A Gweilo in 1980s China – pt. 9

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Written by Tai pan

If you haven’t read the previous chapters, you can go onto the Story of my Life section and start from part 1.

CHAPTER NINE – The Train Ride

I woke up on my second day in China feeling sad and happy at the same time. Indeed, at first I felt quite dissapointed as the dream I was having on the Cultural Revolution ended; but then I immediately felt better as I remembered that that was the day when I would have gone visit another town! I was told that this town was much smaller than Shanghai, and completely different as well, in that it was in the province of Hunan: a famous area known because Mao Zedong was born there, and because it was – and still is – a very rural region. Back in 1983, Hunan wasn’t even yet developed.

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However, while all these thoughts on rural China were flowing into my mind, I wasn’t considering the most important part of the trip: the train ride!

In the years before I got there, China was by choice ‘isolated’ from the rest of the world; it was only at the beginnign of the 1980s that the PRC actually started to open up to foreign influence and progress.

All the infrastructures around the country were old and outdated, and the Chinese government could not yet afford to renovate them. The railway was also quite ‘ancient’ and because of this it was extremely ruined: tracks, stations and trains were all quite outdated.

You might think that all this could appear ugly, dangerous and uncomfrotable; however, I discovered that the older the places, or trains were, the more charming they were! I felt like I was travelling throught time and that I landed on a different epoch! I felt like I was in a movie based in the early 90’s.

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When we got on the train, we were immediately seated in a wagon that seemed especially decorated with a retro style: with lace curtains and wooden seats, just like in the old Wild West.

Despite the old-fashioned appearance of the infrastructure, we had no particular discomfort or inconvenience during  the journey. The only problem, let’s say, was the length of the trainride, which was around 22 hours! We left Shanghai  late in the morning, and we arrived in Changsha in the morning of the next day…quite tiring indeed!

As soon as we left the ‘big metropolis’, the vast Chinese countryside opend up all around us. There were peasants working the land, some of them were also wearing the traditional wide-brimmed hat made of straw. I only realised later on that the reason why Chinese were wearing hats and were all covering themselves, it was because having a tanned skin was considered quite bad: if you were – are – tanned, you would have been considered as a person from the lowest class.

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During the long journey, several fun and unique things happened. First of all, there weren’t a lot of foreigners on board of the train, and shortly after the departure, everyone already knew that there were 3 Gweilos heading to Changsha.

The more time passed, the more we felt like ‘movie stars’! The news of our presence spread all over the train, and people began to come to ‘check us out’ to see how Gweilos actually looked like. Little by little the amount of people coming to our compartment began to grow, and the staff in charge of the train came to see what had happened, as they thought something serious was going on in our wagon!

During this moment of popularity, a family composed by husband, wife and a young child that I estimated to be around 5 years old, smilingly came to shake our hands. I smiled back and then I looked at the kid. Suddenly he cried out with an agonizing scream and ran away!

I was shocked and mortified because I didn’t understand what I had done to make the little boy react like that. The mother poletely apologised and ran after him! I was really embarrased, I just could understand what the problem was…

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The the father, with a very peaceful expression – which made me feel even more uncomfrotable – sat down next to me and, and with the help of another Chinese who spoke English, explained that it was the first time for his son to see a Gweilo (so a person with blond hair and blue eyes).

In fact, all Chinese – as you know – have black eyes and black hair, and so my blond hair and beard frightened the poor child, especially when he looked at me in the eyes. Imagine the little boy, seeing something strange, something he had never seen of heard of before. He was so used to his own race, than when he saw me he thought I wasn’t even human! He thought that I was an evil spirit!

The mother unsuccessfully tried to bring him back to me. The poor kid, was so terrified that he was sobbing and crying hidden in his compartment.

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The most beautiful memory I have of that journey is, however, related to the spectacular scene that opened up in front of me when we arrived in Changsha.

My colleagues and I left the train and were walking on the sidewalk next to the track, when we began to admire what was happening all around us. A crowd of Chinese travelers descending from various cars, all greeting us with smiles and kind bows.

Amazing, unique and unforgettable! I can still remember that when I left the train station I was quite sad because the journay ended already.

At that point we were heading to the town, where we all had business duties to attend to, and where we would have all had a very interesting tour kindly offered by the local textile company. They took us to the stunning mountains of Hunan to visit a very ancient Buddhist temple.

Don’t worry you will hear all about this in the next coming chapter!

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