June 24, 2015's Weekly Slap:

“Beach Slapped” is what it is because from the moment I first came to the Oregon Coast, most every moment I lived here, and even my last hours here, it was always about the beach. That wasn’t always true of my life, and perhaps that’s been my problem.

Growing up in Colorado, I was a long way from the beach. I don’t care what anyone says, lounging next to a giant lake/ civic water supply is not the beach.

BartonGroverHowe.com:Where to keep up with humor writer Barton Grover Howe. Here, you'll find all of his Beach Slapped columns from The News-Times in Lincoln County, Oregon, excerpts from his latest books and the occasional random musing that would get him fired if he published it in a family newspaper.
Happy rails to you
- April, 2003
Riding the rails in China isn’t exactly Amtrak.  Not that I’ve ever ridden an Amtrak train, but I’m reasonably sure the sinks don’t flood the hallway on their trains.  Then again, maybe they do, but that’s getting ahead of things a bit.

When China landed the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, it promised to show the world an enlightened and progressive country. Unlike America, where even the Olympics provokes divided opinion, polls show 94% of the Chinese people are in favor of it.  Even polls conducted by independent committees – i.e. no Chinese soldiers with guns - show high support. Everyone in the country wants to put their best foot forward – all 2.6 billion of them.

Just a few weeks ago, they unveiled their new “Dancing Beijing” logo for the games, in a singing and dancing spectacle worthy of Las Vegas. But outside of the official press conferences and the giant parties there is another China. It is the China of poverty, yet promise; sorrows followed by smiles; cheese followed by pleas. And then more cheese.

There are all kinds of ways to find the real China: go to out of the way cities; wander down alleys; hit on the local girls in a Shanghai bar who are flirting with you because they want to make the bar’s owner – who is a member of the Chinese mob – jealous. I did all of these things and more (some things more intentionally than others). But the best way to see the real China it is just to get on the train.

            Rail is the most popular way to travel in China.  During busy holidays like 40-day Spring Festival over 1.5 billion people make some type of trip in China, and most of them do it by train.  Fortunately, in the spring of 2001 when my friend and I were traveling, things weren’t near that busy. Which is why my friend Paul and I were doubly surprised when the express train to Beijing was sold out in soft sleeper class.  Now, we could have gone hard sleeper, but that would have involved being stacked three-high like cordwood in a giant room with no doors and about 60 other people.

            We ended up paying US $31 for a room with two other people and a door. (We were hoping for Norwegian exchange students.) Yes, it cost us some time, but if you learn nothing in else in China, it’s patience and how to wait. How long could seven hours extra really be?

*     *     *

12,000 years. That’s how long ago Chinese culture as we know it began. It was a Tuesday. Various forms of people took to planting crops and building societies, now that they were done learning to walk upright and set fire to things.  By 2000 BC, the first dynasties formed, and these people were fully engaged in making weapons and killing one another, a sure sign of progress.  Give them credit, though, they did take time to philosophize about war – and a lot of other things. By 700 BC – 500 BC, great thinkers like Lao Tzu (“The Art of War”) and Confucius (“Many Profound Sayings Turned Into Bad Puns”) were traveling throughout China, expounding to commoners and royalty alike.

            This takes us up to the Qin period - and into another period where apparently nobody got along very well.  In all honesty, I don’t really know much about this period, except that it was a period which saw China with two female emperors.  In a matriarchal society like China, that’s quite an accomplishment.  The first of them – in a move that would surely shock Tammy Faye Baker – gave her entire cosmetics budget for a year to the Buddhists.  The second reformed the monetary system before withdrawing from the throne to go cavort with her favorite concubine, all in all not a bad idea when you consider what a mess the country was.  Indeed by about 900 AD, the country’s northern portion was in ruins and everyone was feuding, much like a city after a WTO meeting.

            Into this gap came the Song Dynasty, who reunited the country, initiated reforms, and began building a giant wall to the north to ward off some pesky neighbors.  It didn’t work, and soon the Song found themselves swapping favors with whoever would help them stay in power.  This worked for about the next 300 years, until the members of the Khan family came knocking at the door.  Amway with weapons, if you will.  Although Genghis did not live to see China conquered – having been killed by a competing Avon lady in Western Xia - his progeny did, when Kublai Khan conquered the Song in 1279.

            Aside from building some nice lakes in Beijing, Kublai’s Yuan Dynasty wasn’t much good for the Chinese or China. Indeed, he was a particularly ruthless leader, and quickly relegated the Chinese to the same rank as the governor of Florida at a Bush family reunion. Unable to hold government posts, many of the Chinese upper class took occupations which brought them closer to the common Chinese people. All sorts of underground religious, cultural and political groups flourished.  In 1368 one of these groups overthrew the Yuan Dynasty.  It’s leader then established the Ming Dynasty, which soon banished all religious sects, including the one that brought him to power. They made some nice vases, though.

*     *     *

We arrived at the train station to find ourselves in a holding area with about a thousand other people waiting on a number of different trains.  All of them looked harried, burdened, and distinctly non-thrilled to be there. None of them looked Norwegian.  Imagine our thrill then when we found two attractive young Chinese girls moving suitcases into our room.  They even spoke a little English, and had wonderful smiles.  We got to see them big and toothy as they waved from the platform to their parents in our room.

            The parents were nice people, though they didn’t speak a word of English.  Conversation would have been nice, seeing as there was no room for anything else in our cabin.  There were four beds crammed into a space about seven feet square.  All our luggage had to fit somewhere in that space, and there was no room under the beds.  I hung my backpack from my bed frame, stowed my books and food under the table, and held my breath so as not to suck all the air out of the room.

            Having gotten settled, and entertained myself for as long as possible in my room – about three seconds – I decided to wander about the train.  Forward of us was the hard sleeper car I already mentioned with its tiny unpadded bunks rising up to eight feet off the ground. Getting on the non-Express train had been a good move; just getting out of bed in the morning I would have been killed, I’m sure. Forward of that were the regular cars, where people sit upright in hard back seats staring at each other for hours on end.  If they’re lucky, they fall asleep and awake at the end of the ride with a spittle of drool on their shoulders.  If they’re really lucky it’s their own.  Otherwise, they spend the entire trip staring into the eyes of some other bored soul, rapidly running out of things to talk about.  Imagine your worst date lasting 21 hours.

            As I returned to the rear of the train, I found the toilet appliance, which seemed to consist mainly of a big flat spot with a one-inch high rim.  Apparently, this is where you were supposed to do what you needed to do.  Suddenly, my decision to pack lots of cheese for snacking seemed like genius. Further examination revealed a pedal, which when pushed would deposit the contents of the flat spot onto the tracks below.  They tell me this is fairly normal on trains, even in parts of the US and Europe.  Of course, in the name of decency people are asked to refrain from using the restroom facility while the train is stopped in or near a town.  Uh-huh.  And now you have one more reason to tell kids not to play on the train tracks.

            Next door to the toilet were three sinks, the middle of which had just two modes: full, and sloshing onto the floor on curves.  This produced a nice river of water running down the hall, though the carpet managed to soak it up before it got to my room.  My walk about the train was never without shoes.

            At this point, you must be thinking my friend and I had booked tickets to hell.  But it gets worse.  Somewhere in the middle of the train, railway employees were burning black bricks with the smell of asphalt to keep warm, a smell which wafted throughout the train whenever it stopped.  When the train moved, the air circulating in the train kept the smell at bay.  All the more tragic then that the seven hours extra we’d be spending on the fast train were spent stopping in every city between Shanghai and Beijing.

            Aside from the prolonged hours on the train, this actually wasn’t so bad.  Traveling through the countryside and stopping in little cities gave me a chance to see the China that lies outside the big cities.  Most of it looks to be made of brick, with every home and building surrounded by a wall.

It was Robert Frost who once noted good fences make good neighbors.  If this is true, everyone in China must be very good neighbors.  In the early centuries of the last millennium, most Chinese cities had walls surrounding them. Most have bitten the dust over the years, (much like Robert Frost) but the echoes of history continue.

Looking further, you see fields still tilled by hand and plows drawn by oxen, reminders that some 900 million people in China are still farmers. Most places looked to be about the technological level of America in the 1930’s.

But even in Beijing, you don’t have to go long without seeing a reminder that China is still a developing country.  Mercedes swerve out of the way to avoid a farmer driving sheep down a freeway on-ramp.  Stoplights flash red and green while eight workers push a giant pole down the street and through the intersection. Bicycles outnumber the cars 20 to one at the intersections, with 80-year-old grandmas bundled up against the cold as they make their way home with a grandchild on the back.

In China today, a family is considered to be upper-income if their annual income is over US$6,024 a year.  That doesn’t sound like a lot - and it isn’t - though it goes further in China than it would in the US. Their housing and retirement are paid for by the government and their employers, so that money doesn’t have to pay for the some of the things we do in the US. This frees up a little bit of money for other progressive things, like cars.

Progress is of course a relative term. The cities are a chaotic mess of traffic, cars and bicycles in some kind of high-speed death match.  The scary thing is, in all of China last year, less than 1 million cars were sold. Now, this number is expected to climb, with the introduction of the Buick Sail, a joint GM-China venture.  It is considered to be the first truly affordable, reliable car for the Chinese masses, coming in at about US$12,000. Of course Buick has never made a reliable car anywhere on this planet, but they’ll probably sell a lot anyway.

*     *     *


Eventually the sun set and there wasn’t much to see outside the train.  Darkness looks pretty much black no matter where you travel on this planet.  I returned to my room and read books for a while, and saddled down with a ham and cheese – lots and lots of cheese – sandwich. Eventually Paul rose from watching his DVDs and we headed for the dining car to have some Reeb, a discount beer. As much as it sounds vaguely like something you might peel off your shoe after walking through rural Mississippi, it tasted better than that. Though not much.

            At first I wasn’t sure if we were allowed in the dining car, until it occurred to me that we were riding first class.  If we couldn’t use the dining car, who could?  Like most facilities in China, it was filled with men smoking like – well – like trains.  In the two hours I spent in there I think I shortened my life-expectancy by about two months.  But between people watching and drinking Reebs, I think it was a good trade. (Unless of course some amazing thing happens six weeks after I die, and then I’ll be really hacked off.)

            Most people in the dining car took us as some kind of curiosity, though everyone was very friendly.  Some people even tried to communicate, using hand gestures and facial expressions.  It was very confusing, completely unintelligible, and about ten times better than any other conversation I’d had in China. After a while, though, everyone went back to whatever it was they were doing, which seemed to consist of playing cards, smoking huge amounts of tobacco and drinking Reebs.

            At one point, a little girl came in, and clearly was looking to me to give her some money.  Having been in China for almost two weeks now, I’d gotten very good at ignoring begging people. In Xian, I had one woman screaming for money as she wrapped herself about my legs. But one look at this girl, at I knew I couldn’t say no.  She had some kind of tube in her neck that was bandaged to the side of her face.  Her skin was as white as the bandages, and judging by their lack of discoloration I decided they had been recently applied.

            I gave her 20 Yuan, about US$2.50.  She immediately fell to her knees, crying and thanking me.  It was very awkward, and attracted the attention of the train conductor, who dragged she and her mother out of the car and began screaming at them.  Eventually, she came back into the car, and with tears in her eyes returned the 20 Yuan.  Armed soldiers kept their eye on her, while most everyone else in the car kept their eye on me. I felt surrounded, and I wasn’t sure who to trust.

Not exactly an usual circumstance in China.

*     *     *

The Ming dynasty held onto power until1644. Li Zicheng an official with the Chinese post office, led a rebellion in Beijing, which caused the emperor to call for help from his life-long enemies, the Manchu.  They did suppress the rebellion, but once inside the Forbidden City they decided to stay – for about 260 years, proving once again that no matter what country you’re in, giving postal workers weapons is never a good idea.

The Qing Dynasty had begun, and thus began another period of historical weirdness. This period ending with the Dowager Princess, Ci Xi. Considered one of the more wasteful members of Chinese royalty, she built a fake boat out of marble for no other reason than she could, near the end of the 18th century.  Ironically enough, the funds used to build it were embezzled from the navy.  The irony – and the Sino-Russo War of 1895 - were sadly lost by most Chinese.  This defeat and other embarrassments from the faltering family ensured the rise of the Nationalists to power in 1911.  The over-two millennia long era of Chinese emperors was over.

            It’s about this time most American’s knowledge of Chinese history begins, with the Boxer Rebellion. It was not about underwear. Chinese peasants had protested against western intrusion by killing a number of Christian missionaries. Like the British in Hong Kong before it, the western powers used this as an excuse to pummel China, and exact all sorts of trade concessions from the country.  Along with horribly unfair treaties, they also ended up owning huge portions of Shanghai, where they basically built their own small communities.

            A lot of Chinese people came to hate the west over the years. (Does this sound familiar to anyone?) Mao Zedong, was especially angry. A member of the Communist Party in China since its founding in the 1920’s.  By the early 1940’s he was struggling for control of the country with Chiang Kai-Shek.  Being a dictator, Chiang was not terribly popular with many of his own people.  He was not, however, a communist – which made him our kind of dictator. Billions of dollars went from US coffers to Chaing (and this in a time when a billion dollars would still buy more than a jet plane and a coffee maker). But with soldiers and peasants still starving in the fields, this amounted to squat. Eventually Chiang and his supporters fled to Taiwan, where they continued to be dictators and violate all kinds of human rights for the next 40 years.

Meanwhile, in China, Mao quickly moved out of his rural and mountainous areas of support and over ran Beijing and the entire eastern coast of China.  The People’s Republic of China was born, and over 2,000 years of old-style rule by fundamentally corrupt, ruthless and dictatorial rulers was over.

Mao brought in a whole new type of rule by fundamentally corrupt, ruthless and dictatorial rulers. From 1949 to 1957, things went along pretty well, as Mao and his leading allies like Deng Xiaoping and Zhou Enlai upped production and living standards all through the country.  In an attempt to involve the cultural elite, Mao invited intellectuals to give their opinions on government.  Applying thought and reason to the cause, they criticized Mao and even had the audacity to suggest two-party elections, which promptly got them all rounded up into “thought reform” camps.  The persecution of Chinese intellectuals had begun, a movement that pretty much continues to this day, when officials from the Olympic committee aren’t looking, anyway.

*     *     *

As the rest of the car looked on, the injured girl and her mother spent the rest of their journey in the dining car, both of them sobbing quietly.  I went back to my room, only to return with a piece of paper, and a Chinese-English dictionary. I wrote a note to the girl, saying, “Have a nice day, from the USA,” and slipped it into my pocket.  Given the complexity of the Chinese language, this was no easy feat, especially on a moving, bouncing train.  I am reasonably sure I massacred the Chinese language.

            After about an hour, we stopped in a town so small that it didn’t seem to have lights, even in the train station.  Both the girl and her mother got up to leave.  Quietly, I stood up and walked to the door behind them, and slipped the mother the 20 Yuan, wrapped by the note.  Her eyes got huge, but I put a finger to my lips and waved good-bye.

As I returned to my seat, I noticed a number of people in the dining car staring at me, just before giving a big thumbs-up.  In the chill of the night, I landed a small blow against obnoxious communist soldiers, and left a little girl happy, though probably wondering why I had given her a note saying, “Cheese squirrel happy dwarf, from plant,” in drunken Chinese scrawl. It looked like a black and white picture of my colon.

            Shortly after this, I returned to my room and crashed for the night.  The mattress was thin, though I’ve had worse, and I fell asleep fairly quickly.  Later on, the bouncing of the train woke me again, along with the light in my room that I could not turn off.  It was a flickering blue lamp, and it pierced my eyelids, no matter what direction I faced.  It was like sleeping in a K-Mart.  About 6 a.m. I could sleep no longer, which worked out well since that seemed to be the time we pulled into our roommates’ hometown.  They packed up for good, I woke up for good, and I spent the rest of the trip trying to stretch out one newspaper and 100 pages in my book over eight hours.

            We continued to travel through one small city after another, though in China this means their population is “only” about 1 million people. Like everything else in China, this too has a long historical precedent. Even at the dawn of the millennium it had some 65 million people. In the age of Emperor Qin this had certain perks, such as the emperor being able to keep some 3,000 different concubines. China was big, but manageable.

However in the 1960’s, Chinese women were encouraged to have huge families, with bonuses and state medals given to people who could produce particularly huge families. China was well on its way to being the world’s first 1 billion person nation, and the problems that come with it.

Consider the city of Shanghai, a city of 13 million. Today, there are only 672,000 cars, but they are already out of room to park them and drive them.  The new hordes of cheap Buicks isn’t going to make things any better (even when they run). China’s huge population seems to ensure that any leap forward will ultimately strangle them at the same time.

In the countryside, as farms slowly become more efficient, more and more farmers are out of work. They are increasingly coming to the cities looking for jobs. Many of them even send their children into the city center from the outlying areas to beg for change. They’re easy to spot, as long as the Olympic committee isn’t in town, and with hundreds of millions of farmers bound to be affected in the coming years, they are bound to keep coming.

Many of them will take the train.

*     *     *

            About an hour outside of Beijing, I began to pack up what little I had taken out of my bags. It had been a great trip.  Yes, it had its moments – OK durations – of extreme difficulty.  I never knew there were so many ways to eat cheese, or look at it as a life-saving mechanism.  I’ll probably need long-term physical therapy as a result of washing my face in a room while never actually standing on the floor or touching anything in it.

But China, for all its flaws past and present is a remarkable country. The Chinese are very proud of all of their country and their history, and it’s that different perspective on size and time that make China so special, if at first unnerving.

Everything in China made me feel tiny.  To an American, whose very nature emphasizes individual pride and freedom, this is hard to take. The country’s size, its population, even the buildings, make you feel insignificant. Supporting columns inside some temples measure five feet around and probably 50 feet high. Standing among them, you feel like a speck.

But then I started thinking about it: If you take the average life expectancy of a Chinese person to be about 75 years, that means the average Chinese – by their end of their life – has lived through just 1% of their country’s history.  By contrast, an American with the same life span can say they have lived through 33% of America’s.  In that sense, each Chinese person is a speck against the tableau that is China.

Further, if you look at Chinese paintings, they very rarely have people in them, and when they do they are very small.  The Chinese, when they view themselves, see themselves as small against the larger world around them, be it nature, or monuments or whatever part of the world they happen to be observing.  This is definitely in contrast to Americans who tend to view themselves as dominating everything around them.  Neither one of these things is bad in and of itself; each country’s record speaks for itself.  But it is different, and it takes some getting used to.  During my whole six weeks in both Chinas I can’t say I ever got used to it, but I do think I began to understand it.

            The train made that possible; to see this nation’s past, present, and some part of its future.  In America we talk about life on the other side of the tracks, so it’s probably no surprise China has one too. I got to see that, though I must admit that no matter what side of the tracks I choose to look at, I’ll never actually walk on them again. I discovered not everyone waited until we left town to flush.

*     *     *

Beijing covers about 100 square miles, seven different counties and eleven different districts. For a city of 7 million, it creeps up surprisingly fast. Must be the small feet. When we arrived on a late February day, it was cold.  Sitting 40 degrees north of the equator, it has basically the same latitude and climate as Columbia, which means you can get anything from sunny and warm to freezing cold where you can’t see squat. Today was a day for squat.

Upon arrival at the station, I was out the door and into a train station restroom within about 90 seconds.  Thankfully, the train arrived at the station right on time. Like I said, this definitely wasn’t Amtrak.