self portrait 2018


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By Train Through China

Traveling to Shanghai with someone from Russia, we had to travel by train. As Americans mythologize the open road and cross country travel by car, Russians love traveling by train.

I have not only read one or two short stories by Tolstoy or Chekov (I forget which) where a woman throws a corpulant man's cigar out of the train window, as it offended her and he then counters by throwing her lap dog out the window as it offends him (this was a humorous anecdote), I actually traveled on the Trans-Siberian in 2002 from Vladivostok, in the extreme East, to the central Siberian city of Irkutsk. Saw not one cigar nor one lap dog.  

But it was majestic.

Not only that, the people who you share a coupe with, will dine together, and drink together and talk over tea for hours and hours. If you are lucky, you can even enjoy a love affair to the rhythm of the wheels ke-clunking over the train tracks. But most often you are simply welcomed to join a large man for a table-top picnic of sliced cucumber and cured pork fat washed down with moonshine vodka for breakfast.

And to paraphrase Paul Theroux from his travel book, Riding the Iron Rooster because what he said was entirely accurate:

Staring out the window, passing the Russian countryside, was like watching one of those travel documentaries but without the annoying voice over.

So it was entirely forgivable for Xenia to want to take a 7 hour train ride from Yichang to Shanghai. I knew better but I also knew better than to try to convince her otherwise. 

It is no exaggeration to say that this is what the air looked like the entire way. There was no break in the overcast sky that weighed so much that is clung to the grass. 

Signs of China's construction boom could be seen too but the whole area seemed completely uninhabited. She thought that it would be a perfect setting for a Hollywood-style apocalypse movie. I replied that the studio couldn't afford insurance for the cast and crew for a project filmed here.

We occasionally drifted in and out of sleep. Trains on the high speed rail doesn't make that sound so distinctive of older trains. If we opted to take such a train, it would have taken 16 hours to reach Shanghai.  

Directly behind us was a young child with her grandmother and grandfather. We noticed them constantly shouting and raising their voices because they kept disturbing our sleep. At one point the grandmother yelled at the grandson and he began to cry. But he apparently had learned that if he is going to cry he best ought to muffle is crying. He was whimpering and I immediacy thought that he was afraid of his grandmother. 

I asked Xenia if the boy's parents know what is really going on. Perhaps the parents leave their son with their parents fully trusting them to help raise him when in reality the poor grandson is in a situation that he cannot articulate or defend himself in in any way.

She agreed and said that it (the situation) should really be the opposite. I replied aghast saying, "What? You mean opposite by the grandson should be secretly beating the grandparents?"

We laughed about it and just cuddled until we finally reached Shanghai. 



A Russian sees many familiar things in China that an American simply wouldn't. Besides behaviors and manners in the Chinese people, building blocks like the one above would not be out of place in Russia.

In China, many building like these are being replaced with taller structures. Along the way we saw many new apartment blocks. They were unoccupied, some still windowless, and others eerily lifeless.

It would be an easy transition from locomotive purgatory to Shanghai. All was soon forgotten and we had a wonderful holiday together.

We flew back.

On Photography: What makes the Photo?

Photo Exhibit in Shanghai