His name was Cai Jun. For the first day of that six-day train ride from Beijing to Moscow, that was all he would tell me.
This was winter 1991. The Soviet Union was intact (though unraveling). The new China’s birth — the China of capitalism with Communist features — was months away.
When we crossed the Mongolian border and China was behind us — safely behind us, I guess — Cai Jun was more forthcoming.
He was an artist, he said. His business card put him in the center of Beijing’s gallery scene. Selling jackets off the train was a way to earn money en route to Eastern Europe, where he intended to set up some kind of printing business. He had a family back in Beijing, but this train trip sounded like a one-way deal. It was all a little unclear to me.
Somewhere in the doldrums, between Siberian outposts, Cai Jun told me his life story. He would pause, stare out the window, and hum a Chinese opera tune.
In his early 20s, Cai Jun had been sent to Harbin, way up north. This was in 1968, during the Cultural Revolution. He drove a tractor by day and led a chorus in patriotic song by night. He said it was cold in Harbin. I later learned that Harbin is a Manchu word for “a place for drying fishing nets.” Its nickname today is the Ice City. Cai Jun wasn’t lying.
But who was he really?
Most of what I know about him for certain is what I know about myself: That trip was my life’s adventure against which all other adventures since have been compared. (None has surpassed it.) And the image of Cai Jun, and the sound of his voice, are its most enduring memories.
Photograph by Jeff Wildgen