Operation Storm City research trip to Asia. Retro-blog 6: Crossing China (part 2)

Day 6. Aboard the train to Urumqi.

I sit on a small fold down seat in the corridor and drink in views of China for hour after hour. It is very cold outside and there is a light dusting of snow on the flat, featureless landscape. This gives the whole scene the appearance of a lightly dusted cake. We are near Diwopu. A low mist hangs in the air and cuts visibility to a half a mile or so. Every so often a line of telegraph poles disappears into the murk towards some impossibly remote outpost. This is Sinkiang, and it is a truly desperate place.

We pass 4 blokes, heavily wrapped, standing beside the line in the middle of nowhere. I assume they are railway workers. There seems to be no other reason for the to be there, but who knows?

The businesswoman has left overnight and we have another passenger. He is quite dapper – and quite possibly a doctor; he sets about taking the pulses of the old couple with casual ease. I feel like getting in line for a free medical. He tells a few jokes and soon has them laughing. Again there is the impenetrable language barrier so it’s all lost on me. Despite our apparent remoteness, the doc makes a couple of calls on his cell phone! I return to watching the hypnotic landscape outside, while listening to Fawlty Towers on my iPod – as strange a flavour combination as you can imagine.


The land is more hilly, but no less bleak as we skirt the Gobi desert. ‘Greensleeves’ and ‘Scarborough Fair’ play on the carriage PA, and, rather alarmingly for a journey that’s lasted so long already, the tune: ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’. Surely not? Surely we’re nearly there?

We pass Hami and the snow begins to clear. The mist lifts to reveal a landscape of muted tans, blues, and greys. The only movement to be seen is small dust devils twisting and spinning like desert djinns. We’re now in the vast wastelands of Western China and it is just as unremittingly empty as I’d imagined. There is no vegetation, and no hint (other than the railway) that mankind has ever made much of an impression here. This is the territory in which a huge chunk of Operation Storm City is set. Sinkiang is suddenly no longer a name I’ve written many times, but a very real and dangerous place just outside the thin glass of the carriage window.


I reach Urumqi (also known as Wulumqi depending on your map) in the evening. It’s a big, ugly Chinese city mainly built  of concrete. I give the old couple a postcard of London and say goodbye as best I can before climbing down onto the platform. We have reached  the geographic centre of Asia and the most landlocked city in the world. There are no signs in English as there had been at Shanghai station. I drift out on the jostling tide of my fellow passengers. Outside, I’m immediately surrounded by eager cab drivers who flock around me. I show one of them the picture of the hotel I want; he nods vigourously, pushes me into his tired looking minibus, then drives me there at top speed as if his life depended on it.

The hotel has a free room (thank goodness). I certainly need a bath and change of clothes. The building is designed in the bland international style, and towers up to about 30 stories high. It is very, very new. There’s oil in these parts, which naturally brings a certain level of luxury trailing in its wake. In my sparklingly room I find flowers floating in the lavatory bowl! This I take to be an artistic touch rather than a mistake. Either way it is a welcomed change of comfort levels from the squatter facilities on the train. From a Chinese town on rails to utter luxury in under 20 minutes. The contrast is almost too much.

I find the bar and order a cold beer. The bartender pours it slowly, just like the famous scene from the 1959 classic film: ‘Ice Cold in Alex’. I wonder idly how many railway sleepers I have travelled across on the 4077km (2,500 mile) journey of  the last two days. I wonder, too, about the old couple on the train. To spend that long with people you cannot speak to is so utterly frustrating. We crossed China together! They were my travelling companions on a great journey. We all suffered that terrible night of snoring  – and survived! What on earth were they doing in Shanghai? I expect they were wondering much the same about me  – What on earth is he doing going to Urumqi?


Operation Storm City research trip to Asia. Retro-blog 5: Crossing China

Day 5

Aboard the Shanghai-Urumqi train across China (see map below).

The aroma aboard is garlicky and a little fetid. The cabin is a four berth, soft  sleeper class, run by a grumpy female attendant. It’s all very clean, with a communal thermos of hot water, a small table beneath which is a heater, a pillow and duvet, and best of all – a pair of disposable slippers for each person! I’m directed to a bottom bunk on which a businessman is slouched, one leg up and arms crossed. He is a little overweight and has something of the Ricky Gervaise about him. My other two companions are an elderly couple. Somehow I struggle to communicate that I am from London. After that, conversation drops off to zilch.

Gervaise eventually takes an upper bunk. His talent is for snoring – at an Olympic standard. He sounds like a single cylinder steam engine, making it seem, for all the world, as if the train is being pulled along by him. The up-stroke sounds tortured, confined and difficult. Then a longish pause. Long enough for one to think perhaps he has died. The gasping down-stroke hisses as if steam were escaping. All night! Sleep is therefore elusive. I unearth my iPod for a soporific blast of Coldplay and lull myself to sleep.

Gervaise is woken at 6am by the carriage attendant. He alights at Zheng Zhou. The elderly couple look exhausted by last night’s row. I certainly am. A lovely calm has descends on the cabin as if someone had switched off loud music. The old man and I smile at each other in relief and there is a brief moment of connection. He nods. I nod and smile.

I look on my map of China to gauge progress, but it’s pitifully slow.


I have been gazing out of the window at the hypnotic Chinese agricultural landscape. It is very flat here near Xian. There are mounds in many of the fields which I take to be graves. The Christians have been through – I’ve seen two churches, their crosses proudly displayed. My great, great uncle, the Right Reverend Howard West Kilvinton Mowll was a Bishop in China during the 1920s, and I wonder idly if he’d ever visited.

We pass the desperate vista of people sifting through rubbish tips… everywhere there’s evidence of building, people, agriculture. The houses range from track side shacks to smart concrete buildings with satellite dishes.

We have a replacement for Gervaise. She is a business woman – all smart suit and briefcase. She has what I take to be her son with her, but there is no room for him. She is trying to arrange a move so they can be together, I think. I have the feeling that I, a solo European, am something of a surprise to her. The rearrangements are cut short by a drunk woman in a compartment at the end of the coach yelling.


It is cold now. I stretch out for a sleep, but the businesswoman is perched at the end of my bunk so this is difficult. Oh, for an upper bunk! My mind switches to the journey. I had been planning to jump off at Turpan (one stop before Urumqi), but I’m not sure I’m allowed. I’ve been issued with a berth card in exchange for my ticket, and I can see I could very easily  infringe the strict rules if I get off before my listed destination. This means I must plan for a night in Urumqi. I ponder the thought that I’ll still be aboard this train in 24hours time, and reach for Evelyn Waugh.

Late afternoon:

We are now in the mountains dusted with snow. The track follows a steep and dramatic gorge through which a red river flows. We pass through several tunnels and into a flat plateau surrounded by low mountains. This is the China of one’s imagination.

After Gan Gou, the architecture is suddenly more defensive as if we are reaching more dangerous territory. Houses have outer courtyards without windows, giving them the appearance of small forts. The roads are rough tracks. Everywhere terracing has cut and shaped the landscape of tan coloured earth. A bleak place without a scrap of green to be seen. The temperature is plummeting and we are heading deeper into China. Ahead is what has been described as China’s wild west – Sinkiang.

Operation Storm City research trip to Asia. Retro-blog 4: Leaving Shanghai

Day 4

Several problems present themselves:

1) I need to buy some gloves. It will be cold in Sinkiang (Xinjiang).

2) I need to post some gifts back to the UK.

3) Cash. Credit and debit card cash machines are difficult to find where I’m going, so I must plan on taking enough money to last me through to Chengdu.

I ask for directions at reception to the post office, and am told it is one block up. This turns out to be a lie. I walk four blocks as the rain starts to pour down. I find the post office near Soochow Creek, nowhere near where I’d been directed to.

The building is worth the effort: huge and European in style, it has a sweeping double staircase, all carved with great care in the finest stone. Upstairs I find a tranquil scene – perhaps 120 kiosks, but only 4 open for business. A very helpful chap wraps my gifts in brown paper and string with great nimbleness… and at absolutely no cost!

Just when I think everything is going swimmingly, I hit Chinese bureaucracy. I am presented with four forms:

1) Customs

2) Delivery

3) More customs

4) A fourth form in French… and my French is very fourth form.

I spend a happy ten minutes declaring all sorts of things, and assuring the Chinese government I’m not exporting priceless antiquities, then queue up at the kiosks. (My written assurances weren’t good enough it seems, and the package arrived in the UK some weeks later having been thoroughly searched.)

We English pride ourselves on our queuing, our ability to wait our turn in an orderly manner and not complain. Hmmmh…

An important lesson learnt – kindness and manners have little currency in a Chinese post office. After I’ve been rudely usurped three times, I see my chance and dive in elbows out, putting my height advantage to good use. The package is snatched away from me by the member of staff, weighed, stamped, stamped again and dispatched. I am almost dragged out of the way by the next customer.

Gloves are not fashionable in China as far as I can see. I trawl the department stores of the Nanjing Road, but all I hear from the shop assistants is ‘No got’. In the process I am offered some smashing gloves ‘for lady’, fingerless driving gloves with chequered pattern, and my favourite – a pair of boxing gloves! Imagine crossing the deserts of China wearing a pair of those beauties.

I finally manage to pick up a pair of North Face gloves from a street stall. Closer examination of the general build quality leads me to think these are more South Face than North Face, but hey, they work. I also pick up a small SW radio to listen to the BBC World Service. I stock up with a huge wad of money from an ATM, and return to the hotel to pack. I feel weighed down with food and water, but I’m not sure what to expect on this colossal train journey. Rather take too much than too little, I decide. I shower then stash the cash in my boots.

I check out from the eccentric Peace Hotel, then take a cab across town to the railway station. We drive on elevated roads for most of the journey through Shanghai. It is still raining hard. Cold English rain. The neon reflects in puddles. The cab stinks of cheap, harsh tobacco, and a small flat screen in the headrest blasts out adverts in a language I don’t understand. On either side the skyscrapers loom and I feel like I’m in the film ‘Blade Runner’. This is the future. This will be one of the most important cities of the 21st century. A sudden pang of nervousness at the thought of where I am, what I am doing and where I’m going.

What a station – vast and busy. I walk into the ‘Hard Class’ waiting area, where thousands of people sit on the floor beside their carefully tied luggage. I show my ticket to the inspector and he laughs, and hurries me through a locked door and steers me into the very plush ‘Soft Class’ waiting area with chrome and leather seats, a café,the promise of a wash room and even drinking water. My bags are scanned, and the bleeper goes wild at my Faraday Bag (see retro blog 1). Nobody is bothered. I see that they have no interest in the result of the scan; they just happy enough to see that you’ve been through the process. Chinese bureaucracy is a strange animal.

My train number appears reassuringly in red on the smart electronic board, but it’s not boarding yet. I’ve still an hour to wait. I tuck into Evelyn Waugh and relax a little.

Shot into Shanghai at 420KPH aboard the MAGLEV train, I am to leave on the less glamourous T52 to Urumqi… and in the pouring rain.

Operation Storm City research trip to Asia. Retro-blog 3: Shanghai

Day 3

Walking towards the old Chinese city in the foggy early morning, I have to dodge an aggressive shoe shine bloke who squirts, from quite some distance, polish from a tube at my boots. His accuracy is unerring. I am forced to dance away with nifty footwork; His face turns from a picture of eagerness to one of bewilderment and terrible hurt.I wouldn’t mind, but my Timberlands are made of a curious oiled leather, and my fear is that his product may very well be incompatible. I’ve made it my strict policy to avoid this crossroads from now on. My dancing isn’t good enough.

I stroll down the famous Nanjing road, changed beyond recognition from the postcards I have from the 1920s; It is now a huge pedestrianised shopping street with music blaring out to entice shoppers in. You could be almost anywhere in the western world. I march on, intent on locating the low mound of the original city wall which had once circled old Shanghai. You have to look hard for this. It is more easily seen on a map, indelibly marked in the layout of the roads which curve around it. This phase of Shanghai’s history is not celebrated in quite the way it would be in England, say, where you’d be charged heavily for the privilege of going anywhere near it.

OI reach the Central Fangbang Road. This is a tourist trap, and I seem to be the only tourist there. Hawkers and trinket salesmen shout at me, and it becomes tough going very quickly. There are some fantastic shops selling wonderful antiques, precious stones, silks, bicycles, furniture, lanterns, watches, shoes… everything a tourist could want. But when you’re the only likely customer, you have to be quick to avoid the mantra offers of ‘Marlboro? Rolex?’

Back at the hotel, I’m happy to see my train ticket has arrived. It will take me all the way from Shanghai in the east, to Urumqi in the far, far west. A two day journey across the heart of China. The train leaves tomorrow at 20.38, so I have another full day in Shanghai.

After a lunch of beer and dumplings, I set off for the old French Concession district of the city. The arrival of the train tickets makes me think I should buy supplies for the journey. I find a supermarket and see this as an excellent opportunity to buy a selection of useful and sustaining items… and some less sustaining ones like crisps and biscuits. Laden down with these goodies rather hampers my plans for the rest of the afternoon, but top tip – walking about with three shopping bags makes you look like a local. I don’t get heckled once!

The city, hotel and even the water has a wonderful Chinese pungency as I stroll. The streets are particular for their complex aromas – tobacco, the porcine wafts of cooking food, the river…

The Peace Hotel continues to fascinate. I discover the stairs, and this opens up a whole hidden world so far bypassed by the use of the elevators. An odd tableau on the 4th floor: I find a full-sized grand piano on a small, neglected landing. When was it ever played? When was it last played, and to whom? How did it get there? The answers remain elusive.

I find another set of stairs leading down to a defunct lobby with revolving doors. These doors are locked shut with padlock and chain, but the decoration is original even down to the light fittings, and the marble decoration quite fabulous. This place was built to impress a generation long dead and buried. A man outside (who looks a little like an Asian Charles Bronson) taps on the glass and mouths the words ‘Marlboro? Rolex?’

Later, in the restaurant, the menu offers such delights as: sautéed river eel, steamed turtle, braised crocodile paw (or tail), braised fish lip with three treasures (what treasures are these, I wonder? Perhaps items foraged off a sunken pirate ship? Pieces of eight, maybe? Spanish doubloons?), and any number of shark dishes.

My wanderings around the hotel lead me to the roof. There is a bar up here, but the difficulties of navigation has foxed most of the potential customers. A tiny speaker plays bland international hotel piano music, while underfoot there there is false green grass matting for reasons hard to fathom. It is undeniably atmospheric up here (despite the music), with a view of the river even better than that seen from the restaurant.

Barges move slowly downstream, their ghostly shapes picked out by their navigation lights.Although the Bund and the Pudong district on the opposite bank are over-lit with neon, downstream it is dark. Maybe I’m still thinking about crocodile paws, but the overloaded boats do look like crocs’ heads as they prowl along. The river is somber, ominous even, and somehow very dangerous. The boats slip away into the gloom seemingly without a sound in the noisy city.

Back in the Jazz bar (see retro-blog 2) I wonder why, if the band have been playing since Jazz began, do they still need the music? Especially the drummer?

Steam-powered car graphic

Last week I drew a cutaway graphic of a British steam-powered car, dubbed ‘The Fastest Kettle in the World”. This is the sort of thing I do for the Mail on Sunday newspaper when I’m not writing books!

Click HERE to see it (and scroll down a bit).