Nomological Net

Stray thoughts from here and there. The occasional concern for construct validity. No more logic. Fish.


faults in the clouds of delusion

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Silk Road Chronicles (Day 5, Part 2)

We arrived at the Jiayuguan train station at 6:15 pm, which meant we had an hour to kill, and to add to that it appeared as if our train was late. It was the overnight train to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, but we were due to get off at Turpan, another major oasis town, a couple of hours from the end of the line. There were two electronic notice boards that we could see, one of which was flashing our train’s number with the correct scheduled time, and the other saying 7:40, or half an hour late. So we didn’t quite know what to make of the situation. To add to that, Jessica was acting *very* jumpy. She saw us to the waiting room (to enter which we had to get our luggage scanned in a machine like those one has at airports), and then went back outside to wait for her “manager”. After about half an hour she came back in with a couple of tickets for us. I asked to look at them and saw they were tickets for the chair car, and I observed that they cost 109 bucks each. Anyway, we sat there, and TPB fiddled around with the camera trying to take clandestine pictures of the Muslim Hui minority family that was sitting to our left, all the while attracting ever the more attention to herself. At one point we realized that the main display board was off – it was only showing scheduled times. So our train was indeed late after all.

At around 7:30, J came in to the waiting room again, and soon they announced the train’s arrival. Immediately, there was a rush for the door of the waiting room. The three of us found our way out with the crowd, then through the underground tunnel up to the second of two platforms. It was all very India-like, yet different in ways I couldn’t put my finger on. The steps going up to the platform from the tunnel had a sloped path beside them for luggage to be dragged up on – very considerate, except that the concrete slope was completely broken, pockmarked, and bumpy. I dragged our suitcase up the incline and emerged on to the platform; one that was equally bumped up with broken concrete. These last images struck a contrast with the image I’d built up of Jiayuguan as a new, modern city.

J drew to a stop, and behind her so did we. She introduced us to a rotund, disheveled-looking middle aged man who she called her manager. The guy grunted back at me. With him was another geezer – an official looking sort. We stood around in companionable silence, and in a couple of minutes the train was upon us. As it approached, J took out her wallet and counted out four 100 RMB notes, and gave them to the official looking guy. She also gave him the two tickets she’d just bought. He looked at them and nodded. We looked on. People got off the train, others got on. A few officers in blue uniforms alighted, and checked the tickets of those entering. Then the attention turned to us. Another group, what looked like five NRCs or foreign-born Chinese, also wanted to get on to the train. There was a brief conversation following which three of the officers retreated to a side as if to confer amongst themselves. But the funny thing was, no one seemed to be saying anything. They just sort of stood there in silence, not really even looking at each other. I had NO IDEA what was going on. I just waited, like everyone else. But something must have happened because someone uttered a sound and Jessica sprang to life and said, “ok, ok, you’re on”. I dragged the suitcase up the narrow entrance into the carriage, past the people who’d also been standing there for whatever reason, and was maneuvering myself into the narrow corridor. From behind me J said “Compartment #3”. TPB was ahead of me, I relayed the message – 3. Then I heard Jessica sy, “Stop, stop.” So we stopped. As did my heart. (And TPB’s too, as I later learned.) There was a very brief conference again, and then we heard J say, “#5”. So to 5 we went.

A man and a *very* thin woman were sitting on the right side of compartment #5 as we entered – the man was on the lower bunk and the woman above. It was a 2-tier sleeper with all sorts of bed linen all over the place. I tried to fit the suitcase under the berth but it didn’t fit. Our watching companions gestured upwards – I realized there was a storage space up above the doorway through which I’d entered the compartment; essentially a little storage loft lying above the corridor running along one side of the carriage. I hoisted the bag up, the woman gave me a hand from above, and thankfully, it fit. Next thing I know J is at the door saying goodbye. I’d thought they weren’t allowing her onto the train, and so I’d thought I wouldn’t be able to do it, but I was glad I was able to say goodbye and thanks, and to slip her a tip.

She’d taken such good care of us for those three days in Dunhuang and Jiayuguan, she’d become like a friend. She was great.


We looked around the compartment. It appeared pretty much like an Indian Railways A/C 2-tier, except that the sides of the berths did not open onto the corridor, there was a wall along the side, and a lockable door in the wall. Also, there were no berths across the corridor, only windows. Inside the compartment, the previous occupant had left quite a mess. There were crumbs on our lower berth, TPB said there were oil stains on the sheets, and the sheets, pillows, and blankets (the latter two swathed in white linen) were all mussed up. TPB said she was sure they’d change them. So we sat there. Time went by, no one appeared. Our traveling companions weren’t too communicative either, although the man did once try to tell us something in Chinese. We sat quietly and looked out of the windows on either side – at the Jiayuguan fort and Great Wall we’d seen that morning through our window, and from the aisle side at the Qilian mountains.

About half an hour later an attendant finally appeared – with an armload of magazines! Our guy exchanged one he was reading for one of hers, and then she turned her attention to us. “Do you want water?” I said no. TPB said yes. The woman said, “Two wot-ter?” TPB said yes. The girl on the bunk opposite repeated under her breath, “Two wot-ter.” TPB then decided to try her luck. “Will you change the sheets?” she asked. No response. She tried again, this time grabbing the blanket covers and making appropriate pointing gestures, and without the superfluous “Will you”. The attendant said, “yes, yes!” and vanished. TPB looked triumphant. An hour later, with no returning attendant, that look had faded. She came to the conclusion that the sheets wouldn’t actually be changed, and I didn’t ask what else she may have been thinking. But they were – sort of. The attendant buzzed back in an hour later, and with maximum efficiency in a few flashing minutes changed the covers on the blankets. I guessed that they were much influenced by the exact specifics of TPB’s enactment of the Changing of the Sheets.

The other thing that we were stressing about was the tickets. The train had set forth well over an hour and we still had no tickets in hand. Now *that*, for someone who’d grown up on Indian railways, spelled “unusual”. When she’d gotten on the train, Jessica had given me some rushed but specific instructions. She had said that once the train starts, the attendant will come and give me a card. Before I get off at Turpan, they will come and replace the card with my new ticket. I was to MAKE SURE that I gave the new ticket to the guide in Turpan. I’d said okay, but now it had been over two hours and there was no sign of any ticket. At one point an attendant had stuck her head in to the compartment and asked for our tickets. The words had choked in the back of my throat as I’d said No. But she had immediately said Okay!, and pointed down the corridor in a gesture of understanding. I’d had no idea what that meant but I copied the gesture and nodded vigorously – that had been good enough for that particular interaction. Interestingly, just as that had happened, our compartment-mates had had a brief conversation, in Chinese, of which TPB managed to catch one keyword. According to her, based on her reading of the Lonely Planet whose Travel By Train section she’d been on just then, that word meant “upgrade”. She said that it is possible to get onto a train with any old ticket (such as our chair car), and upgrade en route. This little piece of circumstantial knowledge gave us some relief – we continued to look out of the windows at the endless passing barrenness, to read, to update the log.

The journey continued. The girl went off somewhere. The guy opened up a bowl of instant noodles and peeled a sausage into the bowl, slicing it with the tines of a plastic fork. It struck me for the first time that maybe they were traveling independently. TPB settled down to read her book and wage war on the sunflower seeds we had left over from the Dunhuang night market. One by one, all of them turned in. I was the last one out, a little after 11, making sure to lock the door – just because I could. I settled in under the blanket, my backpack squeezed in at the corner of the bunk above my head near the window, my money belt snug against my stomach.


I woke at 4. The train was not moving. Craning my neck, I parted the curtain and looked out the window. We were stopped at a deserted station, a coal train across the platform. A single halogen streetlamp cast a ghostly spotlight across an empty stretch of concrete. I desperately needed to go to the restroom. I had a sinking feeling – this was a sensation I could have done without.

My constitution is such that I need to take a crap within a very short period of waking. I had hoped that the rocking of the train – my first overnight journey in six years – would lull me to sleep for a reasonable length of time. At least seven hours: I had been optimistic. Given the time it was when I’d gone to sleep, I’d hoped that would take me through to near 7, which, according to our schedule, was our time of arrival in Turpan. The reason for my paranoia was that I’d seen the only toilet in our compartment – it was Chinese style, that’s similar to Indian style, and, although kind of clean, very wet all over. Urgent as the call was, I felt that was one experience I had to try my best to avoid.

However, I needed to take a leak anyway. I slid my shoes on and made my uncertain way down the corridor. Even at that hour there were three people forming a line at the end of the carriage. I tagged on. One guy had a large bandage all over his ear and the side of his head – that looked very eerie at that time and place. The middle-aged lady in front of me tried to strike up a conversation with me, entirely in Chinese. I tried to drag myself to it, but what with everything I just wasn’t feeling at the top of my game. Mercifully, just then the toilet door opened; it opened for her.

Soon after, it opened for me. I went in and took my leak, and on the way back to the compartment, I had the certain realization that wouldn’t be enough. Cursing Jessica’s incessant Sichuan food, I realized that I *really* needed to go. I eased myself back into our compartment and onto my bunk, and formulated a plan of action. This was no joke – back in the summer of ’87 my grandmother had tucked her entire travel budget away into her blouse as she entered the can… and watched it tumble away beneath her into the vast Indian hinterland. One needed to be prepared.

First I dug the rucksack out from under the bunk. A few moments later I cursed myself long and vehemently for having packed *both* rolls of toilet paper in as far as they would go. WHAT had I been thinking? I pulled one out, disturbing the equilibrium of the bag, and tore off two long thin strips. Folded and put them into the left pocket. Headed back down the corridor.

The loo was in use when I got back, so I had to stand there and wait. No one else in sight this time. For fifteen long minutes, from 4:30 to 4:45, I stood there all alone; my desperation growing. The next car was the smoking car – inside, attendants lay sprawled all over much like the clocks in the famous Dali painting. More pertinently, it had no restroom. I resumed my guard, thinking to myself that the only way I wouldn’t summarily murder the occupant when they exited was if they were a little old lady. I even swore OUT LOUD – louder than I expected – in fact so loud that a man stepping sleepily out of his compartment at the other end of the corridor looked up in alarm. Of course, when the occupant finally stepped out, it turned out to be a sweet middle aged lady.

Without going into the blow by blow details of what went on once I stepped inside, let’s just say that things passed better than I expected. It went well. Crisis averted. Garv se kaho hum Bharatvasi hain. And all that sort of stuff, you know.

I made my very relieved way back to the compartment, took off my shoes, and lay down to a well-deserved rest. I had, after all, had less than five hours of sleep till then. But what do you know, less than five minutes later there’s a knock and the door opens to reveal a real ticket checker, who brusquely checks the tickets of the other two people before turning her attention to me. I point weakly down the corridor (at the very least, we have a good ten hours of distance between us and Jiayuguan!) Wonder of wonders, she says, “Jiayuguan?” “Yes! Yes!” I say. She says, “Tulufan?” (That’s Chinese for Turpan.) “Yes!” I say. (I know, my Mandarin is limited, but my emotion may justifiably be excused.) She picks out four tickets and gives them to me. I take a look – these are our two old tickets which I’d last seen Jessica give that official looking guy, and two new ones. Meanwhile, the lady says: “Tulufan, thirty minutes”, and vanishes.

It takes a second or few to hit me. Did she just say *thirty* minutes? According to our schedule, Turpan’s supposed to arrive at 6:56! It’s now barely 5! The train that was twenty minutes late has now made up TWO hours? How does THAT happen?! I jumped up and shook TPB awake. Our companions too were showing signs of life. The girl was getting all dandied up – her micro mini shorts had suddenly become slim fit jeans, her high-heeled slip-ons replaced by sneakers. Both of them pulled their bags all out. I followed suit.

It didn’t take that long to get our stuff together, and then we sat and waited, talking in low tones. What happens now? The train is an hour and a half early, so will there be any interpreter / driver there to receive us? How does someone find out at 5 in the morning that the train they were expecting to arrive at 7 is in fact about to pull in? And what if there’s no one there – well that wasn’t a disaster; at worst we’d just have to squat there on the platform.

As soon as the station hove into sight, our companions were off down the corridor. We still had no official confirmation that it was indeed Turpan, so we did the next best thing – stuck our heads out into the corridor and asked a random passerby: “Tulufan?” He nodded assent. We joined the line behind him, the last ones out of the train.

I could hardly believe my eyes as, over TPB’s shoulder as she stepped down onto the first of three steps, I saw a short plump lady closing a folder that contained a sign inside with my name on it. TPB is pointing and nodding at her, and the lady is saying, “Hello, my name is Lily, and this is our driver Mr. Zhang. Welcome to Turd-pan.”


Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

I thought I'd wait till you posted all the travelogues to read them, for the sake of continuity. But I just couldn't wait and besides, it seems there's lots more to come!

Here I sit absolutely mesmerised. How is it that I know so little about China? Your posts open up a whole new world - a world that I now feel like I must explore - one of those 100 things to do in your lifetime kind of things.

The pictures are amazing - I'm usually not very enamoured of the desert landscape, but I can clearly feel the adventure of the Silk Road and the arduous journey through it.

The food pics are the best bit - the Chinese have everyone beat when it comes to food. Such culinary diversity!

I'm eagerly waiting for the next episode.

8/16/2007 1:16 AM  
Blogger J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Damn you, Prof. Now I have to edit my blogroll.
Because I can't re-read you off Bloglines.


8/16/2007 8:24 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

thanks, that's really nice of you to say. i agree, every part of the world has a world of stories hidden away in it. some we get to know a little more about, and some a lot less. (i was astonished to find my blog come up on the first page of hits when i googled "mogao" last week.) i felt like i just *had* to get all these posts out in all their gory detail - it's a heck of a lot of typing! - so it's really gratifying to know that people appreciate them.

i thought you'd said you'd get rid of that dinosaur ages ago?

8/16/2007 8:58 PM  
Blogger km said...

My constitution is such that I need to take a crap within a very short period of waking.

Some people here are learning about Chinese history, but not me.

//Turd-pan is pure genius.

8/17/2007 8:37 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

heh. that was for the next time i stay over :-)

re: turd-pan, to be fair to her she didn't actually pronounce the 'd'. in fact it was a while before we pinpointed why it sounded funny.

8/17/2007 12:07 PM  

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