Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Super noodles and acupuncture needles

A 5am start got us to the train station in time to catch our train. Having done our train journey time / cost calculations we had elected to get the slower (and not as nice) L-type train (instead of a K-type). The L train was not only cheaper but it meant we didn't have to find a night's accommodation before the onward train to Kashgar. The train looked like it hadn't been cleaned since the 1980s but the sheets on the bed were clean and the toilets weren't too bad. A major advantage was that it was half empty. We initially shared our 6 berth compartment with a doctor who practiced traditional Chinese medicine. She was called Wei and spoke a little English, but at Lanzhou she got off and we had the compartment to ourselves. She gave us a single acupuncture needle as a present. Quite what she thought two unqualified westerners would do with it was not entirely clear.

The most exciting thing about this train journey was that, for the first time on our trip, we were finally heading West. For the previous 2 months we'd predominately been heading North or East but now we were heading in the direction of the UK, although we did have another 6 months of adventures left.

For a day the train trundled through lush vegetation but the following morning we woke up to arid plains with the snowy Qilang Mountains beyond. The train passed the far western sections of the Great Wall, crumbling sections made of rammed earth, and on, deep into Xinjiang Province and ethnic Uighur country. We were heading to Turpan (or the train station nearest to the city - a place called Tulufan). At the northern edge of the Taklimakan Desert, it is located in a depression 154m below sea level (the second lowest place in the world) and also the hottest place in China. It was hard to believe that in just over 10 days we had gone from crossing the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau, with views to Everest and plains grazed by thousands of yaks, to the lowest point in China where camels roamed through the desert. The distances we had covered were vast. First we had traveled 3360 km from Lhasa to Chengdu (which was in the wrong direction). We'd then had to retrace 1200 km of this journey, continuing a further 1683 km to Tulufan, where we would get the final 1445 km train overnight to Kashgar. The entire journey totaled 7688 km. To put this in perspective this is like going from London to Cairo only to find out that the bit of paperwork which was needed is actually unobtainable and then having to retrace your steps back to Sicily, Italy and then to travel on to Novosibirsk in Western Siberia, all overland and all in a single week. No wonder we were exhausted.

As it is only possible (as far as we could work out) to buy a train ticket from the station of departure we had not bought our onward ticket to Kashgar. We had heard that this train got very busy and we were worried that we'd be unable to get the next train. After a nervous wait whilst the staff had their obligatory 40 min tea break, James managed to buy some tickets. The good news was that we'd managed to get on the next train, the bad was that the only tickets available were the dreaded hard seat!

In the departure lounge we waited for the train. I noticed some attendants looking across at us. After some giggling one approached us and indicated that she wanted to see our ticket. Her brow furrowed on seeing the class in which we were traveling but unperturbed she said "VIP this way". We were shown to a large, empty lounge with comfy leather sofas and the cleanest toilets we'd seen since Heathrow - actually probably cleaner.

The train was packed as we gritted our teeth for the 24 hour hard seat journey to Kashgar. I did a double take, was that a westerner? They definitely had blond hair. No. We were now amongst the Uighurs of Western China, a people whose ethnicity reflected the fact that they inhabited the crossroads of Asia and lived along ancient trading routes such as the Silk Road. The road we had to take was West into Kyrgyzstan but there was one problem - we'd arrived in Kashgar on Friday afternoon with no time to get to the border, with Kyrgyz visas not beginning until Saturday, the border being closed at the weekend and our Chinese visas running out on Saturday - we were in a Catch 22 situation. Err...time for a beer...

Break time on a Chinese train

Tulufan VIP(?!) lounge


  1. cute. You're boots match! Hope you guys are having a great time. Nice background pic by the way!

  2. Yes we might be sad but so are you for spotting it!! Actually someone said to us the other day that they assumed we were sponsored climbers as we had so much kit that was the same. We are sticking to that story.