The Man in Carriage 17

by Ant Stone on July 26, 2007

in China

One of the closing lines in my last post was “I’m leaving Beijing in half an hour for Datong, just 5 hours away.”. As a reader you’re afforded the blissful benefits of being effortlessly transported from the comfort of your armchair, from Russia to Mongolia and onwards to China with just a few gentle clicks of the mouse. As the author however, I thumped ‘submit’ on that post and headed for the taxi rank outside my Beijing hostel, scrambling through my pockets for the 26 yuen train ticket (less than £2). Immediately it was apparent I wouldn’t make the departure time, I’d misjudged it by a whole half an hour and this is where the “Datong, just 5 hours away” started to become a fallacy.

For a start it turned out to be 6 hours, and the next available train wasn’t until 21:13. I found myself a square metre – a challenge in a Chinese railway station – and sat about people watching and contemplated the consequences of my oversight, the raucous soundtrack Beijing West offering no forgiveness. I was one of maybe 7 westerners in the station and seemingly the only one travelling solo. Every other person was eating pot noodles and if they weren’t doing that they were sat staring, at me; the westerner in the bright blue shoes. At 20:00 my people-watching was pierced by an onslaught of school kids making their way through the station, buddied up and sporting matching clothes they followed their designated flag with stereotypical efficiency, the braver of them maybe uttering “hello” in my direction, my response a delightful reward for their linguistic success.

Eventually train 1185 arrived, and I made my way through check-in in search of solace onboard the train. I was carried down the platform by a bustling wave of back handers, breathing a sigh of relief as I forced my 18kg hunchback through the crowd and into the haven of carriage 17. Suddenly, the 26 yuen ticket plummeted in value. Before my eyes were nearly 200 of the school kids, each wearing their orange t-shirt and red Nike cap, collectively they caused my knees to give way with exasperation, there was not a spare seat to be seen. Even if the carriage were empty I would of hesitated to take a seat, the carriage was abominable right from the nuts welded to the floor up to the Russian fans fighting to breath in the Beijing smog.

As I stood in the aisle I could feel a hundred beads of sweat bursting into tears on my forehead, while a 1000 beady eyes lay to rest on my ‘long nose’. As the train pulled away, I couldn’t help but feel alone. I was due to arrive in Datong – a little known Chinese station – at 03:23 in the morning, with nowhere to stay and no one to turn to. I was stood contemplating the potential stupidity of my decision when a voice reached out from the crowd “hello! Welcome to China, what is your name?”, I looked down to see a beaming child jostling for space with my backpack. Within minutes I was perched on the end of his bench answering questions from him, his friends and his PE teacher.

“I like pandas” one divulged, without so much as a prompt.
“What is your favorite animal?” inquired another.
Then another “where are you from? What sport do you like? Do you like ping pong?”
Unfazed, they powered on “Do you like KFC?” while his mate chipped in “do you like China? Do you know Harry Potter?”

I drew breath and pieced together an answer for my new found friends “I like horses, I’m from England, I like China and football but I’m not keen on KFC or ping pong and thankfully, I don’t know Harry Potter!”. Moments passed before the 13 year old panda lover followed up “why do you like horses?”, I paused. This stumped me as I didn’t actually hold horses with such high regard, I just didn’t think they’d understand what a great-crested newt was so I swiftly countered him with “why do you like pandas?” presuming he would crumble with the challenge, “I like pandas because they are black and white” he responded poker faced. I couldn’t compete, he’d done me. I couldn’t argue with the pandas monotone appearance, therefore my response to the young cub was mere a smile of acknowledgement, he knew his victory and had no doubt been practicing for months, just waiting for gullible prey. Not long after he cemented his glory by requesting I sing a song, word spread around and I cleared my throat before entering into a couple of lines of “I can see clearly now the rain has gone”. There’s a funny story attached to that line from my working days, so it was a win win situation but embarrassing all the same as I’m not known for my mellifluous voice.

Their teacher, Cui Chong quizzed me with the more mature lifestyle questions; had I a car, a wife, children etc and we found common ground in the Lonely Planet. I was rarely without the gift of water or the offer of something to eat, and always held a perch at the end of their bench, at least a whole cheek at a time. Gradually train 1185 became a beautiful collection of moments, none more poignant than when Cui Chong reached into his bag and produced a small red box containing 10 souvenir keyrings, sporting the 5 mascots for the forthcoming Olympics. He wrote a message in Mandarin on it’s lid, I believe it reads “Welcome to China from 45 Middle School, Baotou” followed by my intended route through his country. We exchanged email addresses and by the time the train arrived in Datong he’d arranged an escort for me to the hotel, even hauling the 18kg effortlessly through the alighting crowd. I shook his hand, waved thanks and followed my silent escort through the station while reviewing the aforementioned 6 hours aboard 1185, helpless grinning.

Datong itself has a certain charm, my presence here is to visit the Yungang Caves and Hanging Monastery. I spent today walking through it’s streets, every other shop seemingly a hairdressers or electric moped salesroom. It’s apparent they’re not used to droves of tourists, at least 95% of locals will stare at me and if they form a group it’s obvious I’m the topic of conversation, my ‘long nose’ and bright blue shoes being the natural catalyst for their conspiracy theories. I’ve likened it to being a celebrity, and wonder how I’d feel if suddenly no one took interest. Their scrutiny followed me down streets and alleyways, into restaurants, shops and even into the local shopping mall. In it’s upper reaches I watched kids playing arcade games, one machine thankfully informing me “The past and future have collided, in a world gone mad! This is the world of Cadillacs and Dinosaurs”, I felt it was more mopeds and hairdressers but the prophecy was there nonetheless.

As I left the shopping mall I was drawn to a growing crowd. They were gathered around a lady singing passionately into a microphone, behind a disable girl whom I took to be her daughter. There was a lengthy message on the floor and the people of Datong were generously throwing yuen notes into the collection box. I listened for 5 or so minutes, captivated by the situation. After making my donation, I turned around to be greeted by a warm smile from an elderly man, his thumb raised in acclamation. It dawned on me that I’d done a good thing by them, and they could maybe forgive my shoes for just a moment. The emotional connection that raised thumb made sent ripples through me, and I almost cried at their effects. Wandering the streets of the world on your own, you naturally create an impenetrable bubble for your thoughts and feelings and sometimes it can take just the slightest acknowledgement of your existence (other than a gawk) to melt you, this is how I’ll always remember Datong- a raised thumb at the entrance to a tender smile. I carried this sentiment up the street to this internet cafe, pausing only once to observe a family of westerners cross the street, ignorant of their celebrity.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Naked Swede July 26, 2007 at 10:48 pm

Hey Man!

Good to see you have come a bit on the way =). I hope you’re doing good. Look out for those soups with rooster heads in them…it’s freaky when the dude forgot to close his eyes and you all of a sudden have a rooster staring at you from the pot. (happened to me in China)

I think your website is really well done. I am very impressed. Just a thought though – why so many pictures? There are allready over 2000 pics. In my opinion it would be better if you sorted some good ones out and reduced the number of pics with like 90%. What’s your reply to that? 🙂

Keep having fun out there Ant. I wish I was you right now…

Take care.


Ant July 27, 2007 at 11:42 am

Thanks Johan, glad you’re enjoying it in between naked jaunts in the Swedish mountains! I haven’t come across a spontaneous rooster yet, but I’ll be sure to keep an eye out.

I’ll also be selecting just a few pics for display, although the last time an Englishman listened to a Swede we got knocked out of the World Cup in the quarter finals! That’s my reply to that, but a good point all the same… 😉

All the best,


Lesley July 28, 2007 at 10:05 am

Pleased to see that you have not lost your sense of humour. Keep writing, you have a fine feel for places and people, I can see them in my mind. Sorry we missed your birthday, but I’m sure you had a great time!
Jason is in painting mode, much to his chagrin. Geoff helped get a wardrobe up the stairs, which weren’t nearly wide enough. Caroline has decamped and gone home this weekend.
All the very best


Dan July 28, 2007 at 11:36 am

Holy smokes it seems Google Reader hasn’t been picking up your updates for me so I’m a bit behind, I wonder if anyone else is having the same problem. Maybe it’s the Great Firewall of China.

Oh well at least I know you haven’t fallen off the trail.


Ant July 28, 2007 at 12:31 pm

Dan; I had a few problems with the RSS reader, might be worth resubscribing? You’ve probably got some catching up to do, huh! Hope your plans are going well, looking forward to exchanging experiences…

Lesley; thanks for the accolade, those years sat next to Jase in English must of done me ‘some’ good!


Rachael August 3, 2007 at 12:55 am

I came back to view some food for thought…and no updates for a week?! You must be enjoying yourself? :0) Hope all is well. Kids send hugs…and me too :0) x


Thoms August 18, 2007 at 12:37 pm

How dare you say you “…don’t know Harry Potter.” Can’t you remember the night you pulled him/her haha!?!

Sorry mate, couldn’t resist!x


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