June 11th 1984

posted in: The way back | 0
Hard seat

At about midnight we stopped at a station + quite a lot of people got off, + I took the opportunity offered by the relatively unoccupied aisles to pop back + check on Val.  I was a little worried in case she had needed to go to the toilet + needed me to save her seat in the meantime.  I also thought there was a faint chance there might be a spare seat.  In fact, I was just about a minute too late, as a space had become available right next to Val.  If she had been a different sort of person, she might have fended off the newcomer + yelled for me, but she didn’t.  Besides, as she said, she didn’t know whether I had already found myself a seat or not.  It was a disastrous expedition all round, for when I returned to my seat, or rather space, another man was settling himself down onto it.  I had neither the words, nor, really, the inclination to attempt to oust him.  The result was that I stood for the next 3 hours, while the train became increasingly more crowded.  As the situation worsened, the space that each person could legitimately claim became smaller + smaller, yet somehow, lacking the necessary forcefulness, I continued to be standing.

After 3 hours, however, my inhibitions were lowered so far by fatigue that I sat where I stood, + wriggled + squirmed myself enough space.  I had some luck later too, when my successor in my space left, + I was able to spread out a little.  As were a few others, of course.  And eventually, because of sheer exhaustion, I slept, my legs drawn up, my head resting on my knees.  I awoke a couple of hours later, with the sky lightening + people on the move.  There was a good bit more space around me now, but I was determined not to repeat my earlier mistake + leave my space, at least for a while, until I could be more sure I wouldn’t lose it.  I did have one aid, one of our foam mats, to give my occupation a little more authority.

Val brought me a cup of coffee after a time, made from our own supplies with the hot water constantly available – very very welcome.  I read for much of the morning, finishing off “A House for Mr Biswas” by Naipaul.  A marvellous book, the best I have read for a long time.  The main character has evoked my father for me, in the way he has made a success of his life from poor beginnings.

To stretch my legs, I went for a wander along the train, visiting the other classes to see how the other half live.  No easy matter to pick my way thro’ the other hard seat carriages – they are all so crowded that people sit on the floor all the way down the aisles.  When refreshment trollies are pushed thro’, as they are often, everyone has to move.  It’s not a satisfactory situation – I would think it is serious enough to warrant another train on the run, or another couple handling sections of it.  Soft sleeper, the 1st class, was a bit of a disappointment, having neither old-fashioned charm nor the comfort of its equivalent back home on much-maligned BR.  Hard sleeper, however, appeared very nearly as comfortable, + well-worth the money, if only we could have got one!  I ran into a German couple we’d met in Guilin.  They had hard berths, + were kind enough to let us use them for a few hours during the day.  For myself, I declined.  Surprisingly, I felt in good shape.  And I had the idea, which Val also expressed when I passed the idea on to her, that it might be just as well to be dog-tired when night came around again.

I was quick to seize on another offer a little later, however, after I’d returned to my mat, of a seat next to Val.  A Chinese lady arranged it.  Discovering a space was about to come up with someone getting off, she shuffled people round + indicated to Val that the space was for me – she indicated me by pointing + indicating glasses, but I made no objections when I heard about it.  This was really the only way I could realistically have hoped for a seat, for otherwise all forthcoming vacancies were disposed of before we got close to the station.  I was very grateful.

We bought lunch tickets, + were later dished out swill from a trolley – I resolved to try the dining car for my evening meal.  Val wasn’t hungry, so I went alone.  It turned out I was very early, so I whiled away some time gazing out of the window.  The scenery was fine + beautifully pastoral, as we flew past field after field of girls + women transplanting rice seedlings, slapping them down silently into the mud, + creating a wonderland of precisely-planted geometrically neat fields.  Behind the paddies, low grey hills rose up as a backdrop for the scene being played out in front.  It was fortunate I was early into the dining car, for quite by chance I was able to avoid the huge rush that built up soon after. 

The Restaurant operated on a ticket basis, very common in restaurants here, whereby one bought one’s ticket at one desk, + took them to another for serving (tho’ in this case a waiter performed the second function for one.)  It makes things impossibly difficult for foreigners, since it takes away the option of pointing,+ generally the ticket desks are crowded + rushed.  I circumvented the problem this time by pointing to the most expensive option on the list – it was only Y2 – + hoping that would be satisfactory.  It turned out very well – I obtained soup, rice, + a tasty meat + veg dish, a perfectly adequate meal.

The evening passed slowly, with both of us counting the hours till the end of the journey.  We were amused to see a man picking thro’ a bag of rubbish we had put on the floor, + examining with particular interest an empty pineapple juice can + a brightly coloured sweet bag – we think he kept the latter.  Generally tho’, we were disappointed with the attitude of the local people.  With the exception of the lady helping me get a seat, they had made no friendly overtures.  We are not very good at such things, but the efforts at socialisation we had made had been politely turned down.  All in all, not a wonderful trip, but we’d managed.

Oh, one more funny thing.  We ought a plastic bag with a few joints of cold meat, very tasty, + were trying to work out whether it was chicken or duck, when I pulled out its head.  Chicken.

So, quite an achievement: a whole day on the train, and in hard seat as well… though without a seat, for the most part. But, as I said in the blog, we made it, and inthe end it has become quite a story.

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