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N888 to Urumqi

Me Leaving Kashgar
Scott Leaving Kashgar

We rode 1st class, or so called “soft sleeper” back to Urumqi. This meant that we were given the special privilege of not having to wait in the train station, and allowed to amble around the outside of the train while they prepped it for its journey. We were not allowed actually board, however. Rather it seemed that we were allowed out first to watch the giant stream of people exiting the station, trundling all the goods they had acquired in Kashgar.

Kashgar Station

It seems that the main thing one pays for here is the dignified company, though the beds were perhaps a little softer, larger, and more comfortable. As the day burned on outside, we shared a stateroom with two Korean gentleman. One was the ex-CEO of Hyundai Motors and an ex-elected official (something roughly equivalent to mayor, I believe) of Seoul. The other was a Harvard man and a distinguished professor of Chinese philosophy.

The professor, from Han Shin university, by the name of Nah Sung, regaled us for some time with tales from Chinese history, Buddhist history, and meaty details about the places which we have visited and are yet to visit. We also talked at length about China. As the discussion continued, I was once again struck (perhaps the most strongly of the entire trip) with the notion that I must a) learn Chinese and b) probably work somewhere in Asia. Things are happening here, and doing so at an alarming rate. In no great amount of time, it is very likely that we will have a band of developed, industrialized, superpowers, spreading from one end of Eurasia to the other. The ramifications of such an economic and social entity, taking stage in a point when the entire world will, for the first time be globally networked, are so powerful that one might feel foolish not engaging his time professionally here in Asia. Enough to make the head spin, dear reader, and spin mine did.

It was also on this train that we ran into a young man in the dining car. He appeared, dressed ostentatiously in a loudly striped rugby shirt and a black and red checkered tie. He sat, down, speaking very little English, and informed Scott and I in Mandarin that he was our friend, and would be buying us all a round of drinks. As we ate and drank, he ate nothing and drank slowly, growing rapidly quite red in the face. He explained to us that he was 16 years old and from Shanghai. He was riding back with his family, on a family vacation. We dined slowly and enjoyed the scenery, sharing a kind of pseudo-communication, which mostly consisted of sitting in each others company.

Across from us, a couple was seated and began to struggle with the Chinese only menu. Scott gave them a hand, and we learned that the lady was none other than a graduate of Brown University, much like your humble correspondents. The gentleman, we discovered later, was an entrepreneur and a Frenchman, having started some seven companies, specializing in diagnostic testing for building regulations.

Later, our 16 year old buddy from Shanghai appeared in our cabin. With a slight nod, he took a seat. Once again we simply enjoyed each other’s company while the desert flew by outside the window. Scott and I worked feverishly on correspondence with you, dear reader, and our 16-year-old Shanghai dude lounged. After some time we asked if he would like anything. We still had a variety of snacks and drinks in a plastic bag from a supermarket in Kashi. He declined, informing us that his mother had scolded him for drinking with the strange foreigners in the dining car. Throughout the remainder of our ride on the N888, he reappeared from time to time, just to relax and participate in the being of dudes with us.

One of these times, the conductor, a starchy and commanding woman, appeared at the door to our room. She began a torrent of bellowing Chinese, from which little information could be attained. Despite the best efforts of our dear fellow from Shanghai and Scott’s formidable Mandarin vocabulary, we could figure out only that there was something cracking, having to do with Microsoft Excel. It was then my place to employ a set of old muscles I had built whiling away my misspent youth playing Taboo. I began to assemble small questions which narrowed down the topic. Was there a problem? Yes. Was the problem in this cabin? No. Was it on this train? Yes. It was a computer problem, right? yes. Was the computer in this car? Yes. Is it your computer that has this problem? Yes. Then we were up and walking to her personal compartment.

An Excel Problem on the N888 to Urumqi

She had quite the setup in there with many boxes of papers, a hulking laser printer balanced on a train-seat, and a non-branded laptop, running windows XP. It finally came to light that she could not open excel files by double clicking them. So we showed her that the problem could be solved by opening them from inside the Excel application. This was however, the best we could do, given a Chinese pirated copy of that OS and, after much deliberation and complaint from our conductor, we left. She still seemed heavily unsatisfied, and, if anything, increased her starchy and commanding characteristics by a hefty factor.

Our dignified friends exited the train in Korla and were replaced by a most unpleasant couple. The fellow was a young and wealthy Chinese man,

A very unfortunate man

a worker in a materials transport company, and owner of plenty of electronic doodads and heinous snack-foods. He had scored for himself a woman who was, perhaps, somewhat out of his league. And she walked him around on an invisible chain, which she made quite ruthless use of. He was endlessly cooing at her, checking her various statistics, and catering to her every need. The atmosphere of the cabin became stuffy and the osmotic pressure of this unpleasant relationship began to make me loose my mind. I think the best way to communicate the pure trapped agony to you is to simply ask you to listen to the other end of this link.

I finally burst out into the darkness of the sleeping train-car. I hung out in the smoking section in between cars, to pace, catch my breath, and struggle to see against my own reflection in the door window.

The next morning, when our friend returned to say farewell, we decided the fellow was well over-due for an AsiaWheeling t-shirt and so we gave him the honorary title of Official Head of Covert Beverage Operations. Here he is at the award ceremony:

Official Head of Covert Bev

The train screeched to a halt, and Scott took a moment to scrutinize our tickets out of Urumqi. It turned out that rather than spending a night here, as we had expected, we were to leave that evening at 8:45. Taking a page from the playbook of world famous composer, John Rommeriem, we shrugged, said “ok,” and stepped off the train.


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