Venerable traveler Paul Theroux is little more impressed with trains than I am. They’re definitely an effective way to get around, but the affection that many people reserve for them is seems out of line with their utility. The little compartment with two bunk beds on either side, a tiny table in the middle and a hot water thermos for tea or noodles underneath the table, is simple and comfortable. The upholstery is worn, but not run down and the sheets provided for sleeping are clean and comfortable. It’s a comfortable ride, but at no time does one feel transported to a Jeeves and Wooster story. Except maybe when the pair of Germans entering the compartment with too large of a suitcase called three more of their tour group for help wedging the case into the space above beds. Comedy ensued.
They didn’t speak much that evening, preferring to join their tour group in their own compartment, only returning to snore after I had dozed off. The train rocked me to sleep fairly early while Chinese drank, smoked, and played cards in the compartment next door until rather late.
The Germans were more talkative the next morning, still groggy, in their t-shirts and pajamas. I had recognized their accent…sort of. I could tell it wasn’t High German and it sounded Bavarian, except definitely not. The two were part of a tour group from former East Germany and spoke to each other (but never to me, only High German to me) in a Sächsisch accent which is, indeed, next to Bavaria, but not an accent any German would mistake for a Bavarian dialect, his grin seemed to tell me.
The tall, thin, more curious, of the Laurel and Hardy like pair, did all the talking. He explained that they had quite a lot of time, having recently retired. Neither looked very old and Laurel was actually quite fit. It was quite amazing for them to be able to travel so far after growing up in Soviet influenced East Germany, he continued. They were impressed by all the similarities, like slogans everywhere and a very visible police force. I’d noticed the slogans, but didn’t see the police as more present than anywhere else. He wanted to describe the look of the people and the place and how much it was like East Germany before the wall had fallen. I had been to East Berlin in 1989 and have a friend who escaped from Dresden 1986, so I have a few ideas what he was trying to explain, but it was still lost on me.
We talked about how the news is obviously biased, but that they learn to avoid the analysis, and how people generally ignore their government in every way they can. His group seem to share a certain kinship with the Chinese for having to do this, and he seemed to appreciate their bravery in doing so. He was impressed by all he had seen but still seemed to think they had so far to go. He asked if we’d been to any rural farms, telling us that the way of life there is positively medieval and a stark contrast with life in the cities. I asked him if he thought it was really like communism here and how that made any sense to have such a difference between rich and poor. The question was obviously silly and he just waved off the idea, mumbling about authority.
Eventually the pair adjourned to their group for tea and a review of the tour plans, and we packed our things and tried to decide whether the train would be stopping in the little town of our destination of 60 km away.