Hanoi-Beijing (42 hours)
This is the one that no one thought I should take. All my Vietnamese friends kept telling me that I should take the plane, and I met no one in Vietnam, including the grungy, cheapskate backpacker crowd who had taken or planned to take this train. It was a little difficult to buy, costs a little more than a flight, and takes 42 hours, all of which probably should have dissuaded me from the notion, but it didn’t.
I like to think that I am only afraid of a few things, but then I start listing them, and there are more than I few. I have fewer persistent anxieties than many people I know, but the ones that haunt me are fierce. Fears include unleashed dogs, fish touching me underwater, caves and other small enclosed spaces, and very sheer heights. My worst anxiety is about being late, and the second worst is about being lost, alone, and confused. Just about every single bad dream I have is about disastrous travel logistics, in which both of those anxieties are fused. There are often fish, dogs, and heights added for drama in these nightmares. I’m so obsessed with getting to airports and train stations on time that I’ve taken to calling myself a chronopath. So, it was inauspicious that this leg of the journey began with the hotel staff in Sapa forgetting to buy me a ticket for Sunday night to Lao Cai so I could get to the train departing Hanoi on Tuesday night. The Monday night train would be just fine, because only I would worry about having only about 13 hours to make my connection. Thirteen hours was only sufficient by about 8 minutes, as it turned out.
Hanoi has four train stations, and the train to Beijing leaves from one I’d never been to. I spent all day afternoon in the day lounge in my hotel in Hanoi, the last few of hours of which obsessively asking the helpful staff if they knew which station I needed to get to. Many phone calls, internet searches, and examinations of my inscrutable ticket later, and the woman said she was 100% certain that she knew which one, and when we needed to leave. I would have left earlier, of course, but I trusted them. The nice young man who was going to get me on the train and in the right compartment and I set off in a cab in the height of Hanoi rush hour at 5:15 for my 6:30 train. Thirty minutes later we arrive at a tiny station in a remote neighborhood all the way across the river, and I knew immediately we were in the wrong place. We have to wait a few agonizing minutes for another cab to materialize and then have 40 minutes to make it all the way back to where we started and to another station. Sitting in the back seat praying that we’re going to the right station this time, I watch the driver navigate the Hanoi traffic with such speed and daring that I almost forget to panic. We only barely hit one motorcycle along the way, and I actually said out loud, “whatever happens, just don’t stop.” After we screech to a halt in front of the huge and unmistakably correct station, my guy from the hotel hustles so fast that I can barely keep up with him. He throws some money on the desk of the surly lady who collects the fee for porters, guides, and, presumably family and friends, who want to see someone off on the train. We fling ourselves into the carriage, get pointed to one of the compartments, and in it, to my great relief and delight, is a smiling middle-aged western man. I have to call him Sam, for South African Man, because even though we spent about 24 hours together, we never exchanged names.
He’s on his way to Gui Lin for some sort of Tai Chi thing, after spending a few months in Na Trang. We are, as it turns out, the only western travelers on the train, and, even weirder, the only people in this carriage, which, until we reach the Chinese border, is the only car on the train. The two of us are being personally escorted to China.
At the border crossing at Dong Dan, we are met by another personal escort, a smiling woman in uniform who takes us to a holding area where we sit for several hours. We do not have our passports because we’ve surrendered them to another uniformed person on the train. An hour or so later, we are walked to the main station, where we meet a platoon of people inspecting, discussing, and finally, stamping our passports. They’re perplexed that Sam’s passport says he’s African, and yet he’s white. They think we’re married to each other. Who knows? It’s midnight something, and children wave at us from outside the window and run around and try to snap candid photos with one or both of us. Finally, another uniformed person escorts us to the Chinese train, where we are initially placed in a nice, clean compartment in what again appears to be a car for only us. Shortly, however, we’re moved to the next car and a compartment that also seems to be celebrating its first communion, except that it has been peed on. Oh, well, at least it doesn’t have mice like the Vietnamese carriage we were in from Hanoi to Dong Dan.
We eat the gross instant pots of noodles we’ve managed to buy and try to get settled. Every now and then, someone stops by to stare or to berate us for something. Sam has a few words of Chinese, which only seems to encourage them. For a long time, a Chinese man stood in the doorway and urgently explained something to Sam. I was grateful that my middle-aged woman cloak of invisibility left me out of the discussion.
We lock the door and settle in for the night, but in the morning the hallway is full of Chinese men – including the train staff – in various stages of undress just warming up for a full day of spitting, yelling, and shoving. The hoiking is audible throughout the carriage. At Gui Lin, Sam gets off, handing me a handful of yuan because I have no Chinese currency, and that’s the only way I can buy water, beer, or more gross noodles. I’ve begun to panic a bit about whether the guide will be there at the station to meet me in Beijing because the arrival times listed vary by about 90 minutes. This anxiety is assuaged by observing Sam’s experience: he’s told he’s arriving at 12, 1, or 4. He actually arrives at his destination at about 2:15.
After Gui Lin, I am alone as the only western traveler on the train, and I am in a now quite crowded carriage filled with Chinese people. I try to leave my door open for air and neighborliness, but it proves to be impossible because people stand in the doorway and stare. Sometimes they even step in and start gesturing. I conclude that they’re distressed that I have so much space to myself while whole families are jammed into other compartments, with children sharing bunks with each other or with adults. I do not feel guilty. But I do have to shut myself up into my little lacey, pee-smelling cell for the next 24 hours or so.
I watch southern China go past outside the window. The more I look, the less I understand about the place. Parts of it are beautiful and haunting, some with limestone karsts rising out of green fields in scenery that’s indistinguishable from Vietnam. But the buildings are all different. Chinese houses are mostly brick, low, graceful affairs with walled or fenced buildings. Villages of these, with figures working fields with buffalo, go on for miles. But suddenly you begin to see those red brick buildings in states of disrepair or demolition, and hulking, unforgivably ugly apartment blocks begin to appear. The older ones are terrible looking, and even on the uppermost floors, everyone has caged themselves in with wire or bars on their patios. Later I try to understand the purpose of these, asking a guide if the wire is for keeping people or things in or out. He says it’s to prevent burglars from getting in, which I find completely unbelievable, because I can’t imagine that a thief with the skills to scale a building would bother to rob those awful-looking places.
The crumbling old buildings are bad, but the new ones are even worse. Monstrously scaled, their refusal to acknowledge the landscape or the traditions of the people around them is like the taunts of a hulking schoolyard bully. They dare you to defend the idea of beauty, of the dignity and solace of grace and art. I wonder who will live there, who will have to accept the dehumanizing and de-civilizing effects of living in such a geometry of contempt. Around these arrogant towers, the remains of one-storey red-brick homes crumble and kowtow.
Watching the ratio of ugly towers, smokestacks, and garbage dumps to farms, brick homes, and rice fields increase as we approach Beijing makes me sad and even more anxious. The hot Pabst Blue Ribbon in a can with an actual pop-top that the snack cart lady sold me out of a pillow case helps a little, but not much. I have a premonition that I won’t like Beijing, but I have 5 nights to spend there anyway. My more immediate concern, however, is whether the guide will meet me at the station, so when we pull into Beijing and I can see a man with a sign with my name on it, I am enormously relieved. He is running in the opposite direction, and I chase him down against the tide of shoving, spitting, and yelling Chinese people.