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.
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.