Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Silk Road, Part 1 - Nashville to Kashgar

Well, after a few days of not being able to connect to the Blogger website I'm finally back. I'll be telling about my trip in parts so as not to overwhelm you with a twelve mile long blog entry. This is what I did for a lot of the time just before leaving for China... played Nintendo. It was fun, but I never did beat Zelda. HOWEVER, it turns out that James, one of the guys at my school this year, has a Wii. So I'll get a chance to finish without having to wait a year. I'm not sure if that's good or not. I might end up wasting way too much of my time. Good thing it's in another apartment. Moving on. I told some of this already, but it won't hurt you to read it again with pictures. Angelyn and I had planned to come back to China early this year so that we could explore the western end of China. It's home to the ancient Silk Road that led from China to India, Persia, and even to the Mediterranean. The events that follow are perhaps one of the events in my time in China that truly qualify as a full adventure.

I left Nashville on August 7, met Angelyn in Los Angeles, and we set off to China via Hong Kong and Xi'an. We landed in Xi'an the morning of August 9 and made our way to Nancy's apartment. Nancy is a lady who has been in China for 9 years and she always opens her apartment to visitors when they come to town. It was great to be back after 6 weeks and we were both excited to be on our way to the Xinjiang region of China. Our first day in Xi'an we walked around town a bit to wake ourselves up and try to get over jetlag. Nancy lives just down the street from the Big Goose Pagoda. (Side note: I took my mom here when she came to visit a few years ago and we saw a guy getting beat up with a 2x4. I knew you wanted to know that.)

Nancy had been gracious enough to arrange our train tickets from Xi'an to Urumqi, but due to the crowd there were no beds left on the train, only seats. Seats are better than standing tickets, though. So on August 10, after one night to recover from jetlag (Note: this is not enough) Angelyn and I set off on a 34 hour train to Urumqi. Our hard seat tickets lived up to their name quickly. Since our train left at almost 10pm, 34 hours on the train encompassed two nights. So for the next two nights we slept sitting up. Yay!

The people were quiet enough at night, but it still wasn't comfortable unless you were a tiny Chinese person who could curl up on the floor or in the lap of the person next to you. However, I'm a huge non-Chinese person who can't do either of these.

I did manage to claim the window seat on the second night and use the edge of the table to sleep on. If you ever fly back to China early so you can travel to Xinjiang before school starts, either fly all the way to Xinjiang, get a bed on the train, or allow more time to recover from your flight. Take it from me. The second day on the train we passed the town of Jiayuguan in Gansu province and saw this sight.

This is the westernmost fortification on the Great Wall. Considering that we're a long stinkin' way from where the wall starts on the east coast, that's pretty impressive. So on August 12, at 7:30 in the morning, we finally got off that cursed train and found ourselves in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. I should tell you that more than 90% of China's population is of the Han ethnicity, but Xinjiang is mainly populated by Uighur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, and other ethnicities from Central Asia. From this point on, all signs were in Chinese and Arabic because all of these languages use the Arabic alphabet.

We have a friend in Shiyan named Orange. She changed her name to Emily last year since everyone teases her about being named Orange, but we all still call her Orange. This is her. She's from Urumqi. She was in Shiyan working at an internship, but we were going to her hometown so she arranged for us to meet up with her mom. Since we were arriving on a Sunday morning, we caught a taxi and went to the local Chinese Church. Most big cities in China actually have a registered church with a big building and everything. It was kind of weird meeting Orange's mom because she doesn't speak English and, for some reason that I still don't understand, Orange exaggerated my Chinese speaking ability in telling her mom that I speak fluent Chinese. So her mom starts talking to us, we're super tired and jetlagged, not to mention the fact that we just spent two nights on a train without showers or anything. At this point I couldn't remember half of my Chinese so we basically just kind of smiled and nodded a lot. Her mom had gotten us our train tickets to Kashgar. The train was scheduled to leave at noon so we really only had about 4 hours off of the train. We stayed for a while at church and then Orange's mom escorted us to the bus stop so we could go back to the station. We got to the station, bought some snacks for the train, which was scheduled to be 23 hours, ate some noodles for lunch, and made our way to the station entrance. At the entrance there was a mob of people pushing to get in the station, but they were being turned away by two ladies with megaphones. I can generally understand people when they speak clearly and slowly here, but there's no way I could understand something being yelled into a bullhorn. I kept hearing our train number being called so I thought that either there's something wrong with our train or they're only letting people on our train into the station to avoid overcrowding. The lady at the door would only wave me away, she wouldn't stop to answer any questions. I still couldn't understand what she was saying into the megaphone. I walked around the corner and showed my ticket to a guard and he finally told me that this train wasn't leaving today, and then he pointed me towards the ticket office. It was a tad bit crowded. Just a tad. Usually the ticket office in a train station is crowded in China, but this time the entire room was one solid mass of people because the crowd of people trying to buy tickets was enlarged by the crowd of people trying to return tickets. If you squint, you might be able to tell that the big marquee on the wall says that all train heading towards Kashgar are canceled due to weather. Since we were on the edge of the desert, I figured maybe there was a sandstorm. Turns out it was a bad rainstorm. Weird, huh? So now there we were, jetlagged, no train, no place to stay, no desire or energy to act. Obviously Angelyn was enjoying the situation more than I was. At this point my phone's battery died so Angelyn messaged Orange to let her know the situation. She then messaged her mom, who said we should come back to the church and meet her. So we did that, then she went back to the station with us to help return the train tickets. Angelyn sat outside with our bags while Li Xinhua and I stood in line for three long hours. I'm pretty sure I fell asleep standing up a few times. After all was said and done, we returned the tickets and managed to get bus tickets instead. The benefit was that instead of another long train ride with only a seat, we now had a 22 hour bus ride with beds. Yay, beds! Glory, glory, hallelujah! We set off on that bus at 5pm. We were leaving 5 hours later than originally planned, but we now had beds, plus I was in the first bed as you got on the bus so I was able to stick my long legs over the edge. If you're wondering what the side effects are from a 34 hour train ride with no bed, take a look at my swollen ankles. Yeesh!

So we set off happily with our pillows and blankets tucked around us. It was still August 12. About 3 hours into the trip the driver pulled over and a few men jumped off the bus to answer the call of nature. Since I'd had entirely too much tea with dinner just before getting on the bus, I jumped off with them. The storm that had cancelled the trains was apparently aproaching because when I got off I was hit with a gust of wind that blew my shoe down the road. I chased it down and came back to the bus to find that everyone else was back on the bus and the driver was honking for me to get on. That tea was going to wait for the next rest stop, so I was a little while longer before getting on the bus. I guess it was too long for the driver. Since the honking didn't get me back on the bus he started driving away slowly. Angelyn had seen me going after my shoe and then couldn't see me anymore so she though I had blown away and that the driver was leaving me. She was relieved when I finally got back on the bus. We stopped again at 10 at a place where we could eat, use the bathroom, and stretch our legs. At this point it's extremely windy, raining slightly, and feels very very cold. I was perplexed. I thought we were going into the desert? We got back on the bus and went back to sleep, taking full advantage of the beds to get over our jetlag. Well, the next morning we woke up and we were still at the same place. What in the world?!? When the clock said 9:50 we got back on the road. We later saw that parts of the road had been covered in water during the night, plus there had been a rockslide blocking one area, so we had just spent 12 hours at the same rest stop. On August 13 we stopped in the middle of no where twice, once for lunch and once to get gas.

Our 22 hour bus ride turned into a 39 hour bus ride. All we could think was "I'm so glad to have a bed." I think the bed made it all okay. The guys beneath us did annoy me by lighting up a new cigarette every 10 minutes. And for breakfast one guy packed some tobacco into the top of an apple, where the stem comes out. Then he rolled up a stiff piece of paper, stuck into the side of the apple, and proceeded to the smoke the apple like a pipe. Never seen that before, and don't know if I should expect to ever see it again. I tried to get a picture but it's extremely blurry because the bus was bouncing. The apple is in the right hand of the man in the red shirt. You can see the long white roll of paper sticking out of it.

We got to Kashgar at 7:3oam on August 14. By this time we had spent four nights in a row on trains and buses and were very ready to shower. Out of the 192 hours since we had left America, we had spent 150 of those on a plane, train, or bus. That's how we got to Kashgar. Considering it's taken me a couple of hours to write all of this and get the pictures to upload, and also considering that I've got to be somewhere across town in 30 minutes, I'm going to end here for now. Two more entries should cover the rest of the trip, I think. I hope you enjoyed the first installment. Tell your friends!


john dobbs said...

Brian, I know you're writing in retrospective ... but I think I would have been reduced to a quivering sobbing mess ... lol ... what a trip...you'll never forget it, that's for sure. Looking forward to more...kind of.

Ensor Dispensor said...

wow! those pictures of the seats on that train stress me out. WOW CHECK OUT THOSE ANKLES! once again i would like to say i told you to take the plane. that is all i have to say about that. matthew was the comment on your last post. i would never cut you off. lubs