01 April 2022

Journey to the West (part 2)

(Posted from the vanage point of 2022, but written in 2010, I didn't have too much to say about the Uyghur situation in this post, but I think there is some stuff in other posts coming up - let see what I felt more than a decade ago in a place now known as a bit of a concentration camp)

Me and a beer
Turns out there was not much to do in Urumqi.  There was a pub called Fu-bar run by a lad called Manus from Portrush that had a good selection of beer (it had been a while, but I was still waiting to find a good pint on draught).  The museum was interesting enough for a couple of hours, as long as you look past the usual propaganda.  They had some very old mummies.  We weren’t allowed to take photos, but “officials” were allowed to ignore the signs.  Another prime example of, “All people are equal, but some are more equal than others.”  I unexpectedly found 1984 on sale in the official bookshop.  The bookshop looked and felt like a dead library.

Not a library it seems

Slogans were something we’d encountered throughout the country, normally written in a large red font and positioned anywhere you could imagine.  A few of the ones we noticed were:

  • Oppose separation, encourage co-operation
  • Build a harmonious society
  • Raising a girl is as good as raising a boy
  • The liberation army is sacred and is not to be violated
  • It is a legal obligation of every citizen to keep national secrets and party secrets
Audrey tells me this is one is the same as the last one in my list above

The last one I found most sinister (which we saw in Urumqi), basically saying that even if you know the country/government is doing something wrong, you shouldn’t speak out about it.  Most of them were quite benign, and were basically good ideas, apart from the fact the party ignored them when it suited them.

We wanted to get visas for Kyrgyzstan from their consulate, but were hit immediately with a bombshell.  Those Hong Kongers (and the Chinese in general) required a letter of invitation.  We were already in the process of getting them for Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, but wouldn’t have enough time to get the Kyrgyzstan one before my Chinese visa ran out.  Plus, we would be losing a lot of valuable time hanging around in China, somewhere we now wanted to get out of quite quickly (we felt we’d spent too much time there already).

So we had to change plans and destinations.  Flying from Urumqi to the west, there were not many options.  And of the options we had, many of them would pose similar problems to what we already had with Kyrgyzstan (Iran, Azerbaijan, back to Russia, Armenia).  Finally, we booked flights to Tbilisi in Georgia.

On the train to Urumqi

Street food, very tasty, like shashlik

We still had nearly two weeks to get ourselves around the most wild and rugged area of China.  First stop would be Kashgar, the legendary Silk Road city.  We booked soft sleeper tickets that would take us along the northern section of the Silk Road, and got a comfy little compartment for two all to ourselves.

One day later we woke up as the train pulled into Kashgar.

17 March 2022

Journey to the West (part 1)

(I finally dug out an old document that had some notes on blog posts about our 9 month travelling around the world that I never got around to publishing more than a decade ago, so I'm going to try to finish it)

In his book about travelling on the train through China, Riding the Iron Rooster (1986), Paul Theroux states in the final few pages:

 “[T]he main reason Tibet is so undeveloped and un-Chinese—and so thoroughly old-fangled and pleasant—is that it is the one great place in China that the railway has not reached. The Kunlun Range is a guarantee that the railway will never get to Lhasa.”

It’s no big surprise that they managed it, and I have to agree that it is an amazing feat of engineering, affording us spectacular views of Tibet from the comfort of a train carriage.  The down side, in the view of Tibetans and anyone sympathetic to their cause, is that it simply allows the Chinese to hasten the pace of their plantation and China-fication.  As I’ve already mentioned, Tibet feels in many ways Chinese.

At the entrance to the station, I finally found a person who actually used the scanning machines that we’d been putting our bags on before every train journey (and sometimes even to get to the ticket office).  It was probably due to the train being a much higher profile train, and the trains were pressurised with oxygen.  They found two cans, my shaving gel and my shoe deodorant.  Pressurised cans were not allowed, so they took the foot spray off me; pity the people sharing my carriage.


Announcements during the journey gave us a great piece of Chinese propaganda, as they gave us full details surrounding the building of the Qingzang railways in three languages.  One particular highlight was details about how the workers toilets were specially heated to avoid them catching something from the cold.  Another was that it was a miracle that no one died during construction (thanks to the heated toilets I presume).  Generally speaking, if you feel the need to announce no one died during the construction of something, I usually assume many people dies. And they had a theme song for the railway.

I've still got that t-shirt in 2022

 It was beautiful and uneventful though, and after 26 hours, we landed in Lanzhou, and promptly booked a train out there a couple of hours later that would take another 22 hours, and bring us into the capital of China’s other restless province, Xinjiang.


It was yet another uneventful ride, trains in China tend to be less fun than Russia.  We’d come a long way in 48 hours, going from tracks laid over 5000m to tracks that are below sea level (some parts of Xinjiang, around Turfan, are more than 150m under water, but more on that another day).  Audrey was getting pissed off with rail staff (and anyone in general who is meant to be in the service industry), and I couldn’t blame her.  They have slogans everywhere about “serving the people”, but most of them do anything but that, preferring to while away their working hours playing games, chatting and generally ignoring the passengers.


We arrived in Urumqi at 11:30am.