July 2nd and 3rd
As the train chugs into Gansu Province, the landscape changes. Green gives way to brown. Gansu in Chinese means “dry,” and the province is doing well to stick to that name. For hours together I watch an endless panorama of nothingness pass through. These are not the sandy desert dunes that romantics swoon over. This was just harsh desert. Scrubby. Cratered. An open invitation for outsiders to dare test its uninviting vistas. It reminded me of the Arizona desert – and as I sat at the window, going through my Chinese phrase book, dreary was the only word I could use to describe the world passing by.
Jorg and Birdy though have found other interests. Jorg pulls out a board game called Halima, and one of the Kazakh women immediately joins in. Two others from the next compartment talk to me. Saleema is also from the same group – at 28, she tells me that she has a 5-year old son and is astonished to find out that I am a little older than her. She teaches Chinese in a school in Ili, and tells me that this is the first time ever she has been on a train. “So, how is it?” I ask, thinking to myself that I don’t remember the first time I was on a train. “It’s good, but a little long,” she laughs. Her son misses her, and she too is waiting to go back home. “When you come to Ili, stay with us,” she urges. “It’s just me, my husband and son at home.” I don’t know if we are going to Ili, but I nod all the same. Then there is Ayi, who says that she has forgotten all the English she has learned. Conversation is a bit difficult – my Chinese is in its infancy, and complicated questions of life are a bit hard to understand or answer. Phone numbers are exchanged, as are QQ numbers as the train nears Xinjiang. Time has flown on this train. Already, we are in Hami – a city so famous for its melons, that the melon is named after the city. And indeed, as the train draws into the station, vendors are already stationed at the platform, ready to sell the melons that gave the city its name. Or did I say it the other way around? Unlike Indian rail platforms, Chinese platforms are usually deserted. The rare ones usually have one or two vendors selling instant noodles, bread or in this rare instance melons. Of course, at inflated prices. In that sense, I miss the chaos of Indian rail platforms. From chai to perhaps even Blackberry mobile phones, there is nothing you can’t buy. Jorg and I step down from the train at Hami, and immediately the 11AM heat assaults us. “Wooow,” we shout, I instinctively cover my face, and Jorg, German sun-worshiper that he is, spreads his arms out inviting the heat. I laugh, and we do some lunges and stretches on the platform. The Chinese take a glance at us, and dismiss us as “crazy” probably. Just a few hours to go…and Turpan beckons. All too soon, we bid goodbye to the Kazakh women with promises to meet. But promises made on travel, we all know, many times are just a fool’s word in a world that moves too fast to meet again.
We arrive in Turpan, which is not the 40 degrees centigrade bubbling cauldron that I thought it would be. Instead, it is pleasant. There are dark clouds on the horizon. And the temperature is bearable. Very. Surely, this cannot be the place known as the hottest place in China? K452 has traveled 2883 kilometers in the past 45 hours. And so have we. A driver whisks us to the city from Daheyan, a town further away from Turpan. There are 2 other foreigners already in the car – from Germany – and Jorg immediately warms to them. Not that he warms only to Germans. He is the sort who can warm to an angry marauding elephant in the African jungle. The two girls are teaching English in Gansu as part of a gap year. Around me, I can already see why Xinjiang is so precious. Oil rigs are drilling deep into its heart. This Province holds 40% of China’s oil reserves. And perhaps more than 40% of China’s most restive people.
It takes a while to find a hotel that has a 3-bed room, and which is within our budget. But eventually, we do. Right in front of the Turpan bazaar. It’s a different China I am seeing now. Although Beijing has encouraged the movement of Han Chinese to these areas, creating the sort of marginalization that the Uyghurs complain about, one can immediately sense a different culture. From the naan bread that is sold outside. “Stone,” Jorg and Birdy say in distaste. From the veiled women walking around. From the stares that seem almost threatening. From every corner, Xinjiang seems different. We walk hours to find a restaurant – what a change from Chengdu, that gastronomic city with a restaurant in your bedroom almost! And it’s here that I meet the first of what I can only describe as Xinjiang Sullenness. The restaurants here seem even more hole-in-the-wall than Chinese restaurants. We enter, ask if they have anything vegetarian for us to eat, and we are told bluntly, “No.” Not a smile. Not even a glance at you. You might think I am mad – it’s China, what vegetarian? But everywhere else I have been, while vegetarian-only restaurants are gold, most restaurants are pretty willing to change their dishes and offer it to you without meat. Trudge trudge trudge. All 3 of us have not eaten that entire day. It’s 8PM, and it’s almost like it’s 4PM. Beijing’s insistence on one time zone for the entire country seems so ridiculous here in this furthermost province of China, closer to Russia than Beijing. Eventually, an unsmiling and rude woman agrees to make noodles without meat. We sit there, savor the plain, boiled noodles, with a little bit of cilantro floating on top. Little did we know that this would be the trend for the rest of the time in Xinjiang.