One of the most interesting interactions I had with people on this trip was on the two-hour train ride from Turpan to Urumqi.
Train from Turpan
Herded like cattle into the underground passageway, the conductors shout for us to line up against the wall and make room for all the passengers. Overhead, we hear the rumble of the train entering the station. It comes to a halt and we make our way up the stairs to the platform, trying our best not to be pushed or push anyone in front of us, but in a crowd so tight, loaded down with luggage – rice sacks, suitcases, boxes, plastic bags full of instant noodles – it’s nearly to impossible not to bump anyone. Next to me, an elderly man in a blue Mao suit and black cap. Strapped to his back with rope is an old rice sack, stuffed with what is probably his bed and clothes. He has trouble bending his right leg so he limps up the stairs as passengers weave their way around him.
Once on the platform, it becomes even more crowded as passengers disembark, squeezing through the crowd waiting to board the train. The conductors stand at attention by the doors, holding back those who purchased standing room tickets, and are all too eager to lay claim their territory.
Laura and I squeeze our way on to the train, past the men smoking in the passageway, down the aisle, over luggage and people, until we reach our seats in the middle of the train car. There we find a robust man of about 50 stretched out on what is our bench. I tap him gently and say “sorry” in Chinese and point to our tickets.
His face is round and rough with stubble, atop his head, a round white cap. His black trousers and white button down shirt are a bit wrinkled, clearly he’s been on this train for more than a few hours. He slowly raises himself, finds his shoes from under the seat, and switches seats with the woman on the opposite seat, his wife, I presume. All the while, we are standing in the aisle, as other press their way past us.
Laura and I settle ourselves as best we can in our seats that make us sit as upright as a board. I take out a book, and she her kindle; it’s a two-hour train so we plan to pass the time reading. I read one or two pages, but there’s so much going on around me that I can’t concentrate.
The woman leans herself against the window, she looks tired and frustrated; her brow is wrinkled like she is suffering through a bad headache. Her sheer gray pleated dress shows a mark of elegance and I wonder how this family ended up on this train. Was it the only ticket left? Was she reluctant to take this trip? Or does one always wear one’s finest on the 12 RMB no-AC hard seat train?
A little girl of about 6 with short boy-cut hair is seated across from us, next to the old man, her grandfather. She drinks a bit of water from an old glass honey jar. Someone from the seat behind them passes some hard nang (flatbread), which her grandfather breaks and gives to the girl and the grandmother. The girl makes a feast out of it; the grandmother can barely eat a bite and sets the rest down on an old bowl of instant noodles that sit on the table next to the open window. I wait for the nang to fall out the window, but it doesn’t.
Time passes, and I find the old man staring at me. I guess I’d been staring at them, too. He looks at my watch and says in accented Chinese, “Beijing time, huh?” I press a button and show him Xinjiang time, holding it longer than normal, which switches the watch to the second unofficial time zone, 2 hours behind Beijing. “I’m glad I got this watch,” I say to Laura.
I ask him where he’s from – Kashi (Kashgar).
“And where’d this train come from?” I don’t recognize the city he names, but he says it’s 40 hours away.
Our conversation is slow going – his accent is strong, and I suppose, mine is too.
“Where are you from?” he asks. “美国 (America).”
The next question surprises me. It’s not the normal small talk question that one usually hears in this country. It’s not a what do you do, or how much money do you make, or are you accustomed to life in China? Instead, he asks, “Do people in your country know about our people?”
He’s talking about the minority group he’s part of, a minority group that is 8 million strong and used to be 90% of the population out in China’s west, but now with the influx of investment and people from China’s east is about 50%.
“Yes, we know about your group, this group is very famous.”
He shakes his head and says something like “I don’t believe you.”
I want to tell him that I’m not lying so I continue, and tell him how when I was in university I learned about his people group. I’m still not sure that he believes me.
His eyes begin to well up with tears as he says, “There’s so much I want to say to you, but I can’t.”
Why can’t he? Is it just the language barrier, or is it something else?
The next question takes a while to get across. He repeats a word multiple times. Then finally he gives me a clue, “报纸 (newspaper).”
I finally figure out that he’s been saying “记者” which means reporter! “Do I know any reporters? Sorry,” I say, “I’m just traveling, I don’t know any.”
I watch him struggle to hold back tears and I wonder what sights this man has seen, what hardness in his life has left this pain, or are they tears of joy upon hearing that his people group are known? I think not, because I have to turn away from him for a while, lest I, too, start to cry.
He regains his composure and I mine, and I decide to tell him and the little girl the few words that I know in their language (and in Chinese to show I understand their meaning). “Yahximisiz … 你好” (Hello) “Rahmat … 谢谢” (Thank you). “Can you teach me more words, I ask?”
I point to the jar of water. The little girl jumps at the opportunity. “Su,” she says.
I repeat “su, su, su.” I point to my book.
“Geshtap,” she says.
“Geshtap, geshtap, geshtap.”
She points to her hands. “Kül.”
“Kül, kül, kül.”
I point to the bread that’s still balanced on the bowl of noodles. “Nang.”
“Oh, I know that one!” I pull out some grapes that I’d bought earlier in the day along the street in Turpan (the oasis city is famous for its grapes).
“Uzum, uzum, uzum.” I say and I offer them to the family. Their eyes
brighten at the sight of fresh fruit and they each take a bunch. I offer more (I’ve already had too many myself). “How do you say 好吃 (delicious)?”
“Uzum tukluk,” I say. And they smile back.
This game continues a while, and I decide if I’m really going to learn these words, I should write them down or at least some phonetic equivalent. This language used to use a Roman alphabet until supposedly, someone started to complain that it gave this people group an unfair advantage in learning English. Now they use a script that looks more like Arabic. I’m not sure that I believe this story completely, and wonder that with the group may have changed it’s script for other reasons – reasons that go hand in hand with issues or identity and the resurgence of religion all across China.
While I have my pen and book out, I ask for the girl’s name. “Gulzelnor” the grandpa says.
My name’s “Sarah” and this is “Laura.”
We move on to learning numbers, and this gives great entertainment to Gulzelnor as she tries to teach me. I don’t write these down and so what I end up saying probably sounds like “1, cat, 7, 2, cheese, … no let me start again, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, … ah, I give up.” After about 30 or so tries, I begin to have her repeat numbers 1 to 10 in English.
My brain is full of strange sounds, so I ask Laura for a game we could play. We decide to teach Gulzelnor rock, paper, scissors, and find she knows this game already, at least her own version. Laura and I teacher her the American way, then she teaches us her way, where scissors can beat rock!
Gulzelnor has endless energy and doesn’t seem to bore of repetitive games. We do, so we stop. She begins a new game. It’s one of those where you sing a song and point at people around the circle. If the song stops on you, you’re out. The last two people left hold hands and sing a song, if the song ends with your arms crossed, your dream won’t come true, if your arms are open, your dream will come true.
I take a turn being the song singer and ask Gulzenor what her dream is.
“To be a teacher” she says.
We hold hands and swing our arms back and forth, I try my best to sing the song she taught us. Her arms end up crossed.
“No dream” she says.
I let go of her hands and switch to make our hands uncrossed. “Your dream can come true” I say in Chinese. “You already are a teacher, you teach me your language!”
We continue to play little hand games until we get close to the station. As we pull into the station, the grandpa says, if you’re ever in Kashi, come visit! You should go to Kashi.
“Sadly, we don’t have time this trip.” (Kashi is a 24-hour train ride away from Urumqi.) I return the invitation and tell them, “If you’re ever in America, or in Harbin come find me.”
“How can I find you, there’s so many people!” Gulzelnor says.
“You’ll be able to find me” I reply. Maybe this isn’t exactly true, but the girl understands. If we’re meant to meet again we will.
I ask for one last language lesson, “How to say 再见 (goodbye)?”
“Khosh.” I say.
“Khosh.” Laura says.
The train slows to a stop and the family gathers their shoes from under the seats, and their plastic bags that hold their cell phones and a few pieces of nang. Laura and I take our shoulder bags down from the overhead rack and wait for a path to clear. We follow the crowd out through the station through a maze of people and pedestrian barriers, taxis, and back to the entrance of the train station. We’d checked our backpacking backpacks at the train station two days before, when we’d left for Turpan, and now at 10 PM we have to figure out how to get back into the train station to get them. After talking to 4 or 5 guards we finally make our way in and get our bags.
Back out in the crowded square in front of the train station there must be over a few thousand people. Many are waiting for taxis, so the taxis have doubled their prices. We decide to walk down the street a little way to see if we can bargain for a better price. As we round the corner, there, sitting on the curb are Gulzelnor and her grandmother.
“Khosh” I say and wave goodbye. She grins back and waves goodbye. And for the first time, her grandmother smiles too.