It was the Labour Day long weekend, and I’d left it too late to by train tickets. I wanted to go to Ma’anshan – Horse Saddle Mountain – a regional town of little import, just outside of Nanjing.
Both Ma’anshan and Nanjing are Yangtze river towns, Nanjing being famous during for being a national capital during the Tang dynasty and again during the Ming, and as the site of virtual genocide during the Japanese invasion in World War 2.
Ma’anshan’s claim to fame is that it is the resting place of China’s most revered poet, Li Bai. Li Bai lived in the Tang dynasty, and every school child in China can recite a few of his poems. It’s hard to go past 静夜思 Jìng yè sī , Quiet Night Thoughts, often known by its first line , 明月光míng yuè guāng if you’re looking for a poem of deep nostalgic beauty.
The poem is so well known, it even appears embroidered on silk scarves, bags and materials.
With no seats left on the through train, I did what most Chinese do under similar circumstances – bought tickets on connecting trains. China is vast and the population huge – people are used to taking detours, or waiting for hours at train stations, to get where they are going.
We got off the comfortable fast-speed train at Nanjing, and transferred to another line. The Ma’anshan train was a D train – a slow clunker of a thing, labourishly winding its way across the countryside. Our seats were in the ‘hard sleeper’ class – luckily, the lowest of the triple-decker bunks. Someone, however – two someones – were on our ticketed seats, sleeping.
An older style train at an old railway platform. Most cities have quite modern train platforms now.
“Excuse me, they are our seats,” I said, to the two young men who were sprawled over the two lower beds in the cabin, comfortably ensconced in the large warm quilts that get supplied on Chinese trains. Grumpily, they got up.
By the time we arrived at our destination, it was nearly dusk. Time only to settle into our hotel room and go for a walk in the opposite park. People were out walking, children flying kites, hawkers selling savoury pancakes and cocacola.
I got the directions to the poet’s tomb.
We’d go there the next day.
Li Bai’s most famous poem
静夜思 Jìng yè sī
(Quiet Night Thoughts)
床前明月光， Chuáng qián míng yuè guāng，
疑是地上霜。 Yí shì dì shàng shuāng.
举头望明月， Jŭ tóu wàng míng yuè,
低头思故乡。 Dī tóu sī gù xiāng.
Bed-before-the bright moon shines
Suspect is ground on frost
Raise head look at bright moon
Lower head think of home village
The poem has many English translations, none quite capturing the beauty of the Chinese with its simplicity yet complex rhyming. Here’s another attempt:
Before my bed, bright moonlight shining
Looking like frost on the ground
I Look up to see the bright moon
Lowering my head, nostalgic for my home.
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s instalment and the riveting story of how I went searching for an unlikely tomb.