Before the turn of the century, the primary mode of transportation across China was by these green-colored trains.
Prior to the 1980s, even these train journeys were considered luxuries, and most people were excluded either due to affordability or the lack of government job requirements.
I was one of the lucky few who had the opportunity to take my first train ride when I was merely four years old. I accompanied my mom on a trip from Chengdu to Wuhan so that she could give birth to my brother and be cared for by her parents there, as my dad was working in a different city during those tumultuous years.
We first embarked on a 12-hour train journey from Chengdu to Chongqing. After that, we took a steamboat for a three or four-day trip along the Yangtze River to Wuhan.
It was an eye-opening experience for me, and I loved gazing out of the train window, observing the mountains, rivers, and the variety of plantations, rice fields, and cornfields. It felt magical, and from then on, I developed a lifelong habit of finding great joy in observing the moving scenery outside of trains, planes, or cars.
I also experienced severe panic attacks whenever the train stopped, and my mom left me alone on the train to fetch freshwater or food from the platform. Even to this day, I vividly recall how those platforms looked and how nervous I was waiting for my mom to return before the train started moving. Sometimes, I would follow my mom and step out onto the platform, keeping all my senses on high alert, listening for any sounds of the conductors’ whistles or the announcements signaling our train’s departure. The worry was so intense that I felt like I might pass out. However, I didn’t let my mom know about it, as even at that young age, I knew she would consider it nonsense. My mom was a carefree person, and I’m glad that as I grew older, I became more like her.
My very first significant solo travel occurred after completing my first year of college when I took a three-day and night train journey to visit Beijing.
I fell in love with Beijing at first sight, as I felt a mystical yet strong spiritual connection to that ancient capital city of China. During my nearly month-long stay with my uncle’s family, I explored every corner of the city, visiting the major temples and gardens that once belonged to the emperors and their aristocratic families.
However, halfway through the train journey back to Chengdu, one of the most severe summer storms and mudslides in recorded history occurred. According to Wikipedia records, nearly 300 miles of railway between Xi’an and Chengdu were destroyed. Our train was redirected back to Beijing (a journey of over 20 hours) to clear the congested traffic.
I waited in Beijing for a week, but the route was still not restored. School was about to start, so I made the bold decision to take a completely different route. Instead of going to Xi’an and then Chengdu, I traveled all the way from Beijing to Wuhan (a 24+ hour journey), then to Chongqing (another 24+ hour journey), and finally a 12-hour ride back to Chengdu.
That concluded my eventful first solo trip. I slept under the bench multiple times, experienced severe hunger and dehydration when I finally arrived in Chengdu, and endured mild harassment from a middle-aged man who sat next to me (thankfully, it lasted only for one night). I also met a college student from Beijing who started writing to me when the next semester began, but I quickly stopped corresponding due to my parents’ overbearing watch and guidance.
Afterward, I began to travel extensively when I pursued my graduate studies. It was a time when China just re-opened the door and resumed the post graduate education and short of graduates talents. The government provided us the students who made it to the highly selective graduate school with a salary that almost rivaled our college professor parents’, enabling me to afford train tickets, dine on the train, and stay in hotels.
I treasure these hardcore, slow train travel experiences. I had the chance to experience them when I was young and hadn’t seen much of the rest of the world, so I couldn’t pass judgment on the travel conditions. I was always in high spirits when I traveled and incredibly happy. The temporary sense of community formed with fellow travelers sitting or sleeping next to me on the train or boat during the remainder of the one or two-day journey is something that is almost nonexistent nowadays.
And that distinctive rattling sound of the train’s wheels crossing from one rail to the next — I always loved it and never grew tired of listening to it.
Lastly, but certainly not least, the long haunting sound of the ancient train’s “steam whistle,” especially in the pitch-dark night, as I sat there staring through the window, catching glimpses of the silhouettes of mountains or the moonlight shimmering on rivers — it evoked a feeling of melancholy, nostalgia and timelessness, even when I was just a four- or five-year-old little girl on my way back from Wuhan to Chengdu. I was always and still am deeply moved by that sound whenever I got a chance to hear it from far and away places.