Shanxi trains are filthy. An odor cocktail of fresh cigarettes, layered on the stagnant stench of stale cigarettes, permeates each compartment. On a long trip, the smell gets in your hair, your clothes, and everything you own. If you’re unlucky and board near the end of the train’s journey, you also get a whiff of public toilet in the mix. Despite the “禁止吸烟”—“NO SMOKING”— sign over the compartment entrance, people have been smoking in them for months, years, maybe even decades. I have no idea how old these trains are. The exterior is usually a dull grey and red or green that suggests history, but you doubt that anything constructed in modern China could last for very long. They are as dubious in age as the smokers themselves, with their jet-black hair, bright black eyes, and rotting teeth.
I mostly take these trains alone. I take them to Taigu to see friends, and I take them to Linfen to visit power plants. I used to take the train to Datong to see cultural relics—giant stone Buddhas and Daoist temples—that the Chinese built before they decided they’d rather skimp on construction materials and build shiny things for cheap.
Trains in China oversell tickets—after they run out of seats, they sell standing tickets. It is undoubtedly a fire hazard. On the overnight trains, a train employee rents out footstools so that the standing folks can sit. One time on the six-hour train ride to Datong, the guy sitting across the aisle from me had a giant Santa sack labeled fertilizer. It didn’t appear to be full of fertilizer. I asked him what was in it. Cups, he said. Boxes and boxes of cups. He wasn’t the only one; lots of men and women alike had giant sacks. The overhead space wasn’t enough for the number of giant sacks. I had about a thirty-centimeter square in the aisle to put my feet. Every half hour the snack trolley lady would come by, knocking people’s bags and feet askew, and I would have to yank my ankles into the air.
Once I was on a train to Taigu that was both smelly and crowded. A smelly and crowded train can be better than a train that is just smelly. I had a seat, but it was so full that I gave up elbowing my way into the compartment and stood in the corridor with a herd of people. But people kept squeezing into the toilet, letting the accumulated odor of hours and hours of bathroom breaks waft into the corridor. Breathing through my shirt wasn’t enough. I edged toward a short girl standing in front of me and breathed through her freshly shampooed hair. It was a lot better than a spacious but stinky train ride that I shared with Amelea from Pingyao to Taigu last October. We couldn’t avoid the smell that time and just tried to talk for forty minutes straight to distract ourselves.
But sometimes it’s not smelly or crowded. On the four-hour trip from Taiyuan to Linfen last December, I watched as people filed out of the train in Yuci, Taigu, Pingyao. In the last hour of the trip I could even stretch out my legs onto the seat across from me. No one was smoking for once. A chatty middle-aged Chinese man noticed the English-language book I was reading and remarked on my language abilities. “Your English must be amazing,” he said. “I studied abroad,” I lied to him. I wanted to avoid a long conversation about Asian-Americanism that would probably devolve into stereotypes and nationalism.
“Wow,” he said. I put my earbuds in to avoid talking to him further. He turned to the girl next to him. “Are you from Shanxi?” he asked. She replied yes. He was not. It showed in his crisp, reedy Southern accent. He was from Anhui Province and was traveling to Linfen on business.
“All these noodles up north,” he said. “I can eat rice every meal of the day. But you Shanxi folk eat noodles. I can’t digest these goddamn noodles.”
Goddamn noodles. Good old Shanxi. I could pretend to belong in Beijing—my extended family lives there, and it’s full of outsiders, migrant workers, and foreigners. But I could never pretend to belong in Shanxi. Thick accents and earnest peasant faces. Fucking coal country. Shoes smeared with dirt and ash. Dust storms and mountains. It never rains, but the food is swimming in vinegar. I pay rent there, but it’s never home. So I hop on trains and go somewhere new almost every weekend, and I never have to feel like I belong.