A Steam Train to 1950s China

Ben Kletzer rides China’s last steam train, built during the Great Leap Forward

Far away from the dense urban centers of coastal China, daily life in Bajiaogou, a rural township in Sichuan province, was marked by the four-times daily arrival of one of the last surviving steam trains in the world. The little railway was the lifeline of this picturesque mountain village; transporting everything for the villagers, passengers and mail, livestock and building materials.

I first visited Bajiaogou in 2011 to see this steam train, known as the Bashi Railway for its two terminals, Bajiaogou and Shixi. Many foreign train enthusiasts have ridden or photographed the Bashi steam train. Their online reports describe an isolated, scenic railway. I set off from Chengdu, taking an aging bus south to the city of Qianwei, where I took a short ferry across the Minjiang river to Shixi, the other terminus of the railway. After purchasing a ticket for 1.5 yuan, I boarded the ramshackle coaches, squeezing onto a crowded wooden bench seat.


How the Chinese Diaspora is Changing Laos

Juliet Lu and Wanjing Chen explore the impacts of the Belt and Road in Laos

There is something about China – perhaps it’s size, perhaps it’s foreignness to Western audiences, or perhaps the simple fact that it is a new global economic power – that lends to vast oversimplifications and doomsday portrayals of the country’s global integration. China’s increasing presence overseas is one of the topics on which this oversimplification gets the most play. Summary statistics and breathless reports give the sense that Chinese firms parachute into countries, checks in hand, and unilaterally determine what to build, grow, and extract. But in order to understand how China’s global integration is unfolding on the ground, we need to ask a few questions. How does this emerging wave of investment actually take root on the ground? Through what channels does Chinese money flow, and through whose hands?


Another Day of Life in Wuhan

A follow-up dispatch from the centre of the epidemic – Xiaoyu Lu, trans. Allen Young

The only thing that hasn’t changed since they shut down the city is my grandmother’s insistence on walking the dog. Every morning at five or six o’clock, she puts on her face mask and steps out the door. When she comes back around breakfast time, she gives a report.

“No one outside today, either,” she says.

But on January 25, the first day of the lunar new year, she saw something new. “I turned back early today. There were people with red armbands standing on the bridge, staring right at me,” she said. “So I figured maybe that means you’re not allowed to cross.”

That day we learned the authorities had tightened the lockdown. Every district was now closed off, and you couldn’t cross the river. Neighbors who had gone to call on relatives – a traditional activity in the first days of the festival – were stopped at the gates of their housing complexes. Not long after that came word that private cars were no longer allowed in the city center.

One after another, the cities and towns of Hubei were sealed off, as if under siege. Roadblocks and sandbags appeared on the expressways. Some towns have taken more extreme measures, blocking roads by digging them up.


A Viral New Year

Panic over the coronavirus empties the streets of Chengdu – Lauren Teixeira

Not long after lunch on the first day of the year of the rat, my fifth-floor neighbor Auntie Cheng bangs on my door. I had promised the previous evening to take her to my gym. We don our N95 respirator masks and set out for the northern end of our neighborhood, where the gym is located.

“It’s important to exercise so that your body can stay strong,” Auntie Cheng reflects as we walk by familiar shops, all closed. The Wuhan coronavirus has put a dent in her family’s new year celebrations. The whole extended family had gathered for a feast the previous night, but the first days of the new year will be spent apart.

There is a feeling in the air that it’s best – maybe even patriotic – not to go out. I am in a group chat with the former security guards from my compound. Earlier that morning Mr. Liao had forwarded a meme in the form of a short didactic poem:

     The country is in a muddle, so let’s not cause trouble
     Make your contribution by staying at home.
     Relatives aren’t going anywhere
     next year they’ll still be here...


They Shut Down the City

A dispatch from quarantined Wuhan during the coronavirus epidemic – Xiaoyu Lu, trans. Allen Young

On January 17, I went to pick up a friend at the Hankou train station in my hometown Wuhan. She was the only one wearing a face mask. At the time, the official line was that everything was under control, that the spread could be prevented. “The Huanan Seafood Market is only two blocks away,” I said to her, teasingly. In an all-night restaurant, the glass tanks were swimming with life. We ate noodles with crab legs. The streets were as packed as ever, with drunk revelers trying to call cabs after their year-end company parties. A man doubled over to vomit, while a young woman patted him on the back and said, “Ready for another round, honey?”

A week ago the panic was still confined to health-conscious retirees, who always worry about seasonal illnesses. It didn’t prompt them to wear face masks or use hand sanitizer more regularly, it just gave them a new reason to get on young people’s case: don’t go out, drink plenty of water. There were also the perennial conspiracy theorists, who doubted official news yet didn’t provide more reliable information. To most of us, not wearing a mask seemed reasonable and logical. After all, who wanted to be associated with paranoid old folks and crackpots?