“Express to Beijing West Railway Station” by Congyun Mu Ming Gu (2021 Ignyte Awards)

Kiera Johnson’s English translation of “Express to Beijing West Railway Station” by Congyun Mu Ming Gu can be read online at Strange Horizons.

A train passenger is viisted by an attendant in a knitted vest, who asks him for a ticket. To his surprise, his standard ticket is not accepted: it turns out that passengers are expected to show something rather more personal before they can be allowed to continue. One man presents a diary as a ticket; another has a photo album; still another shows a telephone bearing blog posts. With nothing on his person to fit the bill, the protagonist is forced to step off into the station.

This is, ostensibly, a station that he has visited before: Beijing West. Yet something has changed, the regular exits now replaced with revolving doors attended by staff members who – like the ticket-collector on the train – wear knitted vests and demand a special sort of ticket. Things get even stranger when the protagonist tries to see the square outside the station, and witnesses nothing more than an expanse of grey mist. The traveller finally receives an explanation from the “auntie” who sits knitting in the late fares office:

“Have you studied quantum mechanics before?”
“Eh?” I was a little confused. “That’s something to do with multiple universes … the observer effect and so on …”
“Not bad.” The auntie clicked her knitting needles together seriously. “This West Station here is the result of quantum polymorphism being amplified until it reaches macro-universe scale. ‘The past’ and ‘the future’ both consist of countless pre-existing tracks, and they all converge here. The only thing that can determine the trajectory of your world is your train ticket—observations of the past.”
“Who … who are you people?”
“We’re train station workers, of course.” She looked at me in confusion. “Ever since faster-than-lightspeed travel became more popular, more and more wormholes have been appearing between different worlds, so the role of train stations has developed in tandem. Look here.” She spread out the knitting in her hands.
The station, then, is a nexus where travellers from different time periods and even different universes can visit: the protagonist sees a man in the attire of the Han dynasty leaving the office as he enters.

I will not pretend to offer insight into any social commentary occurring in this story, although I suspect that it is, on some level, a satire of bureaucracy. What strikes me about “Express to Beijing West Railway Station” is just how neat and succinct its central fantasy concept is: the notion of knitting or stitching being associated with individual destiny has mythological parallels; and the train station between worlds, while a more obvious image, is similarly robust.

More than just decorative, these concepts allow an insight into the protagonist’s emotional life transforming him from a blank reader-perspective figure into something more textured. The stitches are key moments in each person’s life, and to obtain a ticket, the protagonist must jot these “stitch” moments down in a blank diary: a birthday present at six; a failed exam at fifteen; a family dispute at eighteen. In the process, he finds that many of these moments are marked by regret, with missed opportunities for better futures. “Express to Beijing West Railway Station” starts as a whimsical story about a fantastical train station, but becomes a meditation upon personal regret and the ambiguous nature of recorded history.

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