Homeward Bound

On our last full day in Kashgar, Ariana and I bid fond farewell to Aziza and our truckmates, who were headed over the passes to Kyrgistan. After 22 intimate days on the truck, the parting is quite emotional, near tears.

The Crew

Graham, encyclopedic about anything you want to know, with a grain of salt; Tom, the serious intellect, winner of the final trip-trivia contest on the truck (I am number 2 in the run-off); wife Jane, always a motherly ear for comments and reflections. After Kyristan they were off to a Dragoman hike in Tibet where some other travelers were washed away by storming streams; Ariana, alternatingly reflective and bubbling, an infectious smile and forceful laugh; Marion, an absolute scream, quick to jab with sharp-pointed wit, perhaps still in search of a second husband; Susan, also encyclopedic, but about pop music, including both artists and their words;  Kelly, where lies beneath a Jersey-girl exterior an intrepid adventurer. Her offer of her brother as the second husband was a running joke on Aziza; Sandy, the traveling Silk Road encyclopedia from the Library of Congress; and the other Dennis, our driver, far from his Midlands home. His wife Jody, our substitute mother, was off somewhere diffusing the latest crisis.

Speaking of adventure, after breakfast with Ariana I began the Great-Ticket Challenge. Since our arrival I had been interrogating the obscurantist clerk at the hotel’s front desk about my train ticket back to Shanghai. Under the cryptic Chinese train-ticketing system, one has to apply for tickets on line, then pick them up at the station or have them sent to your hotel just before travel. And for a return ticket, the pick-up has to be at the point in space and time when you start back. Well, after asking daily for the message with my ticket , I discover that a package did arrive for me- but the desk did not check the guest list and so sent it back! Jeez!

After more online enquiries I learned I had to go to the train station to try to explain the situation and collect a ticket. That began badly when the taxi driver ripped me off by doubling the fare.


I arrive at the neolithic train station to join a mob of 100 or so ticket-seekers not even allowed into the building. I the Foreigner push to the front to show the security guy a note in Chinese obtained online from China Travel claiming that I have ‘lost’ my ticket. He quickly delivers me to the ‘Question Office’ where through a heavy grate I try to make my case with the Chinese message. After some dithering, the ‘Question Person’ calls in backup: Translator 1. After some back and forth going nowhere, they call in Translator 2, another woman who after some debate emerges from the Question Cage and leads me through the queue to an actual ticket wicket.

Another debate focusing on ‘Where is your ticket?’ 

It seems I had to produce my ticket to prove I had lost it…

‘I lost it’ I answer.

‘Yes but where is the second ticket?’

No idea where this comes from. Maybe the note. Maybe written Chinese is as vague as Japanese. Translator 2 leaves me in the charge of Ticket-wicket Girl. I have to barge in front of a whole line of desperate-looking Uighurs. The puzzle limps forward. Enter Translator 3, who runs through all the questions again, with the same answers. But we are getting somewhere: Ticket-wicket Girl is tying some stuff, scanning her screen.

Momentary back-step- my passport number does not register because she thinks I am an American. My passport straightens that out by itself. More back and forth behind the grate. Pink ticket-like slips of paper start to appear. Translator 3 gives me an OK sign…Things are looking up. An exchange of 100 Y notes and I have my ticket!

I recede apologetically through the still-desperate crowd. They probably understand this bureaucracy intuitively.

It turns out I do not have a copy of my original ticket, which has evaporated into Zen-space, but a new one. This means that on every train I have to speak to the conductor, show a new Chinese note, get a confirmation that I have indeed used up a replacement ticket, and then a refund from the station where I get off. Surprisingly, this works. I must say the train people were quite professionally helpful in dealing with this conundrum.

From then on, the return trip was somewhat anti-climactic. I spent the day doing last tours of the markets, picking up some treasure, like unique Uighur square hat, Mao caps for the boys at home, and frocks for the girls. At night Ariana and I were joined in John’s Cafe by a several new travellers, university students from Norway and Shanghai and a couple of guys planning meetings with some sort of activists, it seems. Ariana started a game of guessing the nation attached to the myriad flags hanging from the ceiling. That and some fine local beer ate up a most pleasant evening, a gentle breeze wafting over this other-worldly environment.

Train Day 1 : Kashgar to Turpan Station

Next morning, after sending Ariana off for a flight to Heidelberg, I am back in the very-basic but laid-back train station with a few hundred fellow travellers. Soon we are on our way in a cosy compartment: a pretty young girl, a dad with his obstreperous 3 year old boy, super nosy and noisy.


Unlike pretty well every Chinese on board I enjoy the scenery.

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After dark I resort to the musical episodes on my ipod to muffle the screams of my roomates and several new friends. Then I discover a gem: the dining car!


There is a picture menu so I order what looks like ‘beef and greens’ but turns out to be ‘fungi and greens’, with a bowl of rice. Delicious for 22 Y. Eventually the dining room blacked out, so I did too.

Train Day 2: Turpan Station

Awakening at my normal body-time, 6:20- it is still pitch black outside, except for a bright crescent moon and stars. As the sun slowly appears I see we are traveling through ragged mountains, sometimes following highway G314, sometimes not. Eventually the mountains give way to massive gravel plains. We are crossing the Taklamakan again.

Suddenly there are trees, and we are in Turpan Station, some 30 km from Turpan itself, before noon.



Here I must wait until 6 in evening until the train from Urumqi arrives to carry me to Shanghai. So I smartly look for a hotel for the afternoon At the first shabby place I meet a young Chinese couple, med students somewhere, who help me search. The second hotel is not authorized for foreigners, but we find a third marked with a big Olympic symbol, and I have a simple place- public bath- for 80 Y. Quite decent.



Happily, Turpan Station has lots of stuff- markets, restaurants, bars- for the over-laying travelers. The med students tell me food here can be good- or not. So I case a place on the street, and decide to risk its hot-pot, full of lettuce and bean sprouts and maybe pork.


The hot pot is delicious but as I finish up, the med students re-appear and tell me they are going elsewhere because they ate here and did not feel so good…


I apply the universal antidote: cold beer. It is very hot, fierce sun, high 20s at least. I am sitting in partial shade, in a cool breeze, overlooking the action on the main drag. I have more cold beer and a circular sesame bread from a street vendor. Perfect way to spend an idle afternoon!

Behind me the joint’s owner is quietly helping his 5-year old with her Chinese homework.


I am dozy. Suddenly, an emergency: a German guy has arrived by plane (!) from Urumqi- but his luggage has not. When he calls China Southern, a questionable airline, in English, the line goes dead. All the local forces turn to me for great wisdom: Denzo, Turpan Branch, is open for random guesswork. Not much else to offer.

The cafe owner tries to phone China Southern in Chinese. After some back and forth he begins a descending arc with his hands that ends up pointing at Turpan Station. I interpret this to mean the luggage will come by air from Urumqi and arrive at Turpan Station. Maybe he found this out. Maybe he is making it up. The German traveler heads to the Station. He returns. China Southern denies any knowledge of ‘so called ‘ luggage.

I return to my revery. The German traveller joins me.

After sleepy afternoon in the sun I am back at the station, and soon on my way East.


I am surprised to find my assigned train carriage more of a chicken coop than the expected compartment.


I guess the replacement ticket has dropped me a class or two. The thing is, we are in early October, the start of the Chinese New Year debacle, where all billion-2 Chinese have to go somewhere else. So I am lucky to have any ticket.

Six bunks separated by a narrow aisle. There are 11 of these units in the car, all apparently filled, people everywhere. As the last-arrival, I would get the ceiling-shelf- but a kind middle-aged guy offers me the middle one, just above his ill-matched wife. Mixed company: a guy who appears to keep reading the same page in a Chinese magazine for the next 2 days; a middle-aged woman, a younger guy possibly her son, and the now-divided couple. On a short reconnoitre I am pleased to find the dining car , a potential refuge. And a class-above compartment car where I will spend most of the next 40 hours by the aisle window watching the passing scenery and my fellow travelers.






Train Day 3:  Turpan Basin to Shanghai

We are leaving the Taklamakan behind, more or less following the superhighway, over varying terrain. Here and there we pass what looks like remnants of the ‘Great Wall’. In fact many of these are apparently the remains of local fiefdoms, even different empires.





The train is very busy with people traveling somewhere, probably home, for the October festivals. There are a lots of young kids, many  with just a mom, or even a dad.





At one of the myriad stops a young Uighur introduces himself in fluent English. He is taking his 12 year old sister to a Justin Bieber concert in Shanghai! 4,000km and 600bucks!


I am comforted that a Canadian is scamming the Chinese even more unscrupiously than they are scamming me.

The young Uighur, Eryan, is quite interesting, so we have many chats about Uighur culture and politics. It turns out he has run into trouble with a drunk-driving charge, subsequently being sent off for vocational training etc. I wonder now whether he was in fact a victim of the now infamous ‘re-education’ program that the Chinese have imposed on possibly millions of Uighurs, to tame supposed separatists.

Later he introduces me to a couple of fellow Uighurs, big tough looking fellows, maybe intent on some skullduggery in Shanghai. I contemplate providing them with some combustibles to be tossed on the Bieber stage…


I thrive in the dining room, first enjoying a fine fish, bass-like in a gentle sauce, 35 Y. Then over the next day and a half I experiment with the menu: some good rice soup; veggies, boiled egg and dumplings for breakfast (twice); a bunch of odd veggies and soup for lunch; beef bones and potatoes for supper. Unfortunately my Uighur companion and his sister cannot join me for these fine meals. I thought maybe they were too expensive on a Chinese budget; but no, the restaurant serves pork, so Muslims are not even allowed to enter. On board they have no alternative service.

Our train plods on, relentlessly, through the ever changing scenery. Essentially we are retracing our route on Aziza, the Dragoman truck, on rails instead of the highway, across the desert towards Gansu province.


Early fall, so colour is starting to appear in the trees and gorse.


Once again I pass the Rainbow Mountain range, but this time in different light, so  I can see where the name comes from.


Characteristically, lots of isolated mountains, this one decorated with a shrine.


Somewhere near Lanzhou we follow  the yellow river.


Late in our second night on this train we stop in Xi’an. I can see the great wall of the city, brightly lit for the holidays. I relive the fabulous summer night Kelly, Ariana and I spent riding the length of the walls on rented bikes, with delicate kites lofting overhead.

Train Day 4: The Last Stretch to Shanghai

On our final day we pass the deep gorges formed by a smaller river.


I got a glimpse of them in the dark on the train from Shanghai to Xi’an, three weeks earlier. In defiance of the enormously difficult terrain, life continues. Not visible here, but many of the isolated buttes were capped by crops of corn and wheat.


Obviosly there are times when a lot of water flows through here.


In spite of the risk, a town nestles on the floor of the gorge.


We follow another river, somewhere between Xi’an and Nanjing.


The countryside becomes more pastoral, dotted with peasant villages…


…soon transforming into heavy industry…


…and urban density.


Some suburban housing, not unlike what one would see in Japan.


As we approach Shanghai, the ubiquitous high rises.


And quite distinctly, a maze of canals large and small crisscrossing what seems to be land recovered from the massive Yangste delta.


Finally, around 4 in the afternoon, the centre of the great city itself.


At one of the earlier stops a young student introduces herself. She too wants to work on her English, so she can become a tour guide.She is a senior at Shanghai University, returning to school after a holiday at home in Zhangye in Gansu province. Towards the end of our journey I get her to help me secure the refund for this portion of the ‘lost’ ticket. Turns out to be easy because the train people are fluent in English. Another couple has the same problem so I follow them to the appropriate wicket in Shanghai station. All’s well that ends well.

Back in Shanghai, at the Manhattan Hotel again, I enjoy an upgraded room, with a sort of skylight instead of a real window. Refreshed, I am off to the nearby Bund for a magical evening with a few hundred thousand holidayers.






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