When I was a kid, I often played with some of my mates, and one of the many games consisted in projecting on a wall, with the help of a ray of sunlight or with the artificial light of a light bulb, figures we made with the hands. If you looked at your hands, you would never understand what it was, but looking at the shadows that formed on the wall, a butterfly, an elephant and other images appeared. We called them by their name, Chinese shadows, but we were unaware of the fact that Chinese shadows were actually a real theatrical art form, mostly performed by itinerant people, that developed in China a hundred years before the birth of Christ.
In Chinese shadow puppetry performances, still popular both in China and in other Southeast Asian countries, the figures cannot be seen directly; what you see are only their shadows reflected on a white cloth. Italian writer Tiziano Terzani, in the book ‘Behind the forbidden door’ wrote: “In China, what you see is merely the shadow of a thing, and what seems to be the reality, often it is just theater”. Personally I would not be ready to confirm Terzani’s words, I was in this country too little time to be able to make such a net judgment on the theatricality of these people. I only spent two weeks in a part of one single Chinese province that is biggest than France, and since I cannot give a complete and realistic framework of a country so extensive and varied, what I can report are only impressions. Shadows more or less defined of a reality far more complex and difficult to understand than what I experienced. Hence, only shadows and even not so sharp; Chinese shadows, just like when I played as a child, but this time in that new adult game that is travel, which is just as instructive.
Once in Kunming, my first thought before starting to enjoy my well-earned rest was to arrange next day train ride to Chengdu in the Sichuan Province. The problem was to explain it to the guesthouse manager, and the solution arrived thanks to technology. I had installed a Chinese SIM card in my phone, but I had been told that I would not have coverage since it was still out of range. To my surprise, I managed to connect and with the help of the online translator I was finally able to communicate. The train would leave at around 9am the next morning and in ‘just’ 22 hours it would take me to my final destination.
And so, the art of backpack traveling enters the age of technology. The modern backpacker continues traveling with makeshift equipment and without a well-defined organisation behind him, sleeping in hostels or cheap guesthouses and trying to keep expenses to the minimum. However, he then gains orientation with google maps that achieve a precision of within only a few meters from the actual position, and he communicates with simultaneous translators that also have the sound option for when the reading becomes difficult. If this traveler also runs a website where he publishes his travel diaries, now called ‘ blogs’, technology rushes again to his aid: no more bulky notebooks and hundreds of written words, there is a microphone application that allows recording thoughts on the spot, and to later take them down in complete relax during a break, and to publish them, if needed, with the help of a simple ‘tablet’.
One could argue that in this way the journey loses some of its romance, and a bit of that poetic essence that reflects that sense of the unknown that you often get when you enter a different, unknown world. Actually, this is not correct: in a changing world that develops with an almost maddening speed, progress helps improve the quality of even the most spartan journey, facilitating communication with people, increasing the resources devoted to the orientation, and even increasing the chance of contact with the rest of the world.
After all, travellers in all ages made use of what the best contemporary technology offered – be it a compass, a sextant, or even the observation of the stars – to orient themselves in their wanderings; be it one way of communicating that would start from the ‘me Tarzan, you Jane’ followed by a series of gestures that simulated friendship, peace, hunger or sleep in order to establish an initial relationship with the locals; be it the dispatching of letters through more or less reliable postal services in order to send newspaper articles or just news to their families.
What modernity cannot yet change, and what to me is the essence of the journey itself, is the contact with people, the admiring of monuments, buildings, works of art that tell you, if you have eyes to see and ears to hear, stories of a present and a past civilisation that, in spite of man and his progress, speak a language as old as the world, communicate moods and convey emotions. No image seen on a computer will ever give the same feeling of being in person in a Tibetan village or in front of newborn baby Pandas that waddle towards each other.
The observation of the behaviours and habits of the people of a particular place, albeit susceptible to misunderstanding if caught within a period too short to allow you to deeply understand them, homages the observer with images that mingle with his sense of imagination; fragments of local life, pieces of a mosaic that, if you can complete it, speak of people, of lives to be listened to or just imagined. That elderly gentleman who walks upright with a proud look, was he part of the Cultural Revolution? Did he, like so many of his peers at the time, wave his Little Red Book in the streets? I will never know, of course, but with my imagination I can draw a story that perhaps he has never lived, or perhaps he has, a story that I like to grant to him. A story made of hopes, perhaps fulfilled, perhaps disappointed; of private episodes that are intertwined with the history of his country, moments of glory and of sadness, of light and of shadows. Hidden shadows representing a veiled reality, filtered through a white screen and projected by a beam of light: Chinese shadows.
At the Kunming train station, I buy a ticket without understanding what kind of seat I would get, and I find myself on a carriage with hard seats and quite crowded with people and luggage. A kind of third class, I would say, yet very clean and well-organised. Each carriage has its own manager who, before the train leaves, stations outside its door to give directions and to check that everything is running smoothly. It is one of these managers who suggests that I move to a bunk-bed. Somehow he informs me that I can change place as soon as the train leaves, so I pay a modest price difference, receive in exchange a regular receipt issued by a portable machine, and I find myself sitting on a bunk in a six beds compartment. Just like inside buses, train bunks are fixed and do not turn into seats during the day, yet the train offers more space and the chance to move from time to time and stretch the legs a bit. Once more, what strikes me is the organisation and the cleanliness: each carriage has its own water kettle so passengers can prepare the inevitable tea; with a certain frequency, uniformed staff come to clean aisles and carriages, and I often notice that even those in charge of a carriage help to keep clean the space placed under their jurisdiction.
From time to time, local grocery sellers pass with their trolleys full of rice and other foods literally sunk in coloured and very attractive sauces that give out particularly strong odours. I immediately judge these to be preposterous to my taste, perhaps wrongly. My alternative to a forced fast comes from a cart selling only fruit that passes countless of times during the trip, and that I welcome every time with a deep sense of gratitude. I even ask the seller, again with the help of the phone translator, if it were possible to have a bottle of water; at the following round, he is back with the coveted bottle, sporting a satisfied expression.
I alleviate my hunger with oranges, bananas and grapes, munching them here and there during the course of the trip. I rape my Italian need for coffee with tea, and I can finally dedicate myself to enjoying the views and to observing my occasional fellow travellers.
If I had expected something particular or characteristic in other travellers, I would be deeply disappointed. Beyond some sympathetic smile or a few cliches in Chinese that, for a change, I do not understand, they blissfully mind their own business: there are those who sit on the aisle folding seats sipping tea, those with a tablet, and those who simply look absently out of the window. Patiently, they let the time pass slowly, indifferent to things that to me are a huge attraction instead. They eat, lie down on the bunk, reach the smoking area. The railway staff is always in motion, always alert. When the train stops at a station, they have already arranged bathrooms to be locked and one of the two entrances of the carriage to be blocked. They then drop the toilet trash bags on the sidewalk and stand behind the only open door, looking with zeal to what is happening before their eyes. All uniformed, of course, and all with their stern, mask-like look: if anyone asks them for some information, they do not hide a certain kindness and professionalism, despite a tone of voice that sounds like a barked order.
Impenetrable faces that retain their states of mind and do not let their emotions or their impatience to arrive at destination leak. Faces decorated with almond-shaped eyes that hide their reality behind a white sheet of discretion: Chinese shadows.
Instead, it is the landscape that passes before my eyes to reveal all its variety and its beauty, needless to hide the feelings that it conveys. It is China, it is a Yunnan that mile after mile turns into Sichuan. A majestic landscape made of mountains and hills, valleys and rivers, towns and countryside villages that, fleeing in the opposite direction of the train, abandon themselves to my quick and perhaps indiscreet look.
Cities that perhaps are not even mentioned on maps, crossed by wide roads with little traffic, dotted with skyscrapers and modern buildings that act as a background for old, traditionally low houses; neatly cultivated fields, with their shades of green and yellow, form patches of colours and drawings like in paintings, fields where bent farmers are engrossed in their work, distracted only by the passage of the train to which they throw a curious look; industrial and mostly coal-mining areas with their chimneys that here and there scar the blue sky with their plumes of black smoke; country cottages made of bricks, at different degrees of dilapidation, that in some places seem to recall the landscapes of the Italian Po River valley, where you often see cobs, corn and peppers dry on their roofs, or when peering into the opening of some of the walls, one can see bundles of wood that will be quite useful in the winter.
Then there are the stations, with their liveliness, their people getting on and off, their local produce sellers.
I borrow, once again, the words of Tiziano Terzani from the book ‘A fortune-teller told me‘:
“Traveling by train (…) over large distances set back my sense of the world vastness and above all made me rediscover humanity, the one of the most, the one we almost forget the existence when we fly: that humanity that moves laden with boxes and with kids, that humanity to which the planes and everything else pass over its head. (…) The train, with its ease of time and its hardships of space, gives us back the disused curiosity about the details, and sharpens the focus on what you have around and on what flows out the window. ”
Thus, hour after hour, landscape after landscape, sunset comes and paints its pastel colours over the world, shadows lengthen and the night inexorably lower its dark veil on the various forms that Chinese nature offers us. By now there is nothing left to see. Some travellers eat a plate of noodles in soy broth, others sip a tea. I, in absence of coffee, smoke a Chinese cigarette bought when I was still at the border, and later end my day on the cot. Sleep comes fast, helping me to spend the last hours on the train, and when I wake up, the very first light of dawn mixed with the last lights of the city inform me that the train is arriving in Chengdu.
Photos by Guglielmo Zanchi (Pluto)