Travelogue

[Travelogue] Back on the train!

It’s funny how hanging out with friends who are writers (Lania Knight and Matt McBride linked, but come right back here folks) when traveling makes one want to write more; I turn to an old post about my joys, experiences, and personal literary connections around taking trains from days of yore (in relation to this record, at least) to re-ignite my own writing through this web journal. On my recent third trip to the People’s Republic of China, a fair number of trains were taken in various contexts. I have been going to Wuhan regularly now during the summer, and there will be a return in a short few weeks, so I am only going to get more of train travel in China. This represents an easy means of initiating some reflection around my recent return from Round 2 of the teaching at Wuhan University, and my upcoming and (temporary) relocation to Beijing.

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Looking down the cars on the Shanghai Metro.

One of the most enjoyable things for me in China is being able to ride the subway in the major cities; Beijing and Shanghai are rendered manageable because their metros are quick, relatively clean, and affordable. 2 kuai, anywhere in the vast metropolis which is Beijing! The carriage can be absolutely sardine-like at many hours, including rush, but overall I find it very exiting and enjoyable.  To tread into the cliche, China seems to be a country on the move, and this is so well-exemplified by an afternoon on one of the subways. Jam-packed at all sorts of hours, riders whisk back and forth between exits and transfers. The carriage doors separate, initiating the dash on and off, simultaneously in and out all in that moment.  Yesterday evening, having returned to my beloved San Francisco, I found the rather proper, lining up of the BART commuters so quaint in comparison. While exhausting, I love the no-nonsense feeling I get from the metro riders in China—I find it reminiscent of the vibe I get in New York. One of my regrets on this latest trip to Wuhan is not having had the opportunity to ride the relatively new Wuhan Metro, despite a somewhat determined effort to do so. With some intention there, group trips to Hankou from Wuchang ended up being cab-based; the one time I made it to Hankou by myself, the metro closed for the night as I arrived to the platform, and I was instructed by the eerily-accurate English language voice to leave the station immediately. While I managed to get to Hankou more than once this year (a goal from last year), I feel satisfied with knowing that eventually taking the Wuhan Metro can come with a future trip to Wuhan.

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Here’s the train we took coming over the Yangtze River bridge, eventually passing Wuhan’s famous Yellow Crane Tower.

Taking the overnight train from Beijing to Wuhan is a repeat experience which goes far in making the overall Wuhan experience so much fun, and I believe I am starting to appreciate it in the way that ritualistic train rides have grown on me in other travel experiences. This ride again afforded me the chance to hang out with my fellow teachers and build our eventual friendships—with 8-10 folks jammed into a four-person sleeper card to play Apples to Apples, this year’s overnight ride was so enjoyable, as we drank warm beers and bulshitted about 90’s music, tellingly revealing our generational place. The night passes quickly out the window, and eventually one wakes up to Hubei Province spinning past—some pastoral-light, leading into a tell-take sign of the suburban Chinese experience:  rows and rows of anonymous, identical apartment towers.

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High-speed train, Shanghai to Suzhou!

The last time I took a high-speed train, I was a green traveler going from Paris to Nîmes, so I was excited to continue my rail journey and experience in China by taking the quick train from Shanghai to Suzhou for a day trip. Despite a little confusion in actually finding the place at the station in which a foreigner can buy a ticket, involving a nice, hot long walk around the entire station, the whole high-speed rail experience was so easy; additionally, it was a quick 25-minute dart to Suzhou and back. The whole thing really put our train experience here in the States to shame! It makes me a little frustrated and sad that we are having such a hard time getting something similar up and running here in California.

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Travelogue

[Travelogue] Puttin’ on my readin’ dress

One of my favorite things about going on vacation is the guarantee of unfettered space in which to read. I have not yet warmed up to the eyepod, and I usually turn to reading instead of digital music as my way of passing that public transit time that comes (for some of us) with the commencement of a journey. Even in commuting, I enjoy a quick twenty-minute read (sometimes longer, depending on the whims of Muni) from whichever book I am carrying around on that particular day. The inevitable literary but noisy BART trip from San Francisco will also involve a brief but reading-accessible “Air-Bart” bus ride from the Oakland Airport BART station to the loading zone of the airport itself. For the sake of brevity, criticisms on why our system does not just connect to the airport itself will be saved for another post! Waiting around in the airport in that pre-holiday madness only serves to give us more time to chill out, and read something. With all the waiting around in the airplane and various trains, one could read a selection of different things, which begs the questions: how many books is it reasonable to bring on vacation?

I always overzealously pack more books than I seem to be able to read. But my eyes are always bigger than my stomach, as one could say. Commonly other books and magazines or newspapers are picked up along the way and supplant the originally packed materials, creating all sorts of overlapping capacities amongst the abundant resources. This holiday season, I head back into the hinterlands of suburban southern California, from where I came and will celebrate American Christmas with my family, before moving on to the greater San Diego area southwards. This will necessitate a delightful train ride with ample reading time involved, as mentioned in a post from earlier this month. The original reading intentions may be interrupted again, as it is quite something to see Los Angeles and the areas south of there from the rails than from the roaring concrete slab lined with advertisements and box stores. I think I have brought up to four or five books for a week’s vacation before, and will often read only one or two of them. It seems to be a bit of compulsion and a need for some variety when it comes down to the moment of reading. I have known friends to take many more, and burn through them in a similar vacation-relaxation-reading zone.

How many books do you take on vacation?
(polls)

This reading season, I am considering taking just two books of my own to read. It will force me to read the works of one writer in particular, something I have wanted to do but it might be intense. But it might be nice to not lug heavy paper objects up and down the state of California too, and better for my body in a wellness sense. Any of you web wanderers out there, any recommendations on readings for this holiday season? Anything we should try to pick up at our public library or nearby used-bookstore before hopping on the bus to the train to the bus to the airplane to the car to the house?

Travelogue

[Travelogue] Get on the train

When having to move from here to there with the distance not being practical for your own two feet to carry you, trains are a delightful alternative. More passive than piloting your own automobile through the cosmos of spacey drivers out on the endless roads, riding the train can lend some quiet meditative space. Unlike the droning, stale-aired tube that is modern air travel, one can often move more freely on a railed vessel, not to mention exit entirely. Waiting for the next stop is usually the best option for getting off, but if one simply must exit with haste – let us say due to being chased amidst intrigue, attempting survival in light of burning or exploding carriage, et cetera – the likelihood of landing in one piece is better when jumping from a train than an airplane. You are afforded the experience of sensing the progression in movement of your journey across the landscape when you ride a train as well. Underground lines can be a little noisy, crowded, and potentially stiflingly hot; but subways are often fast and convenient, being located in dense urban centers which suffuse them with practical use and influence over lifestyle and terrain, both in formation and identity.

It is certainly much easier to engage in conversation when riding on a train, as you are not focused on navigating your individual wheeled metal box. Riding trains in France brought many delightful encounters and different contexts in which to practice the language. I met a young woman who watched my friends and I play cards, claiming she had no idea what our game was, asking to have the rules explained and to be included on the next round. After a brief tutorial, this young lady was dealt a hand of cards, and she proceeded to trounce us all within a single round of cards, behaving most politely and modestly the entire time. We knew a ringer, and stopped playing. My friend met a charming music performer on one of our trips through France, and his promotional posters adorned our future apartment windows in Santa Cruz. The past few years I have celebrated the winter holiday season by splitting time between the Los Angeles and the San Diego areas, and I have been making an enjoyed and anticipated tradition of taking the train from Union Station. This past year I unexpectedly ran into one of my own ESL students from San Francisco in my compartment, and we ended up sitting in the same quadrant of seats and conversing about our travels.

Some very interesting written representations occur on trains, getting us into the field of travel narratives. Christopher Isherwood opens his novel Mr. Norris Changes Trains with the meeting between his neutral protagonist and the infamous Arthur Norris while they are sharing a compartment crossing Europe. Isherwood and his close friend and writing peer W.H. Auden, a poet, left a record of a very interesting conversation shared while riding a train. They had been commissioned to write a travelogue and journalistic account of the war between China and Japan during the 1930s, which gave us their combined work, Journey to a War.  We get this image of them sharing a train journey in this excerpt:

“Thrown back upon each other’s well-worn company, we got through the long hours as we could best contrive—emptying out our heads like waste-paper baskets for the least scrap of amusement or interest. We told the old anecdotes, each secretly hoping that the other would remember or invent some new detail, however palpably untrue. We improvised parodies and limericks. We lost ourselves in interminable arguments and speculations: ‘What would happen if the world ran out of oil?’ ‘What would you describe as the unhappiest day of your life?’ ‘Does a man become a different person in a different place?”

The time and space the train travel gives us is a good time for conversation, and can yield interesting material in allowing so much space for discourse as you may only have conversation or sleep between you and a long journey. The speculations above are definitely interesting. Is it not absolutely disconcerting that a pair of intellectuals were casually discussing the ramifications of reaching peak oil in the 1930s? Are we different people when we travel? Who are we when we lose the surroundings, routine and acquiantances who help define who we are in our space? It is interesting to consider the conversation above, our own social place riding on trains contemporarily, and the potential future place of trains as we attempt to mitigate the affects of climate change, let alone game changers like peak oil.