Trip 15 -- Central & East Asia
Part 3: Crossroads of the world
17 October 2013
Stepping from Uzbekistan into Kyrgyzstan, I crossed a kind of cultural continental divide. It now felt like the western part of east Asia rather than the eastern part of west Asia. There were fewer mosques. Fewer women wore headscarves and colorful dresses. Girls wore jeans. Most men didn't wear skullcaps, and some wore a kalpak -- a tall, white, brimmed felt hat that I thought looked quite dapper. The Uzbek language had looked like Turkish; the Kyrgyz language used Cyrillic plus a few extra letters, one of which -- a horizontally crossed "O" similar to a Greek theta -- I recognized as Mongolian. The language had double vowels similar to Mongolian. From the music played in the cars I rode in, Kyrgyz sounded gutteral and syllabic. There were more Chinese restaurants, as well as restaurants serving the food of the Dungans -- ethnic Chinese Muslims who fled China in the 19th century. There were yurts (nomadic tents) all over the countryside and road stalls selling kymyz (koumiss), fermented mare's milk, which goes back at least as far as Genghis Khan and was traditionally drunk out of a large anchor-shaped leather vessel, but nowadays anything will do.
I left Arslanbob's walnut forest in a shared car down to Bozor-Korgon, where I changed to another car for the interminable ride to the capital of Bishkek (formerly Frunze -- no doubt my Slavophile history teacher has updated her lesson plans). We left Bazar-Korgon just before eleven. The driver had a vertical wrinkle between his eyes that gave him a perpetual frown, as if his parents had been right when they said his expression would freeze that way. He had a propensity for overtaking vehicles that were themselves overtaking other vehicles.
We drove for a couple of hours along a good road among stubbly mountains, loosely following the calm, turquoise Naryn River until we arrived at the Toktogul Reservoir. Then the road was largely straight and we made good progress. I thought we might arrive in Bishkek by six, maybe even five. We slowed down only to avoid hitting flocks of sheep or herds of cattle, which were often signaled by a flagman on a horse.
Then we took an hour for lunch -- trout from the nearby lake, at a pretty spot in the mountains -- and then we climbed and climbed, hairpin turn after hairpin turn, up to the Too-Ashuu Pass and a three-kilometer tunnel that saves a vertical kilometer of zigzagging and, fortunately, is in much better shape than the Anzob Tunnel back in Tajikistan. Unfortunately, our driver took a short break just before the tunnel, allowing a long line of slow-moving trucks to get ahead of us, which meant we had to pass them all along the hairpin turns on the way down the other side.
A stop at a mosque here and another quick stop there, and it was eight when we pulled into Bishkek. The driver was supposed to take me to the address I specified -- the Bishkek Guesthouse -- but, once in town, he went away for another conversation and, as I seemed to be only about 15 minutes away on foot, I decided to walk it. I found the street and the intersection, but the address numbers were going down when they should have been going up. My map was wrong.
I asked in a supermarket and two workers sprang into action. They hadn't heard of the Bishkek Guesthouse, but one of them took a newspaper listing rooms to let and started calling around. Another thought there was an unmarked hotel around the corner, and he led me there. I paid for the room -- they wanted payment right away. The owner gave me a business card, which gave no name for the hotel but had a promising picture of a beautiful bedspread and bright, modern lighting that bore no resemblance to reality. It also trumpeted the fact that rooms could be had by the night, day, or hour.
The supermarket worker then led me to a bank, as I was virtually out of Kyrgyz som. I have two ATM cards, both MasterCard. I'd heard that Visa was much more prevalent in Kyrgyzstan but that a few ATMs in Bishkek took MasterCard. Neither bank we went to did. I had cash but wasn't sure I'd find an exchange office open after nine on a Saturday. I thanked the supermarket worker and took my chances -- "If I don't have any luck, I'll come back to the supermarket and buy a sausage!"
I did find an exchange place with a tiny window open. I rang the bell and roused someone out of bed. I changed just enough for dinner, figuring I'd walk around in the morning and find the appropriate bank. I had a few hundred dollars with me, but I'd be crossing China in a week and didn't want to risk running out, in case I had problems there as well.
In the morning, I discovered that the one bank that supposedly accepted MasterCard didn't like my version of it. I'd have to take my chances in China after all.
It was the halfway point of the trip, three weeks in: time to go relax a bit by Issyk-Kul, the world's second-biggest alpine lake. It was also time to check into a place for two nights. I'd spent the previous six nights in six different places.
The town of Cholpon-Ata is midway along Issyk-Kul's north shore, about three and a half hours from Bishkek. It's a popular summer retreat for Kyrgyz and foreigners alike. It's one main street with lots of restaurants and cafes, and then various side streets leading to guesthouses and the beach.
I pictured the throngs that must have been there two months ago, as I may well have been the only tourist in Cholpon-Ata in the first week of October. It was still warm enough for swimming, and the water was pretty and clear, with clean sand. In the cove flanking Cholpon-Ata there was a single canoe with two fishermen, and near the beach was a man grazing his sheep. Across the cove there seemed to be some action: Someone was surfing on a kind of machine-made water spout that twisted around at various heights. But on my side of the cove, all was still.
I stayed at the Angelina Guesthouse, a leafy spot that has apple and walnut trees in the courtyard and is run by a piano-playing woman and her husband and guarded by a German shepherd. Every house in Cholpon-Ata has a guard dog, and they create quite a cacophony, especially at night. Usually the dogs were behind locked gates, but sometimes I saw them in the road. They'd growl at me and I'd tell them to calm down. To my surprise, when I took a step forward they retreated, only to slither home under the very gates that I thought were protecting me from them in the first place.
Cholpon-Ata has a huge field of boulders containing petroglyphs from the 8th century BC to the 5th century AD. I took a two-hour walk through the area, at first not quite sure what I was looking for, but then coming upon unmistakable etchings of goats, deer with giant branches of antlers, ibexes with wildly curving horns, snow leopards, and hunting scenes. As I walked through, I startled a group of dogs that had been resting in one of the ritual circles; the horses and cattle were less disturbed by my presence.
Back in Bishkek (after an obligatory smoked trout on the way in the lakeside town of Balykchy -- the name does mean "fisherman," after all), I checked back in to the no-name hotel, mainly since I knew what I was getting and it was in a convenient location. Then I walked around Bishkek for a couple of hours. There's a lot of green in Bishkek, with a large fountain-laden public square, an amusement park, and several parks with statuary and trees. It's a tranquil place in the daytime but very dark at night, and its liberal nature compared with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan means that there's more street drinking -- people hunched over bottles of vodka -- and crime against relatively wealthy foreigners, though not in the area I stayed in.
To head east into China, I had two options, both involving long drives through beautiful mountain passes. The Torugart Pass is a second-grade crossing according to China, which means it's more for trade and not really for casual travel. Foreigners may cross there, but they need advance permission and prearranged transport on the Chinese side. As a result, it's very expensive, upwards of $400 for a single traveler.
The Irkeshtam Pass crossing, opened to foreigners only in 2002, requires none of the bureaucratic rigmarole of Torugart and, as such, was much more appealing to me. But, by road, that required an 11-hour drive back to Osh along the same tedious route that had brought me to Bishkek the first time. I decided to break from tradition and fly. The flight was $43 -- only about $15 more than going by car, and with a 35-minute early-morning aerial view of the mountains.
From Osh, I could have taken a bus straight through to Kashgar in China, but it runs overnight -- prohibiting any views of what I'd heard was stunning scenery -- and I wasn't even sure it ran the day I wanted to go. So I took my chances on finding a ride to the mountain village of Sary Tash and then another ride to the border.
Rides to Sary Tash leave very sporadically from a stand in central Osh, easily accessed through a construction zone. I found a car and the driver said to come back at 1:00. I walked around the bazaar for a while, had lunch, and returned just after noon, just in case he had found more passengers and was ready earlier. Of course he wasn't, so I got in the car and went to sleep.
At 1:00 there was no sign of the driver, but other people started loading the trunk with dozens of round loaves of non bread, then a sack of onions, then a kid's bicycle (once the training wheels were removed). A little after two we departed, only to make several other stops around town and pick up more passengers and other cargo oddities, such as a giant broom. It was almost 3:30 when we were finally on the road.
We climbed slowly up to a 2400-meter pass and then descended steadily through mountains of varying textures: some felt-covered; some fuzzy and grey, like a hairless cat; some bare, black rock. Cattle grazed high above us on the steep slopes. Then we climbed again to two passes of around 3600 meters, and for the first time I could see a dusting of snow on the mountains. The road remained clear, though.
Just after sunset, with giant snowy mountains ahead of us, we reached Sary Tash, a tiny town at around 3200 meters with an innocent-looking Y-intersection. Bear right and you get to Tajikistan, left and you reach China. But this nowhere-village in the middle of the mountains seemed like more than that: Bear right and you reach Tajikistan and eventually Europe (and from there, a boat to the Americas); bear right and you reach China and the rest of east Asia (and then the Pacific islands); and we had just come from the road leading to the rest of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Russia. For a moment it seemed as if the crossroads of the world were the decrepit gas station in the middle of the Y-intersection in a tiny mountain village in southern Kyrgyzstan.
There are a few signed hotels in Sary Tash; a kid about ten on a bike directed me to his family's place, Tatina. It had a large room with promisingly warm-looking blankets -- Sary Tash is quite cold at night -- and an outhouse reached via a staircase made of old tires. For $10, I had a bed and a bland dinner of mushy rice with potatoes and two minuscule pieces of fatty mutton. Shortly after I arrived, I was joined by a Japanese traveler who had ridden his bicycle all the way from Pakistan through China and was about to head into Tajikistan. We explored Sary Tash's two small grocery stores, which were run by children, as he calculated exactly how many som he would need for the next day and bought water, juice, and chocolates accordingly. He had ridden up from Irkeshtam that day and seen only ten trucks go by. At one store we meet a Ukrainian who had been waiting for two days for a ride into Tajikistan. Clearly this crossroads of the world didn't need a traffic light.
I woke up at 5:30 and, fifteen minutes later, was standing at the appropriate point in the Y-intersection to flail my arms in front of any vehicle that went by. It was dark and cold; I had two sweaters on and shuffled in place to keep warm. I looked up at a million stars and waited.
One truck came by and headed toward Tajikistan. Another stopped at the gas station and broke the silence with his horn, but once he filled up he also turned toward Tajikistan. A man came by with a flashlight; he said hello and demanded payment for the room. "It's on the bed," I said. "And the dinner was overpriced," I thought.
At 6:21, another man came by and entered the mosque behind the gas station. He broke the silence by sounding the call to prayer. Another man walked behind the mosque with his flock of sheep. The sun started to cast its glow, slowly wiping away the screen of stars from east to west.
A truck stopped just above the gas station and three Kyrgyz got out. One broke the silence with the loudest and longest "hock, spit" I'd ever heard. They came and joined me. They were also going to Irkeshtam, which was bad news: I didn't want competition finding a ride. Around fifteen trucks went by; all bore right toward Tajikistan. If the Ukrainian was having trouble going there, clearly he was looking at the wrong time.
Another truck came toward us. "This will be it," said one of the Kyrgyz. The truck slowed down but didn't quite stop. The door opened and the three Kyrgyz got in.
"May I join you?" I asked. I couldn't tell if they had been waiting for this truck in particular.
"No, it's full," one said.
I didn't let that stop me. I ran toward the door and yelled inside, "May I?"
"Come in, come in!" someone said. I climbed up into the cab as the truck pulled away. It was 7:13.
I didn't really have a seat -- I was sitting on the wide plastic divider between the driver and the passenger with my legs folded in front of myself. But it was comfortable enough, and we made good progress; my guidebook had promised a road barely passable in a four-by-four, but it had clearly been paved in the past few years. Someone in the truck pointed out Peak Lenin, a frequently climbed ice-packed mountain; back in Sary Tash I'd viewed Peak Communism, he said. Shortly before Irkeshtam I saw a village made up of clean-looking identical houses. "Is this a new village?" I asked.
"No, it's old," said the man who had pointed out Peak Lenin. "The village is called Nura. Two years ago there was an earthquake and it destroyed everything. That's why it's all been rebuilt. And that's why the road is bad here." It certainly wasn't Anzob-bad, but the tarmac had been warped in this section.
The truck went to the border but didn't cross it. I didn't know whether I should pay the driver. As I left I started to reach for my money, but he was waving goodbye before I had my hand in my pocket.
Crossing into China would take most of the day, even though I was at the border by 8:45. That's 10:45 Beijing time, which is what all of China officially runs on, though Kashgar businesses usually run on Xinjiang-province time, two hours behind. It was almost lunchtime and it seemed the sun had just risen. In Kashgar sunrise was at nine in the morning, Beijing time, and sunset at nine in the evening.
Leaving Kyrgyzstan was easy. I showed my passport to one officer, and another took me to the front of the line to get stamped out.
It was a few kilometers to the next point. I could have walked it, but it was mostly uphill and I didn't know how few kilometers it really was. A Kyrgyz officer waved me into a truck that was about to cross.
"Hurry, hurry!" said the driver. I ran and jumped in. We drove a short distance.
"Hurry, hurry!" he said again. We got out and showed our passports to an officer on the Chinese side.
We started driving up the hill toward Chinese customs and stopped, ninth in the line of trucks waiting to be checked. Nothing happened for a few minutes. The driver got out. I did too.
"Go ahead and walk to the front. Maybe you'll get a seat in the first vehicle to go through," he said. I did.
The first vehicle to go through, it turned out, was the bus that I didn't take from Osh. I asked if there were any seats left and the driver said there were. He said I could ride with them the rest of the way to Kashgar for $30. This seemed fair enough to me, and it would save me the trouble, once I got through customs, of finding a shared taxi to share to the main customs and immigration checkpoint at Wuqia, 145 kilometers away (people are no longer allowed to hitch on trucks, due apparently to an accident sometime since they built the Wuqia building a couple of years ago), and then another ride the remaining 90 kilometers to Kashgar.
The bus was a sleeper bus, with upper and lower lie-flat berths, each of which had an inclined headrest above a slot for the feet of the person behind. There were three lines of berths separated by two extremely narrow aisles, which were crammed with luggage. The driver directed me to an upper berth near the back. The problem with the upper berths was that there was no place to put one's feet (other than to let them dangle) if one wished to sit upright instead of lie down, but I decided I could manage that for a few hours.
The other problem with the bus was that it took two hours for all the passengers to get off, remove their luggage, and go through the checkpoint one by one. And this was only the first of three checkpoints spread out over the next 145 kilometers. Compared with the Kyrgyz scenery, the landscape in China seemed almost arid, with nearly bare mountains composed of rocky swirls of varying shades of brown, like halvah. In addition to multitudes of sheep, there were also double-humped Bactrian camels.
While the Kyrgyz road had been surprisingly good, the Chinese road was surprisingly awful. When the Chinese repair a road, or any time there's a need for a partial closure, such as an accident, they divert all the traffic onto a parallel temporary dirt road, uneven and hilly and plagued with large slow-moving trucks. Sometimes the diversions can go on for an hour. Often there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with the main road -- the detour is just because someone thought it might be fun -- and of course there is never anyone working on it. It's agonizing to crawl along a bumpy unmade track, stuck behind a smoke-belching truck, when off to the side is perfectly good unused tarmac.
All of this means that it took the whole day to get to Kashgar. I emerged from the "Kashgarintirnationalbussetaton" into a compelling amalgam of shashlik (kebab) smoke, neon lights in changing colors, and signage in two languages I couldn't make sense of: Chinese and Uyghur. The Uyghurs, who make up much of Kashgar's population, are Turkic Muslims who speak a language written in a script similar to Arabic and have customs similar to Uzbeks'. Indeed, with the exception of those I saw in karaoke bars, people in Kashgar seemed fairly conservative: men in skullcaps like I'd seen in Uzbekistan and women with their heads and faces entirely covered, without even slits for the eyes.
I found my way to the Qinibagh Hotel, which has three buildings in different levels of comfort. I chose the middle one, which gave me a good view over the city, one English TV news channel, and a breakfast buffet including hot vegetables and various dumplings and pastries -- a welcome change. A placard in the room warned me that I'd be charged 50 yuan for taking the "freedom clamps."
By the time I was settled in, it was almost eleven, Beijing time, but two hours earlier in the local time. I went out in search of dinner. There were a bunch of nearly identical little restaurants across the street. I went into the one with people in it and sat down. There was no menu and I had no idea how or what to order. Eventually the waiter just brought me the house specialty: a large bowl of broth containing chickpeas, a whole cooked pigeon, and two boiled sheep's hooves. Now how did he know that's what I wanted?
Kashgar centers, more or less, around a beautiful yellow mosque built in 1442 and set in lovely gardens. There's also a neighborhood of dilapidated mud and brick buildings whose slipshod construction and repairs make it seem as if they may collapse at any moment, yet it's a thriving community in which some houses have taken on double duty as handicraft workshops. Just outside of town is the Apak Hoja mausoleum complex (also known as the Tomb of the Fragrant Concubine), built in 1640, with its stunning green glazed tiles, carved mosque roofs and pillars, and rose garden and orchard. A sign above the toilet said, "As easy as lifting one's finger Be civilized."
But Kashgar isn't all old buildings and Islamic architecture; it also has parks, skyscrapers, and thousands of annoying mopeds, which are supposed to use their own lanes but often honk at and dart around people on the sidewalk. Uyghur-medicine shops are abundant, offering various teas, aloe treatments, and "141-recipe lipid-lowering tablets." One can easily find toilet parts, both for the traditional squat variety and for "thrones." Storefronts promise all sorts of everyday necessities in Chinese, Uyghur, and breathtaking English. My favorite was "Cooked sheep entrails general merchandise." Along one street, three stores in a row offered "mutton leather jacket," "Gold wadi grass carp," and "light oral cavity clinic." Farther down the same street were "Muslima pastry grow food," "Put in false tooth center," and "Brothers polo mutton broth roast meat" (no, not an elite sport played with sheep; polo is the Uyghur word for Uzbek plov -- though in central Asia they do play a game called buzkashi, which is like polo but with a dead goat instead of a ball). There seemed to be a lot of dental offices opening right on the street, where I could look in and see someone molding a cast or a patient about to submit to a pair of creaky-looking pliers. If open-air tooth extractions passed for entertainment in 19th-century Bukhara, 21st-century Kashgar wasn't far off.
I was able to get things done in Kashgar. There was a laundry place near the Qinibagh. I had some old Chinese money from 16 years ago, and a bank teller changed it into the new series. That bank's ATM didn't work for me, but I went down to the bank of China, put my card in, and heard the reassuring sound of cash being counted. The dispenser opened. I felt as if I'd won a poker tournament. I went to the train booking office at the bus station and bought three tickets: overnight Sunday to Monday from Kashgar to Urumqi, a double-overnight -- a 34-hour trip -- from Urumqi to Xian, and overnight from Xian to Shanghai. I'd spend four consecutive nights on trains. It would be sort of like a cruise; I'd sleep and travel at night and get out and see things during the day.
The highlights of Kashgar were the two bazaars. The everyday bazaar is right in town and offers hundreds of jam-packed aisles of silk, shoes, hats, scarves, old knives, musical instruments, washing machines, and cookware. Old men drive little trucks through the throngs, urgently shouting "Bosh, bosh, bosh," the Uyghur equivalent of "Please, sir, won't you kindly step out of the way?" Along the edges of the bazaar are quick-fix lunch places with shashlik, noodles, Uzbek-style mutton dumplings and oven-cooked mutton pastries, polo, and stuffed sheep's intestines. A few doors down I stepped into a trading center for fruit -- a football field's worth of stacked melons, plus apples, pears, and tiny oranges. One man let me try one of the delicious little oranges, but he wouldn't sell me any. Outside, however, I bought a handful for the train.
The Sunday animal bazaar is quite a thrilling frenzy. We've all seen sheep, cows, camels, horses, donkeys, and yaks before -- or at least most of those -- but it's something else to see dozens of sheep penned together or a couple hundred camels munching away and baring their giant skewed teeth, or hear the ear-grating cacophony of several donkeys all braying at once. Many animals were tagged with paint or shorn with a special pattern to denote their owners. By far the most numerous were the sheep, with the camels seemingly in second place.
As with most animals, these were most fun to watch when they were doing something unexpected or trying to get away. A girl tried to corner a fat black sheep that was bigger than she was. Men coaxed timid cows off of their trucks. Camels pranced around, prim and prissy in their long manes and bushy legs, some with droopy double humps. A camel sells for around $350 to $500.
My favorites were the yaks. They're like cows but with long, shaggy hair and squat legs. They look at you with a dignified mixture of respect and suspicion. They keep their eyes on you as you walk, their curved horns pointing upward. They wear an expression that says, "Yeah, I'm a yak. What are you going to do about it?" The perfect mascot for New York's next major sports team. And "New York Yaks" has a nice alliteration to it.
I could have watched the yaks all day, but I was booked on the 1:32 train to Urumqi that afternoon. As I waited for the bus, I watched a man try to bring a sheep home on his moped. The sheep's legs were tied together and the animal was upside-down around the driver's legs, its ear dragging on the ground.
I took the bus back to the Qinibagh, collected my bag, and tried to check out. I'd used a credit card to check in, but now the staff had trouble with it. They finally got it working after several minutes and I ran down the street to catch the bus to the train station. I had about 40 minutes to go five or six kilometers -- a distance I could practically have jogged. The bus came right away.
Like many Chinese cities, Kashgar has wonderful traffic signals that count down the seconds until they turn red or green. (Why don't we have these in the USA?) That doesn't mean the news is good, though. The bus got stuck for two cycles at a left turn that started at 99 seconds, and that's only because the display couldn't handle a higher number -- it stayed on 99 for a while before counting down. A couple of minutes later, an intersection without a timer was being controlled by ineffective policemen. They'd try to stop the cross traffic, but one driver, and then another, would nudge forward, blocking our path, and the officers had no choice but to let them through. Then the next drivers would fill their place. We were stopped there for six or seven minutes -- maybe even ten.
We finally got past, but I had only ten minutes to make the train and still at least a couple of kilometers to go. I got out and frantically started looking for a taxi. A driver found me and he already had passengers, but they sensed the urgency of the situation and told me to get in. I showed the driver my train ticket. He looked at his watch and started weaving his way through the traffic, like a daredevil on a slalom ski slope, keeping his hand on the horn and dipping into the oncoming lane when necessary. He got me to the station with three minutes to spare.
I ran toward what I thought was the entrance, but people were waving me another way. I went around and into the other building. Two minutes.
This was the ticket office. The entrance was back where I'd thought it was. I ran back. They had already closed the door with a kind of bicycle lock, but I flung it open, sending the lock flying. One minute.
"No, no!" shouted a woman, just as the horn sounded and the train pulled away a minute early.
Someone came by who spoke a little English. "Go back into the station. Maybe they can change the ticket for you."
The problem with this was that I'd planned only seven hours in Urumqi. The next train was four hours away, and it made many more stops, so it would arrive in Urumqi after my train out of that city had already left.
I looked at the schedule and saw that the train's first stop was 32 minutes away. I picked the nearest person and gestured, "Can you write down the name of the next station?" I'd go out and see if a taxi could beat the train there.
The man I asked was a driver, but it seemed to be a private car. He had a younger man with him, maybe his son. "Come, I'll take you," said the older man -- or the equivalent in Uyghur.
He didn't fully understand that haste was important, and he drove slowly. The two men kept saying things to me in Uyghur. I was frustrated that I couldn't speak the language, or even read it -- Russian had gotten me through the "'stans." Eventually it transpired that we had about 20 minutes to cover a distance of 50 kilometers, and that wasn't going to happen.
The driver was going to take me back to the train station, but I tried a word I hoped he'd understand. "Avtobus?"
He got the message and took me to the bus station. I didn't know how much to pay him. I thanked him and thrust him 100 yuan -- about $16 -- and to my surprise he handed me change, which I didn't bother to count.
To my delight, a bus was leaving for Urumqi at four. It would take about 24 hours, still allowing me four to five hours in Urumqi. It was also a sleeper.
"Would you like upper or lower?"
"That will be three hundred yuan. You must be at the bus a half-hour early."
Possibly because I was so early, I got put way in the back, among children, in the middle aisle of berths. Someone asked if I'd switch and take an upper berth so that he could be closer to his wife and little boy. I agreed, as then I could be near the window, which I thought would give me air and control of the curtains, allowing me to look out when I wanted to. But the berth was tiny. I couldn't stretch out fully. My bag loomed on a shelf in front of me.
The conductor was barking at people and moving them around. He asked for my ticket again and moved me to a lower berth toward the front. It was in the middle, but it was much more comfortable. I settled in. Then he tried to move me to the berth directly above, but I held my ground and pointed to the symbol for "lower" on my ticket, one of the few Chinese characters I can read.
We set off 40 minutes late. The scenery was boring -- short, barren mountains on one side, a barren plain on the other. I was still angry at myself for missing the train and frustrated that I had no way of communicating with these people. To my right was the world's quietest child, and to my left and back, the world's noisiest. I watched the kilometer markings on the side of the road intently. It was around 1500 kilometers (930 miles) to Urumqi. The road was good, and we were going about 90 kilometers an hour -- one every 40 seconds. How could it possibly take 24 hours to cover 1500 kilometers? I was anxious to make up time. Whenever we completed a kilometer in less than 40 seconds, I felt a small victory.
I tried to calm myself down and focus on what advantages the bus had over the train, or, at least, anything I was seeing that I wouldn't have seen riding the rails. The mother behind me was singing softly to her child. It soothed me more than the child. The road seemed to follow the rail line; I wasn't missing out on scenery. At the appropriate time, the man in front of me threw down a carpet and knelt and prayed toward me as we headed east. The bus had TV screens and a sound system and they showed videos of people playing the dutar (a narrow-necked two-stringed guitar) and singing in Uyghur. The music was pleasant and had complex rhythms. I learned something as a musician. Maybe that made the ride tax-deductible. Sometimes there were dancers on the screen and the little girl to my right -- the quiet one -- danced with them. She was fully clothed but her pants were split, showing her rear end. I was pleased that we went six hours without stopping.
When we did break for dinner, and to pee somewhere out in a sandy field, I learned that the man to my left spoke some English. He lived near Urumqi but worked for the government in Kashgar. He was going to have eight days off. We sat down together.
"Laghman?" he asked.
"I could go for some laghman," I said. Uyghur noodle soup with vegetables and a little mutton -- that hit the spot.
"Does it really take twenty-four hours?" I asked.
"Yes. They could do it in twenty or twenty-one, but they must stop for three hours at night so the driver can rest."
"But there are two drivers."
"There are three drivers. But they always stop for three hours."
Well, that wasn't good news. The berth was actually pretty comfortable, and I slept well while the bus was moving, but when it stopped my body became restless, and without the whir of the motor, the assorted snoring of the other passengers was amplified.
It was three in the morning. I got out of the bus. We had stopped near proper toilets (albeit not thrones) and a mini-market. I perused the offerings, which consisted largely of preserved, vacuum-sealed, unrefrigerated food -- sweet potatoes, chicken legs, chicken feet, eggs, and unrecognizable meats. One was labeled "Sweet Spicy Pig ear -- Initiative healthy." The Xingbala beef jerky proclaimed itself "an excellent food for tourism, tea drinking and leisure." A package of chocolates promised, "Best quality and good taest, It will captivate with relish." Funny, I never thought of putting relish on my chocolates.
I settled on a bag of strawberry-flavored cookies and some limeade and sat down at one of the tables, where I remained until the shopkeeper shooed me out so he could lock up. I'd managed to kill enough time that it was now 5:00, and the bus departed -- according to the English speaker we'd actually stopped at 2:00 and I'd slept for the first hour.
I slept for most of the morning. We stopped at noon for lunch, but it was a reasonably quick stop. We'd been following the same highway, marked G3012, but with the "12" in smaller print, for most of the ride, and except for a few diversions at the beginning, it had been a good road. We took this road to the end, and then it was just 114 kilometers to Urumqi along the G30.
This also looked to be a good road, but somehow the entry ramp was blocked off. We were diverted to a parallel, barely paved road with occasional loose rocks and many slow trucks. Sometimes the road would run directly beside the main highway, which was clearly open to traffic, but there was no access. We crawled along this small road for an hour before we were finally able to enter the highway. We arrived in Urumqi at five. I did the calculations: By missing the train, I'd lost about $60 in bus and taxi fares and two and a half hours in Urumqi. Not the worst thing that can happen on a trip.
I immediately liked Urumqi -- the world's most inland major city -- and wished I'd had a few days there. It was roughly divided into the Chinese northern side and the Uyghur southern side, with the bazaar, but there was much overlap. It was built up with shopping malls, hotels, and eateries both big and small. Mosques were tucked away among the skyscrapers. There were Chinese lanterns and buildings guarded by lion statues. There were no mopeds, but there was a strobe effect with the traffic cameras flashing at every car that went past. I walked up to a Confucian temple and then to the People's Park, from which I could see a couple of pagodas in the distance. In the People's Square, old couples were dancing to recorded music, and people were watching a large screen showing the news. Signs were in Chinese and Uyghur with a smattering of Russian thrown in. Maybe this was the crossroads of the world instead of that tiny intersection in Sary Tash.
For dinner, I had a local specialty of the Hui Muslims, dapanji -- a spicy chicken stew with peppers, potatoes, scallions, and flat noodles. Served on a giant circular platter, the portion was huge, supposedly for at least two people, but I was hungry -- I hadn't had a proper meal all day. As I started, a busboy brought a second helping, and I was relieved to learn that it was a mistake, intended for another table. I stopped at a market for some bottled iced tea and juice and a couple of beers and, needless to say, arrived at the train station in plenty of time for the 34-hour trip to Xian.
I'd remembered that Chinese hard-sleeper cars are perfectly comfortable -- not as hard as the name suggests. You get a pillow and a blanket and, for each compartment, a thermos for hot water -- tea and instant noodles are the primary forms of sustenance. There are six berths per compartment. But I'd forgotten that the compartments are open, unlike their Russian counterparts; you don't get the privacy of a locked room for your temporary six-person family, and you can hear everyone else in the car -- and many Chinese are unabashed in their exaggeration of noisy human body actions such as coughing and spitting. However, the lack of a compartment door means you can see out the other side of the train -- until an attendant comes along and closes the curtain, which happened about 40 minutes into the journey.
In the upper berths of my compartment were a couple in their 20s who spoke a little English -- enough for us to figure out where we were from and where we were going. In the bottom berths were I and a man who slurped his tea noisily and, after each sip, exhaled even more noisily, grunting like a tennis player. In the middle berths were two acquaintances in their 50s. One gave me an apple. I ate it and took out a plastic bag for the core. He ate his and threw the core across the aisle, where it landed on the drawn curtain, pinning it to the little table under it. I pulled up my blanket and slept soundly among the chorus of breathing, hacking, lip-smacking, snoring, snorting, spitting, and slurping.
On my full day aboard the train, the scenery remained dull, but I wasn't bored. Attendants came through the aisle with carts of soup, rice-and-meat meals, fruit, drinks, and preserved food, as well as unexpected items such as USB phone chargers (they couldn't be bothered to outfit the train with sockets, of course, but they'll happily sell you power), drill sets, pocketknives, and headphones. The slurper in my compartment had a wife and little kid somewhere else in the car, and they came by from time to time. This child was also fully clothed except for his exposed rear end. The boy remained quiet until the father made baby noises at him. The boy seemed to wonder why his father was doing this.
I took lunch and dinner in the dining car. The meals weren't bad -- hot rice and platters of vegetables, meat, and fish. I was hoping the dining car would get busy with card players, but it never happened -- the only card players were in my train car. I failed to figure out their game after a few hands, and I felt self-conscious watching them. Throughout the day, piped-in music played, consisting of several pop songs that I recognized from a karaoke bar in Kashgar. But there were only about ten of them, and although the music wasn't loud, the repetition was tedious.
I finished Rory Stewart's Afghanistan travelogue and went to bed early, for I had a big day ahead. I was going to see the ancient dynastic capital of Xian and its famous army of terracotta warriors, and then I was going to relax in the nearby hot springs. And I was going to get back in time for the train to Shanghai.
Go on to part 4: Narrow alleys and sliding doors