Sichuan pepper peanuts with a stranger on a train

Wednesday, 6 November, 2019 | Dining carriage of a D train from Beijing to Shanghai

I’m on my fourth Xili (Heineken) – the beer a stranger at the dining car bar recommended when I asked, by way of striking up a conversation. Often, all it takes in a train or a bus or a café in a foreign country is a friendly remark, a curious question or a smile, before you’re invited into the world of someone you may have only swished past on a nameless train platform. 

I take his advice, and buy a can of Xili. Honestly, it’s got as much flavour – if not a little more – than the Chinese lagers on offer: Qingdao, Snow, and Yanjing. He invites me to join him at the banquette where he’s sitting alone. He’s heading to Shanghai for an escape: a weekend of clubbing and drinking with friends who live there, he tells me. He makes the trip every now and again, whenever he needs to let loose. I’ve never heard of any of the nightclubs he mentions, without pretension  – and it’s only been five years since I last visited Shanghai. Tin of beer emptied, he goes to the counter to buy another, offering me one too, and I gratefully accept. There’s no need for thanks, he insists. “Renshi shi yuanfen”; to meet someone is fateful.

The 12-hour overnight D train (short for dong che) isn’t everyone’s first choice but, in around 2009, they were the latest emblem of China’s progress. They took the wind out of the K train’s sails by shortening the journey between Shanghai and Beijing by four or five hours. K trains ( kuaisu che) were literally China’s “fast train” – kuai is “fast” – but they couldn’t keep up with the engine driving the country’s progress and, soon enough, they were a reminder of a less advanced time. Already, the D train is considered a little quaint. Why take the overnight D train when, nowadays, the G train (gaosu; highspeed) can whisk you to the capital in just four and a half hours?

Because of encounters like these. 

I tell the stranger my plans. After a few days in Shanghai, I’m heading to Yiwu where I intend to interview an assortment of businesspeople and immigrants from around the African continent, all drawn to southern China’s biggest trading hub, where Christmas trees and nuts and bolts and glassware and textiles – and all the ‘small commodities’ you can and cannot name – are sold in bulk in one of five giant indoor markets, together spanning the size of 750 football fields. He knows someone who’s involved in China-Africa affairs, and offers to introduce me. We’ve gone from ‘stranger’ to ‘contact’, and we’re only a couple of beers in. Ben grew up in Shandong Province, near Qingdao, the German-influenced city that brews the beer, and art is another of his passions. The conversation turns to Xu Bing, one of the contemporary Chinese artists I’ve written about, known for his thought-provoking installations. 

Beer number three. I’m pleasantly surprised that he can drink. And, even better, he produces a large foil-lined bag of mala huasheng, the spicy, Sichuan-pepper-numbing peanuts that I love so much the first thing I did when I landed was buy a bag, so I could eat them on my subway into the city. Pinches of dried chilli and black peppercorns combine with the nuts in my fingers and swirl through my bloodstream with the room temperature train-beer. The hum of Mandarin is finding its way back into my throat, and I’m drunk on the randomness of this seethingly beautiful world. As we glide southwards, I’m floating in a space that is comfortingly familiar and yet so removed from the everyday that has become my life since returning to South Africa from China a little more than five years ago. I drink in the buzz with glee.

If you told me that, in exactly two months’ time – January 2020 – China would slam shut its doors to the outside, that this man’s broad Beifang smile would be hiding behind a surgical mask on the other side of the carriage, from where he might not even consider talking to me; that the small joy of sharing a bag of nuts with this stranger, and laughing carelessly in this airless carriage would be one of millions of unconscious acts that would soon be forbidden, I might well have chosen the potency of that moment en route to Beijing in the middle of the night over all of the strained and scary moments of the ‘new normal’ that was soon to come.

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