Through China to Europe—By Train
As told to “Awake!” correspondent in the Philippines
IT WAS a hot, steamy morning as we stepped onto the platform of the Hong Kong railroad station. We were armed with cameras, dictionaries, road maps and Chinese visas. Bag and baggage were whisked away, and with all the other foreigners, we were ushered past the throngs of Chinese to a waiting train. The next three hours were filled with anticipation as we wound through the hills and farming villages of the frontier, slowly approaching the Chinese border.
What were we, an American missionary couple from the Philippines, doing on that train, heading deep into China? Well, we had always been interested in the Chinese people, and we wondered what life was like on the vast Asian continent. Since we were planning a vacation in America, to start our journey we decided to cross Asia by train.
Into China’s Interior
We arrived at the border town of Shumchun with only a hazy idea of what lay ahead. After claiming our luggage, we walked across a wooden bridge that represents the gate way. Around us were many Chinese and a few foreigners, all struggling with bags, boxes and bundles as they scurried across the bridge. The Chinese officials received us courteously, took us through all the entry regulations, gave us our first Chinese meal and put us on the train for Canton. The two-hour trip—on cushioned seats in air-conditioned comfort, with hot tea served in hand-painted mugs—made us feel like honored guests.
As we stepped off the train in Canton, we were politely welcomed by Chan, a young man who frequently reminded us that it was his “duty to serve the people.” He was our “responsible person,” assigned as private tour guide, interpreter and custodian. Chan quickly took charge of us and our luggage, escorting us to a waiting automobile for several hours of sightseeing. “This car is owned by the government,” Chan explained. “There are no privately owned cars in China because they are bad for the air.”
We honked our way through streets swarming with people, pressing through the crowds from one tourist attraction to the next. A look-out point over the city, an orchid garden, public parks—all must be seen. Questions were answered patiently and politely. A scheduled meal in a restaurant could not be canceled despite our utter fatigue. Finally, Chan escorted us back to the station and put us on the train for Peking.
Through China by Train
The train pulled out of Canton Station at 8:40 p.m. with two exhausted American passengers aboard. At last the ever-present guards, guides and interpreters were gone. Our compartment really was designed for four, with comfortable berths and a little table by the window with a lace tablecloth and a potted plant. We were given two china mugs for tea, several small packets of tea leaves, and a large brightly painted thermos of steaming hot water. Heads swimming with the sights and experiences of the day, we climbed into our berths that first night in China and were lulled to sleep by the movement of the train as we plunged deeper into an unfamiliar land.
August 24, 1976: We awoke before dawn, eager to explore our new surroundings. To our surprise, we opened our door to find that we were the last two in a long line leading to the dining room. All our traveling companions were men, most of them wearing undershirts and those baggy pants that are almost a national uniform in China. Some smiled and murmured a friendly greeting, while others self-consciously looked elsewhere as we approached.
In the dining car, a plump, congenial fellow—a combination steward, chef and busboy—motioned us to our seats. Passengers were noisily slurping noodles and soup, with chopsticks clicking, when the steward appeared from the kitchen. Smiling broadly, and obviously proud of his accomplishment, he presented us with coffee, toast, jam and butter. We could not have been more pleased.
Outside, the verdant hills of Hunan Province were darting past us. The houses were made of mud bricks and had thatched or tiled roofs. Small villages dotted the countryside, and the land was well cultivated, lush and green with flourishing rice paddies. People were in the fields, on the roads, busily moving about. Every hour or two the train stopped for an exchange of passengers. These were small, remote places where farmers and village folk carried their meager possessions in bundles wrapped in cotton cloth. Babies were on mother’s back or toddling behind her, wearing unique little pants with the seam around the crotch left unsewn, apparently in case of emergencies!
Most stations were equipped with a large metal container of water and a ladle for thirsty travelers. Gradually, we noticed that families with women and children were joining our entourage. Festive sounds, laughter and loud conversation echoed throughout the train.
By afternoon we had crossed the wide Yangtze River. The temperature changed quickly as we left the tropics farther behind. People were dressed in warmer clothes, babies were bundled up, and we used thick woolen blankets at night. Hot tea was just the thing for an evening like this, but our supply was depleted. Consulting the dictionary, I learned that the Chinese word for tea is cha, the same as in Filipino. Confidently, I asked the steward for more cha. Radiant, he nodded that he understood and fairly ran to his storeroom, emerging a few moments later with a fresh supply of soap and toilet tissue for the community lavatory! We went to bed without our tea that night.
August 25: At 5 a.m. we crawled out of bed and dressed at a leisurely pace. We entered the outskirts of Peking just as the sun peeped over the horizon. A few early risers were beginning to move about on the streets, busy with the activities of a new day. Physical fitness is encouraged by government policy, and so young and old alike were in the streets and public parks doing calisthenics with Oriental movements resembling Kung Fu.
Tourists in Peking
At exactly 6:18 a.m., our train came to a stop at Peking Station. We left the now-familiar surroundings of the train and made our way uncertainly through the vast halls of the station. Outside was a large open area where crowds of people milled about or sat on the pavement holding their belongings, waiting patiently. Conspicuously absent was our “responsible person.” Later, we learned that he had been reassigned to assist in the campaign to repair earthquake damage. We would have been happy even with an “irresponsible person” if he could have directed us to our hotel.
After two hours of marching through busy Peking streets, luggage in tow, we located the American Liaison Office. From there we contacted the China Travel Service. Apologetically, they informed us that the train we had arranged to take to Moscow by way of Manchuria was not running, since the tracks had been destroyed by the devastating earthquake. The only other route was through Outer Mongolia, on a train the following week. Since we would be in Peking for seven days instead of the two that we originally planned, our hotel assignment was thoughtfully changed to a much less expensive one. The Hsin Chiao turned out to be a lovely old hotel, comfortable in spite of lobby and halls filled with cement bags and bamboo scaffolds, more earthquake reminders.
Every day we walked miles in Peking. At first, people were surprised to see us, then curious and sometimes a little frightened, but usually ready to return a smile. One sure way to overcome reticence was to admire a baby. The parents warmed up immediately, smiling broadly, often bringing the baby for us to hold. On the day we arrived, our first walk took us to Tien An Men Square, an immense place surrounded by four great halls. From every direction Mao Tse-tung gazed down on the masses from a larger-than-life portrait. We were the only foreigners in the crowd, but not the only tourists. Here were groups of schoolchildren, families walking hand in hand, green-uniformed soldiers, red star sewn on their collars—all visitors in a place that they had heard so much about. Many were capturing the moment by paying a photographer to take black-and-white snapshots as they posed, unsmiling and dignified, by a famous landmark.
August 26-31: Our week in Peking was a whirlwind of activity. Aside from sight-seeing, we had the serious business of obtaining visas for Outer Mongolia, Russia, Poland and East Germany. And so began a long succession of treks from embassy to embassy—from the burly Russian Intourist representative to the sleepy Mongolian official whom we aroused from a nap each time that we came. Eventually, patience paid off and we had all our visas. A ‘celebration meal’ was in order.
We chose a small restaurant specializing in Peking duck. Inside, business was booming. In good-natured disarray, families and comrades crowded around large round tables loaded with rice, beer, orange soda and an occasional dish of meat and vegetables. Amid curious stares and incredulous looks, we braved our way to the one empty table. The clamor became absolute silence. Waitresses raced around, gathering all the room dividers they could carry and surrounded our table with them. The room still hushed, we waited inside our enclosure until a nervous waitress entered, pencil and pad in hand. There was no menu and we had no idea what we were ordering, but she scribbled something on her pad and left, apparently satisfied. Time ticked by interminably and no food appeared. Waitresses studiously busied themselves elsewhere, not quite knowing what to do with their “unusual” customers. Defeated, we gestured to a nearby waitress that we were leaving. Her face beaming, she and the other restaurant employees escorted us to the door, smiling and waving as we departed. Oh, well, who wanted Peking duck?
Sight-seeing in Peking was a pleasure. Our usual mode of transportation was the public bus. After we showed the conductress a paper with our destination written in Chinese, she would take us ‘under her wing.’
Peking’s streets are wide, tree-lined avenues, offering a mélange of sights, sounds and experiences. For instance, a truck filled with shoe boxes pulled up on one sidewalk, and a long line of prospective buyers formed. Each was handed a box, which he accepted. Only later, after walking a few feet down the street, did the customers pause to try on their newly acquired plastic sandals.
Evidences of earthquake tragedies were abundant. Many homes were destroyed or severely damaged. In fear of further quakes, or perhaps because their homes were uninhabitable, many were occupying tents or living in little shelters built over a bed. Men and women were mobilized in an all-out effort to repair damage in the stricken areas. Government-owned wagons patrolled the streets daily, leaving piles of bricks and lime for use by the masses.
By bus and on foot we traveled unescorted to various places, including the palaces of the old emperors, and the zoo, where the keepers report any strange animal behavior as a means of earthquake prediction. Only for our trip to the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs did we have to hire a car. Many of these famous landmarks constructed by the old emperors now are suffering from disrepair and vandalism. The one church that we saw was empty and boarded up.
Then, too soon, our week in Peking was coming to a close.
On to Outer Mongolia
September 1: The train leaving Peking was similar to the one on which we arrived, except for the passengers. They were almost exclusively foreigners: Russians, Mongolians, Poles, Germans, Afghans and Vietnamese. Our compartment became a popular gathering spot, as all who spoke a little English were anxious to give it a try.
Our train climbed high into the mountains, past the Great Wall. Houses of sunbaked bricks were clustered near radiant fields of sunflowers in bloom. Then we turned north and the scene began to change. Small farms produced poor, stunted crops, and riverbeds were just damp. By evening we reached barren wasteland, the edge of the Gobi Desert.
At 8:50 p.m. loud music and staccato remarks over a loudspeaker informed us that we had reached the border at Erhlien. For two and a half hours we sipped tea in the station as our train was searched, and the engine and dining car were exchanged for their Mongolian counterparts. The entire train was jacked up, about eight feet (2.4 meters) in the air, while the wheels were changed to fit the widergauge Mongolian and Russian track system. After a short ride, we arrived at Dzamiin Uude, on the Mongolian border, for another check and another hour’s wait. At 12:15 a.m., just fifteen minutes after our Chinese visas expired, the train pulled out of the station and we settled down for the night.
September 2: We awoke to a ‘new world’—an infinite wilderness under a blue dome of cloudless skies. From our vantage point, we spotted sporadic groups of Bactrian camels, humps swaying as they ambled along. We saw herds of wild horses, and an occasional huddle of white, circular tents, the portable lodgings of nomadic herdsmen.
Train stops on the Gobi Desert were infrequent and enthusiastically awaited by local townspeople. Swarming aboard, they sold snacks to passengers or congregated in the dining car to drink beer and stock up with canned goods. All were dressed for the big occasion. The native costume was a tall headdress and long pants, topped with a tunic tied with a bright sash.
Our longest stop was at the capital city, Ulan Bator, where a jubilant group of wedding celebrants was so delighted at our request to photograph the bride and groom that they insisted we try a little of their local liquor, generously offered from the one cup that they all shared. Later, after a bowl of cabbage soup and some black bread, we returned to our compartment to await another midnight border crossing, this time into Russia.
Siberia to Europe
September 3-8: By morning, the desert of the night before had turned into thickly forested mountains. It was drizzling, gray and cold. We wrapped up in our heavy woolen blankets, shivering in the unheated train. So this was Siberia!
For several hours we followed the coastline of an immense body of water, its breakers pounding against a rocky shore. Lake Baikal is an extremely deep, cold freshwater lake, containing nearly as much water as all five of America’s Great Lakes combined.
So began our long, arduous trek across Siberia. Hours and hours of mountains, which changed gradually to lowland plains densely overgrown with forests of white birch and fir, were only rarely interrupted by a settlement of log cabins or an industrial city of factories spouting black smoke. At each stop the train emptied as passengers spilled out into the town to check the numerous kiosks where babushkas (old women) sold bread, eggs, cheese and flowers.
At 4 p.m. on September 6 we arrived in Moscow. We had only a few hours to take a subway ride, do a little sight-seeing and find the Interpol Hotel where we bought the last two tickets on a train leaving that evening. The following morning we crossed the Polish border and a few hours later we were in Germany, speeding in comfort toward Luxembourg and our plane for New York city.
We had spent two and a half weeks in the vast realm that stretches from Hong Kong through eastern Europe. It was a never-to-be-forgotten trip that afforded us glimpses of a world differing from our own in so many ways. Yet, it was peopled with ordinary human beings who treated us hospitably. Now we are looking forward all the more eagerly to the day when national barriers no longer will exist.
[Map on page 16]
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Women labor to repair earthquake damage in Peking
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Public transportation Peking-style: tricycle and bus
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This portion of the Great Wall shows the collapse of unmaintained sections