Sunday, September 20, 2009

To Ürümqi

I left Beijing in August 1993 at the conclusion of my U.N. job, where for two years I had taught English to students at the Wai Jiao Xue Yuan, China’s school of diplomacy, run by the Foreign Affairs Ministry of the P.R.C. The trip took to me to Urumqi in Xinjiang Province, from there by bus to Kashgar, over the Karakoram into the north of Pakistan, and across the Punjab to Dharamsala in India.
The train trip from Beijing to Urumqi lasted three days, the Chinese version of the Mongolian Express, but without the Western tourists out for a good time. Indeed there was hardly anyone on the train at all, excepting some military officers and local cadres who would get on and ride minor distances and then get off. Most of the time I had a whole compartment to myself, secure in my little bubble since no one spoke English in the provinces in those days, settling comfortably into the well-worn blue cushion seats with little white lace doilies on the headrests. I sank into my usual travel trance, accepting helplessness and tedium the way one does when flying for 14 hours across the Pacific to San Francisco from Tokyo. I roused myself every couple hours when the train service brought round tea and jiaozi (dumplings) and read for awhile afterwards.
We passed through or near Turfan, Bezelik, Jiaohe, places on the northern Silk Road desert I had examined and photographed in detail on previous trips. The train line crosses the Taklamakan Desert, on the north side of the Tarim Basin. The area is not known for stunning desert scenery, but is rather nondescript in most places. It suddenly comes alive in the red sandstone hills in the Tian Shan mountain range near Turfan. They are mentioned in Journey to the West, the marvelous 16th c. Chinese novel which describes the journey of Xuanzang, the priest of Great Tang, who is off to India to fetch the Buddhist sutras, accompanied by Monkey and Pig. What a journey that must have been overland.

Urumqi proved to be yet another grey Chinese city with absolutely nothing to see, despite an ethnic mix of half Chinese and half Uyghur, each side apparently canceling out the cultural accomplishments of the other. There is some fine mountain scenery in the Tianshans near Urumqi: alpines lakes and green meadows populated with nomadic tribespeople living in yurts.

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