Hunan: "En Route To Changsha: Spaces"

"Music is the space between the notes"

Claude Debussy - French Composer (1862-1918)

"The notes I handle no better than many pianists.  But the pauses between the notes - ah, that is where the art resides."

Arthur Schnabel - Austrian Classical Pianist (1882-1951)


En Route to Changsha

Hunan Province


July 2, 2010

At 7:00am the railway station was crammed.  There were no seats so I am standing amidst several thousand other travelers.  The information board flashes the platform number for my train and a long queue moves towards the gate.  

The train was scheduled to depart at 7:15.  How will so many people be able find their proper car in such a short time?   There must have been twenty cars on this train and my luggage-laden quick-step-trot along the platform seemed endless.

The disciplined crowd moved slowly yet efficiently and everyone found his car and assigned seat.  At the appointed time the train pulled out of the station, headed north and then east.

I will gaze at no giant Buddhas today.  No fog-shrouded gorges, no mysterious mountains.  No misty waterfalls.  No temples.  No monuments. No museums.  Just a crowded railway coach filled with Chinese families on a long day's journey from Jishou to Changsha.  A very long "space" in between the "spectacular."  A long pause.  

Today, it's just me.  My fellow passengers.  My window pane.

In the past, these spaces have been "music to my ears."  Rickety trains across The Balkans.  Slow boats down the Irriwaddy or up the Tonle Sap. Clean, comfortable intercity buses in Mesopotamia.  Sardine cans in Myanmar.  Smooth ferries across Phang Nga Bay and the Gulf of Siam.  A rocky ride on the South China Sea.  The "van from hell" in Cambodia.  Endless stretches across the Thar, the Karakum, the Gobi.

The restful pauses, even the rocky ones, are intrinsically rewarding and satisfying.  If not for an "endless stretch" how else shall I discover a Vietnamese village floating on a tropical river? Or a proud family of camels browsing in the sandy wild?   I would not have met Manuela or Gerard or Lucas or Diego or LiLi or Noc Vi or Yu Hui or Tina and so many other friends if not for the space between the notes.

The pause renders the past with joy and the future with relish.  The pause provides contrast and illuminates the special places.

I think of the artist who "paints" his "white space" on the canvas.  Will his image be clear or inviting or dramatic if not for the space left unadorned?

My "white space" today is the young child sitting next to me.  His mother provides a small "fast food" container with dried noodles and vegetables.  The server on the train pours hot water.  Deftly grasping his fork, the boy manages to pinch and slurp every last morsel from the cup.

Across the aisle, a teen-age girl opens her own cellophane packed fast food snack.  For more than an hour she gnaws and chews and devours every last sinew of her pickled chicken foot - from its scaly leg down to its foot.  She deftly discards the nails at the end of the toes.

On a very rare occasion, a few rows behind me, an elderly man lights up a cigarette. I don't have the heart to ask him to stop.  But when a group of young guys light up nearby, I shoo them out of the car to the exterior platform.

From the time I was a young boy, as I rode on the New York Central Railroad from Manhattan to Poughkeepsie for the start of the family summer holiday, the window pane has been a comforting companion.  Today, in place of The Palisades and the Hudson, I will pass through the Wuling Shan and cross the Li, the Yuan, and finally, the Xiang Jiang, one of the largest of the Yangtze tributaries.

"From the mountains to the prairie" - from the tiny hillside family farms to the boundless agricultural plain along the Yangtze; from the riverside mountain hamlets to the cities of millions, my fast-moving window pane paints a broad panel of the picturesque and varied Hunan Province -  211,800 km2 (81,800 sq mi).

Looking around my railroad car, I am the only Westerner.  I am almost positive that I am the only foreigner on the train with hundreds and hundreds of other riders. Yet, I don't feel alone or isolated.  In spite of my utter lack of Chinese and my fellow passengers' utter lack of English, I am comfortable and content.

This is my second trip TO Mainland China.  (I have also been TO Taiwan and Hong Kong.)  And like other travelers before me, I have been TO many beautiful places here.

Today I have a different feeling.  Today, I am IN China.  It's an in-between moment.  A space.  A pause.  I am not visiting.  I am not touring.  I am not traveling.  Sitting amongst the friendly and curious Chinese passengers, as I roll past the provincial scenery, I feel like I am truly in China.  Really HERE. 

Pass me a chicken foot, please....Or not.

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