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Not many people here in Beijing get my “Working Class” T-shirt, but the Chinese who do snigger. It depicts the logo of the country’s rail system, which evokes the nose of a locomotive, and reads “the working class”, who were once exalted the “locomotive of the new era” in Maoist song. Except the logo is upside-down on the tee and the English lettering underneath streams down, like paint too late to dry. The net irony is a harsh cut on old icons, but neatly sums up contemporary realities in Chinese society: The train has been rendered a “backwards” form of travel, while the working class lag at the bottom.

Last week, I ditched Beijing for the provinces with little prescribed purpose other than to re-educate myself about how people in other places live. The only way to ride was by rail. The flight to my destination in the southeast would have taken fewer than three hours and cost about $200 one-way for an economy seat, higher than usual because of the surging costs of oil. The train took 32 hours, but a ticket in the second-class berth, “hard sleeper”, cost around $60. So for a third of the price I traveled thirteen times as slow. But in the process I got a day-and-a-half stay at a hostel on wheels.

China’s long-distance passenger rail network, not unlike the United States’, is huge, old, sluggish, and seedy as a whole, and heavily underinvested and monopolized when compared to road and air transport. The train stations are underclass slums. But unlike in America, there is little doubt that the train’s going to be a mass form of public conveyance for the foreseeable future. Thus there is ample incentive to modernize. Just a few weeks ago, the country made its biggest single order of railcars ever from Bombardier, worth $1.5 billion. Then the state rail ministry announced it was taking its corporate arm IPO in Shanghai. It didn’t say what it wanted out of the initial sale, just what it needed: 12 billion yuan ($1.61 billion), to help pay for all the planned improvements.

But the nation’s rail system faces a problem similar to that confronting Chinese factories, gas pumps and power stations: price. Rail authorities have had a wretched time trying to elevate the service without alienating the masses. Tickets are fixed at unprofitably low levels, an old-school socialist badge of forbearance. Even small hikes can pinch the flow of migrant laborers, and a lawsuit over moderate rises led to a landmark public hearing on the issue five years ago. Bullet trains are overpriced. The industry is chronically corrupt and localized as well. Just to break world speed records, some critics charge, Shanghai built its Maglev line from Pudong International Airport that stops short of the traditional city center. This summer, a respected Beijing-based newspaper dished out the dirt on how substandard coal ash was used to cut costs on a new link between Wuhan and Guangzhou.

The longer I live in China, the harder it is at times to tell what’s exactly changing: the country or me. It had been five or six years since I’d remotely “roughed it” on a train. On one of my maiden journeys, in 1995, I had no seat at all; the whole way home from Inner Mongolia to Beijing, I stood, leaned, squeezed and finally grovelled (in halting Mandarin) for half a cheek of space in “hard seat”, the bowels of the train. By contrast, the only reason for an overnight train trip in February was because I couldn’t get a plane ticket. For that trip, I rode in the exec class, “soft sleeper”, which features four plush bunks, two each side, in locking compartments. On the way back to Beijing, I shared a cabin with three well-dressed reps from a quasi-private firm that audits China’s liquor industry. The designated baijiu expert, a middle-aged man, held forth for a half an hour on the bouquet of one particular national spirit; the beer expert, a woman, detailed improvements in filtering that were supplanting the notorious use of formaldehyde. These are the sort of travelling businesspeople you meet in soft-sleeper – when there are people.

But, the lower-class berths never fail to deliver a crowd. “Hard-sleeper” cars contain open-faced cubicles with bunks stacked three-a-side. After I boarded last week, the ice-breaking conversation with my new “roomies” concerned who had which bunk. The positioning is hierarchical in terms of price and convenience, and easily submits to Marxist reading. It’s one of those cases where the dominant are on the bottom. The disadvantage for the occupant is that he or she is obliged to support the less priviledged during the day, when they need a place to sit.

The topmost victims were a beefy guy from a small Fujian city who took his college-age sister to see the capital for the weekend. The middle bunker opposite me was a young Beijing woman travelling solo like myself. Based on nearness of age and angst over our common lot on the train, the four of us quickly bonded. Below us, we’d acquired two colleagues from a some sort of trading who mumbled among themselves about business, pausing to listen in on our conversation with emotionless stares.

The big talker was the Beijing woman. I didn’t catch her name but did get her year of birth – the Year of the Rabbit. For 32 hours, “Rabbit” filled the quiet left by the rest of us. She told us she was heading to the southeast coast for work, which was uncommon for an educated Beijinger. “I know – it’s usually the opposite,” she said. She was returning to her post of eight months in human resources at a Taiwanese-owned factory making leather bags. The job was banal but the pay was good and the hours short. The real reason she was going back, it later came clear, was love. Rabbit had a boyfriend.

The atmospherics of hard sleeper have not changed much in the past decade. Except what once was considered pure passé now seemed unintended kitsch, as it is when you return to Grandma’s house after a long-time absence. Embroidery embedded in mayonaisse green. Rounded windows with lace curtains, showing silhoutted scenes of bare-bellied goddesses at river’s edge. Aisle carpeting in a jazzy piano theme, all keys and notes. Over the loudspeaker, breathy Chinese pop played longer and louder than I had ever remembered.

Rail officials try to take advantage of the ennui. The same lifeless attendants who refill the thermoses with hot water, clean the trays of peels and shells, and push the boxed lunch carts are also animated hawkers. They peddle a diffierent cheap trinket every few hours: twist toys, glass-and-stone stretch bracelets that “relieve pressure” and “alleviate insomnia”, foot pads infused with gel that “massage as you walk”. The gregarious young female attendant in our car had a sales target of 100 yuan ($13) per ride, with no commissions. Nor she was she a life-time state employee – an increasingly rare breed, even on the trains. She had a three-year contract with a salary of about 1,000 ($130) per month (“It’s ‘take it or leave it’”). Her skin was sallow and clustered with acne by the nose. Soliciting a sale, she fawned on Rabbit’s clear complexion and shiny hair. “Heh,” Rabbit gloated, “I haven’t washed it in two days.” The attendant was embarrassed. “My face used to be like yours…before I joined the railroad.”

Generally speaking, I noted less smoking between cars, more business being conducted over the phone, and fewer parties of beer, cured meats and cards. No longer could I draw a crowd with a few phrases of Chinese. My fellow passengers were not peasants. China now is a nation of working class people more into themselves. But it’s still Kenny G who plays lullabye at night, and Kenny G who cockle-doodle-doos at dawn. His “Songbird” is the ultimate brain-washing song of post-Tiananmen era.

One is left to wonder: has China simply missed its enchanted age of train travel? By the time the boom allowed the first to get rich and travel in the style the jet-setters had left the station. Instead of rail travel, they hopped on planes, leaving the working class to their own devices. Today, China’s rails system is on track to look more like present-day Amtrak but with full trains and packed stations. If only it can build – or rebuild – a nice, fast, sustainable and safe system like Europe’s, it would be a sign that the working class is becoming a real middle class.

Share  Posted by jansfield at 12:45 PM | Permalink

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