Thursday, 18 December 2008

Border incident

Exactly thirty years ago, in December 1978, I took the train from Beijing to Pyongyang. No doubt nowadays it is full of happy tourist parties off for a jolly time with Our Dear Leader in the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, but at that time no-one much wanted to go there or could get a visa if they did.

Clearly I was going to be the only gweilo on the train, and I nervously asked the Chinese minders seeing me off in Beijing how I would manage about ordering food and so on. "No problem", they reassured me, "the guard speaks Russian". In the event I just ate whatever came round, which wasn't much.

I can remember nothing of the twenty-four hours as the train rumbled through Manchuria; there were some stops but only one of them was at all memorable. Bleary-eyed, I stumbled out and stretched my legs along the deserted platform while they were changing the locomotive, and a Chinese border guard hurried towards me. There was nothing menacing about him and when he accosted me in passable English I found that he was not going to check my passport and visa, or arrest me for some unspecified crime, but simply wanted to talk.

He seemed to have some managerial responsibilities, but with only two trains a day and apparently no-one getting on or off them his duties could not have occupied much of his time: after he had polished his belt, boots and pistol holster the days must have dragged terribly. Generally my impression is that Chinese people cope well with boredom, being inured or impervious to it; this young man had spent his time teaching himself English. As I was the first native Anglophone he had ever met he was determined to make the most of an opportunity to practise.

I have heard other European travellers in China say that earnest students met by chance often demand answers to difficult questions about such things as the proper use of the mandative subjunctive, but happily the problem which had been bothering my new friend was easy to for me to solve. He was supervising the installation of some new bins to keep the station tidy: should he have them labelled TRASH or GARBAGE?

Of course I said it should be RUBBISH; REFUSE would have confused him. I wrote it for him on the back of my card (ming pian) and we parted with a handshake and expressions of mutual esteem. I like to think that he kept my card as a souvenir and that he retains as happy a memory of our encounter as I do.


Froog said...

If he adopted your suggestion, these would probably have been the only 'Rubbish' bins in China. I wonder if they're still there. I have a couple of friends who run tours to the DPRK, so they probably pass through that station once in a while - I'll ask them to check for me.

In these days of 'Green' consciousness, we usually see twin bin arrangements - labelled 'Recycling' and 'Unrecycling'. Given the perversity of Chinese ingenuity, I think it is quite possible that they have developed a process for converting innocuous, biodegradable materials into persistent toxins.

Sal said...

oh superb.

yeah: common theme among travellers in un-wealthy places now: people wanting to practise their english with them.

good going with "rubbish", btw