This will be a random series of memories of my trips to Asia in the late 80s and early 90s. Here’s a first installment….
In the early nineties it was still very common in China to see steam engines pulling freight trains. I vividly remember the first time I saw these huge, smoke-black trains lumbering through a station, white clouds of steam escaping from the valves with a loud, hissing noise.
But what I really remember on a much deeper level is this…
Being on a night train, sleeping under the hot ceiling of a hardsleeper carriage in the topmost of three bunks. The trains often stop in nondescript stations in the early morning hours to switch engines and the carriages shudder and bang against each other as the engine decouples, followed by eery silence.
The silence is only disturbed by the snoring from other passengers and the odd clank and hiss of the carriage breaks as the pressure on the lines slowly decreases. It is two or maybe three o’clock in the morning, the station is dark and whatever town lies on the other side of the tracks is invisible. There could be a million people sleeping nearby or maybe only a few hundred.
I usually wake up at this point, since the sudden silence is disturbing and strange, alerting the subconscious mind as it had adjusted to the constant rumble of the train, the blaring of the horn, the rhythm of the clickety-clack of the wheels on the rails.
And just as I am about to fall asleep again, there comes a deep, throaty, whooshing noise, a rhythmic, mechanical breathing with a bass note that rumbles through your gut. A freight train rolls into the station and comes to a slow stop next to my carriage. The world is suddenly filled with a loud hissing noise. The steam engine on the next track is only meters away, a mighty “ka-chooong, ka-chooong, ka-chooong” vibrates through every bone.
No other machine sounds so alive as a steam train late at night.