Part 1: Beijing to Lan Zhou
Every traveler should have at least one train story; this will be one of mine. It remains one of the most memorable, grueling, train rides I’ve had – a series of two contrasted trains to be precise, for a trip that lasted two days and nearly two thousand miles. And yet, part of me hopes there will be others to come.
As I write the first words to this account, my travel companion and I comfortably sit on the first-class train from Beijing to Lanzhou, approaching the Gansu province. For those unfamiliar with the geography of China’s vast provinces, Gansu stretches far northwest of China. It borders Mongolia and leads onwards to the barren stretches of Xianjiang and Kyrgyzstan. Beijing, on the other hand, is in the northeastern quadrant – 1,600 miles from our destination.
We are headed to the oasis town of Dunhuang, in the middle of the desert, an age-old rest stop of the Silk Road, a few hundred miles North from Tibet.
Given budgetary and time constraints – we’re set to meet with Coco’s family within three weeks, all the way South of the country – we had not planned to go this far West during our stay in China. As one of our local hosts put it, traveling to Dunhuang from Beijing would be like driving from the East Coast to the West Coast to spend a weekend: it wouldn’t makes any ‘sense.’
So here we are.
This is my first feel for Chinese trains and ‘authentic’ ways of travel, in which I had placed many sentimental – and let’s face it photographic – expectations, vying to see people in their ‘rawest authenticity,’ fighting through cackling chickens and wading through the smells of dumpling soup rising from water boiled straight from a locomotive’s fiery hearth, and so on, and so on;
and here I write from the soft mattress of a bunk bend worthy of decent hostels, a flat TV screen at my feet, the (albeit incessant) serenade of Oriental music and soft voices oozing through the clear speakers of our cabin, as a soft-skinned hostess gently pushes a cart of recognizable, American, flashy aluminum-wrapped carb snacks in the aisle…
We’re in 1st class, which runs an exorbitant $80 for this cross-country thousand-mile trip to Lanzhou, but I hadn’t the heart to drag Coco (and myself) on this 17-hour train ride on the hardened seats of coach…
– to leave no detail untold, we – I – decided on this coast-to-coast weekend last night, the main reason being (irrational?) ‘desert fever’ and some childhood memories related to comic novels. Online research proved most unfruitful, as China lacks an online booking system for trains, and Chinese characters are as evocative as Egyptian hieroglyphs to me (I hear they’re working on an online booking system which should be available some time in the future…).
So I picked out a transfer station from what seemed like a valid list, and we headed to the Beijing train station this morning, where we promptly proceeded to miss our train. Chinese clerks being notoriously helpful with foreigners, and Beijing’s train station being infamously under-populated, the lady barked me into choosing a transfer destination (I suppose they’re also working on a way to created multi-legged itineraries).
I had a list of about twelve possible transfer stations, and little or no information on the duration of the layover or about the next train, whether it would come in the form of a magic carpet, pumpkin carriage or Styx-bound pirogue. So there it is: we hopped onto the next available ride for Lanzhou.
As the landscapes turn to sand and dust, and I dreamily look out the train’s window, truth is we have no exact idea how long this ride will be, or how long the next train will be to Dunhuang, our current transfer station of Lanzhou is good as picked out of a hat, all I know is we’re headed into the deserts, and I guess there remains some senselessly romantic beauty to that…
Part 2: Transfer in Lanzhou
Awake to the rolling hills of the desert, surrounded by the serene peacefulness of open vistas.
People on the train – or in this wagon – are friendly. Our cabin-mate is a student, both sociable and reserved. He, too, dons the glass-less glasses people seem to be fond of here. I interview him and ask him to “Tell me a Story.”
He thinks for a while, and tells us how, as kids, he and a friend once ‘borrowed’ some apples from a neighbor’s backyard, and the proprietor stormed out of his house and chased them angrily.
He can now laugh about it. “We were just kids.”
Coco has also made friends with a mid-aged woman who was drinking beers and smoking cigarettes last night – a rather rare and frowned upon behavior here, because evidently brash and unfeminine.
Said ladyfriend gives us recommendations on activities in Dunhuang, is curious as to where we’re staying (we don’t know). Communication is hand-driven and spotty at best. I can’t help but feel a bit suspicious. This is not relieved by the presence of the woman’s uncle, dark-browed and imposing. My worries turn to throes when the lady informs us her uncle is quite the kung-fu adept, one might say master: he single-handedly fought off 34 people in his youth. As it turns out, these fears are entirely unfounded. The night drifted by smoothly.
I later seek him out, hoping he’ll share the story. But he declines, with a warm smile and sad face. As I learn, the woman and her family are traveling to attend their mother’s funeral, hence their grief. He’s the one apologizing though, as I do too.
We arrive, safe and sound, and might I say, well-rested. We stop in Lanzhou for our transfer to Dunhuang. Obstacles arise.
The fast pace of Beijing has subsided – wind sweeps the equalizing desert dust into the city, part of which seem carved right into the mountains’ yellow cliffs. Loiterers and Chinese travelers lie almost lifelessly about the ground of Lanzhou’s train station, amid countless heaps of boxes, plastic bags and any conceivable textile or material that can be used as a container.
How long have they been waiting?
English has become inexistent, and the language barrier has steadily risen into the Chinese stratosphere. We’re told there’s no more room on the next trains, forget about it; we learn there are no sleeper trains, forget about it. There is a train though, in ten hours or so, but there are no more seats, forget about it. Are we willing to take the ‘unreserved seats’? By the way: this is a fourteen-hour train ride, by night.
So be it. We take the tickets.
I thought I knew what this meant – kinda. Experiencing an ‘authentic’ train ride, or something to that effect? We lull around the city, dine at a buffet for a few dollars, wait around.
We return to the train station in the afternoon and get a glimpse of what awaits us: the loiterers, porters and families have moved to the waiting room, are dozing off atop their house-sized packages.
The faces and ethnic groups have noticeably changed too, compared to those of the capital. Some Tibetan, others from Mongolia, other folks from northwestern Chinese provinces. There’s also an ostensible mix of people of Arab descent, part of the mutual benefits engendered by centuries of trade on the Silk Road.
We know we’re in for a thrilling ride. This is exacerbated when a fellow passenger at the station smirks benignly, compassionately, upon seeing our ‘unreserved’ tickets.
An hour before the train: the legions of carriers line up in front of the metallic fence with their potato bags. We prudently push our way among the first rows.
About thirty minutes before departure: a railway official saunters on the other side of the fence, whistle in hand. First-class and second-class passengers are ushered through another opening, gladly parading in front of the expectant masses. On this side of the fence, the passengers grow increasingly tense. I half expect the railway official to pull out a gun and yell: “On your marks, get set, go!”
And then it happens. The gate opens, and suddenly the weight of a wave of people comes crashing in from behind, treading, trampling, the station’s hum replaced by the stampeding hooves of Humanity. We engage in the cattle race and sprint across the corridor, past the carriers. Can’t help but laugh nervously as we run past them and their mule-sized packages and make our way among the first passengers to the designated coach, Wagon 16.
The first moments in Wagon 16, to my surprise, offer calm and respite. The green seat-cloths aren’t in bad shape. The wagon is still fairly empty, quiet, as we pick a spot at random, hoping for the best.
This might be rough. But we’re in the train, and that’s all that matters. We’re going to be alright, aren’t we?