Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Hearts and Arteries

I just returned from Xi-an, the original heart of China - before things went coastal.

Xi-an beats out an irregular rhythm of ancient Terracotta tombs and modern sprawl. Late at night, it pulls its rhythms from the glowing red Muslim market just below the Drum Tower. There - surrounded by ox horn combs, warrior trinkets, caged crickets, and lamb stew - sits a woman who nightly creates her own heartbeat for the city. Pulling a mallet against the ridged wooden back of a hand-carved frog, she beats out: Cr-crk Cr-crk Cr-crk.

Train tracks pump fresh blood in and out of this ancient heart once a day from Chengdu. At the train station, I was swept up in the jostling current as I joined the crowded platform for Xi-an-bound passengers. Our bodies were pressed tight into too little space, and our belongings swam around each other. At 1:30, the gates opened. Bags and babies and bowls of noodles were thrust over heads and between legs as the current of bodies streamed forward into the train cars.

On the way back, I learned how lucky I was to have snagged a "sleeper seat" for the initial 16 hour ride into Xi-an. In a sleeper, you can lie down in a small cot stacked under two others, with just enough room to sit up and look out the window at the rice paddies flashing by.

On the return trip to Chengdu, I had a ticket for the "hard seat" cabin, where spots on benches crowded into the small car had been auctioned for 90 RMB a piece. I hustled to my bench spot in order to claim it and some baggage space as well. I watched as 80 more people managed to fit their bags overhead and squeeze onto the benches. An ever-increasing flow streamed into the car along with luggage, and children, and indignant, pointy elbows. More streamed in, and more. Though the flow could no longer sit down, (the initial 80 could barely fit on the benches), it would not stop. The flow crowded into all the spaces left and continued to squeeze farther and farther in as the car's capacity doubled and tripled before my eyes.

"My" bench was no longer mine, but also seemed to belong to a middle-aged woman, her daughter, an elderly man sitting on a bucket, and a toddler who had begun to cry after soiling herself within the first five minutes of the ride. The unlucky passenger stuck between the soiled child and me nearly vomited. Concerned about my own ability to make it to the toilet (which was 15 meters and 50 aisle-blocking people away), I leaned over and asked my friend Lin Fang about when and how she planned to go to the bathroom during the next 16 hours. She said she didn't plan on it, and - glancing at my stockpile of bottled water - suggested that I shouldn't either. The bathroom was yet another area of prime real estate and, she continued, it's not uncommon for people to sit in the sinks.

Any - and all - leftover spaces in the vessel had been sold to willing blood. The cabin reeked of sweat, urine, and pungent spiced meat around mealtimes.

Though our 16 hours in a locomotive suggested travel, we were all stuck in a perpetual stand-still. The train pushed and pumped forward, but bodies just creaked and moaned, none able to counter the train's forward motion with any movement of their own. I had read in my guidebook about the mysteries of Xi-an, the delapidated heart of China, but from within the sardined cabin I found myself more taken by this heart's very clogged artery.

...back in Chengdu now, continuing Chinese tutoring at a break-neck pace. My tutor is a very patient woman.

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