Orient Express

Chinese bullet train
Chinese bullet train. Photo credit: Karen Kao

The first time I crossed China by train was 1984. I was on a group trip organized by the Smithsonian Institute, the start of a lifelong obsession with Shanghai. This particular train took our group from Xi’An to Luoyang. Back then, the journey lasted for 8 hours. These days, you can take a bullet train that cuts the duration in half or just fly.

In 1984, only Party leaders and foreign visitors could fly. The day we flew from Beijing to Xi’An, the weather was oppressive. Stuck inside a plane on the tarmac, we became hot and grumpy. Our group began to get restless, demanding from the stewardesses that they turn on the air conditioning. The stewardesses, in turn, became bewildered, amused and finally fed up.

Roll down your window if you’re so hot, they cried.

Xi'An airport
Xi’An Airport 1984. Photo credit: Karen Kao

And so we did. Even in mid-flight, our plane never made it more than a couple hundred meters above the ground. We could have easily dusted the crops at the same time. I saw more from that plane window than I’ve seen on any flight since. But it was the train ride from Xi’An to Luoyang that I still remember.


We were a group of 24 Americans. Mostly retired couples off to see the world and a few young adventurers. At the time, you couldn’t travel alone in China. And for a group, you needed to get prior clearance for the purpose of the trip, the itinerary and every member of the group.

When we arrived in China, our 2 handlers, Mr. Yang and Mr. Su met us at the airport. They accompanied us throughout our 10 day journey, joined by local guides for each stop we made. Our handlers sat in on all the lectures the Smithsonian had organized for us and exerted an obvious and unwelcome influence on the range of topics discussed.

In the name of hospitality, we slept in special 4 star hotels reserved for foreign visitors. We ate each night in restaurants designated for the same purpose. We were encouraged, regularly, to buy souvenirs but these could only be purchased in the local Friendship Stores using the foreign renminbi that we had purchased with our American dollars upon entering China and which we would be required to sell back upon departure.

soft seats

soft sleeper train
Soft sleeper train seats 1984. Photo credit: Karen Kao

For the 8 hour train journey from Xi’An to Luoyang, we spread out among several train cars with soft sleeper seats. The softness came from the many layers of coverings and doilies.

And the alternatives? Hard sleeper seats meant wooden benches suspended from a metal rack 3 levels high. Those on the top rack had the best view and the freshest air. Those on the bottom bunk had to contend with the shells of sunflower seed and spittle that rained on their heads.

Hard seats were, in fact, no seats at all. A passenger could sit on his haunches for the full journey or build a table and chairs out of the luggage, all the while keeping an alert eye on the children or the poultry that roamed the cars.

hard eyes

I still have the journal I wrote during that trip, though I’m sorry to say there’s little of interest in those pages. I was 24 years old at the time and supremely self-obsessed. My writing consisted of some bad poetry and uninformed musings about life under Mao. But also the faint record of two incidents that continue to stand out in my mind.

Like all tourists today who visit Xi’An, we made the obligatory trek to see the terracotta army. If you visit the army today, you’ll find a massive museum complex where the best remnants are preserved. There are restaurants, water fountains and museum shops. An enormous hall has been built over the archeological site uncovered in 1974 and a massive barrier to prevent the public from coming too close.

street market Xi'An
Street market outside terracotta army 1984. Photo credit: Karen Kao

When I was there in 1984, there was a wooden ramp that led down into the pit where archeologists were hard at work uncovering the rest of the warriors. Tarps and plastic sheeting were all that protected this find from the elements. Outside was a street market consisting of a dozen or so stands all selling local handicrafts.

As I was passing through the market, an old woman and a young girl glommed onto me. The incident was repelling.

The strength of that woman gripping me as she begged me to buy something or at least change her money. The smell of water chestnuts on her breath; the yellow stains on her fingers. The eyes of that little girl’s so like the old woman. Just as old and grasping and infinitely insatiable.

a friendship

During the train ride that followed our visit to the terracotta army, I apparently poured my heart out to our two handlers. Mr. Yang and Mr. Su, to their credit, listened with great sympathy and even tried to comfort me. Mr. Yang blamed the parents for the child’s grasping nature.

I learned these things from re-reading my journal. What I remember is this: that none of us properly spoke the other’s language and yet we spent that entire train ride talking about life. We were roughly the same age and yet their futures were utterly fixed: from where they to live to when they might marry. They couldn’t imagine a place in the world where the Chinese might be in the minority.

The view from the train window showed me horse  country, farmland and rice paddies. The view from inside the train gave me a glimpse, however glancing and misunderstood by me, into the Chinese heart. I wish that I had been a better observer.

Here, the view from a boat drifting down the Grand Canal:

Heavy oil and coal burning boats, pink squealing pigs being unloaded on the banks, abandoned concrete boats, wooden houseboats resting in an undisturbed bend. Brick slabs leading up to land: the bronzed backs of men carrying baskets of grain on long sticks hoisted on their shoulders. Smiling faces of men; unsmiling faces of men. Children for whom the sight of foreigners sailing down the canal will be this moment’s excitement or source of confusion. They chatter among themselves: Why is Mother so excited? Who shall I wave hello to? I think if the emperor himself were to sail down this canal, the peasants would be equally astonished. We are all so foreign.