|Thursday – 11/19||The Silver Dragon||Chapter 6.1|
|Friday – 11/20||Coleman and Blackness in China||Chapter 6.2|
|Saturday – 11/21||“It’s All Connected.”||Chapter 6.3|
|Sunday – 11/22||Cai Xia: Banished Political Exile||Chapter 6.4|
|Monday – 11/23||“It’s All True.”||Chapter 6.5|
|Tuesday – 11/24||“Welcome to Xi’an.”||Chapter 6.6|
Chapter Six – Passage One
Quaint, idyllic Chinese countryside races by my passenger window. We’re on the Silver Dragon, a highspeed express train which is scheduled to reach Xi’an, the first smart city on a two-day trip to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province. The maglev train itself is a gleaming technological marvel, a polished steel stallion that cuts its way across the Chinese northlands. It’s been thirty years since China finished its high-speed rail system, having laid down more track in that same amount of time than all the rest of the world combined.
“It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?”
I’d hoped for an entire row to myself but fate had seated Coleman next to me. He’s wearing his giant earmuff headphones around his neck and looks like a hyperactive rabbit stuck in a box.
“It’s impressive,” I admit. I was trying to get some work done on my laptop but it was a hopeless task. When I wasn’t being distracted by the gorgeous scenery passing me by at 350km/hour outside my window, then I had Coleman talking in my ear.
“Tell me,” he continues, “why are you really here?”
“I’m here because I’m a specialist in data analytics and this is a state-surveillance project built on a mountain of data. Why are you here?”
Coleman downs the rest of his gin and coke and gestures towards the sexy attendant standing in the connection way for another. She’s wearing a plaid miniskirt that’s apparently the formal train uniform despite the fact that it’s something like nineteen Celsius in the cabin. Since we’re in business class, there’s an attendant per every train car whose sole purpose is to wait on their passengers hand and foot. A moment later, the attendant’s whisked his empty tumbler away and replaced it with another, freshly filled. Coleman’s twenty-two and he’s clearly living the time of his life. I’m pretty sure he’s already knocked a few back, as it is.
“I was summoned here like the rest of you. Received an anonymous, secure message in my inbox one day. Took an assessment. And apparently did something right.” Coleman shrugs. “And so I’m here.”
I roll my eyes. “Obviously. I meant why are you here?”
“Yeah, I know what you meant.” He sighs and studies his tumbler briefly before replying.
“You must think it’s weird, because I’m black, right? That I’m helping Communists set up mandatory internment and reeducation camps.”
“I literally didn’t say any of those words. Or any words even phonetically similar to what you just said.”
Coleman just looks at me.
“Yeah, maybe. But you were definitely thinking it.”
“Coleman, son. You are literally a few years removed from High School Musical territory. No, never mind. You’re so young you don’t even know what that is. Point being: You have no earthly idea what I’m thinking.”
“You know, man,” Coleman continues, his speech a little slurred. “Have you ever contemplated the possibility that black people can basically be like white people too? We’re perfectly capable of racism and acts of atrocity for the sole desire of material greed and power. It’s not like white people have a sole monopoly over colonialism and enslaving others.”
“Yeah,” I say dryly. “I think the Japanese and the Mongolians would likely agree with you. Colonialism and empire building are most certainly not the sole province of white people. That’s a real keen insight you got there.”
Chapter Six – Passage Two
“Real talk a sec. Stop being dim a moment,” says Coleman. “I’m talking about wherever I go and whatever I do in this country, people seem to treat me like some kinda zoo exhibit. A sort of endangered species on display for all to see.”
I sigh and fold my laptop lid. It’s clear I’ll be getting no work done this morning. Earlier on our car ride from JFL to the Jinshui High Speed Rail station that was 30-some kilometers away, we’d stopped by a Seven-Eleven convenience shop that’d literally been in the middle of nowhere, some small village off the bypass. It’d been early and everyone needed orange juice and whatever in China passed for convivence-store breakfast (in this case, boiled eggs marinated in soy sauce and tasteless rice cakes). As chance would have it, there was some local school bus that’d also similarly stopped over while we were there while apparently on some sort of field trip. The Chinese school children had filtered out of the bus in abject wonder and crowded around Coleman like he was some kinda celebrity. Smartphones out, snapping selfies, the whole nine yards.
“Coleman, dude,” I say, “put yourself in their shoes. You know China’s a closed country. No open borders. Heavily controlled and restricted movement everywhere. For those kids, seeing an actual black person was like meeting Tom Cruise or something. Look around you– does this particular part of China strike you as remarkably multicultural and racially diverse?”
“But I’m not a museum display!”
“Good God, man, stop whining. You should be happy! You’re gonna grace their Instagram and Facebook feeds today. Or whatever Chinese copycats of those are here in rip-off country. You’ll be famous for all of fifteen minutes, or maybe more like two, and then everyone’ll forget and move onto the next TikTok video or whatever. Who cares?”
“And you’re the only one,” I say. “Stop being ornery about it. To these people you’re OJ Simpson, Michael Jordan, and Barack Obama all rolled into one. These kids have only seen black people in movies, in TV shows, and on their Saturday morning anime cartoon shows. To them, you are the entirety of black people.”
“Jesus! We’re well into the twenty-first century! This isn’t the 1700s!”
“So what?” I shake my head. To be fair, I was over a decade older than Coleman, a total newb so painfully fresh right outta school. But it still struck me as absurd just how bubbled college-grads were these days. Were they seriously learning anything on those fancy college campuses?
“It’s not like western progressivism is evenly distributed the world over,” I patiently explain. “And with an authoritarian, autocratic country like China, the cultural value systems are even more stark because they’ve top-down resisted western liberal ideology. If it feels in certain facets like the 1700s around here, it’s because the Communist party wants it to, at least culturally.”
I look at Coleman for a moment.
“Also, didn’t you study political science? Jesus, why do I even need to be telling you this?”
Coleman huffs up, clearly agitated. I obviously struck a nerve.
“I specialize in American elections,” he says. The amount of pompousness in his tone is palpable. “Specifically, American political and electoral history and innerworkings. How the proverbial sausage is made.”
I raise an eyebrow. “If you consider yourself a high-end charcutier,” I say, “it’d still behoove you to know about bacon and prosciutto. Your precious American sausages aren’t the alpha-and-omega of it all, you know.”
“Oh please.” Coleman scoffs. “My massive intellect can’t be bothered with these obscure meanderings of these plebians. Who knows what going through their empty heads? These Neanderthals are the very definition of the collective herd. There’s not a single original thought in the whole lot of them.”
“The Chinese people may be unoriginal but they’re united.”
Coleman and I both sit up in seats a little straighter and look behind us. It turns out Alan’s been there the entire time, apparently eavesdropping. Coleman doesn’t turn red exactly but I can tell he’s at least a tad embarrassed. Good to know the kid’s still capable of at least a little shame.
“Oh. Alan. Sorry, I didn’t mean–“
Alan holds up his hand. “No worries. No offense taken. Well, maybe a little taken. But your ignorance speaks more about you than us. Don’t worry, I’ll sleep fine tonight.”
“Even if your descriptions are incomplete,” Alan continues, “there is a seed of truth in them. You’re correct that the Chinese people are wholly more collective in their identities than westerners. Whereas you emphasize the individual, here in the east –especially the rural east– the family name is still everything. Your family’s reputation in a village is your destiny. Remember that most of these rural Uyghurs and Chinese in the region have never set foot outside their province. For them, it’s truly a small world.”
“But you’ve got the internet! Smartphones and YouTube!” Coleman protests. “Geographical parochiality is no excuse for ignorance.”
Alan merely shrugs. “Yes and no. It’s accurate that with the CCP’s Broadband Initiative a decade ago, all of China is indeed connected and online. But seeing black people on YouTube and in movies is a far cry, you’d surely agree, from meeting them in the flesh and blood.” Alan pauses and his furrows his brow. And then adds: “Though I do feel it’s ironic that parts of rural China have internet connectivity but not clean running water or food security.”
It’s my time to shrug. “Internet’s actually trivial, if you really think about it,” I say. “You can easily generate electricity with a hand-crank. And internet is simply beamed to you from satellites up in outer space. But clean running water requires infrastructure. And modern crop yield, if you’re not already surrounded by developed agriculture, requires supply chains. It’s not as ironic as you might at first suppose, to have internet before you have food and water.”
Alan can only shake his head. “I guess? Still, something insane about it all, if you ask me.” He turns to Coleman. “Dexter’s right though. We’ve brought in you Americans to consult and advise on this project in Xinjiang. But to get anywhere with it, you need to understand China and Xinjiang. We obviously value your western perspectives, else you wouldn’t be here at all. But you’re going to need to learn a lot about us too.”
“I actually don’t get why you didn’t bring in people more specialized and familiar with China,” I say, voicing a thought that’s been percolating in my head for a while now. “Why bring in a bunch of people who know nothing about this entire geographic region and history?”
Alan looks at me. “Who says we didn’t try that first?”
Chapter Six – Passage Three
So it turns out they had tried exactly that.
“We brought in a team of specialists two years ago,” Alan patiently explains. “The most experienced professionals and prominent academics in all the land. Knowledgeable and well-connected to Xinjiang, from China’s biggest and most successful companies as well as the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences– the most famous university in China, the equivalent of England’s Oxford.”
“Huh. That’s nice. Gathered the country’s best and brightest to go in and occupy and restore peace in a foreign land. What could possibly go wrong?”
“Everything,” Alan sighs. He looks at the scenery outside the train windows, racing by. We’re cruising by pastoral rolling hills of gorgeous, untouched Chinese countryside. Alan takes a moment to compose his thoughts.
“To understand the extent of the catastrophe that ensued though,” he continues after a beat, “it’s necessary to first know how the Chinese government functions. Everyone thinks they know what communism and socialism is. In the west, you’ve painted beautiful myths about communal sharing and the laboring class owning the means of production. And while that’s nominally true, people also forget that leadership still needs to exist. In a company, you can’t just have everyone being an individual contributor and there existing no middle management. A world without hierarchy may be socialism; but it’s also chaos.”
Having been in my own fair share of Silicon Valley, libertarian pipedreams gone horribly awry, I nod my head knowingly. I’m no political scientist, but I’ve seen my fair share of office politics.
“And the problem with the project two years ago,” Alan says, “is that everyone was connected to someone. What you need to understand about China is that it’s all tightly connected and interwoven. Even if you’re the department chair or endowed professor at the Academy of Sciences, that endowment actually comes from somewhere. Similarly, if you’re the chief executive of some Chinese megacorp, you only have the position because you’ve been installed with the blessings of the regime. No one ascends to any position of power in the communist and socialist structure without a network of deep alliances, coalition-building, backroom deals, and back-scratching. Everyone’s got dirt on someone because they otherwise wouldn’t even be there in the first place. Does that make sense?”
“Nothing new there,” says Coleman. “Same way with American politics. You’re describing a universal truth, buddy.”
“No,” says Alan, “you don’t get it. Sure, favoritism and cronyism exist everywhere. But at least in the west, the money is divorced from the power. Your Silicon Valley billionaires can build their own corporations and Super-PACs to air commercials against your government. Hell, you dismantle and rebuild your governments every four years, anyway. But the point is, your wealthiest and most powerful may achieve their riches honestly or dishonestly, but after they’ve obtained it, they can do whatever they want with it. Build their own nation states in the south pacific, run attack ads and campaigns against your sitting presidents, it’s all fair game.
“But in China, though we’ve minted more billionaires than the rest of the world combined in the recent decade, all those billionaires sit at the mercy of Xi. Though impressive on paper, their vast wealth is all stored with the People’s Bank of China, a nationalized institution. Remember, the laboring class owns the means of production. Which may administratively means that the people do collectively own everything. But there’s still a government. And ‘the collective will of the people’ still need to me implemented by some state apparatus.
“So basically, you’re saying all that money can just be frozen or disappear at any time,” Coleman says slowly. The kid’s starting to get it.
“Exactly,” Alan nods. “Don’t you ever wonder why those anti-corruption charges that sweep China every few years are conveniently accompanied by periods of peace and minimal societal turmoil? Billionaires just conveniently go to jail for life for ‘fraud charges’ and the like. It’s simply suppression under the veneer of ‘draining the swamp’ and that’s where the difference lies.”
“What happened two years ago?” I ask. “Why did that project fail?”
Alan’s a good guy but he has a habit of rambling sometimes. Someone occasionally needs to set him back on track.
“Right. So this is actually important for you to know.” Alan blinks a few times and takes a moment to wipe down his glasses. You can see the gears and cogs whirling away; he’s clearly trying to figure out how to summarize a ridiculously complicated geopolitical situation for Coleman and me, total neophytes.
“The first thing to understand is that Xi’s control has been waning in recent years,” Alan begins. “The guy’s getting old and there’s a new guard vying for supremacy. So realize that in this respect, Xinjiang has come to symbolize far more than just the Uyghur population. It’s a proxy battle in many ways to show who’s the true leader of the CCP.”
“Alright,” Coleman says slowly. “Sounds like we’ve got some good ol’ fashioned palace intrigue. So set the table for us. What we got?”
“Xi represents the hardliners,” Alan explains. “The curmudgeon’s old school. If he had his way, Urumqi would be a smoking crater by now. 23 million Uyghurs, in his mind, is a pittance in the grand scheme when his dominion, that’s still growing with no sight in end, is at 1.4 billion and ever climbing. He’s cranky that this entire ordeal has already dragged on as long as it has.”
“So in his mind,” I summarize, “this whole situation in Xinjiang can be remedied with a few well-placed ballistic missiles.”
“Exactly. But of course, there’s Cia Fudong, the son of the previous CCP viceroy, Cia Xia, the prominent former Central Party School professor who was exiled from the country forty-some years back. Her son’s been building power slowly over the decades since returning to China and has accrued a loyal following– people who also think that Xi is taking China down the wrong path.”
I rub my temples, feeling a throbbing inchoate but inevitable. “Okay, great. So Xinjiang on a more meta-level isn’t about the Uyghurs at all. But is a battle of egos to demonstrate very publicly who’s got the power.”
“There’s actually a third contender in the wings,” says Alan shaking his head, “but I’m just gonna gloss over that part for now.” He looks me. “So in a nutshell, yes. What happened two years ago with the group we assembled then was that half were loyal to Cia’s strategy of a more peaceful and measured approach towards the Uyghurs. While Xi loyalists instead wanted to send in the tank battalions and burn it all to the ground. The impasse slowly built to a crescendo, dragged on for months, and then before things could come to a head, Xi disbanded the entire initiative when it started looking bad for him.”
Coleman furrows his brow in consternation.
“So basically you people have yourselves a Chinese civil war on your hands and you’ve dragged us into the middle of it?”
Chapter Six – Passage Four
That night I’ve sitting alone at a table in the dining car with my laptop and thoughts mulling over what Coleman and I had learned from Alan earlier in the day. Of course the situation in Xinjiang was much more complicated than we’d been initially told. And while I had done searches online for information about Cai Xia and her son, Cai Fudong, those results had been unsurprisingly sparse. Looking through the archives, there had been one article in The Times about Cai Xia and her expulsion forty years ago from the Central Party School, the highest educational institution in the CCP that was responsible for training the regime’s next generation of leadership on the highest level. Aside from that one article though, I’d been unable to find any other information on Xia. Again, it was unsurprising that western media hadn’t exactly fallen over themselves to cover the incident. In the west we may put freedom of the press upon the pedestal but we also shackle it to advertising dollars to keep the lights on. Alas, we’re all beholden to someone. Thus, some random article about a professor’s expulsion from China half-a-world away isn’t, let generously say, top-of-mind for your average American. No page clicks; no coverage.
And on Cai Fudong, the son who’d be in his forties now, I’d found exactly nothing.
From her brief article on Wikipedia though, I’d learned that after Xia had fled China as a political exile, she’d relocated to the states with her then-newborn child, Fudong. The Wikipedia article only gives years and not exact dates but if its timeline is to be believed, then Fudong couldn’t have been much older than one-year-old when he and his mother had been banished to America.
So this is the fate of those who speak out against Xi. Banishment to foreign lands; out of sight, out of mind. I frown. But when I think about it a bit more, it remains a mystery to me how Fudong managed to make his way back into China years later as an adult. Surely, he was on every single CCP-blacklist in the country. China may be communist but it’s not incompetent; Fudong should’ve never been able to set foot on native Chinese soil ever again and the fact that was indeed back in the politburo, and not rotting away in some dank, unnamed Chinese prison somewhere in the Tibetan mountains, definitely meant there was more to the story here that I obviously didn’t know.
On my laptop, I flip over to some Excel spreadsheets and data dumps that Alan had also provided us earlier. Though we’re on a highspeed, maglev train racing under the cover of night across the Chinese northern hinterlands, I still have blazing-fast gigabit wireless access. (Back in New York, the densest urban center in America, sometimes I couldn’t even get signal when I was standing in the wrong place in my bedroom.) Even though the previous project two years ago had apparently failed miserably, I was still curious to study and read over what had previously been attempted and succeeded or failed. As a data scientist, a constant curiosity for evermore information is what separates amateurs from professionals. And I, to toot my own horn a bit, was definitely no greenhorn. To say the least, I’ve seen this rodeo more than once.
Looking at all of the data that Alan has provided, there are dozens of way to look at the data. If you focus only on the decrease in petty crimes and acts of vandalism, then some of the harsher methods that the Xi loyalists had employed appeared to be effective. But during that same period of martial law, factory output and commercial goods generation fell precipitously and the unemployment rate had skyrocketed. Civil unrest was like one of those annoying air bubbles you’re trying to eliminate when you were trying to lay down carpet; it never totally disappeared– it just went elsewhere. And depending on whatever metrics you wished to highlight, you could tell whatever story you wished.
“Burning the candle at both ends, eh?”
I look up and see Kristen is at the other end of the dining car. She’s wearing a white sweatshirt and grey sweatpants; evening garb, I guess. It’s just the two of us at this hour, supper dining hours having already long since passed. She helps herself to some guava juice that’s in the cabin refrigerator behind the counter and appears to be looking for snacks.
“Just trying to figure out how to make sense of everything going on,” I say. “What are you doing up?”
She locates a remote on the counter and clicks it.
Over the dining bar, there’s a display that I hadn’t noticed earlier. A Chinese news station blinks to life and the news anchor is reeling off highlights of the day. I obviously don’t understand a word that she’s saying but pleasant visuals that stream by accompanying the bright, enthusiastic rapid-fire news anchor speech. Apparently, it was yet another harmonious day of peace and prosperity in the middle kingdom. Part of me strongly suspects that when the only news is state-sponsored news, then every day was likely similarly glorious.
Kristen tears open a plastic bag of baby carrots and pops one into her mouth.
“I’m trying to decide how I feel about all Uyghurs in Xinjiang getting all of their news from a single official source,” she says, chewing thoughtfully. “Back home in Darwin, it’s not like this at all. There’s half-a-dozen outlets and even then, a chunk of Australian don’t believe any of them and instead prefer to just get their news from their Foogle feeds. And lord knows the provenance of those articles. Seriously, no one knows what’s true and what to believe anymore; it’s just all noise.“
“America’s the same,” I shrug, “as is every single other liberal democracy in the world. You guys are in good company; join the club.”
On the display, the news station crew appears to have visited the National Zoo in Beijing and the camera’s zooming in on a pair of giant pandas who appear to have produced offspring. Apparently this is an infrequent and momentous event, worthy of national celebration.
“Do you ever wonder,” Kristen asks me, “if maybe Xi’s onto something? Maybe not full-up Mussolini-style autocracy; but maybe not a complete free-for-all like what we have in the west, either.”
I shake my head and motion to the display.
“No way. If we left it up to some central authority, we’d just be seeing panda mating rituals all day. I don’t know about Australia but in America, I’m actually one of those people who solely gets my news from my custom Foogle feeds. And I’ve chosen to live in a neighborhood and community that reflects my values and beliefs.”
Kristen is looking at me like she’s befuddled so I try to clarify what I mean.
“Like, I don’t need, and frankly don’t care, if people the next neighborhood over disagree with me on most things, especially culture issues like immigration, abortion, taxes. I care about my taxes. If they want to pay more because they’ve got kids or whatever who attend the public school system, then good for them. They can vote for higher taxes in their district. How does that quote go? ‘Perfectly reasonable minds can disagree.’ That’s fine. Agreeing to disagree is a gift! At the day’s end, for practical purposes, you’re not a citizen of the world; or even of America or Australia. You’re a citizen of your state, of your specific community. It’s called federalism for a reason.”
Chapter Six – Passage Five
“Using your logic, what’s the point of even having a country?” Kristen asks, apparently unimpressed with my reasoning.
“Countries are good for the big things.” I shrug. “A single national currency. A standing military to ensure national defense. Shiny national monuments like Mount Rushmore to put in the brochures and glossies. But in America, at least, even since the beginning, people always strongly identified with one’s state far more than one’s country. It was really only after World War II that people started to share to a single more national identity over their state identity. Of course, in peace time, with the first few decades of the 2000s, the pendulum swung back, as it always does. When things are going well, people tend to retreat back into their own corners.”
Kristen finishes drinking her Guava juice and crushes the carton in one hand before tossing it into the train’s rubbish bin, some shiny oblong-shaped trash receptacle that looks like a futuristic incinerator.
“You know an awful lot of history for someone who supposedly never studied it.”
“Nah,” I shake my head. “I’ve looked at Foogle search trends over the decades. Once this whole internet thing happened, it suddenly became markedly easy to get the pulse of an entire country. For the first time in human history, if you had any question at all, anything under the sun, you could simply Foogle your query and find an answer.”
“Doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get a correct answer,” Kristen points out. “Just cause you find some answer you want doesn’t mean it’s rooted at all in reality.”
“Who cares? It’s an answer. And if it happens to reinforce your existing worldview or prejudices, then it’s even better in that it makes you feel good. Isn’t that we humans like? Feeling good? Why else do people do what they do?”
I look at Kristen, as if seeing her for the first time in a new light. I thought I’d known her MO, but maybe I’d been mistaken.
“You work in data science, just like me,” I say to her. “Why are you in this field at all? Isn’t shaping and influencing giant populations at the core of what we do?”
“It is, but not entirely divorced from what’s true.”
I laugh. “What’s true? It’s all true.” I wave at the charts and graphs on my laptop that I was examining earlier. “Look at his. Human beings aren’t capable of just ingesting millions of rows and columns and somehow magically understanding it. We require narrative, a story to make things legible and comprehensible. But depending on what you want to spin, you can make anything sound plausible.
“For instance, I’ve been looking at this data that Alan shared with us earlier. Two years ago, if you simply read the police reports and crime incidents, then Xinjiang was as peaceful as it’s ever been. But if you monitored the log data and sentiment analysis on all of the internet chatter during this same time period for this same region, then you’ll see high spikes in the population, especially the 18-25 demographic, searching for terms like “protest,” “west,” and “democracy.” And then months later as the security presence started to ratchet up, words like “rifles,” “bombs,” and “Molotov cocktails.”
Kristen tilts her head, apparently mulling over whether or not to pursue this debate with me. I can tell that part of her really wants to. She’d thoroughly enjoy nothing more than totally going to town in an all-night bull session like we’re in some college dormitory all over again. Pontificating and discussing Life’s Big Questions until sunrise and then grabbing an egg and cheddar sandwich at the deli out around the corner. The role of media and free speech in society. Unintended consequences of an unfettered fourth estate; a world where anyone and everyone was suddenly a pressman, delivering breaking news, an outlet of information and misinformation for all.
But instead she just shrugs.
“Dexter Fletcher, man, you really are a piece of work,” she says, polishing off her baby carrots. The plastic bag goes into the futuristic incinerator. “You know we’ll be visiting Jack Bao when we reach Xi’an tomorrow morning, right? Oh man, you guys are going to get along famously.”
With that, she turns and leaves the dining car; disappearing into the connection way. The sliding door closes behind her with a quiet woosh and I’m suddenly alone again. In China on some Snowpiercer train racing through the blackness of night.
The next morning, The Silver Dragon arrives at the Xi’an Station and I step off the maglev train for the first time for the first time in something in like twenty-hours. The first leg of the trip honestly wasn’t bad at all. We were literally levitating on magnets the entire so you really couldn’t ask for a smoother rider. And we had hot showers, highspeed internet, gourmet dining, and exercise machines on the train. So it really was unequivocally the most comfortable train ride I’d ever been on by a country mile.
Xi’an though is nothing like Shanghai or Jinshui. Shanghai screamed cosmopolitanism with architecture spanning everything from French to Portuguese to Russian influences. And Jinshui, with its next-level camouflage projection technology was essentially like stepping into some futuristic Gibson sci-fi novel. But Xi’an is the exact opposite of all that. It is old school.
The terminal that receives The Silver Dragon has wooden planks for its platform and there’s a small brick kiosk with a straw-hatched roof that’s selling newspapers. Jesus, I haven’t seen newspapers in like twenty years. There is no computerized displays or cutting-edge holograms here. You can hear the clickety-clack as the massive timetable placards flip their lettering to announce the incoming schedules and updated train timings. A giant mechanical clock that looks like Big Ben’s oriental second cousin adorns the western wall, opposite of giant painted windows that stretch from floor to ceiling. At this early hour, morning light filters warmly and the entire station looks like 1920 Grand Central, untouched by time and place. It’s bustling with travelers arriving from all over; Xi’an is the central hub that connects all of Central China’s rail lines, a major artery of the Chinese HSR network.
Alan and Shu find us. Coleman and I are looking around like idiots at the parade but Deepak and Kristen apparently already knew that we’d be stepping into some time machine and traveling back to 19th-century China.
“Is this some kinda Universal Studios setup?” Coleman asks Shu, bewildered. “When did all this happen? You guys totally Wizarding World’ed this.”
Shu smiles politely and you can tell she’s bemused. Ignorant Americans not knowing a single thing about the larger, broader world. She hands us rectangular pieces of crinkled, yellowing paper.
“It’s money, you moron.” Deepak rolls his eyes. The old Indian’s gruff and keeps up a severe look, but you can also tell he too is at least a little impressed.
Coleman holds one of the bills against the sunlight, his eyes wide. “Oh my God… actual, real-life money….“
Chapter Six – Passage Six
Vigor and youth are honestly wasted on the young. I reflect to myself, shaking my head. But even the curmudgeon in me can’t help but marvel at this antiquated world that has been meticulously maintained around us. All modern cities at some point face a dilemma with their central transit systems: How much history and tradition to preserve? How much of the future to embrace? And most places end up compromising. The gaudy Americans embraced it all, of course. And this is why you see flatscreen LCD displays at a place like Grand Central or Union Station. New Yorkers apparently believe putting some museum exhibit enclosed in a glass case next to the bleeding-edge technology somehow classes up the joint.
But here, at Northlight Station, Xi’an’s main HSR hub, other than the futuristic maglev trains that we rode in on, everything else appears to have been frozen in time. No compromise of any sort here. From our wooden platform I spy horse-drawn carriages outside of the marble archways. Additionally, for the poorer folk, rickshaws pulled by humans on both foot and bicycle are also available for service.
I don’t see a single automobile anywhere.
There is something enormously strange, impossible to describe with mere words, about being suddenly transported nearly two centuries back in time. Most of my days, I move through the world brimming with confidence. I’ve spent a lifetime studying and acquiring skills. I know things. Additionally, I’ve watched my countrymen put a man on the moon. I’ve watched us drop the atomic bomb. I’ve seen the full might and potential of the human species come to bear. But abruptly arriving here at Northlight Station, where I don’t anywhere see a single smartphone, tablet, computer, or automobile– this evokes an entirely differently combination of emotions that I’ve not felt in a long time.
A sense of humility and awe.
Suddenly, I feel incredibly, incredibly small. A feeling washes over me all at once that there’s a wondrous force much larger than imaginable which is at work. Words and logic fail to describe this sensation but it’s an acute and sharp feeling that undoubtedly exists. Like a feeling that you’ve known always true but is so horribly inconvenient that you’ve simply shoved away in the deepest recesses of your brain, suddenly surfacing and finding air once more.
Beside me, Coleman takes out his smartphone to snap a few photos but Deepak snatches it from him, faster than I’d expect.
“Hey! What the hell?”
Coleman’s phone in his hand, not yet on, Deepak explains: “They’ve set up a constant EMP sphere here in Xi’an. You turn on anything electronic, a cellphone, computer, anything— and the device will be instantly fried. The only things that run electric here are the incoming HSR lines.”
Deepak hands Coleman back his phone. “Be careful.”
Coleman can only stare, jaw agape. No Spotify, music, or earmuffs for this young man today.
“C’mon, guys!” calls Alan from the marble steps leading out of the station foyer. His shout interrupts our ad-hoc lesson and I see that he’s already several yards ahead of us, a dozen steps up, blazing ahead like the consummate scout leader he is. “Places to be and people to meet!” He grins and opens his arms expansively back at us, suddenly a theatrical showman.
“Welcome to Xi’an.”