We’re on the train to Xi’an. We had a crazy, eventful day in Beijing, during which we’d visited a school, I’d bought six billion dollar rug, and we’d been caught in a massive downpour as we were trying to get supper.
But now we’re on the train. It’s one of the nicest trains in China, or so we’ve been told, and it looks like it: the compartments are sleek and efficient, nicely designed and clean. The halls are well lit, and there are and western toilets, which is good, because this is a train after all, which means moving and rocking, and the thought of moving and rocking while negotiating a squattie toilet is something I try to avoid.
So we’re on the train, and Lucy is sobbing. Sobbing. Huge, gasping sobs, full-body sobs, boulder-sized sobs that come out of her lungs like hot-air balloons. She can’t even think straight, she’s sobbing so hard.
Part of this is our fault. It’s 9:37 PM, after all, at the end of a long day in a foreign country, and this is a kid who normally goes to bed at 8:00, end of story. When we got on the train at 9, we should have told the kids to put on their PJs, brushed their teeth, and put them down for the night.
But it’s a train, for Pete’s sake. And it’s their first overnight train ride. And what fun is it having an overnight train ride is you go to sleep the minute you board, and disembark the minute you wake up?
And part of Lucy’s sobbing is beyond our control. We have one compartment for our five-person family, and there are only four beds per compartment. Which means Jamie and Lucy have to share a bed. No big deal: they do this all the time, toe-to-toe, so that each of their sweaty little heads is at an opposite end. But see, if Lucy and Jamie are in the same bed, that means they can’t be on the top bunk, because that’s too dangerous for Jamie. And—
‘THAT’S NOT FAIR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
I’m sorry, Lucy: we didn’t quite hear you. Could you say it a little louder?
And she’s right: it’s not fair: Will gets to sleep on the top bunk. And sleeping on the top bunk means that there’s a little cubbyhole over the door where you can keep all your junk—the little dyed Easter egg you made at the school today, and the little bottle that’s painted on the inside with a picture of a tiger beside a beautiful woman. Which, of course—
“—IS NOT FAIR!!!!!!!!!!!”
We try to reason with her, explaining the danger to the brother she loves so much (although right now, truth be told, she looks like she’d happily throw him out the window), the fact that there’s no other real option since the beds are small. We explain that it’s only for the night, that it doesn’t really matter anyway, since she’ll be asleep. But, oddly, her six-year-old, exhausted brain doesn’t seem interested in listening to our wonderfully nuanced arguments.
So eventually we do what all good parents who have their children’s personal well-being and safety in mind do: we give in.
Actually, we do it one better and reach a stupid compromise that ensures neither Jamie’s safety nor a good night’s rest for Ellen: Jamie will sleep at his mother’s feet in a lower bunk, and Lucy will be alone in her upper bunk, opposite Will.
“But Lucy,” we say, sternly, “you need to know: this is not how we do things in this family. Throwing a temper-tantrum every time you don’t get your way will not always work.”
At this point, Lucy has essentially melted into a corner of her bed, eyes-red, bones liquid. She doesn’t say anything, but her expression—exhausted, runny-nosed, but triumphant—speak volumes. Or more to the point, it speaks two words: “Yeah.” And, “Right.”
Eventually we get them down, tooth-brushed and PJ’d. Because we only have one room and because we’re exhausted, we go down too.
I wake up in the middle of the night, needing to to visit the men’s room. I slip into the hall, pad down the train car in the little sandals provided in the compartment (they cover the front two-thirds of my feet), and do what I need to do. Then I pad back and crawl into bed.
I have trouble falling back to sleep. I don’t know why. The train makes a smooth ka-da-chun, ka-da-chun, ka-da-chun noise as it glides along the rails. It’s soothing, reminding me of the apartment I used to have in Ames, Iowa, two doors down from active tracks.
But I can’t sleep. Maybe it’s because the bed is too small. Or the pillow too flat. Or my brain too active, convincing itself that my bladder feels full again.
All of that said, it’s not unpleasant, laying there on the train, listening to the sound of the rails. I’ve slept on trains before, but never one as nice as this: in Africa, a quarter century ago, when traveling with a woman I loved as only a twenty-year-old on his own for the first time could; maybe a year after that, going across Siberia with my friend Rich, who I haven’t heard from since (probably because I didn’t love him as much as I did Sarah; or maybe because I did). Once, I woke up from a deep sleep on a train from Venice to Rome to find a whiskered man with curly hair digging through my backpack. I yelled, he said something in Italian and left, and I didn’t sleep a wink the rest of the night.
All of which comes back to me that night as we’re rolling through Eastern China and I’m listening to the ka-da-chun, ka-da-chun of the train. And below that, I’m trying to catch the breathing of my children. I love sleeping in the same room as them. Every parent knows that we love our children most of all exactly five minutes after we’ve put them to bed and are heading down the hall to get a glass of wine and recover from the day. And I guess lying in the same room with them, listening to them sleep, is just a way of trying to extend that feeling.
The next morning, I’ll get up at seven, will put on my shoes to get my feet warm, will look out the window and see shocking yellow fields of rapeseed, will see small villages full of buildings made of earthy brown bricks, will see green mountains that rise and fall quickly, will see quarries, will see hillsides with burial tombs dug into them.
The sky will be gray and dull. Lucy will get up at 7:30 or so, and will be in a perfectly fine mood. We’ll pass dig through the backpack until we find the bag of Frosted Flakes and we’ll pass some out to each kid. The kids from next door will knock and come in, saying hello. A young woman in a blue train company uniform will step in collect our garbage, wave a hand questioningly at our slippers: are we done with them? Yes, we are done.
I’ll have a cup of cheap black coffee which is the only way I like coffee, and Ellen will take pictures out of the train window, trying to capture this feeling, this place, this moment, this mood. And eventually she’ll give up, and lean back in her seat opposite me. And for a while we’ll both look out the window, watching the countryside go by, listening to the kids chatter.
And once or twice, we’ll catch each others’ eye and shake our heads, asking ourselves, over and over again: Is this our life? Is this real? Are we really this lucky?
Paul Hanstedt is the author of Hong Konged: One Modern American Family’s (Mis)adventures in the Gateway to China and a professor at Roanoke University.