Dinner had been simply delicious: tender scallops, crispy duck, chicken wings, eggs, vegetables, each dish brought to our slightly rocking table from a smoky kitchen of vats and blackened woks.
My son and I were traveling by train through the night of South China. As we sat back to savor the meal, our host -- and compartment mate -- smiled mischievously, then reached under our table and brought forth a bottle of Bai Jiu, the ubiquitous Chinese liqueur. He suggested we celebrate.
"Don't drink much," my son, Lee, warned. "It tastes like cabbage."
We accepted smallish portions of what, to me, tasted grainy and quite raw. But four of us soon finished the bottle, toasting friendship, a good journey and a festive New Year's celebration. It was all so very strange, since our by-chance host was a general in the Chinese army.
After we drank the general's Bai Jiu, a man across the aisle poured some from his own bottle into Lee's glass, then mine. Then the general produced several large bottles of beer. We continued with grand gestures of "Gan-bei," a "bottoms up" toast.
Lee and I survived, but our host and his adjutant were less fortunate. By 9 p.m., Lee had helped them to their bunks.
We were traveling overnight from Guangzhou (better known to the West as Canton) to Wuhan, a vast industrial city astride the Yangtze River, where Lee was teaching English at a technical university.
It was winter, and we were the only non-Chinese aboard the train packed with travelers, most of them headed home to celebrate the Chinese New Year a few days hence. Several months had passed since the tragedy in Tiananmen Square, but everyone -- officials, students, workers, even the army officers -- opened their arms with hospitality.
My reason for going to China was a compelling one: I was to meet Lee's Chinese fiancee. But I also wanted to see first-hand what had changed since my previous visit, prior to Tiananmen, and except for a dearth of Westerners, and more conversations that tended toward politics, China seemed outwardly the same: hectic, crowded, dingy, friendly and anxious to overcharge Westerners.
Our journey had begun at a travel agency in Hong Kong. As with many Hong Kong agencies, ours offered same-day service on a Chinese visa (bring two photos!) and sold Chinese rail tickets -- at the 60 percent markup charged to all tourists. Lee and I booked seats for the short ride to Guangzhou, as well as a $50 hotel room in Guangzhou. But we decided to avoid the hefty markup for the Wuhan journey, taking our chances on getting tickets in Guangzhou.
The afternoon train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou was Amtraklike, except for the white lace curtains. The sign warned "no smoking," but the true message to China's heavy smokers came from the prominent ads in our car for Marlboro cigarettes.
Pulling out of Hong Kong, we passed a forest of apartment towers before crossing the Chinese border: a chain link fence and barbed wire. Suddenly everything turned shabby. The apartments were low, simple buildings of concrete; bicyclists gathered at each rail crossing; the landscape was rice paddies, banana trees, orange trees and water buffalo.
We arrived in Guangzhou around 6 p.m. to face our first challenge: customs. Officers quickly stamped our passports, then placed our luggage in an X-ray machine. An official stopped me. He pointed to my larger suitcase: Open it. What contraband could I be carrying?
The official pawed into the bag. Since this was my first encounter with Chinese officials since Tiananmen, I waited anxiously. The officer quickly found his quarry: a half dozen oranges I had brought from Hong Kong.
"Illegal," he stated in English. That sounded logical, except that these oranges surely had been grown in China.
Once past customs, we decided to purchase tomorrow's rail tickets to Wuhan, but found more than 100 persons crowding around two open ticket windows. Noticing us, a policeman pushed us to the front of the line, where, with Lee translating, we began to negotiate. Yes, they had two sleeper tickets. Yes, on the Wuhan train. Yes, they could sell them to us. But it was time for dinner. So the agent slammed the window closed. What now? After 45 minutes, the agent reopened the ticket window and completed the sale.
We spent the next morning in "old" Canton, in the concession area once controlled by foreign traders down by the Zhu (Pearl) River. Once gracious homes, the buildings here were now in faded disrepair and broken into tiny apartments and shops.
We walked down one alley of stalls where merchants sold only dried items -- mushrooms, herbs, powdered horn (an aphrodisiac?). That alley opened onto a street market where all Guangzhou seemed gathered, searching for just that right fresh item: maybe an eel or a cut of smoked dog, boar heads, live fawns and badgers, live quail and turtles, as well more conventional fare -- catfish, shrimp, scallops, fresh vegetables, pork and chicken. However exotic -- and what could be more "exotic" than smoked dog -- food in China was plentiful.
The single word, of course, that described China was "crowded." When we reached the train station, several hundred people milled around a sign that announced our train -- No. 248. Suddenly, the crowd surged past the barrier and swept us through the check points where policemen waited to examine an occasional suitcase.
We edged our way to Platform 2, found our dark green "soft-sleeper" Car 6 and elbowed aboard and into Compartment 8. There were four bunks -- two up, two down -- a window covered with white lace curtains and, beneath the window, a metal table made of the same light green linoleum as the compartment walls. A vase of plastic flowers sat on the table, a thermos of boiled water rested beneath. More white lace hung over the backs of the lower bunks. Ours was the last compartment in the car and adjacent to the sole toilet, which, like most in China, was of the "squatter" variety.
Two men entered our compartment. They spoke no English, but Lee discovered they too were traveling to Wuhan.
Wuhan, a city of steel mills with the fifth-largest population in China, had become a major rail hub three decades ago with the construction of the first great bridge across the Yangtze. But even before Tiananmen, tourists shunned Wuhan. So to me, it would be the perfect place to experience today's China: the endless crowds, the hectic pace of brick-by-brick construction, the open markets, massed bicyclists, wide boulevards of Soviet-style governmental buildings and streets lined with sycamore trees that gave some sections of the city the look of provincial France.
At precisely 1 p.m. our train pulled out of Guangzhou. Almost at once we were riding past gardens and into a countryside of reddish clay. Everywhere, the bottomland was farmed. Small, rugged mountains rose in the distance, while beside the rails ran an endless line of pine trees, mixed with an occasional stand of gums. Villages here and houses there were built of bricks from the soil. Rock retaining walls held back the erosion that might have swept away the tracks.
For much of the afternoon, Lee and I sat on a ledge outside our compartment, watching South China pass by. The 30 other "soft-sleep" passengers too preferred the corridor, which they littered with cigarette butts.
Our car, the only soft-sleeper on the train, was set aside for important travelers: officials of the Communist Party or the army, plus an occasional foreigner. Even if an ordinary Chinese citizen wanted the comfort of my bunk for $60 -- three months of local salary -- he would not be sold such luxury.
Trailing our car were five "hard-sleepers": a series of open compartments with three bunks in each tier. These cars were far more crowded than ours, and rock music blared from the end of one car, traditional Chinese music from another tape player farther along. the travelers, mostly men and often wearing blue Mao jackets, sat on the edge of the lower bunks, smoking and talking. A few slept on the top bunks.
In front of our car was a dining car, then 10 "hard-seat" coaches, the standard travel method in China: benches for three people on one side of the aisle, two on the other. But the word "aisle" lost its meaning to the crowd of standees.
With Lee as translator, we discovered that our compartment mates, despite their civilian clothing, were army officers, one a general, the other a major. The general left to return with a boy, age 9, the son of a relative traveling hard-seat.
At 3:15, a woman stopped to check our passports. Staff from the dining car repeatedly pushed carts along the corridor, selling hot meals in Styrofoam packages. (The route to Wuhan was littered with the Styrofoam residue of many previous journeys.) At one station, vendors sold jugs of Pepsi. At another, a vendor pushed a beer cart down the platform. Lee asked the cost. He was told 2 yuan (less than 50 cents). "No, it should be 1.8 yuan," Lee said. But after seeing others pay the 2-yuan price, he bought several.
Around 6, a woman entered our compartment selling dinner tickets. The general bought several, then said he would be most honored if Lee and I would join him. We accepted.
After the good meal, and our drinking bout with the Chinese army, Lee and I returned to our corridor to talk, this time in English, with a major who told us he was in charge of army athletic programs in Guangzhou. A strapping 6-footer dressed in an exercise outfit, he quickly accepted an American cigarette.
"Colorado Springs," he reminisced, "so very beautiful. We played volleyball with the Air Force. You Americans won."
At 10:30, Lee and I climbed into our bunks, which were wide and quite comfortable, more than long enough for my 6-foot-3 frame. Each bunk came with a warm comforter and two pillows covered in silk. The gentle rocking of the train -- or was it the Bai Jiu? -- brought sleep quickly.
The train's sudden stop at 6 a.m. awoke me, and at about 7, dawn arrived at the same time as the train's loudspeakers, with music and announcements. Outside, yesterday's dreary and overcast landscape reappeared, only this time with a drizzle that washed away a light snowfall.
A woman collected our sheets, but did not disturb the officers. After a time, the general and his young relative awoke, but it was well after 9 before the major rose gloomily from his upper bunk.
We pulled into Wuhan at 10:15 a.m., setting off another rush, as our trainmates hurtled out the doors and along the platform. A few policemen stood on the platform to stop travelers in what looked to be a random search of luggage and documents.
One hurdle remained. In the passageway to the terminal, several women waited to collar anyone with overweight (more than 44 pounds per person) luggage. Despite our obvious guilt and stand-out appearance, we slipped past them and into a plaza.
It was overcast, chilly and, of course, very crowded. Taxi drivers were bidding for our business. Travelers were squeezing onto buses. And yes, over there a small stand, with a line of customers, was selling Bai Jiu. No thanks.
THE TRAIN: We found arranging a train trip from Hong Kong to Wuhan to be quite simple. The first thing to do is visit a travel agency in Hong Kong. We used Time Travel Services, Block A, 16th Floor, Chung King Mansions, 40 Nathan Road, Kowloon, Hong Kong, phone 3-723-9993.
For simplicity's sake, buy your entire train ticket there; it will save the uncertainties and problems of obtaining a ticket in Guangzhou, even if the service charge adds $30 to your cost. (Also book a room for Guangzhou at the same time.)
We each paid about $80 total for one-way tickets, Hong Kong to Guangzhou and Guangzhou to Wuhan, but fares vary dramatically and are currently rising, according to the China National Tourist Office in New York. Tourist fares generally are about 60 percent more than fares for locals. If you decide to buy your overnight rail ticket in Guangzhou, be sure to find a policeman to push you to the front of the line. If you lack a translating companion, have someone at your hotel write out your destination and the date of your departure in Chinese characters, then hand the paper to the station agent.
Don't fear eating dinner on the train, although it's a good idea to take alcohol swabs to wipe your chopsticks as well as the opening of any bottle of beer or cola you purchase. WHERE TO STAY: In Guangzhou, we stayed at the Garden Hotel, which we found to be an excellent choice -- large and modern. And, yes, gifts of shampoo awaited us in the large bathroom. Another excellent hotel, the White Swan, was located on the Pearl River.
In Wuhan, there were several Western-style hotels, most of them in the Hankou section, within walking distance of the Hankou Railway Station.. WHERE TO EAT: In Guangzhou, the Garden Hotel had several excellent restaurants, both Western and Chinese.
Wuhan also contained several outstanding restaurants, ones at which I never spotted another Westerner. Our favorites were both in the Hankou section:
The Laotongcheng, known as "Chairman Mao's favorite," since he visited it on several occasions, including the time he swam across the Yangtze. The Peking Duck was excellent. As with all restaurants in China, the higher you go, the more lavish the food and the more expensive the price. But even on the fourth and most expensive floor, you can buy an outstanding meal for $10.
Sijimei, specializing in tang bao, tiny dumplings filled with a broth and a piece of meat or seafood. INFORMATION: The Lonely Planet's "China -- a Travel Survival Kit" contains a lengthy section explaining the complexities of Chinese train travel. General information is available from the China National Tourist Office, 60 E. 42nd St., Room 3126, New York, N.Y. 10165, 212-867-0271.
Harold H. Brayman is a special adviser to the Senate Budget Committee.