Hong Kong to UK by train: Day 6
Leaving Beijing at 09:19 would get me to Hohhot by 20:30. The train to Erlian left at 21:38. I had to hope there would be tickets left when I got to Hohhot station, or my crossing the border and getting to Ulaanbaatar on time was looking increasingly unlikely.
“Are you German?” This was David, around thirty years old and heading to Xinjiang, China’s largest and most remote province in the far-northwest. He wasn’t the first person to have asked me that question on this trip, and he wouldn’t be the last. He was a music teacher, originally from Hubei province, but he had moved to Xinjiang six years ago for work. He was working in a primary school there and was heading back before the start of the new school year. I told him I was on my way home to the UK.
“But why are you going to Hohhot?” he said. “There are no flights to Europe from there, only Asia.” I explained the whole Hong Kong to UK by train thing to him. He looked at me as if I was mistaken. I meant plane, not train, didn’t I? Surely I did.
“Anything but plane,” I told him.
“But how long will that take?”
“Seventeen days,” I said. “If nothing goes wrong.”
“Oh. I think that train is too slow.” He said it as if consoling me. I hadn’t expected sympathy for this undertaking. Maybe he thought I was doing this out of necessity, that I was under some kind of duress, or some awful crisis was dragging me home against my wishes and train was my only option.
“Not slow,” I told him, “just long. And there are many trains. It isn’t all travelling.” He seemed sceptical.
“But what will you do for all that time?’
I didn’t know. Eat, drink, read, write, chat to my fellow passengers. That’s about as much as I had in mind. I’d done plenty of travelling in China and been on plenty of Chinese trains over the past couple of years, but travelling four days on the Trans-Siberian Railway across Russia – a country I knew next to nothing about, of who’s language I knew precisely zero words – that was something else. In truth, I didn’t know what to expect.
We talked a little more about my journey and about China, about England and how he’d like to study there one day. We talked about home and what we missed, and about the two provinces in his life.
“Xinjiang is very beautiful,” he said. “And Hubei too. We have the Yangtze in Hubei. You should go there.” I told him I would. “If you go I can show you the places. Do you have a telephone?” We swapped numbers. He was David Hohhot. I was Baoluo Train.
“Why Xinjiang?” I asked. “It’s so far from Hubei.”
“Yes, 60 hours to Xinjiang by train,” he said. “But I had a beautiful student there once and I wanted to go back to be near her. But now she’s not in Xinjiang anymore, only me.” So it goes.
The city had changed to desert now. The Gobi encroaching on Beijing at a rate of 2km each year, bringing with it dust storms and mud rain, leaving towns abandoned to the dunes in its wake. The bleached landscape was harshening and the air seemed drier. The mountains in the distance lent an almost lunar backdrop. Trees, at first numerous, had fallen from view. The whole place seemed terminally ill.
China but not
The script was changing too. On the platforms, the Chinese signs had been joined by those in Mongolian. We were entering country that while still China per se, was also something other. Xinjiang itself is home to an almost 10 million majority of Chinese Uighurs and there had been several incidents in which Han, Uighur and Chinese security forces had clashed violently in the past few years.
In the worst of the trouble in mid-2009, Xinjiang’s capital, Ürümqi, had seen days of rioting which had left at least 200 people dead and thousands injured, unrest for which many have blamed Beijing’s heavy handed domestic policy in the region. I asked David what he thought of it all.
David didn’t blame the Chinese Uighurs for reacting to such provocation. They felt their culture and identity threatened and things had boiled over, he said. But this was still China, and they were still Chinese, and that wasn’t going to change.
Had he been involved in any of the unrest himself? “No. I saw the results though,” he told me. “But if you look for trouble you’ll usually find it.
Things had been the same in Hohhot too only two months previously. An estimated 50 students had been arrested after a series of demonstrations sparked by the killing of an ethnic Mongol protester who tried to block a coal truck driven by a Han driver. There were even rumours that foreigners were being prevented from entering the province. But we were in with no such problems, and we had almost reached Hohhot.
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