Green train to Kashgar

Turpan train station is not conveniently located. It takes forever for the bus to drive those 50 km that separate it from the town. I wondered whether the bus was not getting lost in the desert countryside instead. Surely I had not jumped on the wrong one? But the other passengers were carrying luggage and, tellingly, bagfuls of junk food, a clear indicator of a long train journey ahead. I was jittery only because of the train ride awaiting me. How would I stand 36 hours on a hard seat?

The infamous green train pulled in punctually and I got into a carriage already occupied by a motley crowd, where the Uyghurs were the predominant component. Upon entering I felt curious gazes riveted on me and returned a few welcome smiles. Many faces looked as if they had never seen a foreigner, especially not one travelling on the green train. The Uyghurs shake hands, pat the shoulders and have a more tactile approach compared to the Han Chinese.

In the early afternoon heat, a cute child soon stripped himself stark naked and crawled up and down the aisle, on the floor where a passenger had been spitting minutes before. Soon his hands and knees were gritty and pitch black, but his mother looked on unperturbed.

I may have been brave to take this train, but I was no hero. If I could not speed up the travelling time, I made an effort to upgrade my hard seat to a hard sleeper. The attendant, however, said I must wait until after we passed Korla at 2 in the night and see if one would become available. I touched wood.

On the way to my seat, a Chinese young man stopped me and invited me to sit down. Recently graduated at Qingdao medical college, he was returning to work in Kashgar. He had lost his identity card and was unable to book a flight, so he had been travelling for the last 3 days and nights. All things considered, I was not the worse-off, even without a berth.

I sat down and met the people around. The Uyghur policeman, in a matter of minutes, invited me to his family’s home. Soon the talk turned to the foremost topic in any Chinese conversation. In fact, when you need a neutral subject, the English may talk about the weather; the Chinese definitely talk about money. We tend to have a squeamish attitude about it and avoid direct mention, but here it is the king of petty talk. When in doubt, ask “Duoshao qian?” or “How much is it?”

I was therefore asked to show Euros coins and banknotes and they were all excited to be touching such exotic items. I found a plethora of potential customers who wanted to buy from me, but I decided to meet only two requests. At least, I was also able to get rid of 100,000 Vietnamese dong, which by now I had given for lost.

Back at my original seat, I also had struck up a conversation with other passengers, so I ended up having two seats and two families, who in due time became three, when I became the happy occupant of a sleeper compartment for the second part of the night.

The sleeper carriage looked like a completely different world. Hot water flasks in every compartment replaced the only tap that smelt like metal. No murk on the ground, tranquillity and soft lighting received me and gave me a relaxing sleep.

The day passed between reading, playing cards, talking and napping. And I had to turn down repeated offers from the man who had changed my 50 € because he had fallen in love with my wrist watch and absolutely wanted to buy it. He went as far as offering 30 percent more than the original price (which he had of course asked about as a conversation starter).

We only arrived at Kashgar in the evening. I craned my neck to get a glimpse of that policeman who had invited me, but the crowd pouring out of the train was overwhelming. I was a bit sorry to have lost him and the chance to be with my Uyghur family. I knew the sleeper compartment would come with a price.