From the www.thelunaticexpress.com
The Lunatic Express in China is more comedic than lunatic. When I left Delhi I left many things behind, some unfortunately more precious than others. Like my guide to China. I now speak about five words of Mandarin, which is to say I can ask for or understand nothing, and English speakers are few and far between – at least where I am. The language wall is total; it is like I’m trying to communicate with fish in the sea.
It took me four trips to the train station in Urumqi to get a ticket to Hohhot, there to catch a train toward Mongolia. An hour after boarding, a woman in a blue conductor’s uniform came to me and unleashed a torrent of indecipherable words. Thank you, I said. How are you? It was all I could say. She stomped off, returning with another conductor. He unleashed the same torrent. Thank you, I said. How are you?
He tried harder. She tried harder. Thank you, I said. How are you?
They left, returning a few minutes later with two passengers who spoke some English. “Where are you going?” they said.
“To Hohhot,” I said, showing them my ticket.
“Yes,” the men said in harmony, “but where are you changing trains?”
“This train does not go to Hohhot. You must change trains.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “You tell me where!”
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Carl Hoffman is traveling for The Lunatic Express, to be published by Broadway Books in 2009. He is a contributing editor at Na…
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