I don't believe in fate, but...

Trip Start Sep 04, 2007
Trip End Nov 20, 2007

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Sunday, October 7, 2007

Friday, September 14th

Fate is for the religious, and I'm not religious, so I believe in fate about as much as I believe in god: it's fun to play with the vocabulary (many are the times that I've referred to "god's favorite beer") but not something that affects my life. That said, if fate existed, it would be responsible for me missing the train on Thursday and putting me in a hard seat on Friday morning's train from Hohhot to Beijing so I could meet a pair of interesting, curious, open-minded, intelligent, articulate Chinese students, Xue Ming and Hao Ming, who were headed to Tianjin for their third year of engineering school. The two of them have been friends for many years, and it shows in their great rapport and good-humored kidding. (Next time you see Hao Ming, ask him about his girlfriend.)

I was even more careful Friday morning than Thursday morning to get to the station on time and this time managed to avoid conversations with cute babes who spoke a little English. When I got on the train, I learned what I had paid for when I bought my second ticket to Beijing: hard seat, which can be a nasty way to travel, especially if you have far to go or have a lot of luggage. You get a seat about the size of a lunch-counter stool and a tiny table that you share with the person on the hard seat across from you. There are two hard seats in the aisle opposite each sleeping compartment. The seat back, such as it is, consists of the wall that the seat folds down from, but if you lean back and put your legs in the narrow aisle, you have to move whenever anyone wants to pass. I, with my two big bags (dropping to one bag after the Shipton's Arch tour, when I can send hiking boots and various camping equipment home), looked to spend the entire trip, about 10 hours, standing in the aisle because my bags occupied all of the space that I was allotted for my hard seat and maybe then some. The conductor took pity on me and asked the folks in the sleeping compartment across from me to let me stash my bags on the floor under their beds. (In actuality, she probably just didn't want to squeeze past me every time she had to go from one end of the car to the other.)

Maybe an hour into the trip, some young whippersnapper (Xue Ming) came down the aisle calling for someone who turned out to be a couple of compartments down from me (Hao Ming). Shortly thereafter, they spotted me in the aisle (which likely wouldn't have happened if I'd gotten a bed in a compartment, the only other "seating" option in that car), came out, and struck up a conversation. We spent practically the entire rest of the ride, save for a couple of brief breaks, talking and playing a card game that they taught me called landlord, which is a more sophisticated version of gin. Their English is better than that of almost anyone else I've spoken with in China, but as soon as I discovered that they had ambitions to go to the US for graduate school (Berkeley is a sister school with which their school trades exchange students), I gently and playfully started working to improve their pronunciation. They queried about my life and I about theirs, they quizzed me about my opinions on everything from to god to Taiwan to lawyers (Hao Ming's father is a lawyer, which he told me only after I answered), I asked them about their current school and about what they'd have to do to go to the US for graduate school, and we had a rollicking good time for the entire trip. Before the train arrived in Beijing, I realized I could help all three of us if I lightened my load a bit and gave them the two Peter Hessler books I'd been carrying with me, River Town, which I'd read early in the trip, and Oracle Bones, which I hadn't read. I thought they might enjoy working on their English by reading an outsider's perspective on China. They accepted my offer, and I'm looking forward to hearing what they think.

I pinged Xue Ming after I wrote this and sent him the URL. (Hao Ming inexplicably had no email address last we spoke. What kind of engineering nerd is that? ;-) Here's hoping they like it.
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