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Across China's Silk Road: Part 1

by Walter Glaser

There are some far-away travel destinations that leave me totally disinterested when I read about them -- the sort of places that I know about but which kindle in me no desire at all to visit.

Yet there are others which, from the moment I first read about them, set my imagination on fire. The Silk Road that connected China and Europe from the Middle Ages to the l9th Century is one of them. Visions of Marco Polo leading a camel train laden with silks and oriental spices conjured up such a powerful image that I was determined that one day I should at least partially follow in his footsteps.

Decades passed but the image remained, and when one day I saw an advertisement for a charter trip that would take a small group from Alma Ata in Kazakhstan, a former outpost of the Soviet Union, to Xian in China, traveling across the Sinkiang and Gobi Deserts on Chairman Mao's private train I knew that the time had come to break the piggy-bank. Within weeks we were winging our way across Russia on a tired old Aeroflot Iluyshin, heading for Alma Ata.

On this flight Aeroflot had a remarkable flight-safety concept which I hope will never be copied by other airlines. On our aircraft the safety procedure cards usually found in seat pockets were replaced by one single card mounted under clear plexiglass on the front bulkhead.

Imagine the scenario. Your plane develops engine trouble and you think you might be going to crash. In order to find out what to do, you must run to the front of the aircraft and push everyone else aside to read the instructions. Enlightened, you want to return to your seat, but by this time your plane has gone into a nose-dive. Never mind! Claw your way back to the seat, safe in the new-found knowledge that you should always have your seatbelt buckled up and be leaning forward, head on folded arms, at impact.

It was with that vision in mind that I was both delighted and relieved when we touched down on terra firma at Alma Ata.

As we deplaned, a group of very exotic-looking girls in colorful ethnic costumes came smiling to our group, placing a necklace of flowers around each of our necks. With roundish faces and almond-shaped eyes they were the first of the many Kazakhstan people we would meet. All were extremely friendly and happy to show us what they could of their city.

The Otrar Hotel was a classic Soviet-era structure with about as much charm as a poorly made but well-worn trash can. Rooms were small and Spartan, the beer was warm but cheap, food made up in quantity what it lacked in quality, and there were other aspects that were far from negative.

After one dinner at the hotel the management had organized a surprise -- an impromptu concert by the Alma Ata Symphony Orchestra who turned up on a hot summer's night in full black-tie regalia. I will long remember their evening of classical music by Russian composers, and the singing by a short, buxom middle-aged Asian-looking diva who would have been a sellout in London, New York, Vienna or Sydney.

There were other little things that also pleasantly surprised me. I was, for example, extremely impressed that the International Herald Tribune was available at the desk the day after it was printed in Paris.

We were taken to visit an excellent Museum of Kazakh history which had some beautifully-laid-out displays about the local culture, but unfortunately none of the signs had English translations for the Kazakh explanatory notes. Another time we were taken to inspect the huge sports stadium and skating rink. Seeing some of the locals practice made it clear why Russia and the states of the former Soviet Union scored so many medals at the Olympics. Sports are taken very seriously in this part of the world.

Some bland, showpiece-type public buildings failed to impress, but a wooden church that is reputedly the largest wooden structure outside Japan certainly did. Another interesting experience was when we visited the city's Botanic Gardens and saw a demonstration by nuclear protesters and other 'greenies'. Who would have believe this a couple of decades ago?

Alma Ata is a huge industrialized city of over one million people with lots of parks and green areas, overlooked by a 16,000 snow-capped mountain range. Temperatures, as in nearly all of Siberia and Central Asia are extreme. Winter days of -40 degrees Celcius contrast with a summer heat of 46 degrees Celcius.

Kazakhstan is on the direct seismic faultline that was responsible for pushing up the nearby mountains. And when it rained, the downpour was so torrential that giant mudslides from the distant Tian Shan (heavenly mountains) range had wiped out large parts of the city in the past. In l988 a mudslide had come down at 120km per hour, killing hundreds of people in the process. In the last decade of the Soviet Empire, huge concrete barriers had been erected to prevent a re-occurrence, but the locals are skeptical about their effectiveness if the next earthquake coincides with the melting of the snows.

Alma Ata is a city of contrasts. Once a sleepy outpost of the Russian Empire, its predominantly Asiatic and Moslem population was suddenly outnumbered by Caucasians when, during WWII Russians of ethnic German background and Crimeans who Stalin did not trust were forcibly transported to Kazakhstan, their numbers further swelled by armament-industry workers who were moved here, complete with entire factories to produce munitions and weapons for the Soviet war effort.

When the Soviet Union started to fall apart, the ethnic German community migrated to Western Germany, the Crimeans went back to Yalta and Odessa, and most of the ethnic Russians returned to Russia when the new State of Kazakhstan dropped Russian as the main language and made Islam the state religion. Those Caucasians who are still remaining in Alma Ata feel very insecure about their future.

In all our walking and bussing around Alma Ata we never once saw a modern Western-style supermarket, and the merchandise in the shops was very basic, though people were remarkably well-dressed and there was plenty of food like bread, fruit and vegetables. But we were told the local farmers who bring their fruit to the street-market of Alma Ata daily have no way of putting some of this in a coldstore. So what does not get sold in three days is simply left to rot. The wastage is dreadful.

A drive through the city's center revealed why so many people in the former Soviet Union are filled with despair. On the night before, as we had walked through the town, we had noticed a trolley bus breaking down in the middle of a busy intersection. Everyone had simply walked away from it and now, a day later, it still sat in the middle of the intersection looking like a tired, beached whale.

The Russian-made Lada cars we saw all dated back to Soviet days. Little new equipment was to be found. Everything had an air of sadness and futility. Most Russians had either headed out of Kazakhstan or were planning to do so. The ethnic Kazakh locals we spoke to were also somewhat apprehensive and not quite happy. Yes, they had a new country, but where their politics and economics were taking them, no-one was quite sure.

Morning came, and we boarded our East-German-made-ex-Russian train, chugging across the countryside past vast fields of cotton which, we were told, was taking the country to the brink of an ecological disaster. Crops needed more and more water and fertilizer and now there were no Russian taxpayers to pay for these. Soon we were running parallel to the barbed-wire of the Chinese border. And then, before us the border-crossing of Dzuzhba appeared. Once through it our train slowed, then stopped. On the other side of the tracks, Chairman Mao's official train was waiting for us. The real adventure was about to begin.

At Druzhba's modern, partly constructed station the dark green Chinese State Train appeared to have been washed and polished, and with its smartly attired crew in their crisp white jackets looked extremely efficient. Soon we had crossed the platform and were settling into the somewhat cramped compartment that was to be 'home' for the next ten days.

As we chugged across the dry, dreary plain and looked out at the desolate scenery, we could not help admiring the determination of those Chinese who had been packed off by their Government to settle this remote, inhospitable area. Their recently built but already dust covered mudbrick houses were baking in the desert heat.

There was not even one blade of green grass between their high brick fences and the distant horizon. Yet they all sprouted a forest of incongruous looking television aerials, extending thirty to forty feet above the flat rooftops in order to hone in on television signals from transmitters whose locations we could not imagine.

After several hours of uneventful, monotonous and bone dry flatness, the terrain began to change. First the sand was covered with what looked like a giant man made cobweb of straw, placed there by hundreds of workers, our guide told us, to hold back the drifting sands.

Soon we began to see sparse vegetation which rapidly became thicker and thicker till, some 15 minutes later, we were traveling through lush green countryside. Slowly our train wheezed its way up into the ice capped mountain range that peaks at Bogda Feng, near Urumchi, some 5,445 metros above sea level. The thin air and steep climb seemed to strain even our three massive tandem linked diesel engines to their limit.

If it were not for the portable, pudding shaped felt tents known as Yurts, and the Mongol features of the leather skinned farmers we saw from the train, the scenery might easily have been in the Swiss Alps or the Canadian Rockies.

Without its usual warmth, the watery sunlight reflected off distant, snow covered peaks, their glaciers twinkling in the distance. Soon we would arrive in 'middle of nowhere' Urumchi, an isolated destination, even for 'outback' China, and transfer to the Friendship Hotel, the city's only foreign style accommodation.

Urumchi, also known as Urunqi and Wulumuqi, means 'beautiful pasture' in Mongolian. Though it was not on the original Silk Road, Chinese troops were sent there during the Western Han Dynasty, 200 B.C. to establish agriculture and make it viable as a border outpost of the Han Dynasty's empire.

By 800 A.D. the area had developed reasonably well, spurred on when lead and silver were discovered there. Most of the population converted to Islam and the town, by then known as Dihua, became a hot bed of intrigue, plot and counter plot with Russians, Chinese, warlords and mercenaries all actors on Dihua's stage.

In 1935 Governor Shicai called in the Soviet Russians to help put down a separatist rebellion. They stayed, exploiting the area's newfound mineral and petroleum riches until forced to withdraw when the Chinese/Russian love affair soured and relations became acrimonious.

Due to an earlier delay, we were served our first dinner on the train instead of the hotel in Urumchi. The brochure had grandly announced 'Some of China's finest chefs will prepare meals typical of that country's varied cuisine, using fresh, local ingredients' . Filing into a dining car awash with the pungent smell of oily food and sweet soy sauce, it was clear that if these were China's finest chefs, the bulk of the country was in danger of ptomaine poisoning.

Our less-than-exciting dinner was to be symptomatic of the food served throughout our rail journey across China, meals running the gamut from 'ordinary' at best to 'barely edible' through to 'don't ask'. This lot of 'China's finest chefs' had a lot to learn!

Apparently they have improved greatly since our experience. Since then, charter after charter have complained that the food was basic to mediocre and eventually this has got through to China Rail who, I understand, have lifted their game considerably. Yet dining anywhere in China is far from a gourmet experience, and even now the only really good meals we had in China were at Western-managed big name hotels in large cities. For the rest, the food in China cannot match the gourmet cuisine of Hong Kong or Singapore. But then this is not a trip one takes only for the cuisine.

The Friendship Hotel at which we arrived late that night was clean and basic, but totally charmless. An early start the next morning saw us on a long, bumpy bus trip to a restaurant where we were served breakfast of Chinese style hard-boiled eggs, sweet, sticky bread, slivers of diced, indefinable meat, potatoes and cauliflower in spicy sauce, dry cake, guava jam, and congee, a type of rice porridge. All we really wanted was coffee and toast. No such luck! But at least the Chinese tea was good.

But after that, things changed for the better. Back on the buses a three-hour drive brought us to Heavenly Lake, with a background of snow-and-glacier covered mountains. A ten minute sight seeing trip on a small lake steamer took us past an small, exquisite, picture postcard-pretty pagoda on the lake's edge. Returning, we were offered rides on stocky-looking mountain horses by young Mongolian boys and bought bottled soft drinks at stalls lettered in Arabic and Chinese. Then lunch at quite a pleasant country-style restaurant with great scenic views across the lake. The restaurant was passable. The facilities, however, were not. When one reads about dysentery spreading at extraordinary speed, it must be areas like this that the story is about. Fortunately the toilets were a 5-minute walk from the restaurant, but the unmistakable scent of Eau D'Latrine was wafting across the path as we left the restaurant building, making all but the most needy decide to postpone the experience if possible.

I pitied those who had needed to use the toilets here --- from their later reports, the basic trench over communal pits was less than hygienic and made them wish that their sense of smell had died earlier.

I must say, however, that in our month in China we didn't get one single bout of dysentery. Obeying recommendations, we drank only bottled water and soft drinks, with no ill effects during our whole stay in China. It was not till much later that I had cause to wonder whether this was not a matter of good luck rather than good management.

On our second to last day in China I picked up the 'People's Daily' in Shanghai and read a surprisingly honest report of government tests performed on bottled soft drinks right across the country. The article gave the test results, which revealed the soft drinks to have an even higher E coli count than the local river water which was used, unfiltered, in most instances. It seems that E coli thrive on cordial!

The bus journey back to the train revealed Urumchi's recent industrialization. This city now houses 1.25 million people. Its substantial petro chemical plants churning out choking black pollution are blindly oblivious to health hazards. Miraculously the muck they pumped into the air seemed to have not yet affected the irrigated fields of wheat, corn, melons, sunflowers and fruit trees that we passed. The whole program had been worked out in such a way that we had adequate opportunities for sight-seeing each day. The evenings too were well planned, with the train staying at the station overnight when we were in major towns where reasonable hotels were available. When long distances across deserts or unspectacular countryside without suitable accommodation had to be covered we slept in our small but comfortable compartment on the train.

When this was the case, we would head for the lounge car the moment dinner was over. Here, comfortable padded armchairs, cocktail tables, a bar at one end and a piano at the other, made relaxing seem the most natural state to be in. We particularly noticed this in one of the guests, a member of a very aristocratic British family who was also in the House of Lords. Relatively young and with a charming wife, the rumor was that this was his first trip abroad with anyone that hadn't been a close friend for years. When this couple first joined our group they were incredibly shy and seemed quite unsure of how to interact with the rest of us.

Within a few days they were so relaxed that he, shirtsleeves rolled up, was pounding out tunes on the keyboard as we all stood around and sang along. The rest of the group were an interesting mix also. There was a retired Diplomat who spoke perfect Russian and Chinese, having earlier been the British Ambassador to Outer Mongolia, executives from international oil companies, university professors, a British surgeon whose family had lived in Kenya for several generations, and a charming London Ear, Nose & Throat specialist who had originally come from Colombo. The common thread was an inquiring mind, a sense of adventure and a pocket book deep enough to be able to pay for the trip.

A major stopover was now coming up. After heading across more desert we arrived, late at night, in Turfan, one of the Gobi Desert's great oases. Here, at last, was the true Silk Road.

Turfan, with its very rich soil, is not at all what one imagines an oasis to be. Like Urumchi, it's subterranean aquifer is fed by underground streams from distant, snow capped mountain ranges. The thriving agricultural community now exceeding 250,000 and still growing, cultivates grapes, fruit and cotton. The Chinese, tough on their own ethnic Han population with their 'one child per couple' rule, realize that to apply this to the 8 million Moslems living in China would create head on confrontation, and so seem to have relaxed the rules in their case.

Records show that back in 108 B.C. Turfan's inhabitants were of Indo European descent, speaking an ancient and now extinct Indo Persian language. Even then it was an important hub, controlling the trade route between Persia and China. Over the next 1000 years it was under the control of various Chinese dynasties, though, like the rest of this part of Central Asia, it was forcibly converted to Islam at the end of the 14th Century.

After a quick dinner we were taken to a 'Cultural Show' of local dancing which revealed the mixed ethnic origins of the people in Turfan. Many dances were clearly Chinese in character, others had a very strong Russian/Cossak flavor. The dancers' features left no doubt about their varied racial origins. Some looked quite European, others very Mongol, and yet others predominantly Han Chinese.

Presented in a small assembly hall, the performance was also attended by many relatives of the dancers who, we felt, had mainly come to see the greatest gathering of foreigners to visit Turfan for years. The same awed curiosity about foreigners was obvious wherever we went in this remote part of China.

Much the same applied to the curiosity about our train. To the average Chinese living in one of the most isolated parts of China, our train was as much of a wonder as the Challenger spacecraft might have been if it landed at an American smalltown airport that normally saw nothing bigger than a Boeing 737. And this was not surprising when we looked at the way that the average citizen traveled here.

From time to time we would pull into a station with a 'normal' train on an adjoining track. Families, parcels, babies, chickens --- everyone and everything --- were so tightly crammed into each compartment that there were often half a dozen people that seemed to be in the process of being squeezed out of the window like toothpaste. To make matters even more chaotic, everyone seemed to be indulging in the great Chinese past-time of eating. Food baskets, food jars and food packages rather than table-setting for which there was absolutely no room, seemed to be taking up what little space was left between people.

But in spite of all this --- and one hated to think what the sanitary conditions on these trains must be like --- everyone on them seemed to be in high spirits, with waves, smiles and friendly sounding calls across the track. But our train, too, was a place where a lot of fun was being had by all. The China expert who was with us on the train also helped to make the journey so fascinating, with regular handouts that described the history and current background of the particular towns we were visiting that day. Lectures in the lounge-car added an opportunity to ask questions and learn about the country to some depth. The Chinese railways also had one of their staff who was very knowledgeable about the route, and even supplied a lady pianist who had graduated from Beijing Conservatorium to play classical music for us on the nights we stayed on board and the train clickety-clacked its way across China's vast interior.

There was more to be seen in Turfan the next day, but we'll save that for Part 2 of this story about our remarkable journey across China.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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