Loco-Travel in China

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Traveling in China: Great Scenery, a Model Worker, an Icy Berth and Warm Cola

©Michael Krigline, MA (2009)    www.krigline.com

        Because I teach English in China, my family occasionally gets to travel around this remarkable country. Normally we fly, but we decided to take the train this time, to get from Kunming to Guilin and then Hong Kong. Part of our motivation was to avoid the hassle now associated with air travel (“no you can’t bring water on board; please take off your shoes and empty your pockets; sorry, only one suitcase and you’ll have to trash that big tube of sun screen…”). But the best thing about train travel is getting to see the real China: mile after mile of endless fields, with farmers and water buffalo doing what they’ve done for centuries. In addition, you can stretch your legs by strolling through the cars, or by occasionally walking on the platform. With a berth, you also get to sleep or nap when you feel like it. Furthermore, we met several interesting people this time: a doctor who graduated from medical school in 1959, a student who was dying to practice her English, and our temporary roommate—an engineer who was intrigued by the game of Rummy we were playing (he eventually joined us, and won his last hand as the train pulled into his stop). Add beautiful mountains and rivers, and the time to play cards with your family, and riding through China behind a locomotive can be a really pleasant alternative.

        But as the Chinese love to say, “Every coin has two sides.” The beds are rather hard, my son doesn’t like the music and announcements piped into your room, and you need to bring your own food along (we saw very few people heading for the dining car). It also seemed like every time we really needed to use the toilet, we found it locked (since they don’t want to “water” the tracks in urban areas or “while stabilizing”—Chinglish for “being stopped at a station”).

        Furthermore, whoever sets the rules for the air conditioner (AC) needs to check his motivation, for it certainly isn’t to make passengers comfortable. The AC isn’t on when you board, so it is “hot as blazes” in there; but by 3 a.m. you are breaking icicles off your nose. I jumped off at one station to thaw out and take a photo, but gave up because both the camera and my glasses were hopelessly fogged up.

        Another big issue—at least to my family—is the difficulty in finding cool refreshment. Like everywhere in China, trains have handy hot water dispensers for your tea or instant noodles, but getting a cold drink can be a challenge. My wife has said that one of the hardest things to get used to in China is warm Coke. In summer’s steamy temperatures, this southern girl wants ice dripping from the bottle, and our teen-age son wants that first gulp to bring on “brain freeze.”

        One station’s pillars were festooned with large Coca-cola advertisements, featuring the Olympic logo from last year’s games and an irresistible ice-packed bottle of “the Real Thing,” but the only refreshment available on the platform was in portable carts void of electricity. Hoping I’d have better luck, I ventured into the dining car. Things didn’t look good when the “stewardess tray” was loaded with tepid bottles of tea, juice, and Pepsi products, but I asked anyway.

        “Can I buy a cold Coke, please?”

        A very pleasant restaurant-car worker replied (this was in Chinese, of course) that he’d be glad to chill one for us, which would be ready in an hour. Having seen the mobile tray, I inquired specifically about the brand name of my soon-to-be-cool cola. “Oh yes,” he said, “I know you foreigners like Coke, not Pepsi.”

        An hour later I returned, and my wife finally got her favorite, cold, beverage.

        In the morning I returned to get the next bottle, which I’d ordered the night before. (Yes, Vivian gets her wake-up caffeine from Coke, not coffee.) Thanking the nice man, I said I’d be back at lunchtime.

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        “Oh,” he said, with disappointment in his voice. “I’m sorry, we only had two Cokes. After all, there aren’t many foreigners on this train. Would Pepsi be OK?”


        Our mid-trip destination was Guilin, where the news reported a heat index of over 100 degrees. Pausing for refreshment amid the awesome scenery, we sometimes found cold drinks, but even here “lukewarm” was the rule of the day.

        On the street, a can of Coke costs about 3.5 RMB (24 cents). My “train man” charged a reasonable 4 RMB; restaurants often charge 5 or 10, when it is available. When we entered the “foreigners’ sightseeing boat” (to go down the awesome Li river) we found people motivated to supply what their guests wanted; they unashamedly charged 20 RMB for cold Cokes throughout the 4-hour ride.

        I guess that “cold” encompasses a variety of temperatures. Many restaurants say they have cold drinks, but what arrives is sometimes barely cooler than the room (and far warmer than our icy berth). At many convenience stores, they take them out of “Coke” coolers, but touching the glass reveals that the machine isn’t even plugged in. Sometimes cans are cool, while 1-liter bottles are not. The point is that you learn to feel the merchandise before you let anyone open it!


        Coke has been in China for decades (I drank it—warm—back in 1985 while studying in southern China), but in spite of all the posters showing Yao Ming and other popular stars drinking from cold bottles, it seems that the advertisers are having a hard time getting through. At lunch a few weeks ago, I ordered Cokes for my family, and offered to buy one for my Chinese friend, too. He said, “No thank you; I’ve heard that Coke makes you impotent.” Someone else told me that I shouldn’t let my son drink so much of it because Coke stunts kids’ growth. I wonder how many of these senseless rumors are floating around (probably motivated by another drink company)!

            In closing, I have to give kudos to the nice man in the dining car. When I returned at noon, there was a third, cold Coke waiting for me. The man was off doing some errand, so I couldn’t ask where it came from, but my guess is that he had jumped off at a station and found a warm bottle to chill for me. If I owned a store, that’s the kind of man I’d want to hire. He didn’t make a cent by giving me what I wanted, but somewhere he found the motivation to go out of his way to take care of us. This dear man has probably never even heard of Jesus, but this is the spirit of service He sanctioned when He said, “The greatest among you, will be your servant.” (Matt 23:11)


PS: The next time I took a long-distance train (2011), I asked the people in the restaurant car if I could buy a cold Coke. They answered, "Bu hui" ("No").

     "Then can I buy a warm soft drink, and put it in your cooler for a while?"

     "Bu hui."

     International visitors, looking for a cold drink on one of the Middle Kingdom's hot days, may have to wait a long while for this aspect of "modernization."

© 2009 Michael Krigline. As far as I am concerned, people are allowed to print or copy this article, or link to it, for personal or classroom use.

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