay on the floor, once a man in a uniform came by with a battle-weary straw brush and a worn out metal pan, which was dirtier than the train. He swept a little here, swept a little there but his sweeping was in vein. You can’t remove dirt with a sweeping brush and nobody seemed bothered to lift their tired legs or move the bags and boxes sticking out from under the seats. People were exhausted and the journey was almost at an end. The train from Chengdu takes over 24 hours to reach Shanghai. I was only on board for the last hour. The carriage was packed. Where there wasn’t people, there was luggage. There were whole lives moving in this train. It’s possible to get beds but they cost €30 which for the people in the turquoise seating is about a months wages. The sweet rattle of jewellery as people moved through the carriage was conspicuously absent on the train from Chengdu.

After my hour on the train from Chengdu, I knew that all people were not equal. Nobody is equal, my beliefs were a sham. Equality is a myth, an unreachable goal, preached from the pedestals, ignored in the streets. I felt ashamed because I wanted first class. I want first class and I’m willing to pay more. Lenin wanted first class for everyone but China has decided that what’s good enough for the farmers from Chengdu is good enough for everyone. The train from Chengdu is the standard of communism in China but I doubt it’s what Marx had in mind.

I felt guilty then. My life was so much more privileged than theirs. I thought of the opportunities these people will never have, that I have taken so much for granted. I felt guilty that I was so repulsed by these conditions because these people live in these conditions and worse. I considered how it was purely an accident of birth that I did not find myself in dirty worn out clothes, spitting on the floor, excited by the prospect of back-breaking labour in Shanghai for €80 a month because it meant a better life.

Maybe it’s just what you know. Spit is just spit, over 90% water after all but to me the act is filthy and dirt is just soil surely. The people from Chengdu are farmers, the earth is their life blood but to me seeing it on peoples hands and clothes is indicative only of disease and poverty. The farmers from Chengdu got off the train carrying sacks with all their belongings, I carefully stepped out over the spit soaking the aisle. The sacks were once white but they were grubby now. The men were in good spirits but I felt terrible, like a cow in a pen at the mart. I no longer felt that all men were equal and that through hard work and dedication, anything was possible. It is simply not true. When I got off the train, I went for pizza and coffee, mozied around the bookshops for a while. I don’t know where they went, the people from Chengdu with the dirty bags and the filthy clothes and those innate eyes. First though I had join another queue to get my return ticket back to Suzhou.

When I lived in my big house in a small town in Ireland. I thought we were all the same. Everyone was equal but I am prejudiced now. Without ever talking to anyone on our carriage on the train from Chengdu, I pre-judged them as people. Lesser people. They were uneducated and poor. Would I have been better off had I stayed in my big house in Ireland so that I would never have gotten on the train from Chengdu and I could still believe that all people are equal, that all men were created equally. I could never be friends with anyone on that carriage, they were different. I am rich, they are poor, I am educated they are not, I am repulsed by filthy trains, they make jokes and spit on the floor.

I have since reconsidered the scene on the train from Chengdu. Yes, it was dirty, people spat, stood on seats and threw their rubbish on the floor. Their clothes were poor and to my shame I judged from their faces that they were uneducated but there were smiling faces in that carriage. People laughed and babies cried. The men stood around smoking, looking serious, telling jokes. Young boys looked on enviously, while the women looked after their children and little else seemed to matter.

The challenge of life is just making the most or perhaps even a little more of what we have. Even if it’s not very much. The man from Chengdu might lead a perfectly fulfilling life if he improves his lot, if he can look back and say that he achieved something, that he improved his life and the lives of those around him. That’s all any of us can hope for, otherwise the days go by, time stands still and we spend hours sitting around our big houses wondering why there are so many problems on the world today.

Those people on the train from Chengdu seemed happy because they were making the most of what they’ve got but there are some things everyone should have and there is no excuse or reason why anyone should have to travel or live in such conditions today. Any chance these people have of making the most of their abilities is scuppered by the constant struggle against disease, ignorance and probably even hunger.

My views are only my thoughts. I wish I thought different but I don’t. I feel they have been wronged, that they deserve more but when it comes to spending an hour with them, I feel uncomfortable and long to be back among my own. I can’t accept their culture. I believe mine is better. I think they should believe what I believe and then they would be better off. As we got off the train in Shanghai and set off in our different directions, back towards our respective worlds, everyone laughed and smiled, glad to have arrived, excited by what lay ahead, everyone that is, except me.

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Comments (3)


Jun 28, 2005 10:37 Reply


Poverty in material is horrible but lack of care and concern is much more horrible. That is why Mother Teresa left her good life and big house and entered the life of poor Indians.


Jun 28, 2005 10:37 Reply


Even in Ireland, New figures show that Ireland has 21% of the population living below the poverty line - above the EU average of 15%. Interestingly, the figures for child poverty in Ireland are at the same rate as for the overall population (21%) while elsewhere they run about 4% above it (at 19%).

Bless the Lord for you have found out what the real life is, be it in China or wherever.


Jun 28, 2005 10:37 Reply


A well educated person should have an insight of his own. Otherwise it is just some time spent in the ivory tower. Poverty is a world-wise problem, not limited in a certain country.
Russia has gone out of socialism but poverty remains. Old widows stand in the street, crossing every time she got some rubles. Old men wearing all his medals walk in the street with blank eyes.

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