Thursday, July 30, 2009

Rolling, rolling, rolling...

People always ask what it's like on a sleeper train in China or the 'stans, so here are some notes from my recent 32-hour odyssey.

I forgot the best part about Russian--or in this case, Kazakh--trains: the small horde of babushkas that descends on the train as it arrives in rural stations, laden with chilled drinks (fizzy water frozen half solid, warm beer, cold pop); armloads of smoked fish; savory doughnuts flecked with meat and onions or sweet ones unfilled; bags of tiny apples; Mason jars of wild strawberries, raspberries, sour cherries; little meat patties; etc. My only mistake was in not changing more than $5 at the last stop, though it bought me a beer there, a liter of frozen water and a generous pint of cherries here, with some leftover. The approach in China is totally different: you never leave the train, and what's for sale at stops differs little--may in fact be worse--than what's available on board. On Chinese trains everyone survives on pot noodles, green tea, or the prepackaged meals (cooked in dining car), fruit, and snacks sent around on trolleys. On Russian trains, at least this one, there's no dining car or trolley that I can see, and everyone gets off at every stop and grazes.

The dining car food (from trolleys) on Chinese trains is much like bad Chinese restaurant food in the US: greasy rice, soy sauce-drenched chicken, limp broccoli or green beans, a fried egg, a slice of processed ham, maybe a cucumber salad. Not bad for a train, but pretty feeble for the country with possibly the world's greatest food. My goal, which I've now achieved, has become never to eat rice in China--not that I don't like it, but b/c the noodles, dumplings, buns, and other sources of starch are so much more interesting, and rice is so easily avoided, esp. in the north and west. Even in the south, the Chinese do okay by rice, but nothing like the Iranians or Indians, say, who use jasmine or basmati or other inherently aromatic varieties, brought to their full glory with careful cooking (each grain distinct) and elegant mingling with hints of spice, nuts, veg. Already in Urumqi the transformation is evident as "polo," rice pilaf, becomes a dish unto itself, whereas elsewhere in China rice is more of a condiment or filler.

Despite admonitions from the LP, Man in Seat 61, etc., that it's very popular, booked out weeks in advance, the "Silk Road" train I'm on (Urumqi to Almaty) is in fact only six cars long, and a good half the kupes are empty or partially full--mine only has me and one Kazakh guy in a berth built for four. Even full, it would be quite a luxury compared to Chinese hard sleeper. It's interesting, though, that Chinese trains are more spartan but newer (squat toilets but twice as many, and clean; sinks outisde bathrooms; sparkling enameled steel hardware, iridescent panel night lights) while Kazakh trains (much like Russian but not perhaps as wide) are more ornate but older and shabbier (seated toilets but very dirty and half as many; fake wood paneling everywhere; old-school military-grade lights, towel racks, etc.)

Stopped for over an hour on Chinese side for very thorough Customs (made me turn on computer, and guy opened various windows; seemed acutely interested in books; made me unpack bag down to opening deoderant in toilet kit); 20-minute lope through no-man's-land, when toilet was finally open; over an hour on Kazakh side for much more casual Customs. Then, an hour later, we stopped for 2-3 hours (and disembarked) while they changed bogeys (Russian/former USSR tracks are wider than most others).

It occurs to me that trains only really become interesting after about sixteen hours, when the journey becomes more than just a long overnight. As time stretches into the afternoon of the second day, you start to forget your origin, or destination, or time, and slip into a very relaxed kind of suspended animation. Another way of putting it would be that 12-16 hours is what separates those who love trains from those who put up with them; luxury vs. necessity. It's impossible to be in a hurry on a train (either a good or bad thing, depending on your disposition, I suppose); most sleepers are set up to go much slower than they theoretically could (who wants to arrive at 3:30 am?). On the Urumqi-Almaty train, a good six hours was "wasted" with borders and bogeys, to say nothing of fifteen-minute stops every three hours or so, and a very leisurely pace when it was moving. That's what windows are for.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Degrees of awkwardness

"You're going to travel across China by yourself?!" people often ask with incredulity.
"You must speak Chinese, right?"
"You don't have a guide, or anything?"
"How will you manage?!"

No one ever asks such questions about Russia, or even the 'stans.

But here's the thing, which I already suspected and can now say with authority: China's easier.
How can that be?
  1. Most Chinese don't expect foreigners to speak Chinese.
  2. Very few Chinese people can speak English, but those who do are usually dying to practice it on you.
  3. Culturally, the Chinese are a highly demonstrative people: they shout, they gesticulate, they pantomime, they make Jim Carrey-worthy facial contortions.
  4. Most people simply refuse to accept the language barrier: a missed communication is seen as a lost sale (even when no money's involved).
  5. Many signs are bilingual (though radically fewer outside Beijing)
In Russian-speaking countries, on the other hand,
  1. Many people don't understand or believe that anyone could fail to speak their language. (It doesn't help that I look passably Russian.)
  2. More people speak English than in China, but those who don't are less inclined to struggle.
  3. Because Russian is somewhat related to English, however distantly, there's an expectation that foreigners should be able to manage it somehow.
  4. There are virtually no bilingual signs (in fact very few signs at all). This problem is compounded by the fact that, in Kazakhstan and other former USSR "satellites," most streets have two or three different names representing various stages of independence and/or language (Russia is the lingua franca, but Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Tajik, Uighur, and others are all native tongues of the area.) Transliterating Cyrillic is a lot easier than Mandarin characters once you've practiced it, but to the uninitiated it can actually be harder, because critical differences can be so subtle, compared to the fairly obvious differences in Chinese names, which rarely comprise more than two characters each.
Things can easily seem more comfortable in Kazakhstan, because it's so European in architecture, urban planning, leafiness, wealth, ethnicity, preponderance of cars, food, etc., etc.--nearly every way except language. In Almaty, at least, there's a definite Darwinian mentality--if you can't handle our system, get lost.

China, on the other hand, wants so badly to be respected and loved by foreigners: from the central government to the man on the street, you can just feel that they're trying so hard to please.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Pay no attention to the man with the automatic weapon

A lot of people have expressed concern for my safety in visiting Urumqi. How to put this delicately? There are certain things quasi-totalitarian regimes do "well," and quelling disorder is one of them. It's very unsettling to imagine everything a tourist doesn't see--the paddy wagons, broken fingers and black eyes, swollen prisons, body bags. But what one does see is a city effectively being dared not to keep the peace. Police, SWAT teams, and soldiers are everywhere (all of them Han, rather than Uighur, of course). All but the most essential areas of the train station are cordoned off. Leftover police tape surrounds large areas of the Muslim quarter that were presumably trouble-spots before, but have resumed at least the appearance of normality now.

Every traveler knows never to stare at, much less photograph, a soldier. The unsettling thing in Urumqi for me is that the soldiers, like everyone else, all gawk at me. I assume they just want to study my strange appearance, because the general attitude of police and other authorities is clearly "leave the foreigners alone." They let me bypass X-rays at train stations with my film and camera with hardly a glance, and I get the feeling I could bring nearly anything through without half the attention a native would get.

All that being said, there is something particularly creepy to me about a camo transport truck full of Chinese soldiers spinning straight through town. This is, after all, the world's biggest standing army (by far), and these guys do have access to nuclear weapons and all manner of other highly advanced war toys. Yet there's that hunger and insouciance in them one doesn't see in American or European soldiers, suggesting that, on the one hand, they're just kids in soldier suits, but on the other hand, they know war as a personal fight for home and food and safety, not a video game or abstract geopolitical gambit.

You do the math

Urumqi is the farthest point on earth from any ocean; Lanzhou is the halfway point across China; Almaty is the beginning of the 'stans. The question remains, have I come halfway across the world's biggest continent yet? If anyone can say for sure, do tell, but I'm guessing yes, even though it's still a looooooooong way to Moscow.

Some more stats:
  • a week-and-a-half down; four-plus to go
  • two out of six visas used (but both to be re-used)
  • Kazakhstan is the first "new" country I'll be visiting, and one of only two I'm visiting completely independently
  • Kazakhstan is the first of four 'stans I'll be visiting, of six in existence (can you name them? spell them?)
  • Despite a lot of green tea and ramen noodles consumed, four major sleeper trains ridden, countless unpackings and re-packings completed, I'm still in "phase one" of the trip, until I join the Central Asia tour on Saturday ("phase two"), and leave it on the slow train to Moscow three weeks later ("phase three")

What it's like to be a celebrity

Everyone still wants to take my picture. Some attempt to do so without asking. Clearly I'm something to behold for the Chinese, but they're also simply trigger-happy, like the stereotype of Japanese tourists (or the reality of digital camera-wielding Westerners). The family I was with today took about half a dozen pictures of themselves and me standing before every sign, entrance gate, entrance feature, and so on.

Young Muslim guy in Lanzhou night market was positively giddy at the strangeness of my appearance, pulling at the hairs on my hands and laughing almost beyond control, finally showing, by way of explanation, the lack of hair on his own hands. He also measured my fingers against his own, using his fingers as calipers, marveling, I guess, at the longness of mine. He videotaped me on his cell phone as I ate--I wasn't pleased at his failure to ask first, but his glee was hard to argue with.

This is prob. as good a time as any to explain my screen-name: literally "barbarian" in Spanish, it's what everyone in China seems to be thinking--if not saying--when they look at me. Caucasians are rare; people over six feet are rarer; redheads border on the mythological; and men with long hair and beards might as well be extraterrestrial creatures. Among Argentines, "barbaro" functions as an exclamation akin to "awesome," "boss," "sweet," "cool." May this blog inspire such surprise and wonder.

Capitalism by any other name


Beijing seems much more polluted, and just as hot, as before. The metro has been thoroughly updated--turnstiles and ticket-machines reign where humans once did, to the point that it's quite hard to get on a train without exact change. In the tunnels, as the trains pass, they've somehow installed video advertisements that flash and flicker behind bars or something. Near Xiahe there are ads painted over the mouths of highway tunnels. On the trains conductors pass through selling glasses, socks, and other things no one really needs, or would bother looking at if not a captive audience. Beijing can hardly build shopping malls or billboards fast enough. The locals take to shopping like a novel sport. The notion that this is still a "communist" country is beyond laughable.

Nationwide Blog-out


After lugging my li'l computer around for a week untouched, I finally busted it out at Charlie Jong's Dune Guesthouse in Dunhuang, to find, to my astonishment, that everything worked: plug adapter, charger, computer, even free wi-fi. Sometimes progress is almost too good.

All set to get busy with this blog, I quickly discovered that is blocked in the PRC. (So's Facebook, if anyone's counting.)

So I made some notes offline and bided my time until I'd be out of China and back on the Internet, finally able to get this blog off the ground. Welcome to this morning, as I sit at a very European-seeming cafe in Almaty drinking in the gloriously cool, rainy weather with my nose and the too-long-abandoned coffee (and strawbery-poppy tart) with my mouth. I love green tea, but after a solid ten days of the stuff--and serious sleep deprivation on the 32-hour train here--I was very ready for a shot of burned beans and milk (dairy products being another all-but-unheard-of entity in China).

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Background Reading


Much of what I know about train-ing it across the "Silk Road" came from here, one of the best travel websites--or freebies of any kind--there is:

For a description of Chinese trains in general, and "hard sleeper" in particular, click here:

You can also get a sense of how much cozier Russian trains are, especially in 2nd class, aka "soft sleeper," to which I succumb on voyages much longer than 24 hours:

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Getting ready to flee the hemisphere


In less than 48 hours I'll be airborne to Beijing. What amazing times we live in that one can so casually climb into a winged aluminum capsule and zip across the Pacific, bane of sailors for centuries.

After years of travelling alone, I'll be joined on this voyage across Eurasia by Gabriela, my shiny black mini-laptop. It's in her honor that this blog is born.