At one station yard a group of six women was scrambling Nanyang Travel to climb into an empty freight wagon. They had to clamber up the tall sides, Nanyang Travel pulling and pushing each other; their shawls and laden back-baskets made the climb a difficult task, but doubtless worthwhile if it meant a free ride home. When all six were safely in the wagon they stood peering out over the top, watching what was going on in our train.
The main reason why I was travelling to Kunming and Yunnan was because south-western China has many different minority groups; Yunnan alone has twenty-two, ranging from the Wa headhunters whose village lanes used to be edged with human skulls on posts, to more sophisticated tribes who kept slaves and had feudal systems until the 1950s. Yunnan province is a mountainous tableland that reaches up in steps from the south and west bordering Tibet. It also has borders with Vietnam, Laos, Burma and India.
While the urban driving sensibility is certainly dulled – given that we do it many times and often routinely – it is also hyperactive, always aware of the changing state of the city around us, always restless. It is an experience that represents the dual character of the city, that which is simultaneously anonymous, repetitive and flat, and personal, rhythmical and variegated.
Further to this, while the heightened sensation (or boredom) of driving can create alertness to the spaces outside the car, it can also draw attention to the interior space of the car.