“We are never getting a K train again”, I snap, as my roomate and I, plus two other friends, climb onto the last of the train carriages to pull into the station, and over a group of sleeping/ smoking men. Even the guard looked dejected in his blue uniform, surrounded by rings of smoke and people.
Just to clarify, it’s evening. We’re leaving Zibo (淄博) after a jam-packed day, which included a two hour bus journey on a standing room-only bus, down from the scenic area of Boshan (博山). More accurately, there was no real standing room left on the main floor of the bus, but I am small enough to perch where the metal bar rails off the driver’s seat. It’s a slightly raised platform. I can’t move my feet, or put my rucksack down, as a woman is already occupying that space, her head level with my elbows.
It was thirty two degrees, and the sun shone on us the entire ride. Well, on my back really, think I blocked most of it. Someone else was using the curtain. My roomate had been ill, and another of her friends simply took up the remaining seating space. So I was like “I can totally stand the whole way”. Or I think I said that, but maybe there was no verbal agreement. Apparently I said a lot of things, before I, as our Chinese friend Will puts it, “sort of fell asleep standing up”. It was hot.
Fast-forward five hours or so and we’re boarding a K-train, a local, slow speed train, which offers the cheapest service to some of the smaller stations. We learnt about the different types of Chinese train in Wenhua (culture) classes. I remember this type being mentioned as the one to avoid, according to my teachers. The passengers are markedly different from those who we boarded the high-speed service train with, over twelve hours previously.
“I forgot about the smoking…”my roommate trails off apologetically, as we enter our carriage, which is the last, and the furthest from the platform. I didn’t have a say in booking these tickets, as I was feeling too exhausted to stand by the time we got off the bus, hence mine had been booked on my behalf and I wasn’t amused with what I saw. “It could be worse”, I responded sarcastically, “at least you’re not sitting by yourself”, as I was of course, for some mysterious reason, given a seat away from the rest of the group.
Of course I wasn’t really sitting alone, but surrounded by Chinese strangers, who stopped their conversations to steal a glance, open-mouthed, and take unsubtle photos on their phones. As everyone was still stunned, I took the opportunity to take my seat on a bench, next to a young couple, and opposite an older couple and their son. Minutes later, a little girl in a pink dress appeared and presented me, despite my objections, with a full packet of cream wafer biscuits, whilst she ran around singing “Let it Go!” which was playing from one of the adult’s phones in English. People who had “standing” tickets quickly meandered over to the aisle near where I was sitting the middle of the carriage, and I couldn’t help but feel as though I had walked into my own surprise party.
Nearby, a middle-aged Chinese man could be heard talking excitedly about the number of foreigners learning Chinese and about how most waiguorenhad to learn the pinyin Romanisation of Chinese words before starting with characters. I had a feeling that he was the man who had given the little girl the wafers to give to me.
Opposite from me, the couple with their teenage son tried to nudge him away from his laptop and headphones and make him practice his English with me. Typically, he seemed embarrassed by their behaviour, although he was not as disinterested as he appeared, for I realised that he had been following my conversations with the other passengers; perhaps his headphones were muted the whole time.
The young woman sitting next to me soon took on the role of chief translator, and, after a quick selfie with me; she acted as my press agent and selected the questions of other passengers for me to answer. Why was I not in Beijing? Who was I with? “Je m’appelle!” the man next to her exclaimed excitedly, but when I asked, in English and French, whether he spoke French, he seemed confused. “His English is not so good”, the young woman explained, giving him a sympathetic smile. I surprised myself, replying to queries about my age (how else to start a conversation with a stranger?), how long I would be in China, where I studied, and most of all, why I had come. “I like Chinese history and culture” I mumble back, Wo xihuan Zhongguo de lishi he wenhua…souyi wo xuexi Hanyu.
With the help of the young woman, I understood that the older woman wanted me to tell her what fun things there were to do and see around Jinan. It struck me as strange for a moment that someone living in the same province their whole life might not have been to the provincial capital, where as I had been in China for two months and had seen most of the main sights in Shandong. Her teenage son was not amused, and, whilst raising his eyes from his laptop, chanted a list of famous Jinan attractions in unison with me “Baotu Quan, Qian Fou Shan,….” Which suggested that this was something his mother often spoke about, and wanted confirmation of from me as a bonafide Jinan resident.
I gave the little girl an English penny as a thank-you present. She proudly presented it to the older man who had been speaking in hushed tones about foreigners learning Chinese. He yelped “English money! Look at it! Do you know how much this is worth compared to theyuan …?” I found a 20p lurking in a corner of my purse, and gave that to my self-appointed translator, whose English name was June. She was particularly taken with the portrait of the Queen on one side. This wasn’t about handing over currency for monetary value, but because I knew that most Chinese people would have never seen Great British Pounds before, and because, I hoped, that maybe someone in the little girl’s family might keep hold of it for her and remind her of the time that she sung for that strange foreign girl!
By the time I am reunited with my friends, almost two hours later, I was slightly reluctant to leave that K-train. Though I had come out for the day to observe caves, village scenery and natural wonders, I had found myself observing life and actually getting to practice speaking in the third class section of a local service train. “Did you manage to sleep at all?” one friend asked me, concerned (earlier I had emphasised my desire to sleep desperately, but this desire was soon dismissed in favour of more interesting things) I smiled, and replied that sleeping would have been practically impossible in my side of the compartment. She looks back at me with a knowing nod, and I have to resist the temptation to laugh.