American trains, Asian trains

TRAINS: Cross-cultural comparisons 
(between USA, Taiwan, China, India) 

"Where are you going?" 
"Los Angeles." 
"Where'd you come from?" 
"New York." 
A brief pause, as he realizes the extent of my journey then, "Wow! You're going cross-country!" 

That's right. 
I am currently rolling through eastern Texas on the second day of my cross-country train journey. I've been staying put for most the past year in New York state, but spent most of the past 3 years rolling around Asia via plane, train, bus, car, bike, foot, boat, and thumb. This trip makes me remember (and miss) my Asia travels, and make mental comparisons between Asian and American trains. I want to share some of these cross-cultural train-travel thoughts/ memories with you. 

It costs almost the same to travel via the train here in the USA than it costs to take a plane. Sometimes, it even costs more- depending on how much luggage you have. I decided to take the train from NY back to CA partially because I wanted to see the gorgeous scenery of the USA, but also because I didn't want to go through the hassle of packing my bags down to 50 pounds a piece, with only one check-in and one carry-on baggage, and a whole crazy slew of inspectors patting me down through electric doors. Here in the USA, you only get one choice of the train: the Amtrak. And, it's pretty nice in here. There's a carpet on the ground, it's clean, pretty quiet, and you get a whole seat to yourself, which feels like a sofa, and it's pretty easy to claim a whole two seats to yourself (as I've done), and stretch out across both seats. In fact, as I am typing this, I am sitting across both seats, with my legs stretched out, both tables pulled out with my notebooks lying on top, my computer plugged into the wall (eat seat row has two electric outlets!), and facing the window, watching the dry gorgeous Texas scenery roll by. Luxurious? Absolutely. Ofcourse you pay for it, with an expensive ticket. 

Thailand didn't have a train. You can take the buses everywhere though, and they are cheap and convenient. 

Taiwan, China, and India also have excellent bus systems. Their train systems are splendid, as well. The USA is supposedly a first world country. We can afford to each have our own personal vehicles, often times more than just one vehicle each, and drive ourselves around, causing traffic jams, increasing pollution, and enjoying our "freedom" that we have filled with lives too busy to really enjoy. Returning to the USA, I am horrified and disappointed at our lack of public transportation. I hope that changes soon. I am, for the first time since the summer of 2007, getting my own car again. It feels like I am succumbing to the system. I am doing it, so I can stop relying on other people, and facilitate wildcrafting herbal medicines and getting jobs that require me to travel distances. If I could though, I would prefer to live as I did in Taiwan: primarily travel around via bike, and take public transportation as needed. 

Let's talk about Taiwanese trains. 
You get a selection: cheap and slow with many stops, or more expensive and fast with few stops. Both trains take you around the country. It's a small island. You could bike around the whole thing in 2 weeks. And it takes that long not because of the distance that needs to be covered, but because of the mountains that compose the entire thing. There's an awesome train travel plan that is especially catered to foreigners, where you can travel around the etire country for one set price (not bad), with unlimited stops. The slower trains are like USA subways, with long boards that run under the windows, where people sit side by side, often packed together, sometimes with standing room all packed together as well. America has "disabled" signs, specially designated areas for "disabled" people to sit. I didn't see these in Taiwan. Instead, every public transport vehicle has a specially designated area for pregnant women, children, and elders. On the more expensive trains, everyone gets their own seat, much like all the Amtraks do, here in the USA. 

There's are cheap trains and expensive trains in China and India, too. It matches the huge gap between the wealthy and the poor. 

I've never seen the sleeping cars on the American trains. I looked into their prices once upon a time, balked, and never looked again. So, I don't remember how much they cost, but I do remember that it's way past my price range. 

I never got onto a sleeping car in Taiwan, because there are no overnight train trips. Most train travel takes just a few hours there, never more than a day, unless you are getting off and coming back onto the train. Beautiful little island. 

I just got back from the lower deck of the train, where I just stood in the hallway, marveling at the silence and the beauty of the landscape that we were rolling by. Then, I noticed the silence. That's another difference between USA and China/ India trains. Here, there are no beggars. In China and India, the beggars, especially the skinny dirty children with haunted-yet-mischievous eyes, rush around the train. It's good to be careful wherever you are, but I didn't take major precautions as I went to sleep on this Amtrak American train. I just stuck my bag next to me. In China, India, and Taiwan, I'd sleep with my money purse on my body, my valuables under my head, and probably cuddle with my backpack, or somehow tie it onto myself or even the bed. 

In China, people spit everywhere. Even on the train. There's a "no spitting" sign on the train, but people don't pay attention to it. The cheap train has options. I took the cheapest option from Shenzhen (south China) to Shanghai (north central China), a 1.5 day miserable journey where I was packed into a car filled with people packed so tightly together that you literally couldn't move. To get to the toilet at the back of the train, you had to wade through people who were even on top of each other. It was mostly men in there. I felt like I was being stripped naked with their eyes. Perhaps they were just wondering, "What's a woman doing here?" Or maybe even, "Where's her husband?" But it was so uncomfortable. The person sitting next to me had long fingernails that were consistently in his nose. He wiped his boogers under the table in front of us, and it dropped onto my skirt. 

Traveling with my work crew and students in China, we'd take the second-class sleeper train. We had enough students and teachers to occupy two entire train compartments: a triple bunk bed on each side of the compartment, with one window and two chairs per compartment. The students stayed up talking all night long, and I was delighted to have such rich company. Returning back to Shenzhen from my worse-than-uncomfortable train ride up north, I took the second-class sleeper train back down, too. 

Dallas, TX! I'm going to allow for some distractions in this essay, and not edit it... skip the distractions if you like, but I'm writing this on a train journey, and part of the journey is... 

1 PM- I don't even know what time zone I am in. But outside my train window, I see yucca! And, the sage brush parade begins! I can smell them, in my imagination. I know this land, this smell... next stop, Fort Worth! 

One hour in Dallas. I ran around West End Old District. Felt so good to be in the sun, with my body moving, the feeling of freedom that comes from freedom from a confined train for 1.5 days, freedom from responsibility with no attachments besides all my bags sitting in the train far away, freedom from the cold snows of winter, having gone back in time, traveling south and west. And so, I speed-walked, jogged, jumped, and danced my way around town for an hour, smiling widely into the faces of strangers peering out of car-windows, touching plants that I recognize distantly but not specifically, and just having a grand old time for an hour--- and now, back into the confined freedom train that is riding me back to the land of my childhood! 

Back to trains--- I don't know what the most expensive first class ride on the China trains are like, for I never spent that money. But, I did catch one super-expensive pretty-posh ride north to south... that ride felt equivalent to our Amtrak here, but with less people on the train. Our Amtrak has all kinds of people on the train, including kids, all income levels, etc. Well, except for rich people. I don't catch rich people riding the train too often, unless they are dressed in disguise. It's interesting to me that the most expensive train ride in China is almost the same as riding our only train here in the USA. 

I love the Taiwanese train the most. I think it is cute. I think of Taiwan as cute: beautiful tiny island, sweet people, small bears, lush jungle forests, incredible diversity from top to bottom. But, ofcourse I am biased: I am Taiwanese-American. 

"What's the difference between Taiwan and China?" people often ask me. 
Well really, it depends upon who you ask. If you ask a Taiwanese person, then they will generally say that these are two different countries. If you ask a Chinese person, then they will probably say that Taiwan is a part of China. They might even go on to say that Korea, Thailand, and all the other little Asian countries belong to China, too. I don't understand politics so well, so I won't argue about any of that bit. But in my experience of having traveled over both countries, I can speak from personal (though biased) experience. Before leaving Taiwan for China, my relatives thoroughly frightened me with terror-stories of the worst sort: people being so poor in China that they stoop to do anything for money: the hotel workers will rob your room when you are sleeping or away, thieves will steal your organs to sell for the organ-donor market, and relatives will even backstab their own blood relations to get a bit of money. My relatives scared me with these stories primarily from personal experience, stories from fellow Taiwanese folks, and hearsay. None of these things happened to me in China, though I had fear, from all these stories. So, I'll preface my stories with my honest sharing that yes, I understand that I am biased towards Taiwan. I felt a lot more cozy and comfortable in Taiwan than China. I met both good and bad people in both countries, but in general felt like Taiwanese people were kinder and more genuine, and Taiwan is cleaner, more wealthy. China is still poverty-stricken in most places, and there is a lot of shady activity. They don't have environmental laws, so natural areas are covered in trash. I can go on... but won't. 

4:30 PM. Prickly pear patches starting to cover the ground! The trees have shrunk. Junipers starting to become the predominant tree. Golden orangish reddish earth. Sagebrush with large golden arms reaching up toward the bright blue dry sky. The earth is dry, rocky, familiar. I can smell the sweet dryness through the window, through the noses of my imagination and memory. 

Just saw my first jojoba bush of this journey!
Was that a creosote bush? 
The land is getting more hilly, more cliff like. I see mesas coming up. Welcome, desert. My heart opens for you. 
Just went over the "Brassis River." 
Huge vultures soaring in the sky. I can feel the wind through my wings and hair, too. What an amazing view, feel, smell!!! 
Hillside, mostly junipers now. Here we go! 
Mesquite! Fun  to play the "name that plant" game through the train window! Familiar landscape. I've missed you! 
Dry creekbed. There's still sumac here. Red berries, bright against golden landscape. 
Nopales are also bright red against the dry flat prickly pear pads. 

I am sitting up and taking notice now. We have left the confines of city and civilization, away from the choking smog and mess of cars and buildings. (What am I doing, getting a car again?! Hoping to work with the system, instead of always away from it... and create positive change.) Here, a hawk just soared into a tree, wings spread open in flight, downy feathers soft and fluffy, glowing into the sunset shining light. 

Back to trains! It is dark, now. I enjoyed the bright orange-sky sunset sky, casting a warming glow onto my face and right into my heart. Let's talk about Indian trains, now that it is dark... I remember taking several overnight trains in India. Generally, I like to take the top bunk, to keep away from the crazy crowds, to make people-watching easier (without getting watched back), and to protect myself and my possessions. The trains are always packed with people, and you need to book your ticket at least a month in advance to get a seat. Otherwise, you buy a hard-seat (third class) ticket, and just hope for the best. Like in China, I got a hard-seat ticket and was packed into the pews in a car full of men. Somehow, I felt even more uncomfortable among the Indian men than with the Chinese men. Perhaps because I could at least understand most of what the Chinese men were talking about, whereas I couldn't understand any of the Indian languages, besides "hello" and "thank you" in two dialects. (China and India were similar in another respect: there are so many dialects that it is hard to understand people, wherever I go. The primary dialect in China is Mandarin, and Hindi or English in India... but still, what a diverse interplay of languages!) To continue the story... I could not fall asleep or get comfortable in the hard-seat train, but was not ready to jump ship. I don't remember where I was going, but really wanted to keep going... so at the next train stop, I jumped out of the hard-seat area, and ran over to the sleeper train. I found myself a quieter compartment, where everyone was asleep already. Ignoring the cockroaches, wetness, and trash on the floor, I laid out my blanket and sleep on the ground between the train bunks. Not an ideal situation and very cold, but I did manage to fall asleep, not get kicked out, and get to where I needed to go. 

I liked Indian trains. I loved India. I love watching people come in and out of the train, the mass of humanity like a parade outside of the window, every train stop. The women wear bright colors and elaborate jewelry, their ankle bells and bracelet bells jangling around with every movement. Men and women walk around shouting "chai, chai, chai" and whatever else it is that they are selling. Cows, monkeys, and other animals come right up to the train. The whole thing seems chaotic yet once you get used to it, it makes sense. We rode for four days from Tamil Nadu (southern India) all the way up to Himal Pradesh (northern India). I developed heat rash on my back; it was so hot, and I had to wear a long skirt and t-shirt the whole way up, sweating and unable to change clothing, enjoying the journey, but glad when it was over. 

It's the end of the day now, and I am all train-ed out. Today was my first full day on the train. Tomorrow, another full day. The next day, I land in Los Angeles before the sunrise. I can't wait to change my clothes, stretch my legs, and go for a hike. 

If you have any questions about train travel in Asia or the USA, then let me know. I don't know much, but I like to make comparisons and notes, and have traveled extensively.

Happy trails!  

Jiling . 林基玲 
  626.344.9140 / 607.262.0302