5 Centimeters short
As we traversed the southern part of China, going east to west from Hong Kong by plane, trains and buses, I was struck by how many young people approached us (on their own) and tried out their English.
We met Winnie, who is in her third year in college on the train from Guilin to Kunming. It was an overnight train, and it was the morning after when she came over, sat across from us, smiled at Rupal and myself and started talking. We were not very far from Kunming.
She wanted to know where we were headed. We told her our itinerary. She was going with her boyfriend (who didn’t speak English) and a small group of other travelers to the same places. Her mother had to work, and couldn’t join them. To me it seemed that more and more of the Chinese middleclass, with their new-found money thanks to the booming economy, were taking vacations.
Winnie, who said she was majoring in “English translation” hadn’t traveled too far beyond Guilin. I was trying to downplay our travels, afraid that it would seem boastful in comparison, but she was very curious and asked us a lot of questions about the places we had visited.
We also told her how much we liked China and how friendly we found its people. And then she surprised us with a tough question.
“Which country has the most un-helpful people?” Both Rupal and I looked at each other, struggling to answer that one.
Cop out responses like ‘They are all friendly people,’ or ‘It depends on who we end up running into,’ didn’t satisfy her at all.
“But who is least friendly?” she persisted.
We still wouldn’t name any country. None came to mind, really.
“What about the Japanese people?” Winnie asked us. She was leading us. We were less than a day’s journey away from Nanjing, and I knew that the two nations had had a turbulent past.
“The Japanese people we met while traveling there were very reserved,” I conceded. She smiled and nodded, satisfied.
“Once you have a job, which places will you visit?” Rupal asked Winnie.
“Hong Kong! I will go to Hong Kong for shopping!” I thought it a little ironic that a girl who lived in the hinterlands of China (“the manufacturer for the whole world”) wanted to go elsewhere to buy things.
“And I will go to America, maybe.”
In the morning light, the most striking feature of the landscape we were rolling past was the greenness of the countryside. Mile after unremitting mile of paddy and corn fields. The fields had been cut and leveled right up the small hills, all to feed the huge population. Our talk then turned to the Summer Olympics, which were less than a week away.
“You are not going to Beijing?” Rupal asked her.
“No. I have never been to Beijing. Very expensive.” She paused and then added, “Many girls from my college were selected for the Beijing Olympics.”
“You didn’t want to go with them?”
“Yes, I wanted.” Winnie passed her hand in front of her face, making a circle around it. “But you must be very beautiful.” To me, she looked attractive, but I guess the officials who were selecting girls from all across China had exacting standards.
“Also, you have to be 1.65 meters tall. I am only 1.6meters.” She smiled ruefully.
Before we got off the train, Winnie wanted to have her picture taken with us. She called her boyfriend over to take the photo. The shy guy didn’t speak English, but he too wanted his picture taken with us. In a short while we all arrived in Kunming. At the station, we asked her to write ‘Dali, tomorrow, lower berth’ in Chinese on a piece of paper. We used that to buy our onward ticket.
The fortune teller of Xi Shan
One evening last week, we were wandering in the Xi Shan (western mountains) near Kunming. We had time to kill since were taking the 11pm overnight train to Dali. After checking out of the hotel and leaving our bags with them, we had made a day trip to the mountains nearby, a popular tourist destination.
“Hello. You are teacher!” A man seated in a low stool, with some astrological charts spread out in front of him was trying to get my attention.
“You are teacher,” he repeated. “I am fortune teller!”
I was stunned. Not because he had called it correctly (he had not) but at the risk he was taking. I knew he was guessing, but it was crazy that he would play such poor odds in the hope of landing a customer. If I was the fortune teller and saw an Indian guy wearing glasses in a foreign land, my first guess would be that he was in the IT field, that he worked in some office with computers.
“She also teacher,” he said, pointing to Rupal. This guy was 0 for 2. Even if I had any desire to have my fortune told, I wouldn’t go to someone with such an abysmal record.
I shook my head No, to indicate that we weren’t teachers. In fact, at the moment, both of us had no profession, being gainfully unemployed, trying to live out our possibly juvenile notion of trying to get by without working at all.
The man smiled, acknowledging that he had been wrong. He quickly turned his attention to the Chinese tourists, who were, presumably, more tolerant of charlatans.
Where does Wanderlust originate from?
While this book can't be said to be where my wanderlust originated, it surely fed to it. I was rambling around for years before I read Paul Theroux's 'The Great Railway Bazaar.' But the book definitely changed the way the I look at maps. When I see two places, I first wonder if it is possible to go from one to the other by road, traveling closer to the land.
It made me enjoy traveling by land (trains and buses) a lot more than simply flying in and flying out of a city. A lot of our trips are open-jaws (start in one city, end the trip at another and fly back) and this too was partly the result of reading TGRB.
In this book about his enviably long railway odyssey, Theroux starts out in London, and keeps going all across Europe and Asia, ending up in Japan. And then, he turns around and does the whole trip back to London, via a different route (Trans-Siberian). His astute observations and unpretentious style of writing make this, perhaps, my favorite travel book of all time. (Though I know that Peter Matthiessen's Snow Leopard is firmly perched as the number one travel book among scores of people.)
I own this book, but I actually listened to it as an audio-book the first time. Frank Muller (the narrator) doesn't merely read the lines, he performs them. I remember that for 2 weeks or so, I used to eagerly look forward to my commute to and from work which is when I listened to it.
If you love travel and haven't read this book, I highly recommend it.