China by Bicycle :: April - October, 1998

Subject: Getting to Taian -- Part II
Date: Tue, 28 Apr 1998 11:01:12 -0700

This story begins in Getting to Taian -- Part I.

23:09 Langshan Binguan, Langshan; Hebei -- China :: 17 APR 97

So, we're sitting in hard seat class on this night train to Taian, a short, stocky, surly train conductor squinting his sour face in our direction. Our bikes, stowed somewhat precariously, will soon need attention if they're to be kept from collapsing into the main passageway. But the train's not moving yet and until that happens neither of us wishes to jeopardize our own precarious situation.

I'm certain we've managed to pull something off here. Maybe something's changed in the last three or so years since the various travel guides I've researched were written, but every one of them states unequivocally, "It's not possible to take your bike along with you on Chinese trains; you will have to ship it separately and it may take up to two days for it to catch up with you, or you with it." And yet, here we are sitting on a Chinese train just 15 feet from our precariously stacked bicycles. We didn't even have to bribe anyone, and the excess freight we've had to pay is more than reasonable and provided a security blanket in the form of an official receipt.

"Jay, the reason he's so pissed at us is for 10 or 15 years he's been running this line, conducting this car or another just like it. The rules state quite clearly: 'no bikes on the passenger trains,' and this is the first time anyone's ever been allowed to put a bike on and it rankles him no end." Jay's not buying it. He doesn't believe anything that special's just happened. I remind him about the guides. "That doesn't mean anything to me," he responds. "I have no reason to believe that's true."

So I tell him, "If we speak Chinese, or we bother asking about bike cartage when buying tickets for this train, or we don't play dumb-ass westerners who don't know better when we arrive at the train station, then we don't get on this train with our bikes. We were lucky."

Jay doesn't even have to think about this one. "Then why were we allowed through the gate, down the platform, all the way to this car before being stopped. Why were employees actually assisting us to this car?"

That one's easy. "Bureaucracy."


"Bureaucracy. Everybody knows you can't bring a bicycle onto the train. These two dumb-ass big noses with matching screaming-yellow windbreaks roll in with bikes. No one can imagine the audacity or stupidity. It'd be like rolling up to the gate at an airport with your bicycle. No one's going to try and stop you 'till you actually try to board the plane. 'Hi, I'm in seat 24F and I think this'll fit in the overhead compartment.' In a bureaucracy, nobody wants to make a decision. They pass the buck around until some poor shit gets cornered into dealing with it: that's our boy sitting over there with the sneer. He's pissed that two idiots with bicycles bought tickets for his car; he's pissed that everyone that should have blocked our way left him with the decision; he's pissed because he thinks you tried to ram your way past him onto the train; he's pissed because his own superiors reversed his initial decision (which was, by the way, completely by the book). Finally, he's pissed because, for the first time in his whole career, there are two bicycles on his car--a fact which really rankles his sense of bureaucratic order--and from now on he's going to be known as 'the first conductor to allow bikes on the train.'"

Jay and I go back and forth on this for a while. To be honest, I can't remember most of his arguments. Not because they weren't any good, they just didn't alter my opinion. If I ever attempt to publish this, perhaps I'll ask him to fill out his side of the story.

I know he'll want some input on what happened next.

While we're looking out the window ignoring the surly one and arguing the level of our good fortune, we're also having a very difficult time stifling laughter about the whole situation. The last thing we want is to perturb Mr. P.O.'d any more than his current high pique, so we're covering our mouths and averting our eyes. And while we stare interestedly out the window into the black void outside, I feel someone sit in the seat beside me. And I smell stale alcohol. Oh god.

Sure enough, it's the drunk who's making merry conversation with us all by himself.

One of the things you become quickly aware of in China is that it's extremely rare to see the bare torso of a man, or even his arms. Everyone wears long sleeve shirts and usually there's at least a light jacket of some sort over that. It's amazing to see men attired in this way on warm spring days. I left an old tank top back in Shanghai knowing I'd not be able to wear it without earning malignant glares for my impropriety. By now I've seen hundreds of thousands of people in China. On rare occasions you'll see a Chinese man's torso or arms, but as for the legs, I've never seen one without a full pant leg covering them, except once.

I'm somewhat improperly dressed in my cycling shorts and sitting scrunched up by the window, squashing the bananas we'd just bought for the trip in a futile attempt to disengage myself from the foul-breathing drunkard sidled against me. He's pointing to my bare legs while making loud, incomprehensible comments to me, Jay and the surly one, who snorts and looks away. Jay's looking at me with that gleam in his eye which says, "Oh, this is going to be good." My doleful reply, "Jay, get me out of this," earns only a deep, throaty chuckle.

Right about then it does get good--if you appreciate theatre of the absurd--because the drunk starts running his hand up and down my bare right leg, still gleefully jabbering away at me as if I can understand any of the liquor sodden words. My shocked senses barely register anything other than an extreme a parallel disgust for the smell of his breath and the position of his palm.

Jay's eyes say, "Oh, this IS GOOD!"

The surly one can't hide the fact he's now mildly interested.

Still not sure about this guy's standing in the hierarchy, I'm feeling about as vulnerable as I've ever felt. Not content to keep the newfound insight into the difference between Chinese legs and Caucasian legs to himself, the drunk rolls up a pant leg, grabs my hand and alternates between running it up and down my leg and his disgustingly sallow, lumpy, white hairless one.

Jay can't contain himself.

The surly one chortles at my obvious shocked discomfort.

The drunk continues babbling and chuckling and rubbing, moving on to comparisons of our arms.

Then he notices Jay's dark, thick facial growth. And I notice he notices. And I think Jay notices he notices. Just to be sure the drunk's lesson about Western body hair is complete, I unclasp the drunk's hand from my arm and transfer it to Jay's beard, babbling more for Jay's benefit than anything else. "Yes, and look how different our beards are too!" Lazer breath softly caresses Jay's cheek with the back of his hand.

The look in Jay's eyes is altered. I don't think I have to describe it. Well, "You BASTARD!" comes to mind. He's still laughing, but now he's squeezing it out through a clenched jaw. I grab the hand he's been using to hide his snickering face from the surly one and attempt to draw it to the drunk's cheek. "Come on Jay. Why don't you feel how pasty and ugly his face is?"

Jay doesn't have to speak it out loud. His eyes, and the absolute rigidity of his arm say it for him. "This is no longer funny!"

But the drunk tires quickly of body hair, too quickly for me, since it's Jay's that he'd finally become interested in. I mean, you should see Jay's hairy butt. Now the drunk breathes into my face and rubs those fingers together again in that familiar gesture of the corrupt. Jay says, "Ignore him." We turn our attention back to the pitch black of night through the window, and soon enough the pitiful drunk realizes there's nothing to be gained from us and departs wordlessly.

I grab some pants out of my bag and put them on.

Eventually we figure out he's just a conductor from an adjacent car. Hell, if I'd have known that I'd have pushed him off my seat as soon as he sat down. Ahh, well.

A couple hours into the trip, I win over the surly one with a peace offering of an orange, which he upgrades through gestures to an orange and a banana. He'd been mellowing somewhat to that point, but after this his attitude took a complete turn for the better: warning us about protecting our baggage from thieves, making sure our bikes were locked, letting me know he was keeping an eye on them at station stops. He even went so far as to occupy the seat next to Jay the next time the drunk came into the car.

I think his shift must have ended sometime shortly after that because he admonished us once again to be wary of thieves before disappearing. His replacement? The drunk, who promptly passed out for nearly the remainder of the trip. He roused himself, after a thorough vocal admonition from another conductor, a couple hours before our arrival. Later, he'd make a few attempts at conversation, though we basically ignored him. He seemed pretty sheepish, but neither Jay nor I really cared.

We finally arrived in Taian at 8:30 AM--right on time--disgorged ourselves and all the gear from the train, assembled the bikes and rolled out through the station. Well, almost.

Our way out the front door was barred by one of those enormous, mean spirited women in uniform that are such a communist cliché for westerners. Except this cliché was for real. And as she looked at the fully laden bicycles her eyes said one thing: "How the hell did you get that on the train?" This, of course, implies another: "Why do you think you're going to be able to leave this station without a thorough interrogation?"

After several poorly executed hand gestures and other miscommunications, Jay remembered the receipt for excess baggage. Ahhh, get out of jail free! I fished it out for her and after a brief conference with a superior, we were finally allowed to officially enter Taian.

~~~ Responses Sought ~~~
Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people's approval
and you will be their prisoner.

Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.

  graphical element Attributed to Lao Tse
The Tao Te Ching
Chapter 9.
trans. Stephen Mitchell