Trains and planes: China in 1972

From Chinese Shadows, Simon Leys’ account of his six-month stay in China in 1972, during a lull in the Cultural Revolution:

Air travel in China is full of unexpected charms, but if one is in a hurry, better take the train. The charm of air travel – apart from the apple or the banana (sometimes both) that one gets during the flight – is that one never knows when one will depart or when one will arrive, or even where one will land. The element of surprise, nay adventure, gives back to air travel some of its former romance. On provincial lines, the aircraft are little twin-engine planes that fly slowly at four to six thousand feet, and in clear weather (the weather will always be clear: if it were not, the plane would not fly) one has the most gorgeous imaginable lessons in Chinese geography. Sometimes the planes have seats – taken, it would seem, from old buses – on one side only, and the other side is filled with crates, boxes, and parcels. These little planes are even more irregular than the big ones, and more fun.

The trains, prosaically, run on time. Sybaritic meals offered in the buffet car contrast with the austerity of the airline fare. (Have the railways fallen back, like other sectors, into the hands of the revisionists, while the airways are still the preserve of the extreme left?) The first-class sleeping car is always three-quarters empty, and the only travelers the foreigner will meet are highly military officers. Mealtimes are arranged so that he will never be in the buffet car with ordinary Chinese travelers. But to break the isolation, the foreign traveler can talk to train personnel – the porters, waiters, and cooks. These are mostly agreeable and sociable types, and thanks to the peculiar nature of their professional obligations, they lack the inhibitions that paralyze the rest of the population in dealing with foreigners. They can always find a good reason to come and have a chat with you in your compartment: travelers are few in first-class, and they have plenty of time. I never traveled without Hong Kong Chinese-language newspapers, of which the citizens of the People’s Republic, for obvious reasons, are extremely fond. I never figured out exactly what fascinated them most – heretical revelations about recent developments in the power struggle in Peking, or prurient details about the private lives of Hong Kong starlets; but in any case, on each trip the word would go around, and before long my compartment would be a reading room; the conductor, the guard, the policeman on duty, the porter, and the cook would each in turn knock on my door; after securing the lock to discourage any undesired visitor, they would sit down comfortably and become absorbed in back numbers of Ming Pao.

 

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