Posted by Evan on Saturday, 22 October 2005 at 2:23 pm
The train network in China is an amazing engineering and managerial feat. The fact that it covers almost all of the country makes travel in China efficient in a way that I’ve only seen in Europe before. With that said, however, finding a Chinese person who can actually read a timetable is pretty tough. After being told that my train to Urumqi would take 28 hours I was alarmed to find a Chinese person pulling me out of bed by my left arm at 2 am while yelling about me needing to get off. Thanks China International Travel Service (CITS ) for telling me I arrive at 9 am and then booking me on a train that arrives at 2:20 am!
Staggering out of the station I find the bus into town only to be told that I doesn’t depart until 3:30 am. Considering that I had nowhere else to be I settled down in a seat and went back to sleep. Bus departure times in China, however, are a complete farce. Instead of departing at a fixed time most wait until they are full. In this case that took till 6:30 am!
After arriving in town I soon met up with J and embarked on a trip into the desert. Dunhuang used to be an important oasis city along the Silk Road, and now serves as something of a tourist theme park. The picturesque lake surrounded by sand dunes is now ringed in with tourist operators who offer everything from camel riding to para-glider flights. After doing both, J and I climbed to the top of one of the largest dunes (over 1500 meters above sea level) and raced down.
The following day we took a bus out to see Mogau caves–supposedly one of the most amazing series of Buddhist cave grottos in the world. Unfortunately what would have been an interesting day spent exploring the intricate paintings in each cave was spoiled by an insistence that everyone must be part of an official tour group. Walking around in a pack of people being lectured to by someone who is clearly just reciting a prepared speech is hardly my cup of tea.
From Dunhuang we got a train north west to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province. Like Lhasa, in Tibet, Urumqi is now predominantly occupied by Han Chinese rather than the indigenous peoples. The city itself is a sprawling decentralised mess and hardly worth spending the night… so we didn’t. In the afternoon, after organising Jon’s flight to Hong Kong, we got a bus to Turpan–supposedly the hottest city in China.
Day one in Turpan was spent sitting about smoking hash and drinking beers late into the night. Day two, however, involved a small package tour of the surrounding sights. After a delightful visit to a historical Uygur town we visited an abandoned desert city and some more Buddhist grottos before heading back to the train for a trip out to Kashgar. On the way we met an Aussie girl, Jane, who spent the next few days with us.
Kashgar itself is a fascinating city and somewhere that I would like to have been able to spend more time. After a day spent exploring the city we hired a mini-bus to drive us out to the amazing Karakul lake–on the border with Tajikistan. It’s amazing how quickly the weather can change in this part of the world as we drove from the relative warmth of Kashgar to the ice and snow of the Karakul highway. By the time we arrived at the lake it was beginning to snow.
Being the largest province in China–comprising 16% of the landmass–Xinjiang province takes a long time to cover overland. After returning to Urumqi on a 29 hour sleeper bus J and I discovered that no ATMs in this province take international cards and that neither of us had any money. After a tense wait on Sunday morning for the bank to open we managed to get some money and sort out my 53 hour return ticket to Chengdu. Unfortunately all tickets were sold out for the next three days, so I was stuck in Urumqi. J’s flight left the following morning so we decided to have a couple of quiet drinks with two other Aussies whom we’d met earlier that day…
Check out the photo gallery.
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Thank you for the post - have you traveled this route, or near it? And have you ever read the Lost Heart of Asia, by Colin Thubron? He wriets about this area, and its rich history. If you haven’t, I recommend it highly.
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