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:
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?
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.