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?