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June 09, 2013


I realized, before I came, that I'd have a pretty busy schedule here, with nine hours of seminar each week, a commensurate amount of reading and class prep, and then three additional lectures I was invited to give at various venues in Shanghai. So I made a point of carving out two three-day weekends for the kinds of travel adventures that are often my favorite part of being over here. I've just returned safe and sound from the first of these.

On Thursday evening, after class, I set off to the Shanghai train station with a small backpack and a ticket for an overnight train to southern Anhui province. Overnight trains are my favorite form of travel in China. If you can get a "soft sleeper" berth, you can spend eight hours of the trip sleeping to the soft rhythmic clatter and roll of the train, which I always find wonderfully soothing. The sleeper cabins seat four, and their intimacy inevitably leads to friendly conversation among the travelers. It can sometimes be difficult here to establish a foothold in a conversation with a stranger, or at any rate a conversation that goes beyond satisfying curiosity at the spectacle of a big-nosed foreigner speaking with a pronounced Beijing accent. But the usual reserve breaks down in a sleeper compartment. The civil non-engagement that is the norm between seatmates on a plane or bus or subway would seem churlish in such a space, facing each other on bunk beds at the outset of a thirteen-hour journey.

Before boarding the train, I figured I ought to find a bite to eat. The Shanghai station is gigantic, and there must be several dozen restaurants lining the corridors of the main concourse. Finding a simple vegetarian meal turned out to be quite the challenge. Even at the most carnivero-centric fast food joints in the States these days, a hungry Buddhist might expect to find at least a baked potato, salad, or bowl of apple sauce. Here, no. The options were deep fried meat pieces, broiled or barbecued meat pieces, or meat pieces fried in gooey sauce with a token piece of plant. Finally I found a single fast food joint with a single menu item that didn't include meat. The preparation involved topping a scoop of white rice with a scoop of boiled cabbage and the contents of a plastic pouch of stewed mushrooms, which, whatever its shortcomings, at least kept the stomach's growlings at bay. Happily, even the most modern train stations in China still reserve a bay or two in their food halls for sellers of fresh fruit and vegetables, so I was able to stock up on bananas and lychees for a considerably more palatable dessert. Next time I'll remember to eat before I reach the station!

My companions on board the train were a gregarious single guy of about 30, a cheerful, attractive and visibly pregnant woman of about 35, and her 23 year-old son. It didn't take long for the single guy to ask the obvious question about their relationship that had us both scratching our heads: the kid looked too young to be her husband but too old to be her child; we both wondered if he was perhaps a nephew or kid brother. It turns out he was her son; only later in the evening when he stepped out did she explain that she'd adopted him. He used to come by her office to play as a young boy. His family was a mess, and she eventually just took him in. The relationship between them was obviously a deeply loving one on both sides. She was obviously deeply proud of him and he attended to her needs with every consideration.

It turns out she's from a family of porcelain artisans from the famous manufacturing town of Jingdezhen, two hours south of our destination. The family's specialty was the painting of porcelain dishes, a trade that had apparently been kept up during the revolutionary years. Most of the porcelain wares that found their way to England in the 17th and 18th centuries came from that town, and I found myself wondering if her ancestors had had a role in crafting some of them. She invited me to come by to check out the family's operation if I found my way to her city. The next morning, the three of them offered me lots of good advice regarding my travel itinerary and gave me their phone numbers with an invitation to call them if I found myself in a jam. I couldn't have hoped for a kinder send-off as I headed off on to the next leg of my adventure.

Posted by dporter at June 9, 2013 10:37 PM


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