Silk Road Adventures: The Train to Nowhere

Not long ago, I came to the realization that I’ve been living in China for more than half the time I spent at Kenyon. Besides the general existential terror of that statement (death is coming for us all and such), I’ve realized I need to step up my adventure game in order to keep justifying this escapist life I’m living.

So in advance of the National Day Holiday, I booked myself some train tickets going as far west as you can go without hitting Tajikistan, namely Ürümqi and Kashgar.

I’ve prepared an educational map for your perusal:

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Excited about the whole idea of going on a rugged adventure, I booked myself a few beds in various hostels along the way, downloaded all of Jessica Jones and House of Cards, and boarded a train to the literal middle of nowhere. What follows is a (somewhat edited for readability) collection of notes I jotted down along the way.

Day 1: 

11:30am: Lao Tzu once said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Pithy, but until he tries getting to Beijing South Railway Station on the busiest travel day of the year, he can shut right the f@#k up.

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3:30: Finally on the train. Hurray! Got myself a nice soft sleeper ticket, meaning that I’m in the middle bunk of a 6-person prison-cell-sized cabin, but there’s AC and pillows and stuff. Just realized I forgot my headphones for the 40-hour train ride. Snaps to me.

4:00: There’s a bunch of kids playing on an iPad in the bottom bunk. Most irritating sound effect I’ve ever heard from a game, like if Navi from Ocarina of Time had a coke problem. Maybe they’ll get bored and stop.

6:34: ……..nope

7:41: how the hell did I forget headphones? reading is cool, but come on.

8:00: now one of the kids is just punching the same number in an old brick phone over and over. I’m imagining punching him over and over.

Day 2:

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6:30am: Feeling considerably more *into* it. Not sure exactly where we are as my phone is dead, but the landscape is mostly flat – I saw some desert about half an hour ago and now it’s mostly grassy fields dotted with the occasional buildings and trees. Definitely not beautiful by any standard, but has that wide open space feeling you have to go way far out to see consistently.

 

7:20: It boggles the mind how many cities of 2, 3, 4+ million people we’ve gone through and will continue to go through that I’ve never heard of and will probably never visit.

12:40: We are now officially in the middle of nowhere, albeit very cool-looking nowhere. The generic vaguely Chinese landscape has given way to straight up Montana-style rows of corn, rocks, old-west style huts, and snowcapped mountains in the distance. Considering we’ve still got 15 or so hours to go, I’m looking forward to seeing how much more nothing we can squeeze into this view.

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1:30: There’ s a little kid who is just having an absolute field day with me. Every few minutes he comes up and tries to type something on my computer; I gently push his hand away and he reverts to pulling the hair on my arms. His grandparents (not Uighur, but definitely from out west) seem to speak just enough Mandarin to understand my repeated and earnest requests to not get the zoo animal treatment, but are too amused by the whole thing to actually do anything.

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[for some reason, I’m reminded of this]

5:30pm: Have been stopped at the same station for several hours. Train attendants are asking everyone if they need to transfer at Ürümqi. This does not bode well. Hoping we’re just delayed.

8:04: moving right along again.

Day 3:

4:45am: Almost there, seemingly. Every sign I’m seeing has Arabic lettering (Uyghur, I guess) second and sometimes even first. Not seeing much English anywhere, but I’ll just be happy if the Chinese out here is understandable. Not like the PRC folks to put helpful native languages on their signs. I wonder how autonomous this autonomous region really is.

7:17am: Thanks to Beijing’s insistence that all of China be on A SINGLE GLORIOUS PEOPLE’S TIME ZONE, it is still pitch-black outside.

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8:52: finally pulling into the station. If I can successfully navigate from the train station to a hotel that honors my reservation and has a working shower, I’ll die a happy foreigner.

What I’ve learned so far:

  • The spirit of adventure is no substitute for headphones and portable chargers.
  • Not that they’ve taken great care of it, but China’s landscape – at least on this line of latitude – is surprisingly unvaried and inhospitable. Lot of scrub, desert-lite, and mini-mountains. America really won the terrain lottery. I know the south is somewhat greener, but still.
  • At my towering stature of 5’8″, I still didn’t exactly find my bunk to be comfortable.  Be warned, height-advantaged humans. 

Tomorrow: Part 2, Ürümqi Boogaloo (working title)

One Reply to “Silk Road Adventures: The Train to Nowhere”

  1. Not sure how I missed this post in October but loved reading your travel ‘diary’ — where are the next instalments please!?

    Take care and happy Christmas/holidays, wherever you may be (and love to your parents if with them).

    Keep writing! x

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