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My trip in Tangwanghe, NE China

By Norton MacKay | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2013-12-17 14:27

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The scene in Tangwanghe, Northeast China's Heilongjiang province. Photo provided to chinadaily.com.cn

My first time to the far Northeast of China was by train - not the fast train, either. My girlfriend, two of her friends and I journeyed from Shenyang to Harbin to Yichun to a small village called Tangwanghe, unknown to foreigners and Chinese alike. Although Tangwanghe is home to a gorgeous national park, it is nevertheless a small and out-of-the-way destination, left unvisited by the hordes of predominantly Chinese tourists who migrate towards the better-known vacation spots during the Chinese National Day holiday.

Norton MacKay. Photo provided to chinadaily.com.cn

After more than twenty hours on the train we arrived at the town station. From there we hailed a taxi, found an inexpensive restaurant that left much to be desired in the ways of cleanliness and gastronomy. We booked our "reservations" at 100 yuan ($16) a night in a local inn, after which we set out exploring the town and its surrounding areas, including the aforementioned national park. While it would be expected to rhapsodize on the natural beauty of Northeast China's countryside, particularly in that season of crimson leaves and cool rivers, I find that now, as a memory, my strongest recollections are of the trains that took us to this remote corner of the country.

Trains are a connecting force in China. They are the connection between cities and countries. They are the connection between distant families; even migrant parents and children are bound by this force that is integral to the current state of Chinese development. For our little group, they were the connection between native Shenyang and towns that served as vacationland to us and an unlucky home to others. Of course, I was the most foreign of the visitors to Tangwanghe. What I cherish about the memory, however, is not that I was interesting to the locals, but rather how lucky I was to be amongst the few outsiders to witness the unadulterated beauty of rural China.

Yet what I cherish most does not convey the overwhelming mass of movement of the whole ordeal; while I was riding comfortably enough toward a weeklong vacation in the countryside, the majority of my fellow passengers - particularly after the stop in Harbin - were migrants or sons or daughters on a long train home. Perhaps they had left for a better life in cities in the south. Perhaps they had taken jobs in factories. Perhaps they were young professionals on their way to eventual comfort and even wealth. But the common binding between Shenyang and Harbin and all of these small towns in the far north of China was family - and my China story is that there are only so many trains that make stops in the small towns of northern Heilongjiang province. But the splintered families at the stations have been waiting a long time for theirs to come around the bend.

Norton MacKay is the author of The Admirers, a collection of stories. His short fiction has appeared in the Australian national quarterly Voiceworks, Uptown Mosaic, The Rusty Nail, Fiction365 and Aura. He lives in Shenyang, China.

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