The last entry in my Xinjiang series – nearly a month late! It’s been super busy; sorry to the three people who read this for the delays!
I am a person who often chooses to do things my way – no matter how ridiculous – rather than in the generally accepted or normal way. I can extrapolate this statement to a number of fields: cooking (especially my adherence to the school of Random Baking), work, and – most notably – geography. As such, when planning (to use the word loosely) my trip to Xinjiang, I saw a red slash across the map – a road directly from northwest Gansu province to Xining – and decided that, due to geographical proximity, this was a shortcut, a kind of express route that would shorten my return journey from Xinjiang to Qinghai. Instead of booking a train ticket from Urumqi to Lanzhou and then traveling an easy three hours back to Xining, I decided to make a stopover in Zhangye, Gansu, from where I would take a bus along that red slash on the map, that “express shortcut” back to Xining. I could avoid Lanzhou, travel through some beautiful scenery and shorten my trip by a good margin, all in one go.
And strangely, even with a longer-than-expected Zhangye stopover, I was right.
My train, the T54 from Urumqi to Shanghai, was not, as advertised, express. Though comparatively comfortable and luxurious, the train crept through the desert with apparent caution, as if trying not to wake a monster living among the nearby dunes. Passing through endless kilometers of barren moonscape reminded me of how far away from anything Xinjiang truly is, and made me think of the ancient caravans of the Silk Roads, plodding through vast, open plains of sand, gravel, and bare stone, weighed down by their cargo but rationing food and drink – and completely, utterly alone.
I certainly had enough time to consider the landscape as, unusually for a Chinese train, the T54 lost no time in becoming two-and-a-half hours late. I chatted with those nearby – a young Uighur woman nursing an infant, a Han mine manager, another Han business owner – about religion, education, politics; all the while, I watched an astounding amount of nothingness roll by. Then, I threw up.
“I’ll get the doctor,” said the train stewardess who had been talking with me. “You should go to the bathroom, lie down and eat some instant noodles.”
Nothing sounded worse to me at that moment than instant noodles. I had had nothing to eat, but had drunk a XiangPiaoPiao “milk” tea about thirty minutes earlier. I dizzily lumbered down the aisle to the toilet, where I rapidly voided my interior. I returned to my bunk semi-conscious to find a fuzzily-edged man standing nearby.
“And how are you doing?” he said in perfect English, with a clearly non-Chinese accent.
“Who are you?” I said.
“I am a medical student in Shanghai,” he said. “I am traveling back to school from my home in Pakistan.”
For the next hour, I was treated by the Pakistani doctor while those in nearby bunks gossiped about what could have caused my illness.
“It’s his drinking!” said a woman nearby. “He’s been drinking beer the entire trip!”
“That’s not true!” said a man I’d been talking to earlier. “I’ve been watching him since he got on. He had one beer just after we left – that’s nearly six hours ago!”
“It must be the XiangPiaoPiao,” said another man. “They call it ‘milk tea’ – fei hua! bullshit! There isn’t a trace of milk in that. It’s all chemical additives! No wonder he’s sick!”
“You’re all wrong,” said the train stewardess. “Foreigners’ bodies aren’t like ours. Who knows what the problem might be?”
With this, she managed to also offend the Pakistani doctor, who rapidly made his departure. And with that, I was left alone and quickly fell asleep.
The next morning, I arrived in Zhangye to discover that, due to the train being late, I had missed the morning bus to Xining by an hour. As such, I had to wait until midafternoon.
How was I to occupy myself in Zhangye for seven hours? What was there to do?
As it turns out, quite a lot. Zhangye is centrally located on the Hexi corridor, the narrow strip of irrigated farmland stretching between the Qilian and Mazong mountain ranges which, for thousands of years, has served as the main route west out of China, the central artery of the Silk Roads. This has left Zhangye with quite a lot of history, some of which is still visible amidst the modern cityscape. Over the course of my seven hours in Zhangye, I climbed to the top of a recently renovated pagoda, visited pleasant park with an unbelievably rockin’ erhu band, strolled through bustling food markets, snapped photos of a statue of Marco Polo – who, surprisingly, had stayed in Zhangye for nearly a year during his trip to China, meandered down nearby Oushi Jie 欧式街 (European-style Street), a street lined with architecture that could be loosely interpreted as Venetian in inspiration, and wandered through a vast temple complex, where I gawked at the largest reclining Buddha in Asia. By the time I returned to the station for my 3:00 “Business Express” bus to Xining, I had decided that Zhangye was actually a pretty cool place. But I had to get back, as there was a hotpot date in Xining that I simply couldn’t miss.
Surprisingly, the bus was “express” as advertised. And more. This was the fastest Chinese bus I’d ever had the privilege to take, crossing four major passes and covering more than 300 kilometers on narrow, winding two-laners in under four-and-a-half hours. The scenery was spectacular, and my fellow passengers – many of whom were on a tour group from Guangdong – were constantly lunging across my body and squeezing me against the window in order to get a perfect shot of a snowy peak, a grassy meadow, or some other such scenic view they might not have back home. Needless to say, my windpipe didn’t quite recover until I returned to Xining.
All in all, a successful trip to Xinjiang and back. Before the trip, I’d always thought that by visiting Xinjiang I could check it off my list of places to go. But now, I realize that one short trip has only sparked my sense of discovery. Three weeks later, I’m already paging through my semi-topographical atlas of the province, looking for excellently random places to begin my next adventure.
That’s it for Xinijiang at the moment – at least on this blog. More updates coming soon!