30 SHOTS OF HUAIHUA
Huaihua, Hunan Province, China.
After a few weeks of budget travel in Southwest China we weren't much surprised
by the dismal scene at Huaihua Station. The long bench rows of dark-faced
men guarding heavy sacks yoked with sticks, the squatting bundled women
nursing noisy split-pants infants, all jumbled together yet somehow poised
to scramble aboard: we expected it to be like this--and worse, when
we got on the train.
It took all morning to buy tickets for this overnight ride to Guiyang, 400 kilometers down the line; we spent the day "sightseeing," and an hour ago Sabine (the mysterious, serious German woman who's been my travel partner since Yangshuo) and I checked out of another cold Chinese hotel and caught a bus back to the station under a billboard of a smiling couple with a baby holding a machine gun, a toy gun I guess.
We sit with the masses but are soon waved by a bluesuit train official to a row of benches reserved for cadres, mothers with small children, veterans of '49, and foreign friends. The train is late, half an hour, and the crowd of regular Chinese is chomping at the gate when the announcement finally comes. But we in the special section are led to the platform first--slowly, bemused and guilty--under a gauntlet of envious stares.
The train rocks in packed. We move fast, race the platform one way and back, bumping and tacking with our heavy bags through the swarming dark, the solidifying crowd, looking for a car that isn't bulging, a door that's not piled up. We climb in at the front of the third car.
The passage is full of packages, bags and bodies, and encumbered with our own we squeeze in, stepping the wreckage.
Train 61 runs the dense length of China from Beijing to Kunming. Huaihua is past halfway, so by now the luggage racks are long loaded, the seats dead full, and people are standing and sitting in the aisles, sprawled but settled in, some for days and thousands of miles. Tables between facing seats are littered with bottles, paper trash and animal bones, the thick air is lit dull by every-other fluorescent bulb and black-green with smoke. In the blocked aisles a wraithlike procession of bodies moves up and down, hawkers barking their wares (beer, flatbread soaked in chile sauce, cigarettes), passengers fetching hot water or needing toilets. With our Unreserved Hard Seat tickets--all we could come up with despite the morning's efforts--we have as much right to this total lack of space as anyone else.
I force my way in a few rows to a small gap, half a seat, put some of my stuff down to hold it and begin signing to Sabine through the forest of bodies. She pushes in and a broad man with a taxi-driver cap helps us get our bags on the rack.
Hell-tales from Hard Seat rides abound in China. You read them in the guidebooks and hear them from other travellers. Sabine herself has one of the best: 72 sleepless hours, from Urumqi to Beijing, sitting next to a woman dying of cancer. So we were somewhat steeled for this possibility--and even held hope that we could find a conductor and upgrade into a sleeper.
To this end, Sabine, with her precious gist of Mandarin, takes a deep breath and is off, treking back toward Car 10. She hands me her hat and handbag, says wait for me here, and disappears up the clotted aisle. At the same time I pick up my things and immediately feel my camera bag is light and unzipped.
My heart sinks. I reach inside and my fancy little Minox from Germany is not there.
Just now pulling out of Huaihua. I check through my other bags discreetly (as only an paranoid, sweating white man on a packed Chinese train can), trying at the same time to keep an eye on everyone and all our stuff. I'm perched butt-end fourth on a seat for three, looking at a nine or ten hour vigil surrounded by unknown thieves fore and aft, and my camera--the smallest, lightest full-frame 35-millimeter made--has disappeared into the bowels of a Chinese train. Sure, I can replace the camera, and I still have the Olympus XA in my jacket pocket. What makes me saddest is the film inside: 30 shots of Huaihua--the crazy signs and those funny kids outside the movie theatre--that's gone forever.
I am startled out of these dire reflections when the nice man who put our bags up leans forward and hands me a piece of paper. I take it from him and read, in careful handwritten English, "Where are you from? Where are you going?" He is smiling big at me from his seat across the way.
Two hours pass like ten before Sabine finally appears through the crowd like a figure out of the mist. I couldn't get a sleeper she says, but we have a couple of seats in the restaurant car. They're OK, but we'll never get up there with our bags through these aisles, the other cars are even worse. Next stop we'll have to get out and run to the restaurant car. OK, I say, now do you want to hear my news?
So I tell her all this and we wonder what to do...but by now the train is pulling into Yuping and she says let's go and suddenly we're rushing to pull down our stuff, strap up and squirm and shove our way out of the car, my lovely little camera left behind.
We run along the dark platform, pushing through trainside vendors, and climb into the restaurant car. It's bright and spacious, tables with white plastic cloths, folding chairs and maybe 30 people sitting around. And six cars back (the crowds, the noise, the filth, my camera), though linked to us and following the same rails, is already worlds away.
Sabine's met this Chinese kid, a civil engineer or something who's taught himself English. Over beef stew and coffee we tell him the story and ask if we should do anything. He tells some policemen sitting a couple of tables away and one of them comes over to ask where it happened and what they were wearing. I didn't see who took it. I draw a picture of Car 3.
The cop is back a few minutes later with a piece of lined onion skin paper with red Chinese characters on in--a report--and I have to fill in name, address, time, and a description of the event. I sort of enjoy writing out the story in simple terms: I got on the train...I noticed it was gone...I suspect someone in the second or third set of seats...A Minox is very small, worth US$300. I sign the report and the cop asks the Chinese kid to do a translation on another sheet, which he does, starting with my name in characters, Wo-Er-Fu. The story of my lost camera becomes Chinese caligraphy and I sign that too.
Now the cop is back again with two more sheets and a fountain pen. He talks to the kid who explains that we have to copy the report in fountain pen, ballpoint is no good.
What? Why?--our natural response. The kid grapples for an answer. It's for don an he keeps repeating. Finally he ruffles through Sabine's dictionary for the definition that will make this all clear. "Files." The report's for the files, it has to be in fountain pen.
Hardly satisfied and by now sort of maliciously pushing, we press for a real answer. The kid confers with the cop and comes up with another Chinese explanation. Again he turns to the clarifying dictionary, and this word's even better. Why fountain pen for reports for the files? "Regulations."
Sabine says this is silly, don't do it, there is no reason, he (the cop) should be looking for the thief, not jiving us with penmanship. The kid looks at us crooked like, I understand you but I can't tell the cop that.
I'm willing to go through with this, what the hell, it's getting funny and Kafkaesque and we have hours to kill before anyone gets off this train. So we go at it, me and the Chinese kid, scrivening in fountain pen in our respective tongues. He finishes first. I'm no good with a fancy pen, I put a few holes though the page and the copy is generally a mess. But that's Regulations.
My final duty is to put fingerprint seals on the report, blotches of red ink over my name, signature and the value of the camera. The cops have now done everything possible without actually going to look for the camera. They return to their game of Chinese chess.
Through the long night other cases come before the cops. A woman screams at them for hours saying this old guy stole her I.D. and 50 yuan. The cops scream at the old guy, he screams back. Sabine, who's reading books in three languages, falls asleep in the middle of Wuthering Heights. At 2:30 a big cop asks me if I'm sure I've got no camera. I say yes, never mentioning the Olympus. Two little black cameras? They wouldn't understand. Goddamn rich American has plenty of cameras.
I put my head down under the fluorescents and try to grab some of that bad sleep that will surely make me feel worse. At 4am I'm awoken by louder yelling and I turn my head to see a young man on his knees in front of the cops two tables away. His thumbs are tied together, one arm up behind his back half-nelson, the other down over his shoulder. A young cop behind pulls him up by his hair until the big one gestures for him to stop.
The strangeness of this sight, out of the numbness of bruised sleep, doesn't register at first. But it feels crazy to be so close: I'm afraid of watching, of being either an accomplice or a witness to this brutality. And I feel somehow responsible, because of my complaint, as though I were the accuser.
The kneeling kid, we're told, is part of a gang that's still at large on the train with 2000 yuan ($300, a life's savings) stolen from a newlywed couple. He's untied after a while and the questioning continues, but now with a scary sort of feigned chumminess and backslapping: he's felt the pain, been initiated, but is still in the cops' absolute sway. At the end of the car, Chinese people are waking each other, pointing and giggling at the captured thief.
This is Chinese crime and Chinese justice, and I can barely understand, let alone judge. The world in the restaurant car has become incomprehensible, and my loss now feels insignificant. I realize how serious this gang must be to risk this (stealing from foreigners is a capital crime), how far gone my camera is, and how lucky I was not to lose more--my passport, my money, my notebooks. I'm feeling dead before dawn, but the noise is impossible to ignore.
At 5:30am we pull into Guiyang somehow on time. The cops wake everyone roughly, and we push out with the blind, milling crowd to the front of the station where it's cold and dark but a relief to have that mad train ride behind us.
A taxi-tout starts yelling Hello! in my face, the typical greeting, but I've had enough and shove him away. We get a bus through the empty streets to a hotel the guidebook recommends, but it's closed up and dark with a scavenger taxi is idling out front, its exhaust clouds rising in the night air. I reach in and unlatch the gate and we sneak by the sleeping nightwatchman and up into the lobby. We find a soft couch and stretch out end to end under Sabine's sleeping bag, comfortable for the first time, waiting for the authorities who will come, inevitably, with the light.