A ROW OF HOLLOW fish eyes stare back at me from the metal tray. I pretend to bite my arm and then vigorously shake my head. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t work. How do you mime “I’m a vegetarian”? The woman across from me is still wearing her expectant smile and the fish are going nowhere.
As far as I can work out, I’m the only foreigner on this entire train. Kunming station had been bustling with travelers – families, students, soldiers, all filtered through grimly efficient security checks and x-rays – but I hadn’t seen any other obvious tourists. Now, peering through rain-spattered windows on a grey October morning, I can see that we’ve finally left the urban sprawl behind and are somewhere high, somewhere cloudy, somewhere where people appear to live in small stone houses surrounded by little other than mud and solitude, with panoramas that probably never reveal themselves.
I suddenly feel very far from home.
Defeated, I give up my efforts at evasion and accept the offer of a crispy little river fish impaled expertly on a long wooden stick. My companion, with miming skills far superior to mine, informs me she woke at 4am to grill them. This is enough to guilt me into eating.
She is roughly the same age as me, I guess, though the comparison is skewed by cultural difference and my own failure to update my sense of self to match my age. Soon after introductions, she produced a crinkled photo of her young son bundled up in an oversized winter coat, and then several of her in various hotel lobbies.
She can’t speak English, and I obviously don’t speak Chinese, so I murmur meaninglessly and nod. Which, come to think of it, is probably what I usually do when faced with photos, whatever country I’m in.
The other people in our carriage are largely middle-aged men, slightly rough and slightly loud, with cheap leather jackets and big bags emblazoned with ‘New York, New York,’ ‘Happy Smile,’ and other such slogans. I can sense them eyeing me with mild disbelief as they shuffle back and forth along the corridor with their small glass jars, continually topping up tea from the free hot water down by the conductor’s compartment.
In fact, apart from the piped music – an erhu’s haunting swoops interspersed with modern pop – the main noise in the train is the incessant sipping of green tea and the accompanying clearing of throats. Well, that and the intermittent squawk of a baby, wrapped up tight in pink, who burst into tears immediately upon seeing me.
Nibbling cautiously on the fish which seems to be predominantly bone and scale, I glance up at my new friend. At 5:30am she had been bare-faced and stern, hair scraped back, coat buttoned to her chin. But, as the train slid out of Kunming, through the dirty grey expanse of suburbs and up into the mountains, a slow transformation began.
From her business card, emblazoned with a single red rose, and from her enviable charade skills, I learn that she is a beautician, travelling to Chengdu to teach makeup classes. And now, as the train rattles along the curved tracks, past concrete housing blocks perched on mountain slopes, valleys shrouded in mist and rain, drab little stations with a solitary guard standing to attention in military blue, I watch entranced as my companion flicks perfect lines of black over each eye.
Next, she curls lashes into obedience with metal tongs, paints sharp contours onto the blank canvas of her cheeks, and finally, removing her elastic hair-band, shakes out a thick mass of black curls that have clearly cost a lot of time and money to create.
We eye each other, suddenly wary. I have witnessed her ‘before’ and ‘after,’ and am no doubt expected to comment, whereas she is faced with this anomaly, a single white woman on the second bunk of a Chinese train, and is no doubt also feeling an unspoken pressure to speak. But speak is effectively what neither of us can do, since our words have next to no meaning for each other, and, once out of our mouths, just hang mid-air, unable to reach their intended destination.
I smile instead. A lot.
“Boobibron,” she says.
I smile some more, trying to make my eyes more confident.
And now, despite my best efforts, I can feel my smile faltering.
A couple more abortive attempts and she reaches into her sizeable cosmetics bag, fishes out a lipstick and hands it over.
“Bobbi Brown!” The relief in my voice is excessive. “Bobbi Brown!” I practically shout it out in triumph. The next few minutes are spent exchanging brand names. Clinique. “Yes! Yes!” Dior. Chanel. It turns out, if nothing else, we are both relatively fluent in Cosmetics.
She’s probably surprised; I know how bad I must look. Having woken before dawn in a cheap hostel room in Kunming , I dressed in the dark and in haste, and even on a good day my face is undoubtedly more ‘before’ than ‘after.’
She takes her phone out of her bag, nodding furiously as she scrolls through her numbers. A moment later she thrusts it at me across the table, and I hear myself voicing a cautious “Hello?” Mary answers, introducing herself as my friend’s English teacher from Kunming. I don’t have the heart to tell her the lessons aren’t yet paying off.
“How do you like Yunnan?”
I look out at the long grey smudge of mountainside.
“It’s very beautiful.”
“You are English. William and Katherine.”
It takes me a moment to place the names. The royal marriage was well over a year ago, and travelling in Asia means I’m not in touch with whatever passes for Western news. But strangely, my total indifference to English culture whenever I live amongst it, translates itself into a weird patriotism in situations just like this, when it seems to offer an easy entry-point to connection. Lady Di, rainy weather, Beckham, Big Ben, Bond; I’m always absurdly grateful for any cultural cliché I can lay my hands on.
After a couple more random questions, the conversation is over and I return the phone, simultaneously relieved and bewildered, as if having successfully passed a job interview for a position I hadn’t applied for.
We are just two hours into a 24-hour journey. Without warning, a large woman, breathy and excited, joins us by the window, her cheeks two polished apples, eyes darting back and forth between the anomalous westerner and that tray of grilled fish.
“Sister,” the two women say in unison, and I smile doubtfully, unable to spot the slightest of family resemblances. From the tone of their voices, they are arguing about something between themselves, but then it’s laughter and smiles, and once again I give up attempting to interpret. So often on this trip through Western China, I’m cast as observer, gazing out at things from a silent standpoint, shockingly illiterate and forced to communicate with a dumbshow of clown-like gestures and gurning faces.
People met en route have been incredibly tolerant. Faced with such freakishness, the average Brit would probably look the other way or smirk. Instead, most of the Chinese unlucky enough to cross my path astound me with their kindness, leading me to the bank, pointing out wrong turns, drawing maps on menus and all the while smiling patiently and with no obvious sign of mockery.
The sister breaks my train of thought by leaning over and firmly planting her thumbs on either side of my nose. I flinch at the unexpected intimacy of it, but her automatic ease makes me relax just as quickly. Slow and methodic, she starts to push and press on various parts of my ‘before’ face, dragging her fingers across my forehead, sweeping palms over cheeks, before tapping my head and pulling on handfuls of hair in a way that probably makes me resemble Edward Scissorhands even more than usual, but which is also strangely soothing.
She then shows me how to massage my hands and forearms, pulping them with a wrestler’s grip so that I have to fix my smile securely in place. No doubt I looked very much in need of this intervention, and, as another woman pauses in the corridor to watch the show and the massage progresses to a vigorous shoulder rub, I wonder how on earth I’m going to repay her.
In my pocket there’s a tattered sheet of ‘Useful Travel Phrases’ downloaded from the internet — a pinyin survival guide which, given the vital importance of tones in making even the most basic Chinese expression understood, has thus far proved totally and utterly useless.
“Ni zhen hao.”
You are so kind, is what I hope I have just said, but who the hell knows?
“Ni zhen hao,” I try again to a slightly different tune, and scrutinize her face for signs of outrage or mortal offence.
“Bu ke qie,” she replies, and with a sudden flash of comprehension I find the phrase on my dog-eared list: ‘Don’t be so formal.’
For the briefest of moments, I flush with the unexpected success of it. I have been travelling on my own for months now, and somehow the anonymity that I usually crave in life has lately begun to feel stifling. Day after wordless day of embarrassed shop assistants and blind alleys, of undecipherable menus and street signs, of eyes that stared without ever really seeing; too many reference points were coming unstuck at the same time, leaving me floating dangerously in a space at once removed from everything around me.
Here though — fed, accepted, and, however briefly, understood — I find my basic human needs being miraculously fulfilled in the simplest and kindest of ways.
The two women smile at me, pushing the tray of fish across the table once again, and this time I take one without hesitating.
“Xie xie ni.”
And they will never know precisely how grateful I really am, here in this neon-lit carriage, somewhere mountainous and high, heading north to Chengdu.