Long before we left for China we did a lot of reading about China, and it became clear to us that the country is enormous and varied and that if we stayed in Shanghai for our two week trip we would be seeing a tiny slice of what is called “China.” One of the books that piqued my interest in “the rest of China” was Beyond The Great Wall a cookbook-travelogue by the couple Naomi Duguid and Jeremy Alford who wrote the James Beard Award winning book Hot Sour Salty Sweet. Their point is that there are many culinary worlds within China, even without making distinctions between Hunanese, Cantonese, Sichuanese etc. They describe, in recipes, photos, and stories the world of food outside the Han culture that dominates so much of China.
As I read about these tantalizing destinations I began to think — how could we best experience the breadth of China despite having only a free week after our adventures in one of the world’s largest cities? I had heard that airplane flights are now numerous and cheap within China, but hop-scotching across vast amounts of land, even with a good window seat and good weather really can’t give you a sense of the land. Driving in a car was out of the question (all of the street signs in Shanghai are in English and Chinese, but no where else in the country (besides Beijing and Hong Kong) would this be the case, but what about the train?
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I started doing a few Google searches, and I quickly found myself reading through the excellent train blog called The Man In Seat 61 that has information about trains all over the world, including a lot of detailed information about Chinese train travel. I found out that most of China’s rail cars are very modern and clean, especially as you move up in classes. Moreover, the ticket prices are so reasonable that it’s easy to justify traveling in the highest class sleeper cabins (referred to as “soft sleepers”), which bunk four people but have personal attendants who change the linens, empty the trash, and keep everything spic and span. As I dug further I discovered that to take a single train as far as you can go in China without needing a special visa (as is the case when traveling to Tibet), it would cost us about $150 each for a three day, two night adventure from Shanghai to Xinjiang Province. That’s easily less than the cost of a nice hotel room, plus the scenery would be constantly changing.
(We learned about all four classes of tickets on Chinese trains: hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper, and soft sleeper. I suspect that the hard seat referred to a standard commuter train seat — these weren’t available on the long distance trains. The soft seats are in sets of five across the train compartment, three, the corridor, and then two. Hard sleeper class is a compartment with six bunks (three on each side), no table, no linens, and no attendant service.)
Once we started talking about taking a train trip in China, we hooked up with a fellow who lives in Belfast and likes trains so much that he vacations by traveling by train to look at other trains. He has traveled in China quite a bit, and he hooked us up with his Chinese travel agent, who hooked us up with a travel agent in Xinjiang who offered us a guided tour through Xinjiang Province including a visit to the famous Kashgar Sunday Markets for a very reasonable price. We mulled that idea over in our heads for about a week before saying, “you only live once,” and we signed up for the package. The Xinjiang travel agency said that if we could get to the Dahayan train station near Turpan on the T52 train from Shanghai on Friday, Sept 25th, that they would pick us up and arrange everything else for us, including getting us on a flight to Shanghai a day before we’d be flying back out of Shanghai for home.
You can’t buy tickets directly from the Chinese railway agency over the Internet because they need to be paid in CASH (which is the case with almost everything in China we found out), but we were told that hotels often purchase train tickets for their guests as a service. We weren’t staying in a hotel, and although our landlady offered to help us with general arrangements, she could not buy train tickets for us. Therefore we were a little nervous to arrive in Shanghai our first day with a plan to tour Xinjiang province but without a guaranteed means of arriving in Xinjiang. Luckily Patrick offered to help get our tickets using his Shanghai travel services, and after slipping Patrick a thick wad of twenty-one 100 RMB notes, he handed us two little paper tickets that gave us an upper and lower bunk in berth six of rail car number seven on the T52 train from Shanghai to Urumqi (the final stop — Dahayan was the second to last stop).
On the appointed day we arrived at Shanghai Railway Station in the north section of downtown Shanghai with a reduced set of luggage: two bags each. We decided to treat the train trip, as well as the tour of Xinjiang, as if we were camping. We intended to hang out on the train in our Shanghai pajamas. I intended to do a lot of reading, so most of my second bag was stuffed with books. We carried an extra bag filled with instant noodle soup cups, dried fruit and nuts, tea bags, crackers, and peanut butter that we had bought at a Shanghai grocery store (an adventure in itself).
Once we were through the security in front of the station we made our way to Waiting Room number 6 where we would organized to board the train. Three other trains used that waiting room, and we got there early enough to watch how the boarding took place so we could be ready. Basically the seats were arranged in lanes, and two or three lanes were in front of each sign announcing your train. When the call to board was announced, you stood up in your lanes, then filed through the ticket agents who punched your ticket, then walked out onto the platform and boarded the train.
While we were waiting we noticed a man walking up and down the lanes for the T52 train with bags of naan flat-bread he was selling five for 10 RMB (about $1.50) or 3 RMB for one. Alison was intrigued, so she bought a bag. About half-an-hour before the train was to leave (at 6pm), the call to board was made, we stood up, filed through, got our ticket punched, then walked up the train to car number 7 where the attendant checked our ticket, then showed us to our berth.
It was a little more than seven feet by seven feet square and nine feet tall. The bunks were about 30″ wide, and the lower bunks would function as seats during the day. We unpacked and got comfortable — I had expected to take the upper bunk, but I gave Alison her choice, and she chose the upper. She immediately got into her pajamas, got in her bunk, and put her nose in her book. We waited while the train loaded, expecting the other bunks to fill up right away, but they didn’t. The compartment was very clean and pretty, decorated in a Silk Road theme with sheer curtains embroidered in a desert scene with a camel caravan and beautiful clouds hovering over them. Each bunk had a pillow and a puffy comforter issued to them, both covered in clean linens. The bunk itself was also made up with a clean linen covering the cushion/mattress. Each bunk had a separate reading lamp on the window side, and then there was an overhead light for the whole cabin. The sliding door was heavy and could be latched close or open, and it faced out into the corridor and another window with a beautiful embroidered curtain. So with the door open you could watch out both sides of the train.
Just when we thought we might get the berth to ourselves, a man came in and said hello and sat down. He asked us a question in Mandarin, we shook our heads and said that we spoke English, and he nodded and said, “I speak a very little English, what I remember from university.” Lao Wang was a high school teacher traveling with a few other teachers as they accompanied two of their students back home to Xinjiang Province. The others were in a berth at the end of our car, but as there were five people from the school, he had drawn the short straw and would be sleeping with us. Right on the dot of 18:03 the cement column on the platform outside our window imperceptibly began to drift away — there was no jerk — and then another column appeared in our window drifting past. We picked up some speed, drifted through a tunnel or two, then emerged into the city just as the sun was fading from the sky.
Mr. Wang (his Chinese name was Wang Lao he later told us) left us soon after the train got going, and he spend most of his time with the school group, so we did not see much of him. I ate a supper of noodle soup, settled down to read as the random lights of the urban landscape drifted past our train, which stopped every half hour or so at a new station. Before he left Mr. Wang told us that he had taken this train over ten times in the past, and he knew its route well: we would head north through Nanjing, then in the middle of the night we would turn west for Xi’an which we would reach mid-day the next day. After that we’d head west until we got to Gansu Province at which point we’d turn northwest towards Xinjiang, which we wouldn’t enter until the morning of our third day. I had purchased an atlas to track this progress, and I couldn’t wait.
We stopped at a station every half-hour or so through the night and I tracked our progress through Jiangsu Province (just west of Shanghai), into Anhui Province just after we cleared the ancient capitol (now just a huge urban sprawl) of Nanjing at 11:30pm.
We also explored a little this first night: our car was the first car after the dining car. Beyond the dining car were a few cars of soft seats that seemed pretty full (there was a big crowd in the waiting room in Shanghai, so the train must have been relatively full). Behind our soft sleeper car were several hard sleeper cars that seemed full as well. After I ate my dinner noodles I realized that there were no cups or bowls available in our sleeper cars, so I walked up to the dining car to see if I could get one there for us to use for tea and/or oatmeal in the morning. The dining car was filled with soldiers, many of them dressed in black uniforms that had patches that read — in roman letters! — “S.W.A.T.” It was a bit intimidating to be there — maybe I wasn’t allowed in the dining car? — and it was clear that the dining car attendants didn’t speak english, because when I asked for “a cup” and pantomimed its uses, they didn’t seem to understand at all.
The soldiers, who looked bored, quickly joined in, shouting English words that they thought described my request: “Wine!” “Beer!” “Whiskey!” I kept saying, “Cup?” to no avail, so I shrugged and retreated back to my cabin. About half-an-hour later a dining room attendant knocked on our door and opened it: “Coffee?” she said and smiled, then handed me several packets of instant Nescafe packets plus powdered creamer. I nodded, realizing that she and the soldiers had discussed my request after I left and had decided I wanted a cup of coffee (my being a Westerner, after all).
The train compartment was not loud — you could hear the train rumble, feel a little roll, but it was more comforting than annoying as we turned off the overhead light, then our reading lights and fell asleep as the train rolled in and out of stations through the night. Mr. Wang climbed into his bunk around midnight. I woke again around 3am at a dark railway station (probably Suzhou) but quickly fell asleep again. I woke again as we stopped at Xuzhou where the train made it’s decided turn to the west and into Henan Province. (Had we been headed to Beijing we would have continued north into Shangdong Province instead.) My watch alarm went off at 7am though it was still dim outside. I read a little more as the light gained in the window where we watched the city-village-fields-village-city pattern of Henan repeat as the views turned more and more green.
When it was light, and after Mr. Wang had got up and left (he slept in his street clothes), I prepared myself another big bowl of instant noodle soup. Alison made some instant oatmeal with raisins. The increasingly long stretches of agriculture showed lots of corn, some of it mechanically harvested (with a mini-combine), and most of it manually harvested by clots of people working down each row. Periodically simple brick buildings appeared that were clearly warehouses for the harvest and/or the equipment. We crossed into Shaanxi Province around 11am, and what had been a decidedly gray overcast day began to brighten.
The sun finally broke out just as we pulled into Xi’an Station at 1:50pm after seeing much of the city slide by our window. Alison took the camera and jumped out onto the platform for a few pictures while we took an extended stop. Clearly other trains from other regions in China were stopped across the platforms from us. Xi’an is in central China (kind of like Kansas City) and is most famous for being the cradle of China (the dynasty founded there thousands of years ago was called the “Chin Dynasty”), the western terminus/beginning of the Silk Road, and most recently from the discovery of the terra cotta army that was buried as part of an ancient emperor’s tomb on its outskirts.
Beyond Xi’an the landscape opened up. The hills that had been in the distance ran toward us and then straddled the train as we passed through the first tunnels since leaving the Shanghai station. Then there were chasms and peaks and cliffs and slopes. Less corn and fields as a result.
A new man who spoke no English was guided into our berth (by another passenger?) after Xi’an, and after the attendant changed the sheets for him he stretched out on the empty lower bunk across from me, and went to sleep. A few hours later he woke, pulled a mobile phone out of his pocket and began yelling at it — the Chinese seem to have only one volume setting…he drifted in and out of the compartment while talking on his phone, then disappeared from the train car altogether. Alison later said she thought that he might have needed to sleep off some baijou (Chinese hard liquor)?
Mr. Wang came back to join us for dinner. He got a meal from the dining car just in front of us which came on a movie prop cafeteria tray with a lump of rice and a lump of veg and a lump of something else filling each tray compartment. Alison asked if it was good? “No.” He was definite. “It is not good.” He paused. “But I like rice. It is rice.”
Shaanxi Province gave way reluctantly to Gansu Province as the hills turned into mountains and the valleys surrendered to larger and larger rivers sometimes crossed by the slenderest of hanging footbridges, sometimes by four and eight lane elevated superhighways. Corn stalks still filled every level field no matter how small. Once we were safely in Gansu the hills relaxed and the valleys spread into long orchards of apples, grape arbors, and pomegranates. As the light on the horizon faded Mr. Wang engaged in a spirited conversation about social conventions of the Mandarin greeting “Ni hao” (literally translated: “Have you eaten?”) versus the attending “Wei?” used to answer phone calls.
Mr. Wang abandoned us after dinner again, and we both read in our bunks and then drifted off to sleep soon after sunset around 7:30pm. Mr. Wang crawled into his bunk around mid-night, but the train stopped much less west of Xi’an, and I slept through any stops we made through Gansu Province until we pulled into the Jiayuguan station about 5am when Mr. Wang got up and left the cabin. I turned on my bunk light, opened my atlas (always at hand) and saw we still had about 400km left to travel through Gansu Province despite traveling about 800km since sunset. Gansu is a long skinny province running east-west along the Qilia Shan mountain range that separates Inner Mongolia (another “Autonomous Region” in China) to the north and Qinghai Province to the south. We had entered at the far eastern end, and would run the length to the far western end where we would finally enter Xinjiang Province, our ultimate destination. Mr. Wang told us that Gansu was a very poor province that had had many people leave it during the latest economic expansion period. Peter Hessler in Oracle Bones mentioned Gansu as one of only two places in China where he had actually been detained by the police for “being where he (a foreigner and a reporter) should not have been.” What we had seen of it had been beautiful but rugged.
Sunrise (later, at 7am now that we were farther west) just past the Yumen station illuminated a stark landscape of sand, gravel, and rock. We had reached the Chinese desert, one of the famous features of Xinjiang, along with its high pastureland, as well as it’s Vermont-like landscape of the far northern point where it just barely touches Russia (most of the Russian boarder is in eastern China. In fact I later leaned that the Chinese character for the “Jiang” part of “Xinjiang” is a diagram of the province: two deserts separated by three mountain ranges. The southern desert — Taklimakanshama in the local Uygar language, which basically translates to “You Go In And Don’t Come Out” — is the famous desert that splits the ancient Silk Road into three different routes because it is so difficult to navigate on foot.
From here on the desert of sand-gravel-rocks changed only on approach to the small cities, and even then the green was contained. We officially crossed into Xinjiang Province around 8:30am, and an hour later the beginning of the Tianshan mountain range appeared on the northern horizon. The Tianshan continues west all the way across the enormous province to our Sunday destination of Kashgar located less than 200km from Afganistan and Pakistan.
Meanwhile I had been texting Patrick and Tina and Eric and my Dad with updates on our progress through the train trip using Patrick’s daughter’s China Mobile phone that Patrick had generously lent us for our use during our trip. We had been receiving responses along the way as well. But when I texted to announce we had just crossed into Xinjiang, the messages “could not be sent.” We had heard that there would be no Internet access in Xinjiang because the Chinese government had “turned it off” to prevent non-official information about the disturbances in Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi from getting out, but we thought SMS might still be a way to keep people — even if it were just in China — updated with our wereabouts. Our hosts in Xinjiang later confirmed that SMS use had also been blocked — China had probably learned well from Iran’s experience after the election that Twitter was not a friend to regimes who value control of information.
However voice communication within the province was apparently allowed because shortly before entering Hami, the first large city in Xinjiang, we got a call from Abdullah, the owner of the travel agency we would be hooking up with in Turpan. He confirmed that we were on the train, and that there would be someone to pick us up at the Dahayen Station outside of Turpan when the train arrived. It was a comfort to us to have that confirmed, and I’m sure it was a comfort to Abdullah because we had yet to pay him for our trip — as everything in China is paid for in cash, often that means they are paid upon delivery, and we traveled with a wad of $100 bills (they preferred to be paid in US Dollars) with which to do that.
After we passed through Hami it was clear that the train was running about 50 minutes behind schedule, which wasn’t too bad considering the length (3700 km) we would be spanning over 48 hours. After we stopped at the last station before the Dahayen Station (Shanshan) we packed up our stuff, said our goodbyes to Mr. Wang and one of his students we had chatted with, and prepared to alight from the train.
Dahayen station was much like the others we had looked out upon: a number of tracks split to accomodate a few platforms. The main platform was a long stretch of concrete pavement and a very small station house in the center, very bright in the sunshine especially after our two days wrapped in the metal envelope of the train car. We noticed that the group black clad SWAT team that had been traveling on the train since Shanghai also got off the train and were greeted by a local company of police wearing camouflage fatigues. A station attendant clipped our tickets as we exited the turnstiles, walked under the station house, and up to the small city street behind the station where a clump of taxi drivers tried to get our attention. We spotted one man holding up a “Welcome Eric Rector and Alison Rector” hand written sign, and shook hands with Ahmad, who would be our guide in Turpan. He took one of Alison’s bags and led us to our waiting car. We had ended one adventure, and now would begin another.