Last year I was overwhelmed. The taxation of school visits, riding, filming,
fundraising and an Earthquake was a lot to handle and it meant that the
documentary's commentary had suffered. With time now available, I was journeying
to Beijing to secure Pakistan and Indian visas and buy the equipment I needed to
complete last year?€?s filming and discuss the journey ahead. It was also
important to do this now while memories were still intact and not affected by
any further riding.
Xinjiang by Rail
It was 9th September. Kashgar?€?s crowded train platform waddled forward for
the first stage of our journey to Urumqi in Northern Xinjiang. China?€?s largest
province doesn?€?t have many rail hubs and for all connections out, Xinjiang?€?s
capital was the only source.
My train ticket cost only 78 RMB (??5) for the delight of a thirty hour
journey on a bench that promised to be an adventure in its own right. Long
sojourns don?€?t play well with the body but then the best experiences are often
on the cheapest and most uncomfortable journeys.
For the next hour the mob of expectant passengers sat, taunting irate floor
sweepers with mountains of chewed sunflower husks spat on the ground. Although I
arrived 45 minutes early, I was still stood at the back of long queue that wound
its way around the front of the station. Usually boarding a Chinese train is a
bit like boarding a bus; i.e. a mass riot and I have to wonder if it was only
because the crowd was 99% Uighurs that resulted in this crowd control today.
The train was clean and I settled down to the usual barrage of inane
questions such as sex, height, marriage status and children. These of course
contrasted strongly with my questions on the political status of Uighurs in
Xinjiang and the exploitation of local society, which funnily enough resulted in
a rather muted response.
As the hours rolled by I was press ganged into singing local songs on the
guitar, drinking free alcohol and being dragged the entire length of the train
to eat free meals of laghman. That was until hell, (otherwise known as night),
arrived. I was sat squashed between a fidgety old woman and a young mother with
a bawling baby. The giant man-cum-bear on the seat behind snored louder than the
train engine and all I could do was just sit, eyed glued open, praying for
morning. At 3am I tried concentrating on learning Uighur to tire my mind and it
worked… that was until 6am when everybody else miraculously woke up at the same
time and every double window on the carriage blasted open.
Girl Soldiers of the Train
Twelve hours from Urumqi and the train left the desert world and ascended
into the sub-alpine meadows of the Tian Shan ranges. Odd Spartan households,
speckled green clad hills and shepherds with their flocks lazed idly below.
Each hour our carriage was swept clean by its own Chinese girl
super-attendant, irate to varying degrees depending on occupants and general DNA
makeup. Nobody was allowed near an open door except perhaps in a train station
and if anyone (Uighur especially) parked themselves near one they got literally
screamed at until they moved.
Thus on a Chinese train (in Xinjiang) make sure you do none of the
a). Feel the need for fresh air from a window on a sleepless night b). Allow
any foot or body part to stray into an isle or c). Never ever, ever lose your
One unfortunate soul on our trip was unfortunate to fall into category C and
was promptly thrown off the train. Bizarrely his ticket had been checked by the
same conductor several times previously but he broke a rule and suffered the
Which Chinese City?
Urumqi was about as memorable as every other city in China; cranes rising
above the cityscape like weeds, explosive growth, mass humanity, a metropolis of
skyscrapers, business and wealth. Perhaps a nice place to work, but not a
Buses were only one Yuan anywhere and the only notable thing I did whilst
there, was visit a hip ex-pat bar called ?€?Fubar?€? on Urumqi?€?s
Great Journeys used to be measured in years rather than days and whilst the
trip to Beijing was hardly comparable it was indeed spectacular. A ripped
terrain of rugged rocks and gravel dunes were the only features in an otherwise
desolate waste as the train sped East. It wasn?€?t difficult to imagine the
complications of past travellers in negotiating the Gobi desert and the sight
was a sure remainder of the challenges ahead.
Fifteen hundred years ago, it took Huang Xsang four years to cross China on
his famous ?€?Journey to the West.?€? Today that same journey took two days and
the only difference between the end of our journey and the beginning was a name.
Once again crane towers dominated the horizon, large motorways roared beneath us
and humanity spewed forth from every nook and concrete crevasse. This was
Bureaucracy in Beijing
Beijing was a confusing blend of fancy cars, embassies, massive construction
projects and endless, endless streams of bicycles. As one German I met put it,
‘Beijing the stately city’ and indeed it isn?€?t as fast as you?€?d expect.
Bicycles are slow, the people move slowly and even the traffic seems in no
With the arrival of the Olympics in 2008, half of Beijing appears walled away
and the sound of sledge hammers and drills fills most street corners. Yet
boarding a bus is anything but sedate. At every five minute stop, people surge
onto the vehicle like it was the escape from hell, elbowing each other out of
the way to make room. I quickly learnt to find the right bus routes to minimize
this charade of ?€?convenient?€? travel as much as possible.
My first job in the capital was to obtain a visa for Pakistan and the
Pakistani embassy was one of the most lax I?€?d ever visited. People were
allowed in with their mobile phone and everyone seemed very laid back.
Interviews for visa applications are normal and on my turn the consol asked me
“How is India different to Pakistan?” Jaw drop! “Both are very different, but
I?€?d say Pakistan is more relaxed than India,” I replied. The Consol continued,
“Well, I?€?d say Pakistani?€?s were more emotional and sentimental than the
Indians.” Without anything else to add I just nodded and he awarded me a thirty
day visa which I collected the following Monday.
Impressions of Beijing
I spent a week in Beijing chasing up odd jobs, buying what I needed and
enjoyed the ease of travel around the capital. The Metro was excellent and only
cost a flat fee of 3 Yuan (20p) to travel anywhere. Accommodation was also
reasonable and the food always good. There were some odd habits to get used to
though - especially in Internet caf??s. Beijing?€?s internet bars provide a
number of different companions for the average web-surfer. These include:
1). Hawking, spitting half-naked man who may spend up to several hours
coughing up huge wads of flem and letting them slip slowly onto the floor to
then casually rub in the mess with his foot. 2). Karaoke champions who enjoy
bursting into full song in the most out-of-tune voices known to man. This goes
for all karaoke bars in general. 3). Porn surfers - who, without a care in the
world, merrily whittle away the time openly investigating the world of hardcore
Bogus Tea Connoisseurs
On the 18th September I met up with a friend I hadn?€?t seen in over 3.5
years. It?€?s always great to catch up and seeing Roy was awesome. We both had
numerous things to do but it was on Wan-fu-jing, (Beijing?€?s upmarket shopping
district) that we both fell foul of two bogus tea students.
I don?€?t even remember their names, but the two girls that greeted us on
Wanfujing just wanted to practice their English. This is completely standard all
over Asia, so what was the harm in one cup of tea?
Any self-respecting restaurant offers tea for free and so the most I expected
to pay was 10 Yuan for one at the ?€?tea house.?€? Yet at ours the price was a
minimum 40 Yuan (??3 for water and leaves). Our companions were suspect when
each one ordered ?€?West Lemonblade?€? tea at 80 Yuan a cup and an assorted
plate of fruits for 180 Yuan. Jaw Drop! An average meal in China costs only
10-20 Yuan and this was all a farce. When the 480 Yuan bill came several hours
later, “it?€?s a Chinese custom for the man to pay for the woman, or else the
woman loses respect,” echoed across the table. Well we didn?€?t and after paying
for our own teas, plus a bit extra, we left the girls to pick up the fruit
we?€?d never even realised was meant for us. I have little doubt that both
fiends were in allegiance with the “teas from the farthest corners of Asia
transported by buffalo” tea house and we were having none of it.
Wan Li Changcheng
The Great Wall of China has to be one of the greatest achievements of mankind
and only in a country like China could such a huge engineering challenge be
realized. I?€?d wanted to visit the start of the Great Wall ever since reading
about Robin Hanbury Tenison?€?s horse ride along it. It personally seemed
fitting to stand at the beginning of China?€?s most famous monument and then
spend three months teaching at the end of it.
We were visiting Shan-hai-guan fort, built during the Ming Dynasty in 1381 to
guard the Eastern most extent of China?€?s defenses and China’s Northern most
entrance until the late 17th Century. The fort is now more of a city but a lot
of character still remains. The Great Wall forms the city?€?s Eastern boundary
and many of the interior fortifications and gates still straddle the streets. In
spite all the postcards and TV footage, I still found it awe-inspiring to see
the wall march from the sea and snake from hill to hollow over the mountains
that rose ahead.
During the time of the warring states in the fifth Century BC, many of the
towns of Northern China and their trade routes were walled against attack. As
each warring state defended their territory, it seemed only natural that when
one conquered the country, they would apply the same principle. For the next two
thousand years the wall was rebuilt and extended and many of the sections
remaining today, date from the Ming Dynasty (14th-16th Century AD). However,
despite its incredible cost, the wall was always more of a deterrent than a
successful line of defense, failing to withhold the Mongol hordes, the Manchu
armies and later the Japanese.
As we eventually stood on Lou Long Tao (built 1579 AD), where the wall meets
the ocean, new waves of tourist hordes removed the whole significance of the
‘Old Dragon?€?s Head’ erupting from the ocean. But I was still happy to have
seen it. From end to end, the wall extends 6000kms from the East coast through
to the fort of Jiayuguan where China ceases and the barbarian wastes begin.
It?€?s a symbol of unity for the Chinese nation and today as a handy souvenir
snap for the tourist.
Out of China
Collecting my Indian Visa passed without incident and I boarded the train
across China. The journey was over as soon as it began and we were soon chuffing
into Urumqi station. Since there were no trains running to Kashgar I took the
first sleeper bus and arrived in town 24 hours later on the 29th September.
More than anything else I felt glad to be back in Xinjiang after almost two
weeks away. I relished being able to eat Laghman amongst the company of
?€?barbarians of the west?€? and hearing another language. There?€?s something
about the wild, raucous nature of the people of Xinjiang (Uighurs) that appeals
to me the most.
I only remained in Kashgar long enough to secure Pakistani Rupees and a ride
to Taxkorgan near the Pakistan border. The night was alit with a million stars
as we shot across an icy plain hedged by snowy peaks. It was cold. The road had
recently been tarmaced and we reached Taxkorgan is under five hours.
The hotel manager was a little disgruntled when he checked in our carload
that night and I spent the night in a cold dorm with two snoring locals. The
morning was the usual shambles that borders inevitably bring. After X-raying my
bags and checking if I had SARS, I sat like a fool with the other foreigners for
a further 3 hours while customs decided which bus we should take and how to load
our bags. To top that, two scruffy fellows doing the loaded demanded payment for
their ten second work. As one local Pakistani aptly put it, “give them money and
they?€?ll load anything… a plane or perhaps an atomic bomb!”