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Train Xiamen to Nanchang

Notes from the high-speed train trip from Xiamen to Nanchang.

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There was something in my seat. It had the world’s largest marshmallow for a body and stubby rolling pins for arms. It’s eyes were sunken into bulging cheeks like buttons in a thick couch cushion. I grimaced. This was type of kid that is made, not born.

The manufacturing job is generally done by parenting systems that are akin to ice cream cone distribution services. The mother, whose clothes were cheap and hair disheveled, proved my assumption by looking at me helplessly as little fathead refused to vacate my seat. She feigned uselessness perhaps in hopes that I would have a heart and bugger off so she could get two seats for the price of one — and not have to lug her bundle of lard on her lap for the entire ride.

Kids are often not really effectively disciplined in China until they’re around four or five years old and sent to school to become some teacher’s problem. So up until this age they seem to think they are rulers of their little universes. To get a kid to behave here you give it candy — at least that’s what people do whenever my daughter begins whining and crying in public. Or a palm to the face — which does just about as much good.

But I wasn’t giving up my window seat. I held my ground, hovering above the pair, pressing for action with silent, dumb inertness — among the best ways to get what you want in China. Eventually, the mother moved her little bundle of chub. I sat down. The mother got up and left the kid alone in the seat next to me — the punishment for my inflexibility perhaps.

I looked out the window across the platforms of Xiamen North Station, and tried to ignore the situation. It was night and the lights were on full blast, making the white bullet trains sparkle. Then a girthy little arm wiggled through my legs and started grasping for the magazines in the seat back pocket in front of me. It seized a copy of the official Chinese high speed train magazine and retracted. I looked back out the window. Then the magazine was on my lap. The chubby little arm was poking me with it.

“Little friend, stop it, you are very bad,” I finally scolded him. His cheeks dropped down as his face made an O-shape, revealing startled little eyes. The mother heard this and quickly whisked him away from the vile foreigner who dares yell at children.

They went and occupied a row of seats in front of me. The people who were supposed to have been there understandingly went and sat somewhere else. I turned away and looked at my reflection in the window. I was expecting to see a look of shame and embarrassment, instead I saw it smiling. Peace.

Though this was not to last very long. I felt a little bad that I startled the kid after the second or third time I watched the mother smack him. He was just a kid doing little kid things.

The train was moving now, I was perched in the window, alert, ready to observe anything that fell within its frame. The first phase of a journey is always the most curious, and I figured that I would use it to its full advantage until it dissolves away into listless daydreams, then a stupor, then nothing at all.

I really enjoy riding trains at night in China. For most of the time you see nothing but blackness out the window — nothing, nothing, nothing — then all of a sudden something out there is brightly lit and, sometimes, rather strange. It’s the surprise of seeing something unexpected that’s the intrigue, and plenty of memories of things like primitive, hand poured iron smelting operations and archaic, backwoods tractor trailer tire making factories keep me perched at the window on these trips.

Though the Railway Horizons Network unintentionally commands my attention. It’s a short series of programs and promotions for various Chinese cities that’s played in a continuous loop on the dozens of monitors that are liberally splattered all over the inside of high-speed trains. I imagine that this could be one of the most watched media networks in the country if they count all passengers as viewers — which they may as well do, as it’s virtually impossible to ride these trains without being sucked in by it. I think I saw the same video of some white guy antagonizing a cobra in Laos at least 35 times. Then there are the propaganda shorts of Chinese soldiers fighting this or that enemy. Those aren’t bad. What’s truly annoying are the mini-dramas of train station employees being kind and helping people in the stations. There is one of a ticket vendor giving a beleaguered migrant worker a bowel of rice then shaking his grime encrusted hand. There is another of worker helping an old man cross the street. This just doesn’t happen — and even a fictional account of this is an abject smack in the face to every person who has stood in an insanely long line to get a train ticket only to get up in the window and have some stone faced women remorselessly say “meiyou” as though settling an old score with an adversary.

What is lost by traveling fast?

I wondered this as I realized that I haven’t taken a journey in a sleeper car for five or six months. I have been taking high speed trains lately, as the D type cost about the same as the hard sleeper class of what are now known as slow trains. But the long, overnight or multi-day endeavors are full fledged journeys rather than mere trips. You have enough time on board these trains to normalize to your surroundings, to get into the train life. People go around in their pajamas. There is a temporary way of life that people fall into on the slow trains. The high speed trains, no matter how far you go on them, lack this appeal. You just sit down in them for a while and wait to arrive.

As the train continued rolling on the mother ceased smacking her kid, and he was curled up in her lap. She was stroking his hair. It made me miss my daughter, who is starting to feel dejected that I keep going traveling without her.

“Dada, you told me last time that I could go traveling with you next time. This is next time but I still can’t go,” she said sadly as I was packing.

What was I doing anyway? Going to look at some mud?

Filed under: China, Travel Diary, Travel Stories

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3703 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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