-Why don’t you fly? was the first thing I heard as I entered the cabin. Hu, a short, chubby man of 50 in a navy blue sweater with the word ‘police’ stitched across the chest looked at me inquisitively. Maybe he was surprised to see a foreigner on this to some people unreasonably long train ride.
– I prefer taking the train. When you fly, you get on the plane and just wait until it’s time to get off. But when you take a train like this, you just relax, I answered. The forty hour ride from Shanghai to Kunming is one of those rare excuses to block of the rest of the world for a short while and just exist.
As I was getting ready to retreat to my upper bunk bed, Hu and Jing, his seventeen year old younger colleague, told me in chorus to come down and sit with them instead. Before I knew it I had a pocket-sized bottle of Chinese baijiu, a special brand with an oak-barrel colour and flavour like whiskey, in my hand. In my lap, a spicy pig ear, peanuts and homegrown Chinese mini walnuts. From the speakers the friendly but monotonous voice of the cabin attendant sounded, welcoming us to our ‘train life’.
The next day I was awakened by cigarette smoke. We went to lunch at 11.30, when the stock exchange had closed its morning session (Hu and Jing were following its developments on their cellphones). I was given the second extra tarry Double Happiness-cigarette of the day as Hu tried to order a bottle of Baijiu. There was none, so beer had to do. I told Hu that I’d like to save the cigarette till after we’d eaten. While Hu and Jing were jabbering away in Shanghainese, I ate the food and tried to think of something to start a conversation with. I went with complimenting the food, as Chinese people (just like everyone else) are incredibly proud of their cuisine. – Really? Neither of us like it, Jing replied. It must be because you haven’t eaten much Chinese food.
Back in our cabin, seeing how I was struggling with the shells of the walnuts that Hu and Jing were eating away like it was all they had ever done, Jing had told me: -Chinese people like to sit and eat like this, spending time on shelling the nuts while chatting. It’s like taking the train and watching the landscape pass by slowly. Hu reached into his suitcase-sized bag of snacks and handed me a bag of shell-free, but otherwise identical, walnuts. -Now this is like flying, he said.