Westward Bound

As I previously shared, my plans for China involve very little of the eastern coast. After spending the majority of my time in Beijing working through Turkmenistan’s visa (which has hit more complications), I booked my train ticket right outta there. Which is good for me, because to be honest I didn’t enjoy much of Beijing. Granted I spent much of it in a tiny embassy, but the city was just too big for me. Very big, very clean, very safe. I felt like I was in a massive shopping mall. So I’m exciting to be heading westwards on what’s likely going to be an increasingly weird traverse across China.

 

Finding the Train

My train was set to depart at 8:00 PM. To be safe, I left my hostel and got on the subway by 6:00. Making it through Beijing rush hour on the subway with a backpack the size of your average Chinese person was a chore, but not unenjoyable. People would look to my pack, then to me, then to the faces of commuters smooshed against the glass and give me a look that was a mix of pity and amusement. Once on the train, I mainly just got looks of amusement.

I arrived at Beijing West Station (Beijingxi in phonetic Mandarin) and went straight for what I assumed were ticket kiosks. Everyone was scanning their Chinese ID cards to receive their tickets and I, faced with a machine entirely in Mandarin, tried the same with my passport. I mean, maybe, right? Thankfully a passerby saw me and brought me to the ticket counter upstairs. At this point I had maybe 25 minutes before my train was set to depart so I ran from shop to shop in the station, assembling food and water to last me for what turned out to be a 26 hour ride.

I ended up on the train with just minutes to spare, but finding my seat was again a chore. Every official I stopped to ask for help demanded my passport before they would look at my ticket. When I was finally showed my seat, I realized quickly it was incorrect and again had to push my way up and down the aisle of the train while the entirely Chinese passenger cars pointed and laughed. You try to laugh along with them, but you can only tolerate that for so long.

Finally I found the correct seat and sat down. I had booked a hard seat ticket as it was the cheapest and most likely to give me a chance to interact with people. But no one spoke English so it was just the ten people in my immediate vicinity staring and trying to be sneaky about taking my photo. Once the train started moving, people mostly went back to their own thing.

 

Train 1: Beijing to Lanzhou

For the entirety of the nighttime portion of the trip, we were still in urban China. Hours would go by and it was still skyscrapers and neon signs whizzing by the windows. The train stopped often for people to get off, leaving myself and mostly Tibetan passengers as its final stop was Lhasa.

I slept for part of the night, but the guy across from me grinded his teeth so badly that my headphones couldn’t drown it out. His neighbor who sat across from me and I exchanged several looks, telling me he was just as miserable. An old man in a skull cap next to me put his head down and entered stasis for nearly eight hours, not even moving until sunrise. A young guy with his arm in a sling tried fighting sleep for the whole night, swaying back and forth and knocking things off the table as he wrestled with fatigue. Others slept on the floors or contorted in their small seats.

When sunrise came, the ride changed completely for me. I had stopped paying attention to the windows, but the rising sun illuminated the sudden lack of buildings. Finally, we had left urban China. Dusty fields with scattered shrubs stretched out for miles and miles. When we pushed farther west, the fields gave way to cracked, eroded mountains and badlands, littered with crumbling ruins and small caves. People stirred again, pressing up against the windows to see the sun rise over the untouched horizon.

The train lumbered on, weaving through the dusty hills and passing through vibrantly-green farm fields that contrasted them dramatically. Occasional villages would whip by; adobe and stucco complexes with few gates and crowded interior alleys.

As more of the train woke up, crew members began pushing carts of food down the aisles, not slowing down for whatever poor soul’s foot or knee was caught in the way. People began to talk again, and the train was alive once more. I slept one or two more stretches, but totaled maybe two hours in the 16 I spent on that train. By the end, I spent most of my time watching my map and wondering if the mystery city in the distance was Lanzhou. Eventually, it was.

I departed. My new goal was to find my next train that would take me to Jiayuguan. I wandered the station, showing my ticket to whoever was willing to talk to me in hopes someone could point me in the right direction. After speaking to several officials and showing my passport a few more times, I was taken to the waiting area. I’m pretty sure I was the only foreigner in the whole of Lanzhou, and was treated as such. There was nothing malicious — merely pointing and whispering, the occasional photo. People trying to figure out if I was horribly lost. But I boarded the train with them nonetheless, and had a much easier time finding my seat this time around.

 

Train 2: Lanzhou to Jiayuguan

This train was only going to be six hours. Normally I would think that’s a long time, but after spending the night and day on my previous train, this was nothing.

I took my seat, this time in the middle of a group of old men. One tried speaking to me in a language I couldn’t identify but didn’t sound like Mandarin, but the rest mostly ignored me. The train left the station soon after.

At this point, I was already pretty far west. But the landscape of China changes in some ridiculous ways. When I look at a map now, I realize I’m basically in the gap between Kazakhstan and Mongolia, so I’m less surprised by the landscape.

Lanzhou is in the mountains, but soon after the land levels out to wide expanses with mountains far in the distance. For awhile, snowy peaks could be seen miles and miles away. Much closer, jagged and brown razor-thin ridges spilled down the slopes of central China’s mountains, streaked with deep red sediment and crowned with camels. Factories belching smoke from huge towers loomed in the distance, casting shadows over dusty farm fields. For the entirety of the six hour ride, there was nothing but alien Mars-and-moonscapes rising and cutting their ways across the cracked, serrated desert ground. This is exactly the kind of thing I was hoping to find out here, and so the train window preview was welcome, though I don’t have many good photos of it all.

I slept for a small stretch and awoke to a police officer demanding my ticket. I have no idea where he came from but I wasn’t expecting police so soon after leaving Beijing. I gave him my ticket and he moved on, but a scowling face under a had adorned with a red star wasn’t a welcome sight to wake up to.

We continued on past dark. It turned out the ride was more like eight hours, and we did not arrive in Jiayuguan until close to 9:00 PM. The attendant who had been barking at everyone announced the stop, pointed to me and said, “You, off,” while pointing to the door as the train rolled into the station. I happily obliged, and left the train as soon as I could.

Once on the ground in Jiayuguan, I set off to find my hostel that was thankfully close to the station. I dropped my bag in my room by 10:00 PM, and left to find food at a nearby restaurant. I pointed to a picture that looked appetizing, and realized halfway through that it was essentially testicle stew.

It was good for what it was, but I had a hard time after realizing what I was eating. Still, food is food and I hadn’t eaten in hours.

I went to bed soon after, concluding my 26-hour transit across most of China.

 

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