The Lung-Hai Railway in War-time

Taken from the New Statesman archive, 16 July 1938

Taken from the New Statesman archive, 16 July 1938

Describing the difficulties of making what should be a simple journey can be a powerful way for a foreign correspondent to make conflict vivid for readers faraway in ordered societies. Isherwood (1904-86) does it deftly here, blending weak tea, boredom and Chinese lessons with an air raid, a fatal derailment and a final, shooting-gallery dash past Japanese guns. He visited China with W H Auden just after his Berlin years, during which he produced the Mr Norris stories that made him famous, and just before he settled for good in the United States. His Chinese experiences are recorded in a book, Journey to a War (1939).

Selected by Brian Cathcart

The Lung-Hai Railway was built by the Belgians and runs through wheat-growing districts immediately south of the Yellow River, from Pa Chi to Hsiuchiou. Beyond Hsiuchiou the track has been torn up to check a possible Japanese advance. At Chongchow the Lung-Hai links up with the Pin-Han line. These two lines form the only artery for moving troops along the Yellow River front, and for carrying eastward such war material as may enter China from Russia. The Japanese have repeatedly bombed and shelled it, but so far traffic has never been seriously dislocated.

We made several journeys along this line. Here is one of them:

Wednesday. The sky is cloudless and the midday sun very hot, although it is only March, as the westbound "express" steams into Chongchow. Chongchow station has suffered more than most from air-raids. The waiting-room is in ruins. In the street outside, all that is left of the Hotel of Flowery Peace is a mass of bricks and one tottering wall. The streets are quiet, because business is only carried on at night.

Our locomotive has been camouflaged with mud; the roofs of the third-class carriages are black with refugee passengers. On every journey, we are told, two or three fall off and are killed. Hardly have we got into our compartment when the air-raid warning sounds and we have to hurry to the station dug-out, while the train pulls out to hide somewhere in the country. The air raid is a false alarm, so we start, only an hour late. A last-moment rush of refugees is beaten off by station officials with sticks. The victims merely laugh: their padded coats are so thick that the blows raise only a cloud of dust and lice.

We are in luck. The train stops only a few minutes at each station. (On an earlier journey, we waited six hours at a place called Democracy: a young officer got so bored that he began firing at the rooks with his revolver and was severely reprimanded.) We are passing through the loess region: precipitous sand-canyons, cave-dwellings, fantastic sand-pinnacles resembling Lot's wife.

There is no dining-car. Meals are cooked in a box-car: the boys bring us hot face-towels and cups of weak tea. They tell us that, barring accidents, we shall be in Sianfu tomorrow morning, if the train can get to Lo Yang by dusk; for the section between Lo Yang and Tungwan can only be travelled in the dark. Here the line runs beside the Yellow River and the Japanese are on the north bank with their guns sighted on the track.

Towards evening the hills flatten down into a valley of orchards and green wheat. It is six o'clock and we are running into Lo Yang. A soldier leans out of a troop-train and lays two fingers side by side: "England and China," he shouts, "together. Italy and Japan, together too."

Thursday. Something has gone wrong. We wake up to find ourselves in a small station, halfway between Sian and Lo Yang. There has been an accident down the line. The train moves out of the station for safety and stops in a ravine between two tunnels. Within half an hour a complete market-town has sprung up around us: peasants sell cigarettes, tea and all sorts of food - boiled chickens varnished red with soya bean, sausage-shaped waffles, hard-boiled eggs. Child beggars gather under the windows, intoning a litany of want and staring at the foreign devils through swollen, trachoma-infected lids. Most of the passengers clamber down and sit about chatting, or go to sleep on the shady side of the line.

Friday. We have moved during the night, but only one station. As we have found bed-bugs we decide to spring-clean the carriage. We take out all our bedding, beat it with walking-sticks and hang it up in the sun. The idea catches on, and soon the station is festooned with clothing. By now the car-boys are very friendly: they bring along a gramophone and some records of Chinese singing, which sounds startlingly like Donald Duck. We have begun Chinese lessons, which are followed by a delighted crowd on the platform.

Saturday. Again, we have scarcely moved. We get a lift on the breakdown train to see the accident. On the edge of a steep embankment above the Yellow River we find an engine on its side amidst torn-up track. Half-way down the slope is a splintered carriage. A wheel came off, derailing the whole train: nine people were killed, fifteen seriously injured. But a new track has now been built, skirting the wreck, and we leave this evening.

Fuel has run out, the meat is high and there is no sugar, but a bottle of whisky has appeared, unearthed from the box-car like a gift from a better world. All lights are put out as we move off for our rabbit-dash past the Japanese guns. The train gathers speed, roaring through tunnels and deep cuttings, swaying precariously over high bridges. The carriage is filled with sulphur and smuts. Suddenly we come out of a tunnel and see the Yellow River below us and, across the river, brilliant and isolated in the huge dark countryside, the Japanese searchlights. But there is no shot. We plunge into another tunnel, and soon we are passing at speed through Tungwan station, where no train ever stops now. We are clear. Passengers begin to talk and light candles. Tomorrow we shall breakfast in Sianfu.