We're two sisters who are craft book publishers and found ourselves in the midst of an avocado grove. We bought this house where we planned to conduct our publishing business and in the deal got 4 acres of avocado trees thrown in. Now we're not only publishers but ranchers as well! This blog is all about avocados and anything else that strikes my fancy.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Sepia Saturday #124 We Rode the Iron Rooster

"Anything is possible on a train: a great meal, a binge, a visit from card players, an intrigue, a good night's sleep, and strangers' monologues framed like Russian short stories."
                                                               from The Great Railway Bazaar
                                                               by Paul Theroux

Barbara and I were invited by one of our suppliers (who we affectionately call The Doily King - since he was at the time the biggest importer of crocheted doilies from China) to an all expense paid trip to China. Wow. How could we refuse?  It was 1985 and we set off with our salesman, Denis and the Doily King himself, Dickie Lo (no I'm not making up that name!).

We met lots of people on that trip that fit the category of stranger's monologues from Russian short stories. And most of our adventures happened on Chinese trains.

Our first train ride was from Shanghai to Beijing where we boarded with the hoards of other passengers at this grand station with the lovely art deco train streaming across the front:

I'm not sure what those two fellows are doing with their ladder that doesn't look like it's going to get them to where they want to go. Maybe they were going to shine up this silvery train.

Another view of the bustling station:

Waiting with Dickie for the train.

Here's our train. All aboard!  Doesn't it have a cartoonish quality?

Here's some of the lady workers who mostly cleaned the bathrooms (what a job!) and when they weren't cleaning they were barking orders at us. They look so happy and funloving, but they were actually quite mean. "Get in your compartment". "Clear the aisles" "Get in line" in their high pitched shrieking voices.

These are some soldiers who were also passengers on the train. They weren't mean like the girls in the white hats. They pretty much kept to themselves. Don't you just love their uniforms? We bought several green army hats with red stars on the front. I never wore mine.

Barbara and I were so happy when we found our way to our luxury compartment. Lace curtains, white embroidered tablecloth and pillows, a thermos of hot water for tea. We were just settling in:

when all of a sudden the conductor led two strange men into our compartment. Yikes, we were to share our tiny little abode with the two men on the right for three days and two nights! 

They turned out to be very nice, two doctors on their way to a medical conference. But for medical doctors, they sure smoked a lot. The man on the far right is checking out the video camera I bought in Hong Kong. Doesn't that look like a relic now? 

The guy on the left was a friend of theirs. He didn't share our compartment but he did spend a lot of time there talking and singing to us.  Yes, singing. And he had quite a repertoire - Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (very appropos), Love Me Tender, and Hey Jude among others. 

This is a lady we met on the train. She and Denis are studying his Chinese language book. Capitalism was just creeping into China and this lady was taking full advantage. She had been to the Russian border in the north of China to invest money in property and said she was making a killing. I'll bet she's one of the super rich now that you hear so much about.

Everyone of the people we met could have been characters in those Russian stories, but none could beat Bernard's story. He was quite an unforgettable character. He was just coming off a teaching job in Samoa where he had several custom sarong-type outfits made. How strange in China to see a black man wearing a sarong!  He was on his way to Taian to teach at the Shandong Mining College.  What a surprise the town fathers had when they greeted him at the station. I often wonder what happened to Bernard. He's probably off to some other remote area, wearing a Mao jacket that he had specially made in Taian.

Here's Bernard in the dining car (not a great photo, wish I had one that showed his sarong). That's me on the right showing the magical camera to the dining car workers.

What an interesting train trip it was. Not comfortable, no good food, not much sleep, no card playing, no binges, but lots of great stories.

For other stories about trains, miniatures, and other assorted tales, see Sepia Saturday.


  1. I really enjoyed this travel adventure - getting to see the photos. What a cast of characters. You look like you're having a wonderful time - your big smiles, despite the cigarette smoke and scoldings. Must have been the serenading. I can see the two of you just laughing your heads off and I bet those Chinese doctors still talk about you to this day.
    Another terrific post.

  2. wow! What An Adventure!+ Your In-House Doctor!

  3. The whole trip sounds fantastic, and it's great you got some good pictures and stories to remember and share. I especially like the train scene decorating the front of the first station.

  4. A unique trip for you I'm sure.It must have been quite an adventure.

  5. I hope you intended this to be funny because I'm still laughing. (Why do people yell at tourists?) This could be a movie.

  6. That’s quite a train journey. Having to share with male passengers is a bit odd though isn’t it? I love the way you put together the story and pictures and very apt quote to start it off.

  7. Wow is right. I loved that story. I have never traveled on a train to any destination. We have to trains in our town that are for entertainment only. A beautiful vintage dinner train and a museum train that has a mock train robbery and sometimes stages reenactments of famous ones. Very creative post.

  8. A trip of a lifetime! How wonderful, even if you did have to share your compartment with smoking men. Smoking strangers would be bad enough but...

  9. Oh, Nancy, this was so fun!!! I started laughing out loud when you were talking about the mean cleaning ladies. I can't believe that you guys had to share that tiny room with those smokin' hot doctors, lol.

    Thanks so much for sharing this with us today.

    Kathy M.

  10. What a journey - and what a report you have given us of it. The photographs must almost be historical documents now - so much must have changed in China in the last 25 or so years.

  11. What an adventure. I've yet to find anyone who comes back from a journey in China that doesn't have fascinating stories.

  12. A great travel story. I wonder what the same trip would be like today.

  13. That's a luxury compartment?...
    I remember my mom and I had to share a compartment with a stranger once. There was this thing you zipped up to seal off the bed enclosure. I don't think my mom slept much on that journey.

    Nice for you to have seen China when it was only beginning to open up somewhat to the western world. You surprised me with the meanness of those girls. I wouldn't have thought so...

    1. Hi Ticklebear,
      Yes, they were mean. But if you had to clean those train bathrooms, you'd be mean too.
      Like your mom, I didn't get much sleep on that train. We didn't have any kind of divider. It was not a comfortable trip, but it makes for good stories now.

  14. Who knew doilies were imported from China? What a wonderful story and great memories for you! Loved the pictures, thanks for sharing.