Where do I start?
So I lug all my gear down the stairs to the platform after being guided through the labarynth of accessways of Beijing West Station by a first-class use only porter, to find myself at the very back of the train. 18 carriages and a very sore shoulder later I arrive at my carriage. Carriage number seventeen. Over the 45 hours it would take to get to Urumqi, row 22 of carriage number seventeen would become my world.
I got onto the train 1 hour before it was due to leave, so I was the first of the row 22ers to arrive. It is always a good idea to get on the train early in the hard seat section, or you may find your baggage put somewhere you can’t keep an eye on it rather than above your seat.
About 20 minutes later three men, one in his 20’s, one in his 30’s and one who appeard to be in his 60’s arrived at row 22. I didn’t notice it right away, but they were speaking a language that was not at all like Chinese, and they had a demeanour about them that seemed to ooze a mix of pride and joviality. The older fellow was wearing a square-ish embroidered hat that only covered the top of his head and did not suggest any practability when it came to keeping the sun of his head or face.
The first conversation the four of us tried to have failed terribly, and the situation only improved once I got out my pen, paper, and life saving ‘Picture Talk’ booklet. The first exchange of culture was when we discussed what meat I eat in New Zealand (even after I drew a simple world map, they were still not sure what or where New Zealand was). They pointed to the picture of a cow, sheep and chicken. Yes, yes, yes, I said. They also pointed to the pig Yes, I said. That was received with an expression of jovial disapproval. So next I pointed to the pig and I was replied with a great flurry of waving of hands and ‘no, no, no’ in a strong Arabic kind of accent. They were all laughing as if to say ‘of course not! What are you talking about?!’
Around this time, more and more of these mystery people piled onto the train. The lucky ones who got tickets with seats shooed the ones without out of their seats. ‘Who are these people?’ I was thinking when I heard in perfect English ‘Hello, where are you from?’ It was Behtiyor, a university student from Beijing who also happened to be one of these people who did not look at all Asian. ‘More importantly, where are you people from?’ I asked. Behtiyor proceeded to explain that they were the Uyghur people of western China. So what nationality are you? We are Chinese…
I could not get over how very confusing the situation was. Some of these people could not read Chinese, however they were second or third generation Uyghur living in China. They piled onto the train carrying platic bags full of round flat bread, some with mutton peices on top. The women were wearing head scarfs. All very confusing…
The train started moving. I had a twinge of ‘there’s no going back now’ feeling. The first day of scenery was dense population. Fertile land growing all kinds of crops including corn, rice, apples, oranges. Big cities and smaller villages crammed into very small space. Rather than the scenery, the more interesting thing was the interraction of the Uyghur people. A truely jovial lot which included Jilal, a 23 year old chap who had broken his wrist during his trip to Beijing and spent most of the 45 hours on the train with his arm held in the air to alleviate the pain of the fracture. This was however the only indication that it was sore. He was not only jovial but also very vocal. His favourite pastime (apart from eating, by the looks of his rotund belly) was singing Uyghur folk songs and getting in heated coversations with other (Chinese) passengers.
Sleeping on a carriage that only has seats requires a great deal of innovation. This was by no means an exception at row 22. Comradieary (can someone tell me of the spelling of that word?) and cooperation between passengers came into play the most at these times. I was happy to be able to provide my rolled up tent as a pillow for the 60 year old and 30 year old fellows for their makeshift bed on the floor under the seats. With these two on the floor, this meant that in a set of six seats (two rows of three facing each other), there was now room for two people to rest their heads on the middle table, and two to lie down on the remaining seats with their legs hanging in the isle. The latter two are comfy enough, but are woken often when a person needs to get down the isle to go to the loo.
On the first night, I was lying down on the seats with my legs hanging down in the isle. I got no sleep. No, really, I got no sleep. On the second night, I had my head on the table. I slept like a baby. But I’m sure that’s only because I was so exhausted that I would have slept on a bed of nails in a spider infested closet with no worries.
I’m really not sure what people do to keep themselves entertained on such a long journey in a confined space. As for me, I was reveling in the sheer joy of being surrounded by people that were not Asian. Not that I have anything against Asian races, but I guess I just enjoyed the diversity for a change. The language I was surrounded with was so different from any language I had experienced before that just to be in amongst it was sheer joy.
One incident stands out as especially moving. Row 22 was engaged in its usual jovial ranting and raving with the occassional translation from Behtiyor when all of a sudden Behtiyor says ‘I need your help to do my salad.’
‘OK, no problem, I have nothing else to do.’ I replied.
I was still sitting, waiting for something to happen. The other guy on the row of three had already stood, so when Behtiyor indicated that I should also stand, he presently produced a rectangular cloth with a cow skin pattern on it and proceded to lay this down on the row of three seats, and kneel at the end of it. It was at this time that I figured I must have heard something wrong. First, there were no fresh vegetables to be seen. Nor was there any chopping board or knife. There was not going to be any salad made tonight.
Behtiyor’s salad making lasted about 15 minutes and included outstreched arms, some quiet chanting and lots of head to the ground bottom in the air movements. I was to learn later that this is a sarat, a five-times-daily prayer session that all devout Muslims take part in. According to Behtiyor, he thinks that maybe 98 percent of all Uyghur people are Muslim.
The last day of the train journey was the most interesting scenery-wise. I woke up to a moon-scape of stony desert with massive jagged rock mountain ranges in the distance that seemed to simply burst through the desert floor and up into the sky. From what I could see, there were no foothills to speak of. Just desert and mountain. I was filled with a desire to be out of the train and walking on the stony ground. In places the ground would become greener, and the sights though the window reminded me of the Canterbury plains in New Zealand with the Southern Alps in the distance.
Arrival in Urumqi was at 3:15pm, but for some reason it felt like noon. The sun was high in the sky, and I could feel my head burning in the direct sunlight. I asked Behtiyor about this and he explained that even though Urumqi is 3700km away from Beijng, it still officially uses Beijing time. The local unofficial time was indeed noon.
I was grateful again to have Behtiyor with me at the baggage claim counter to get my bike and two panniers that I had checked in at Beijing West Station. According to the woman at the window, the bike had not yet arrived in Urumqi and that I would have to wait until 7pm that evening to receive it. I explained that this could not possibly be the case, as one of the train conductors had asked me when I was on the train whether ‘that strange bike in the baggage carriage’ was mine. Also. I had the receipt for the VIP service I had paid for in order to have my bike removed from the train without delay. After Behtiyor explained this to the microphone in the window glass, we were told by the microphone above to wait for 15 minutes. We had barely sat down when the bike was wheeled out to were we sat. Apart from being very dusty, the bike was in good condition with no damage. I was once again glad to be reunited with it.