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Across China by Train (John Rhodes) PDF Printable Version E-mail



John Rhodes   (New Zealand)

John and NZ11_(109)_Goodbye_to_John_and_Ann.JPGAnn Rhodes of Greytown in the south of New Zealand's North NZ11_(101)_In_Anns_Paddock.JPGIsland, rode their tandem Apollo over the Karakoram Highway from northern Pakistan to China, accompanied by fellow-New Zealanders, Dave Turnbull and Chris Peterson. Here, John describes the continuation of that journey - crossing China to Beijing by train.

Both now enjoying retirement, John and Ann regularly take time out from their smallholding to sample the pains and joys of cycling and walking in the more challenging parts of the world. And that includes the mountains and gorges of their native New Zealand, where John edits a magazine for walkers (or 'trampers' as the Kiwis call them).

In the photograph, Margaret (centre) says farewell to Ann and John in their home town. Ann is seen in the more peaceful setting of her own home, feeding her small flock of ewes and lambs.

In the night, on the train to Urumqi, I woke up.

The train was going fast on straight level track and the oasis of Kashgar was far behind. Outside were stars, quite stationary in the square of the window. That was as it should be, but the stars not moving beside the speeding train made an illusion of vastness as though the immensity above was mirrored by another immensity below. It was then, on that train in the middle of the night, that I had the feeling I was in Central Asia.

In the morning the track was still straight and level on a plain of grey scrubby desert. We opened the door of our compartment and saw on the left that the plain sloped down like an apron from the Tien Shan mountains, which were bare and brown and close and rose straight up without foothills. We passed sterile concrete factories with pipes and tanks and satellite dishes and trucks parked outside. Mainly, however, we saw the brown Tien Shan and its plain; for even a thousand million Chinese make little mark on country like this.

In oases of irrigation the poplars were turning yellow. Smoke came from flat-roofed houses and people were about early with carts and bicycles. These were places where you could live, in a dusty sort of a way.

Then we came to a city with more factories and tower blocks and freeways and a river coming, incredibly, out of the dry Tien Shan. We looked at our map and worked out that we left Kashgar fourteen hours ago, so this must be Korla.

After Korla the train turned north towards the mountains and went through grimy villages with piles of coal at the roadside, vegetable gardens, derelict trucks and pink railway stations. We climbed, and the trees raised bare branches into the sky beside frozen streams, for here winter had already come. We sat in the warm train eating almonds and pistachio nuts from the Kashgar market.

To gain height the train went into a spiral tunnel and came out again fifty metres up the valley side, and kept climbing till our altimeter said nearly 3000 metres. Then we came down the north side of the Tien Shan losing height in great sweeps and curves where we could look along sixteen cars to the shiny locomotive, and we were in a broad sandy valley.

Travelling soft sleeper in China is like sitting in your living room with the country gliding endlessly by on a king-size TV screen; or like riding in a slow, low-flying Boeing - but with more comfort and space, and with that icon of Chinese civilisation, a kai shui flask, in every compartment, and a hot water boiler at the end of the car. The gauge is wide and the ride smooth; and it is an absolute fetish to run on time within the minute. Wherever the train stopped (which was rarely) each station had its complement of uniformed officials standing about with nothing to do. I was reminded of the old NZ Railways, cultivating the now forgotten art of keeping ordinary people in jobs.

Urumqi, as seen from the fourteenth floor of our hotel in the early half light, was dismal. People muffled against cold walked to work through the gloom, treading the snow into grey slippery ice. It was all bleak warehouses and factories and chimneys and railway sidings and dreary streets, as colourless as an etching of Dickens' London. We opened the double-glazed windows, gasping at the chill, and braced our cameras against the frame to make monochrome photos of cheerless Urumqi below the snow-covered hills.

Sharp at 12.30 pm the train departed for Beijing. We had a hard sleeper compartment with six bunks and no door, and the next compartment was full of Uyghur men playing cards and eating sunflower seeds. Kaiser, 30, taught pharmacy at the University of Urumqi and was on his way to Beijing to sit examinations so he could apply for a postgraduate scholarship to the U.S.A. He had brought his own food for the journey, because a Moslem must not eat the Han food on the train. Kaiser became our interpreter, and told us about Uyghur culture, and asked "Do the camels in New Zealand have one mound or two?"

Another English speaker from along the car was Jimmy, an army electronics technician in civvies. He borrowed my Lonely Planet Beijing guide, and on returning it was anxious to correct its warning about the xenophobic PSB (police). "This is not true" he said sternly. He took our photo on his digital camera and promised to e-mail it.

Tilahan, an Uyghur woman, was travelling with a relative's three year old grand-daughter, who endured the long journey with good grace. We gave her a balloon, and it survived. Tilahan undid her own beautiful black hair, which fell to her waist; and she and Ann took off their shoes to compare Uyghur and New Zealand feet.

The train was running to a newly-revised timetable that had it arriving in the capital in 48 hours by keeping stops short and few and by changing locomotives, like horses, instead of refuelling. We flashed through stations where uniformed officials stood at attention on little podiums with red and green flags, orchestrating our progress in some mysterious but essential way without which we could have no hope of reaching Beijing. The staff passed around a questionnaire, which Kaiser translated. It sought ratings on hot water (excellent), cold water (OK), cleanliness (very good), sound system (mostly endurable), and - we wondered about this – discipline (not sure).

We travelled all afternoon through desert. Red desert, brown desert, grey desert and yellow desert. Desert with forlorn scrubby bushes and desert with not a living thing. Desert with little oases where the last of the corn and cotton was being brought in, and bare desert sloping from hazy mountains. Bouldery desert, sandy desert, and especially stony desert. Alluvial desert and desert on deep-weathered bedrock. Desert rilled by floodwaters. Desert with nodding oil wells and rows of tanker wagons on sidings and stacks of rail. Desert with vehicle tracks leading off to nowhere. Desert with tents for track gangs, desert with earthmoving machines.

But mainly, desert with nothing; for it is beyond even China to civilise such a desert as this.

On the curves we saw the all-powerful locomotive at the head of our speeding blue and white train. Since we crossed intro China from Pakistan I had been imagining Tamerlane, but that was no longer necessary. In imagination and with the invincible smooth power of the engine I was Tamerlane, tearing furiously over the desert with my armies and horses and swords, and helped just a little perhaps by the stirring music on the PA.

The sun went down, and the reds and oranges and yellows outside became richer and then faded. After dark I strapped my passport and travellers' cheques around me and went with Ann to the restaurant car, as pleased and satisfied with my desert-watching as a sailor who has looked for hours on end at the colour and texture and light on the ocean, and has remembered it all.

An immense red sun swelled at the horizon. We were out of the desert, and the land was cultivated. Low ranges converged from north and south, squeezing road and rail into a defile which our guidebook said was the Gansu Corridor. Then we turned south to Lanzhou. This must be Rewi Alley's stamping-ground, we thought; and whenever we saw a cluster of buildings, which was often, we wondered if it was his school.

In late morning we came into Hunan Province, which had large-leaved paulownias and umbrella-leaved rhus and other trees we could not name. The house roofs sloped and had tiles. People tended carrot and potato crops beside the rail track, and harvested cauliflowers and cotton and corn. We marvelled at the tireless industry of these vegetable growers with hoes and shovels and hand ploughs and carts, not pausing to look up as the train swept past. The leaves were gone from the persimmon trees, and their fruit hung from the branches like orange lanterns. People on ladders picked them into baskets. When the train stopped for six minutes or longer we were allowed off (was that what “discipline” meant?), and persimmons were for sale on the platform along with Coke and Fanta and Sprite.

How can one describe rural China in a few paragraphs, except to say there is a very great deal of it? With the start of our second 24 hours on the train we became a little jaded and wilted, like the rows of late summer cabbages beside the track. We were looking forward to Beijing.