Everyday / Saturday, April 30th, 2011

Here, I am in the Saturday Business Hotel in Xuchang. I have covered more than 1000km in less than 10 hours. The D-Train has to be the best train I have ever been on. I haven’t seen the European trains, but I think this can come close. It was around 2AM when I woke up and walked outside the berth. The display on the door showed a mind-boggling speed of 235km/hour. I think I gazed at it in amazement for at least five minutes. And I wondered when India will ever have trains like these. Super clean, efficient and super-fast. Was it out of the reach of the heaving masses of India? I think not. I paid RMB309 for a hard seat – the term is misleading. There was nothing hard about the seat, and secondly, it wasn’t a seat. It was more a sleeping berth that can be shared between two people. There were 6 of us in one cabin. Two others, who we discovered had to be from Beijing, were seated opposite us. We called the two girls from Beijing as our walking textbook. We could suddenly understand most of what they were saying, even though they displayed the famous Beijing reserve, and didn’t talk to us much. Having struggled to understand the Sichuanese dialect, I cannot tell you how relieved I was to realize that these months of Chinese learning haven’t been in vain. As long as they speak the standard Beijing dialect, we are fine. Anything else, and we look like ignorant fools who can’t say Nihou.

Arriving on the dot at 2:10AM in Zhengzhou, we quickly made our way to the ticket office, and bought two standing only tickets to Xuchang. It is the May Day weekend, and despite the late hour, the train station was bustling. At least a thousand people sat, slept or stood waiting for trains. Ours was the K919 – around 15RMB for a journey of 1 hour. The train arrived around 20 minutes late, and everyone crammed themselves into the last bogey – the ones that just have the hard seat. Once again, I assure you that these trains are NOT like our Indian ones. Even the hard seat, which is the lowest class, would be upper business class, if we had such a class, on Indian trains. There are many fans of the Indian railway system – I am not one of them. It might be the oldest and the most extensive, but we, the traveling mass, are deluding ourselves if we think this is the best way to travel. We have trains that belong to the last century, and it shows. What are things I have to worry about when I travel by train in India? Safety. Let me just reach the place! I hope no one rapes me during the journey. No one robs me blind. Or no one throws me off the train. Err, how about some people agitating for something or the other and setting fire to the train? Oh, wait, let me see how many bugs and cockroaches abound. AC? Ah, pay more. This is not the rant of an NRI – I feel sad. If a developing country like China can have trains that cover 1000km in 8 hours, why can’t we? We settle for less, and then pat ourselves on the back about the Indian Railways. Like Buttons on Facebook, please! Duh.

Back to the journey, as the train lurches onwards, I find a gentle arm steadying me. My backpack’s straps keep slipping from the shoulders, and the same arm adjusts it for me. The arm belongs to a young man wearing a black T-shirt and jeans. He doesn’t say much, apart from gesticulating that perhaps I can keep my backpack on the luggage rack. I demur, the backpack has my laptop, and I was worried that I may not be fast enough to remove it once we arrive at Xuchang. And it is around 4:45AM when we finally reach Xuchang. Walking out of the train, old memories immediately come surging back. How well I knew this obscure town! Gentle-man is walking away from the train station, and in a fit of divine inspiration, Birdy hails him to say goodbye. He turns around, and immediately comes to us. We tell him we are going to the Tian Yuan Hotel, which was just aroud the corner. He says he will help us. We enter the hotel, and find there are no rooms. Gentle-man has a solution. He hails a taxi, and we clamber in. We reach a business hotel a little away from the main heart of the town. Gentle-man pays the taxi fare. There are rooms available in this hotel. Birdy and I stand there at the reception while the young man takes out his card, and then pays RMB300 to the receptionist. Till this point, I think that he is paying for his room. Then he turns aroud and hands us the key to OUR room. “What about you? We thought you are paying for your room!” We try to give him the money, but he refuses. Then he walks us to our room, asks us if it is ok, takes our phone numbers, and leaves. We are too shocked – a complete stranger has just paid RMB300 on our behalf? I have never seen such open generioisty. “No no, I am just helping you,” he says, refusing our repeated offers to pay.

I guess there is a lot of kindness left in this world, after all. I didn’t have to come to China to regain my faith in the goodness of human beings, but it helps. Li Zhang You was just one of the kindest souls I have met. “Please don’t pay. We don’t even know each other,” we mangle out Chinese sentences in a bewildered-this-can’t-be-true manner. “We will get to know each other slowly,” he smiles, urging us to rest, before leaving. I still cannot believe it. But maybe I should.

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