My first few days in China were in Shanghai and Xi’an, two of its most appealing cities. Now I must venture west into China’s hinterland. From Lanzhou I take a high-speed day train to Urumqi, the capital of the restive north-western province of Xinjiang.
The Long March
There isn’t much to see between Lanzhou and Urumqi; the land is semi-arid and lifeless, with few settlements, and the landscape flickers by for hundreds of miles without changing. The flatness is sometimes broken by sand-coloured hills, and striated mountains appear on the horizon like a mirage. The railway cuts across the desert in an unbroken line, sometimes tunneling through hills or arching over gullies, but never changing course.
When I arrive in Urumqi at night, I see a different side of China. The area around the station is confusing, dirty, dark, and poor. People hock flatbreads and fruits from rickety carts parked in the main square under the watchful eye of policemen. Shady characters whisper to me and wave business cards as I leave the station, trying to entice me to stay at their hotels. Roadblocks and security barriers make it impossible to move in a straight line. Few people here speak any English. When I try to get a room at the Super 8 Hotel, I am turned away; they are not authorized to accommodate foreigners. I get a room at a more upscale hotel across the street instead.
The next morning I return to the train station and board my final train in China, a mechanical dinosaur that stops at every lonesome station between Urumqi and Kashgar. The trip takes just shy of 24 hours. I share my four-berth first class compartment with four others: a woman, her not-particularly-cute baby, and two grandparents. The baby wears an open-bottomed onesie and no diaper; bafflingly, there are no accidents. Whenever the baby starts to cry, the grandmother calms him by arrhythmiacally banging a chopstick against a tin bowl, generating a soul-curdling clang that drives me out of the compartment for hours on end. When the baby stirs in the middle of the night, when I am sleeping, the grandfather switches on the overhead fluorescent lighting and the grandmother restarts the chopstick clanging at a frenzied tempo, nearly driving me to toss them and the infant out the window. At first I take pity on the family, recognizing that their poverty and cultural backwardness gives them, if not a right, then at least an excuse for their rude behaviour. But then I notice their bags full of plastic toys, brand-name baby food, retail clothing, cell phones, and other trappings of a middle-class family, and I remember that we are in a first-class compartment. This family isn’t poor at all; they’re just assholes.
Camels and cars
24 exhausting hours later, I arrive in Kashgar, a town so remote and foreign that many Chinese haven’t even heard of it. I decide to stretch my legs and spend a couple of hours exploring. It’s a dusty frontier town, far from the modernizing influence of Beijing. Camels and donkeys compete with motorbikes and cars on the potholed roads. Arabic and Cyrillic script appears below the Chinese characters on signs. Even the people look different, a mixture of Mongol and Han Chinese, with the occasional Arab, Russian, or Persian. It’s all very confusing.
The only way onward at this point is by road, so I head to the “international bus station”—actually just a crumbling concrete-walled compound with a single grimy ticket window. No informed person actually takes the bus, since it’s cheaper and faster to hire a place in a share taxi, so I negotiate for a ride to the Chinese customs border post (I pay 70 renminbi). The driver supplements his income by making deliveries on the way; at one point I share a seat with a plastic sack filled to bursting with noodles, and two boxes labeled “L’Oreal”. Next to the noodles is a talkative fellow who shouts in Russian for the entire ride, either at the driver, into his cell phone, or to nobody in particular.
At 2:00 p.m. the driver drops me at the locked gate leading to the Chinese customs office. As the taxi drives back along the dusty road, the only sign of life I see is a pair of bored police officers guarding the gate. The office itself apparently closes for a very leisurely “lunch” between 1:00-4:00 p.m., so I must wait. I pass the time in a food-place (café is too fancy a descriptor) in a concrete one-story building with plastic tables and a Russian soap opera playing on the tube television. A table of menacing-looking brigands (or truckers) are the only other customers.
When the gate finally reopens and the police officers usher me though, I walk, completely alone, along a 1 km stretch of wind-swept road to the customs clearance building. Sepia-toned mountains stand like distant sentries on either side of the road. I feel completely free.
The most remote customs office ever
As I approach the Chinese customs building on foot, a brusque uniformed officer walks out to meet me.
“You can’t come here,” he says in reasonably-good English.
“I need to cross into Kyrgyzstan, and I’ve been waiting for two hours for the gate to open…” I start.
“There is no onward bus from here,” he interrupts. “You must buy ticket in Kashgar.”
“I’ll hire a taxi from here,” I say. I see a taxi idling on the other side of the building, clearly waiting for passengers.
“Come back tomorrow, 9 a.m.” he replies, and he spins around to reenter the building.
Slightly panicked, I plead to his backside to let me through today. Slightly annoyed, he tells me to wait a moment. A few minutes later, he reemerges and tells me that if the idling taxi will take me, I can cross today. I sigh in relief.
Despite its extremely remote location, the building is shining and new, and even offers duty free shopping (a must-have service even for Chinese brigands, it seems, judging by their zeal). There are five other travellers waiting to clear customs, and at least as many government workers to make it happen. The process takes about an hour, and involves a half-dozen very thorough passport checks at various counters and booths, all within sight of one another, and often conducted by the same officer, who disappears into a neighbouring room between checks to freshen up.
Driving into the sky
After clearing customs, I climb in the share taxi that will take me to the actual border, which is another two hours drive along a winding road up into the mountains. There is little vegetation, and the temperature drops as we climb. Crumbing buildings occasionally crop up along the roadside, each with a wind-beaten woman standing in front selling bananas and Fanta. At several points the car pulls over at a military checkpoint, where my passport is scrutinized.
The border is marked by a huge and elegant iron gate emblazoned with a big star. Kyrgyz guards in furry hats mill about on the other side. After more passport checks, the gate is swung open and we are allowed through. A guard carrying an assault rifle asks to hitch a ride to the Kyrgz border station below, so we are forced to squeeze all four passengers into the back seat of the already-cramped taxi. After a short drive we all pile out and the taxi speeds back to China, leaving me and the other passengers to walk the remaining distance to the Kyrgyz customs office.
The office is housed in a shack. The guard with the rifle takes my passport into the office and types some things into an aging computer with a flickering screen. A cot with wool blankets is on the ground behind him—this must be both his office and his bedroom. He hands back my passport with a grunt, and waves me on—I’m free to go. I walk through the gate and into Kyrgyzstan.