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Sunday, September 07, 2003  
I survived a two day train trip - where's my fucking prize

Watkins has endurance, I give him that. Here he is en route through the middle of China, a latter day gentleman abroad, of sorts:

I have just completed a monster train trip from Urumqi to Xian. A forty six hour endurance test on a hard seater in the midst of the chaotic rush back to school. Cramped up in a shit stained human zoo fighting for leg room and sleep space amongst peasants, granite faced Nazi attendents, stressed students and slack jawed gawkers. Dealing with gunge blocked sinks at every turn, petty officials that checked my ticket twenty times and the incontinence of young and old alike. Things went bad from the start with a hour delay at departure, a portent of things to come. Soon after we left my rucksuck, now bleached white from the sands of the Taklamakan, fell off the rack onto my bonce. That wouldn't have been so bad if it hadn't glanced the arm of the girl opposite, and if said delicate flower diddn't have a yahoo military boyfriend. Still, the whole argument/Chinese pushing contest and intelligible interrogation by the guards/transport cops manged to kill an hour.
The rest of the journey was spent in pained frustration. There are two parts to the discomfort a forreigner will face on a Chinese train. The first is merely physical, despite the name the seat is soft but the back is at right angles to the bottom, making any kind of lasting sleep impossible and causing your vertabrea to decide to edge out of alignment. I managed to deal with that by buying a big book before departure and phase out of actual consciousness during the days, while sleeping under the table during the nights with a sharpened chopstick in case anyone's feet got too close. This former tactic will only work if you a): pretend to be completely ignorent in Chinese- as I did at the start of the trip; or b) you start acting like crazy person- which really wasn't that hard to fake after the second night. The second is the inevitable Let's stare/poke/talk Chinese at the laowai even though he's told them he does't under stand. Together these two factors create stress levels that are indeed both horrible and fascinating to endure. I shared my trip facing the Chinese Chuckle Brothers, whose eyes and manky smiles never seemed to leave me. Of course going for a smoke is itself almost an open invitation to an impromptu english corner with whoever's in the bridge between compartments- despite the fact that all the english they know is "hello" and I don't want to talk. I even had one eager student try to wake me up at Three o clock in the morning for a smoke and a chat (He asked later that morning why I stabbed him). In addition such respites in the standing area often left me trapped close to the mobile samovar as a mob of passengers fought for the last of the hot water brandishing their flasks and tea jam jars, or surrounded by parents holding their half naked sprog as they vented all manner of waste products from their bodies.
I should me more pissed off/wasted than I am. I'm probably just pleased I made it, I'm definately getting more patient in my old age, after all I only shouted "cunts" at the massed assembly round me three times during the whole odyssey.
Other than that I have been to Urumqi. The furthest city from the sea in the world and capital of Xinjiang Province. Definetly a Chinese city, though with a more tasteful use of neon than normal: all identikit buildings, sky scrapers with bad taste planning permission, wide tree laned boulevards, lion headed yappy type dogs and the constant whisper of "laowai" as I moved around. I'd like to say I did more but after a three day sleeper bus trip through the desert- another nightmare journey*- all I was up for was drinking and bowling with the Chinese military in our hotel. I was hanging around with an english guy and a bloke called Klaus, definately Germany's version of Mez, a force of nature that got us in all manner of scrapes but kept me laughing the entire time. However on the culture side I managed to see the mummies of the Silk Road, settlers of Indo-European or even Celtic origin. A fascinating collection of specimens and an excellent place to bring easily scared high school students, even if it was housed in what amounted to somebody's shed while the museum for them is built according to an almost geological schedule (Very typical of Xinjiang that).

* That said, it was pretty cool stopping off for a beer in the middle of the Taklamakan, seeing the silouhettes of the dunes in a neon lit hamlet of brothels , built soley for the Chinese Oil workers and their monster trucks.

8:47 PM

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