The train rolls into a town. More like violently shunts. Smokers rummage for their lighters as they wait for the train to stop. Within seconds of the doors being flung open, fifty or so passengers are out on the platform of this nowhere place lighting or limbering up. I leave my bed, having decided to join those exercising outside amongst the early morning haze and cigarette smoke. Having never exercised in any proper sense, what I perform is a bizarre choreography of spasmodic movements; stretches and lunges that I imagine would be good for muscles that have been forced to contract too long in a tiny bed, clenching each time the train switches lines or accelerates towards Guilin.
The couple in the lower bunks in the sleeper carriage are from Taiwan. James Lu and his wife are warm, open, and English-speaking, the rarest of combinations on these train journeys. James’ wife believes it is fate that I have met them, that my lanky form should be contorted in the bunk above hers. She suggests that I should meet with their niece. Not now, she is too young, but in ten years time when we can get married. James nods in silent but earnest agreement. They are deadly serious. All I have done to encourage this match-making is tell them my age and that I am single. I ask what the niece is doing now and they tell me she is in school. I wonder now, how old she actually is. I go to refill my tea flask from the urn that bubbles between carriages, escaping the strangeness and solemnity of the situation.
When I return, they tell me hurriedly that I need only wait five years before meeting her. It seems that they are convinced the only thing putting me off enthusiastically agreeing to meeting and betrothing this girl is the time frame of 10 years. They have considered the matter the whole time I was scraping green tea leaves into a bin, adding fresh leaves to my flask and adding boiling water. Five years, I am told, is far more appropriate as she is 18 now. They are still deadly serious. As a form of compromise, I tell them that I will email them if I am still single in 5 years and as I say it, I am surprised that I too am deadly serious.
As well as James Lu and his wife, there is another man in our compartment. He shouldn’t be in this carriage; he shouldn’t even be on this train. The large man now sat below my bunk is a millionaire. He forgot his iPhone, missed the train with his VIP bed, and ended up here, travelling in the hard sleeper amongst the lower classes. James translates for me.
The man moans constantly about the government and the taxes that are limiting his profits. He moans about Shanghai and how its GDP has fallen to the fourth highest in China. He moans about the garage that over-charged him for repairs on his expensive car. The amounts he talks about are more than all the people around him will ever earn. He is bullish, loud and outspoken. It seems that he is entirely oblivious to the inappropriateness of his moaning. He explains that when he doesn’t get the train, he drives huge distances at speeds of over 150 km/ph – it is the speed that keeps him from falling asleep. Each Chinese New Year he sends gifts, including a hefty wad of cash, to all those families with elderly relatives in his home town. Apparently, he is not a bad man after all.
When I enter the train toilet, I am greeted by two large shits curling up towards me. I decide in that instant to shoulder 50% of the burden and aim my stream of piss at the turd closest to the hole and to the tracks below. I manage to dislodge the turd, feeling satisfied but slightly nauseous in the process. The next in line will have to deal with the taller, tougher turd. Good luck, I say, hoping they realise that this pyramid of poo did not come from my Western arse.
Exiting the toilet, I see a man in the washroom opposite. If this man was born in England, he would be an East End gangster: an amateur boxer that fell in with the wrong crowd. He is drunk, stumbling on the spot. He has short hair; a shaven head in the first stages of re-growth. He stares into a mirror and attempts to light a cigarette that is the wrong way round in his mouth. He has prayer beads around his wrists that give him a faint air of respectability. I smile at him and head back to my bunk. I hope that he will tackle the poo.