Leaving Chongqing, we caught one of those old, slow trains that have been kept in service in the more rural areas, where the biggest cargo riding the tracks is more likely to be coal than people. Away in our little drab passenger car we went, following the north bank of the much-smaller Yangtze out of Chongqing. After a few stops, we got off at one of the more interesting train stations we’ve been to yet.
Pressed tight against the river by a steep slope, the platform at Zhuyangxi was really just an extension of the adjacent pier, where piles of coal from the mountains to the south awaited transport to the nearby power plant. So for all us people not bound for a crate on a river barge, well, the nearest road would be about a mile further down the tracks. Good thing not too many trains pass through here–or at least none did while were trodding along. It was probably a strange sight, the three of us with the couple dozen other passengers, all quietly bouncing along the railroad ties with backpacks and bags and buckets on bamboo carrying sticks. I’m pretty sure it was the first time we’d seen a pack horse waiting at a train station.
At the road crossing, we asked around and got directed to one of several waiting buses. Stares from almost everyone as we clambered aboard with our big packpacks and found a seat. Then Owen started eating a steamed bun we gave him, and we were all friends. There is something about seeing a foreign baby eat their food that makes Chinese very, very happy. It’s like if you were out at the mall and there was a family of aliens (the extraterrestrial kind) at the food court, and a crowd formed to stare, and then in the middle of it all the cute littlest alien stood up and sang “America the Beautiful.” That’s how cool it is that this little foreigner is not only on their local bus, wherever that is, but also likes eating their Chinese food. Like ours, China’s is a proud culture.
Then came the questions, from a young woman seated across from us. “America? Is that far or not far?” It’s really far. “Do you have to ride an airplane to get here?” Yes. “For how long?” Between a half and full day of flying. “What time is it there right now?” When it’s morning here, it’s last night there.
Then the tone turned serious: “So why the heck are you here in Zhuyangxi?” This was actually answered right away by a drunk old man seated behind us: “To find a girlfriend!”
The conversation was then joined by the young man collecting the bus fare, who spoke the best standard Mandarin of anyone around us and seemed over-educated for his line of work: “They’re travelling for pleasure, going to see [the old riverside town of] Songji. Right?”
“There is nothing to see in Songji! I should know; I’ve lived there for twenty years!”
“But they’re foreigners, to them it’ll be interesting.”
“What’s there to find interesting? It’s just some old houses.”
“Hey! You could definitely find a Chinese girlfriend around here!”
“Well they don’t live there, they’ve never seen these old houses before.”
“When I worked in Angola, we had foreigner girlfriends. They were all black!”
“Never seen an old house before! Who needs to see an old house?”
“Well, Chinese from other places think the old town’s old houses are interesting.”
“I know an old lady with a pretty daughter, I can get you invited to dinner!”
“The Chinese tourists who come here are all bored after they see it. This place sucks.”
“Well, there’s the river.” Pause. “Although the pollution’s pretty bad. Foreigners really don’t like pollution.”
“You guys totally shouldn’t be coming here. Why don’t you go to Yongchuan? There are buses to there, you know.”
“Hey! Is that your baby?! And is she your friend or your sister?”
“Yeah, you should just go to Yongchuan, there are at least some good hotels there. I’ll point out which bus when we get to the stop.”
As it turned out, Songji old village didn’t suck. Yes, the ancient setting was slightly marred by the giant coal power plant, with its twin cooling towers, looming overhead. And yes, the “old houses,” in this case Ming and Qing Dynasty shop buildings and courtyards, weren’t any more impressive than those elsewhere. But what made Songji awesome to our little tour group was the combination of a great hotel (soft beds, clean floors!); a great Sichuan teahouse/restaurant (spicy steamy soups on a dreary rainy evening); and a great old temple to visit (old ladies letting us in the back door, and finding handcrafted displays of the craziest depictions imaginable of Buddhist hell!).
Yes, America is far away. Yes, we can eat spicy food. No, our baby cannot speak Mandarin. Coming out here, hiking a mile down the old tracks to emerge in the middle of nowhere, answering these questions again and again, bumping along the coal-mud road to get where we want to go: this is where we are now.