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Journey: China on the Move

Virginia Hines | China

Beijing West Railway Station, Wednesday April 3, 2019, 20:00:47

These photographs document an overnight rail journey in China from the current capital, Beijing, to the ancient capital of Xi'an, in Shaanxi Province, in April 2019. Primarily made from the window of the moving train, they capture a moment in time of an economy, culture, and society experiencing exponential change. When you photograph from a moving train, the change in position that occurs while the shutter is open blurs objects that are nearest, while those in the background stay sharp. Similarly in life, it’s often the things we are closest to - emotionally or in time, for example - that are least clear cut. The world’s most ancient civilization, China is also our most populous nation, which gives it an essential role in the present and future. What can we learn of its challenges, aspirations, and anxieties as landscapes and cityscapes unspool like a living scroll painting? The background is sharp; the foreground, murky. While the project cannot answer these complex questions, it provides fresh perspectives for reflection.

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 3, 2019. I am in Beijing West railway station, catching the Z19 overnight train to Xi'an, China’s ancient capital. While there are sleek new bullet trains that could whisk us through the 750-mile journey in under five hours, some of my traveling companions crave the nostalgia of a twentieth-century-style overnight sleeper, which, with a maximum speed of 75 mph, takes 12 hours to poke along the same route. I gripe a bit then go with the flow.


When West Station opened in 1996, nonstop express sleepers such as the Z19 were the ne plus ultra of rail travel in China. The terminal is immense and well equipped, more like an international airport than a train depot. The day after tomorrow is Qing Ming, the Tomb-Sweeping Festival, one of China’s biggest holidays. People return to their ancestral towns from far corners of the country - indeed, the world - to reunite with relatives and tidy up gravesites. West Station is more crowded than usual due to the holiday. Travelers come from every walk of life - ambitious students, successful professionals, humble laborers, officious bureaucrats, optimistic young families - with luggage to match their circumstance: backpacks, name-brand roller bags, bedrolls made from colorful quilts, duffel bags, repurposed shopping bags from stores that signal the passenger’s aspirations.


Nonstop and sleeper only, our train is considered rather posh. Instead of sprawling around the station with less fortunate travelers, we have a waiting room. There’s a souvenir shop tended by two anxious-looking women. Perhaps, like me, they’re wondering who in their right mind would spend hard-earned yuan on gaudy tchotchkes. Are the quartz bangles, dyed green to resemble jade, aimed at contrite husbands returning from hedonistic “business” trips? Are those glossy plastic toys intended for guilty parents yearning to make up for missed quality time? What about the heart-shaped boxes of candy? What love rifts are they supposed to mend? Cartons of cigarettes, bowls of instant noodles, packs of cards, bags of sunflower seeds, bottled water - these seem more pragmatic but no one is buying them, either.


The Z19 departs at 20:40. Around 8 o’clock the boarding gate opens. Down escalators we go, descending into the bowels of Beijing. The platform extends to the vanishing point. Luckily, my car is not so far away. Checking my ticket, the conductor points to a four-bed “soft sleeper” compartment. An elderly couple have already staked out the two lowers, filling the luggage storage with their bulging bags, plugging devices into the only outlet. In the upper berth there’s not enough head room to sit up properly. My phone is almost out of battery but I can’t charge it. I postpone occupying my cramped roost as long as possible. Eventually the train begins to move, gliding for a long time in tunnels beneath the vast capital city. I hang out in the corridor. Underground, the windows are empty black rectangles. Visually speaking, we might as well be trundling through deep space. The sense of motion without visual reference points is disorienting. Other passengers play cards, feast on noodles, drink tea. Finally I clamber into my bunk and try for a bit of sleep.


From West Station the Z19 travels southwest for 450 miles on the Beijing-Guangzhou trunk line, through Hebei and Henan provinces, until it reaches the city of Zhengzhou. There it switches to the Longhai rail corridor, heading west. The route parallels the Yellow River - considered the cradle of Chinese civilization - for the next 200 miles, passing Sanmenxia Dam, an immense concrete silt magnet that used to be pictured on banknotes. Not long afterward, it leaves the Yellow River behind and enters Shaanxi Province near Tongguan, the Tong Pass, a strategically important region in China’s military history. From there the journey continues west another 100 miles, skirting Huashan, one of the country’s five sacred mountains, to arrive in Xi'an at 08:31. The Longhai Railway originated back in the Qing Dynasty and expanded under the Guomindang. As a result, many of the stations we pass are quaint pastel relics of Republican China, grown shabby now that a parallel high-speed passenger line is in service.


THURSDAY, APRIL 4, 2019. It is a restless night. The elderly couple don’t sleep at all and spend the wakeful hours complaining about it. Their beds, of course, are quite uncomfortable. Their feet hurt, in part because they brought the wrong shoes. The food is terrible, resulting in indigestion. And the toilets - don’t get me started. Every notion that wafts through the mind of one or the other is vocalized as a conversation starter, the partner responds, and on it goes. The hours crawl by but I can’t count them because my phone has powered down. Eventually the sky begins to brighten. Day is breaking. I decide to descend from the ungainly perch and brew some tea, grateful that China Rail provides a hot water tap in every car.


At this hour I have the corridor almost to myself. From a spot by a large window I watch China’s heartland speed by. Dawn is dim and hazy. Occasionally I spy piles of coal and clutches of big cooling towers, suggesting the sky is smogged by huge power plants. Then an unexpected counterpoint: a large wind farm. As the sun rises the landscape grows more interesting. I pull out my camera and a 50mm lens. We roll through Tongguan Station. It’s just past sunrise. We’ve entered Shaanxi Province, the last leg of the trip.


As a nation, China is in motion, evolving, asserting its identity and role in the modern world. Ahead of Qing Ming, Chinese citizens are also on the move, briefly returning to their roots, where ancestors are literally planted in the soil (unless, as recently happened to a friend, grandma and grandpa are dug up for a highway project). I’m moving too, traveling overseas, growing (so I hope) as a human being through the encounters. Today on the Z19, these trajectories intersect. Then in Xi'an we will all ricochet off on separate paths.


If you take a photograph through the window of a moving train, the change in position that occurs during the instant the shutter is open blurs objects that are nearer, while those in the background, having a far smaller angle of incidence, stay sharp. Similarly in life, it’s often the things we are closest to - emotionally or in time, for example - that are least clear cut. The world’s most ancient civilization, China is also our most populous nation, which gives it an essential role in the present and future. What can we learn of its challenges, aspirations, and anxieties as landscapes and cityscapes unspool like a living scroll painting? The background is sharp; the foreground, murky.


The Z19 rolls on. The jagged peaks of Huashan, which have beckoned to pilgrims for millennia, slice the horizon. Spring is painting fields the yellow of mustard, magenta of blossoming fruit trees, and shades of red from garlands decorating cemeteries for Qing Ming. Superhighways, dirt roads, crumbling provincial depots, big character signs, cement plants, construction projects, and strings of electricity pylons fly by in sequence. Dry riverbeds speak to industrial-scale reallocation of natural resources. Occasionally there are people: alone, in small groups, driving cars. Clusters of modern apartment towers pierce the horizon, encroaching on modest traditional buildings that will soon vanish as the tower blocks expand. The rich visual contrasts hint at both the benefits and costs of tectonic economic and cultural changes China is experiencing. Rural scenes dissolve into suburban, then urban views. The roadbed widens into a rail yard. It’s around 8:30 in the morning. Big plastic characters proclaim our arrival in 西安, Xi’an, the ancient walled city that was the starting point of the Silk Road, seat of the revered Tang Dynasty, and home to Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor and namesake.


Xi’an Station is one of the old Longhai depots. There’s peeling green and yellow paint and tufts of grass peeping from cracks in the pavement. The ancient capital is far from the current one not only in time and geography, but in terms of influence. Yet the station is functional enough, with important information scrolling and blinking across ubiquitous-in-China red LED matrix signs. There’s a charm in its graceful curves and human scale that I miss in modern public buildings. Upon exiting, travelers stare out at Xi’an’s massive city wall. Staring back is a daunting array of security cameras that recognize, observe, and record faces and events. In order to leave the grounds we must pass through a series of parallel railings that remind me of cattle chutes. As everyone proceeds through the crowd control devices a cop on a pedestal scans the scene. I emerge into the plaza near a gate to the old city. A group of passengers is queued up to head in the other direction. Tomorrow is Qing Ming. I have reached my destination and the journey continues.


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