China’s Other Billion: A Train Ride Across Henan

Following is the latest installment in a series of posts by journalist Rachel Beitarie*, who will be sharing with us dispatches from her journey across rural China. In this post, Rachel describes her train journey across Henan, the cradle of Chinese civilization. (Read previous installments of the travelogue here.)

A train ride across Henan

Drink some tea before you get on the train, the woman at the train station says. She has been working with China railway for fifteen years, running the “VIP room” (a dirty waiting hall with broken couches instead of the plastic chairs in the main waiting hall) at Xinyang station. “We have good tea here”, she continues (it’s true), “The water here is very good. You won’t find such good water anywhere else in Henan.”

That’s probably true too. As you go north across Henan, the air gets murkier and the rivers run black, or just run dry.

It takes about seven hours to cross Henan from south to north by a regular train, and those trains may just be the most crowded in all of China, this relatively small province having the largest population of all the country’s regions. Henanese are sometimes accused of being pushy and maybe they are, but not by choice. Pushing and shoving and being pushed and shoved is just part of life where people will inevitably always be in your way. So if you take a train in Henan you push to get on board, then you push your way to your seat and push again through the crowd of unfortunates with no seats when you need to go to the toilet and again to get back. Sometimes you step on some toes but people generally take it with good humor, maybe they figure next time they will be the one to step on someone else’s toes, or they are just used to being pushed around.

Out of the window, the scenery is flat and unchanging: This is the central plain, the cradle of Chinese civilization, and now a cradle for more than one scandal or disaster. From Xinyang, the train continues to Zhumadian then rushes through Shangcai county. It is probably just in my mind but the train seems to be anxious to leave this place behind. Shangcai is the main AIDS county of Henan, where tens of thousands were infected with HIV. The man in the seat next to me, who is on his way to Xinxiang in North Henan on some business, carrying a plastic box full of eggs with him, only knows this area is inflicted by some terrible disease, and that one should never go there, nor contact anyone from Shangcai.

The train goes on through tributaries of the Huai River, where cancer villages are abundant. It passes another gray city then a broken old bridge with the inscription on it: “The people’s communes are good.” The flat fields are dotted with small mounds of earth, sometimes adorned by paper flowers and very rarely a tombstone. These are ancestors’ graves where former residents rest in peace while their descendants continue to toil the unforgiving yellow earth. As we chat about farmers’ lives, a young woman wonders aloud what is done with the graves when land is seized for development. No one knows. Probably it’s just gone, the egg man says, what can you do about it?

*Rachel’s self-introduction:

I came to China for three months, with a plan to see a bit of Tibet and Sichuan and to get a taste of rural life in this country before I settled down back home with a job at a law firm. Nearly eight years later, I am still in China, and still as fascinated with its rural areas.

After working as a correspondent in Beijing for two years, in July 2010 I have embarked on what I hope will be a six month journey through the Chinese countryside — listening, watching and telling stories from farmers’ lives. Much has been and is still being written about the “Chinese miracle” (or dystopia, depends on your point of view) and this will only be my added two cents. China, it is often said, has more than 400 million Internet users and hundreds of millions of new urban residents, who are changing the face of the country. It is less often noted that China also has another billion people who have not yet been fully included in these new economic and social changes. The following, if you will, are some fragments from the story of the other billion.

My personal blog is Bendilaowai.

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