Sunday, May 18, 2008

Xian - Urumqi

In Xian I decided to try the same trick with the bike as from Shenzhen-Xian and arrived an hour early at the station, but this time didn't look for a luggage section. They weren't quite so amused. I put my bags through the scanners and then waited around while nervous station guards, yelling mostly at one another, tried to work out what to do with me. Nothing much happened for 10 minutes. Eventually a girl came back with a dictionary and pointed to the word 'luggage'. I said, 'Yes, and....?' She looked stressed and went away. I spotted the waiting area for my train. Encouraged by some naughty, smiling Chinese passengers, who checked that she had gone for me, I moved in that direction. Traffic was flowing well so I just walked straight through onto the platform; the ticket checker was only mildly interested. I had found my carriage by the time they found me again. Soon a very angry little man (more senior railway official?) appeared and started screaming at me. Other people were making signs 'fold it in half' (or 'break it in half'?) I took all my panniers off the bike. He was still furious so the only resort I had left was to take off the wheels and put the seat down - demonstrating, I hoped, my genuine desire to make the bike as small as possible. In a further attempt at cooperation I pointed at the spot I had stashed my bike on the last trip - but this wasn't well received. By this time about 7 officials were standing around me. A brief detente. I took the chance to give my ticket to the carriage guard and put my bags on the train. She didn't mind that. So I tried the wheels. That seemed to be OK, too. I got off again.

5 minutes before scheduled departure, and I was still waiting on the platform with the frame of my bike, nothing was happening, and I was getting a bit anxious. So I started making motions of putting the frame on the train, and pointing at my watch, and speaking more emphatically. No, no, no. At last a railway girl came who spoke some English. She was very sympathetic and as soon as she arrived (2-3 min before departure) my frame was suddenly allowed on the train. Phew. We went in together and went scouting for storage spots. Eventually I stashed it under a hard sleeper seat (no passengers there yet) and was able to get it almost out of view. When the passengers did get on they didn't mind at all.

I can't say I'd recommend this to anybody else - though on the other hand I got to stash the bike myself and got it from Hong Kong to Urumqi by train (4500km?) undamaged....

The train trips themselves were great and getting tickets not a hassle at all.
Decent restaurant wagon, two minute noodles and Chinese beer.
Xian-Urumqi took about 34 hours, mostly barren rocky plains and occasional rugged outcrops, over a plateau 1800m high in places, though Urumqi is at about 900m.
There were occasional very Chinese cities en route, but I didn't see any agriculture or stock.
The main activity outside was sand/rock mining.

Arrived in Urumqi at 7.30 this morning- a cool, pleasant and friendly city. Turkic letters are over Chinese characters on street signs, lots of missplent (misspelt) Russian language signs - 'supermarket', 'Export affairs base' and the like. I rolled down into town between the high rises to watch the Sunday market setting up, with lots of bananas, fresh greens, a pinkish-red fruit which looks like a small oval pomegranate, and fresh giant pancakes with chives, yum. In the park I saw a man goosestepping John Cleese style (for exercise, I think?) Now some boys seem to be opening a computer shop and are letting me use their laptop as they put up decorations around me! I'm working on the new front counter!

The plan now is to head over to Kazakhstan, probably SW then WNW to Yining- as much as I'd like to have a look at northern Xinjiang it's out of my way (a 1500km detour!)

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