N886 to Kashgar
We rolled out of bed at the Cornfield Xinjiang etc. etc. hostel to find that the building’s pluming had backed up and our bathroom was full of a grey and reeking water. Crossing showers off the list, we packed our things and checked out. I still felt full from last night’s giant Uyghur feast, so we breakfasted lightly at the same divey restaurant around the corner from the hotel that we had visited the day before. Finally, Scott was able to have his Baotza, a meat stuffed steamed bun which for him had been a much romanticized, but unattained breakfast earlier on the trip.
We paused for a photo with the owners of the restaurant who had been hard at work, outside in the sun, chopping meat for kabobs. The younger one with the knife was enthusiastic. As you can see, his father still harbored some skepticism about these panama hatted foreigners.
Meanwhile in the taxi, in our attempt to communicate to the driver our wish to visit a super-market, we ended up at a giant fresh vegetable market, also sporting some 15 large cages filled with roosters. While enthralling, this was not exactly food we could take on the train. Our next attempt hit gold, though, and we were soon in the midst of the humongous Chinese shopping complex, with a huge market on the top floor, and Jetsons style moving walkways stretching diagonally from floor to floor. Our backpacks were, of course, to voluminous to put in the small locker provided there for shoppers. So, despite Mandarin protests from Scott’s end, one of us was forced to stay behind as the other shopped.
Scott volunteered to stay behind, as I had the greater experience in Asian groceries. And with a glance at my watch (10:35; our train left at 11:20) I dove into the fray. The selection was bewildering and the products nondescript. Many products simply showed healthy looking people on the front, with no hint at the contents. Sweating, and careening my cart around the calmly perusing Chinese, I threw things in with abandon. Stopping from time to time to remove some items, placing them in a haphazard stack on the nearest shelf.
In the end I checked out with:
2 tubs of instant noodles (darkish meat flavor)
1 package digestive biscuits (alpha brand with Xytol!)
2 cans of chinese stout (looking much like Beamish knock offs)
2 hunks of dried yak meat (good one, right?)
1 bottle of Nutri-Express (some kind of fruit/soymilk vitamin drink)
I paced in line, fumbled cash, and threw my pack on. We ran back down the Jetsons style inclined moving walkway. We got caught behind a woman struggling to hold her cart on the incline, and waited anxious and sweatily for the ride to end. Outside there was a fine cab driver waiting as if for us, and we thew our bags in the back. In no time we were running up the giant and quite endless stairs of the Urumqi train station and to our platform on the third floor. We had just found our cabin and thrown our stuff down when the train began to leave, first heading east towards Turpan (where the con artists had been arrested) then swinging around westward towards Kashgar.
Scott and I had the two bottom bunks of the 2nd class, or so called “hard sleeper,” the two top bunks were occupied by two pleasant, but un-talkative Chinese gentleman. One of these fellows did inform us that he was from Kashgar, and proceeded to spend a large amount of time scrutinizing our lonely planet phrase-book and muttering under his breath.
Chinese trains are nice. Unlike Indian trains, there are many many sleeping cars, and each is not too crowded. There is also a genuine dining car, with (I was quite astounded to learn) affordable prices. Every car has unlimited hot water, steaming forth from the rusty nozzle of a somewhat groady machine. I guess you could call it a samovar of types. And there was an unceasing flow of people using it to make primarily tea and instant noodles.
The desert raged by outside the window, looking quite a bit like mars, with the occasional oil drilling or refining site. As the ride continued, the landscape became more rocky and mountainous. After a few rounds of whist we headed to the dining car for a hot meal. While the scenery changed to something more like eastern Montana, then something like the deserts of the southwestern United States, we ate and watched the increasingly dramatic geology.
It was a meal of Uighur Chicken, Chinese cabbage, and a cold salad of spiced white things (we think they might have been raw potatoes). For 90 cents we got a bottle of non-alcholic, cool-ade-like wine, and felt like kings.
At one point the chef emerged from the kitchen and sat down at a table one down and across the isle from us. The burly fellow asked Scott in Chinese where we were from. When Scott said America, his face twisted into a terrible scowl and said no more to us. For the remainder of the meal, in fact, he would make a point of looking over and scowling most disapprovingly in our direction.
This is, I am quite glad to say, the first real encounter with such behavior that we have been as unfortunate to experience. I had, before the trip, wondered whether this would not be the norm. It is, after all, true that our fine nation has been abusing the rest of the world somewhat recklessly as of late. Also, though we obtained visas so far in advance that at that point there was no problem, we had been hearing rumors that even the Swiss were finding it difficult to get visas into China, what with the impending Olympics and the trouble in Tibet. I tried to shrug off the feeling, as our fine chef continued to press the point.
All was forgotten however, when we encountered a Russian speaking Swiss couple on an ornithological trip through Kirghistan and western China. They were most pleasant to speak to, and our short exchange in Russki Yisik gave me a harsh reminder of how poor my Russian has become. They did say that there were many Russian speakers in Kashgar. So perhaps I would get a chance to flex that old muscle a little more soon. If not then certainly on AsiaWheeling 2.0.
The scenery became greener as we began to follow a meandering river through a desert that was becoming jagged scrubby mountains. I could not shake the feeling that the land outside looked so much like America. If you had told me I was riding the Amtrak through Colorado, I might have believed you for a moment. Then the Chinese pop music would start up, and a woman would come by the door hawking instant noodles and mysterious pouches of pickled vegetables and.
We had been riding in the same car with a particularly audible Australian gentleman, also bound for Kashi (the Chinese way of saying Kashgar). He had been explaining many things to a young woman from that destination, a student of English. The topics ranged from genetics to world politics. Hearing spoken English reminded me how rare it has been on this to hear ambient English. I found it very hard not to eavesdrop.
We also we riding along with a number of other English speakers. A group of these returned,from the dining car just as I was waking from a nap, chattering loudly in somewhat of a fury. It seems the waitstaff in the dining car had produced one menu which had, I presume either pictures or English, and when they found nothing there to satisfy them, they waitstaff produced the Chinese menu, which had on it different prices (and perhaps for that matter, different dishes). This act provoked a screaming fight between the two parties, and in the end the English speaking crowd had come back to the car, empty stomached to find their English translator. I was just drifting back off for nap part II as they strode back, exclaiming, “now they’ll see I’ve got a friend who speaks Chinese.” Indeed, this might be a good time for me to restate how very grateful I am for Scott’s most capable Chinese. May his mustache grow ever longer.