Tag Archives: Xinjiang

Xinjiang Part 4: A Story

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.


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Xinjiang Part 3: Elsewhere

Where else did I go in Xinjiang? After the backpacking trip I also got to visit Urumqi, Shehezi, and Turpan. I would have liked to go to Kashgar, but did you know that Xinjiang is bigger than Alaska? To get fro Urumqi to Kashgar would have been a 24-hour train trip. Laura and I opted for the shorter 2-hour trip to Turpan.

Under a grape arbor in Turpan, an oasis famous for grapes.

Grape fields scattered throughout the town.

An ancient mosque at the edge of town.

Temple ruins at Jiaohe, a garrison town dating back to Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD).

Temple ruins at Jiaohe, a garrison town dating back to Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD).

Turyoq, a traditional Uighur village.

Turyoq, a traditional Uighur village.

Heaven Lake … this is the real color of the water!

For more photos of Urumqi, Shehezi, and Turpan click here.

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Xinjiang Part 2: There

Where is there? 天山 (Tian Shan or “Celestial Mountains”), where I spent a week backpacking with some old friends and new, where found myself surrounded by untamed nature (so rare in this country), where I fell asleep and woke to the sounds of sheep and mountain goats, where I found some time for rest and reflection this past summer.  I’ll let the photos say the rest…

For more photos (a slideshow of the 8 day trip) click here.

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August 31, 2011 · 8:00 am

Xinjiang Part 1: Getting There

I leave Harbin Thursday AM. It’s a slow ride to the airport. The van driver’s license plate is even, but today only odd numbers can drive on the main thoroughfares, so we wind through back streets and get stuck in traffic. No problem though, when I get to the airport my flight is delayed about half an hour.

It’s mid-afternoon, I look at my watch as we land in Beijing. I have about thirty minutes to get to the gate of my next flight before it closes. It takes at least fifteen minutes to get off the plane. I don’t know where my gate is. Terminal 3 is HUGE. I run. I find my gate, only to discover … it’s also delayed. They haven’t started boarding.

Twenty minutes later, we board the plane. And we sit and wait and sit and wait and sit and wait and eat a meal and sit and wait. We don’t even move away from the gate. Three hours later, at 7:30 they let us get off the plane. The airport is completely packed. Bad weather they say – but the skies only look a misty gray; there’s no storm here … yet.

Standing around the gate overhear some other passengers speaking English, so I join in the conversation. Charlie is a high school junior from Xinjiang and he’s returning home for the summer from Virginia (USA) where’s he’s been studying this past year. Leonard and Carol are from Belgium. It’s their first time to China.

We pass the time eating chocolate cookies and talking about high school in America. Charlie shows us his yearbook, and his football team photo, and it makes me remember how different American high school is from that in China.

An hour later we board the plane again. This time it’s more promising because we actually leave the gate and taxi out to the runway. We taxi and turn and circle for an hour; people are getting pretty fed up. Two hours go by and the stewardesses are so stressed and fed up with having to give answers to questions that they really can’t answer that they start to cry. They feed us a second meal, which calms people for a bit, but at three hours, people start to call the airline, the airport, news agencies, and the police. By now there’s quite a bit of lightning, so there’s little chance we’ll take off. At four hours, we pull up to a gate (still at Terminal 3). Five hours after our second time to board the plane we finally are let off into the pouring rain and massive thunderstorm. We jump a puddle to board a bus and are taken to luggage claim.

Where to go? What to do next? No one is making any clear announcements. Some on the plane put up such a fuss with the guards that they go together to find some airline official. I didn’t want to go that route. Looking around, it seemed everyone else in the airport was in the same situation. I ask some other workers and they tell us to claim our bags and go to the 3rd floor to re-check-in for a new flight. I find Charlie. We find our bags and look for Leonard and Carol. They don’t know any Chinese – and since we’re all going to the same place, might as well stick together. By now it’s past midnight.

Upstairs on the 3rd floor, it’s worse than a train station at Chinese New Year. All the flights from 2 PM onwards have been canceled. People are sleeping on benches, their luggage, and on towels on the floor. Massively long and wide lines stretch out from all the counters. Those at the front of the line are so squeezed in that they can’t get out even if they are finished getting a new ticket. The lines don’t seem to move except for a few people weaving through. Once and a while these line cutters are stopped by glares and elbows.

Leonard and Carol give up on the line after a few minutes. They haven’t slept since they left Belgium and would much rather go back home rather than face this line. Charlie and I decide to stick it out. We wait for an hour. As we wait, every once and a while we hear groups shouting in protest and sometimes a few large bangs like people are fighting. I can’t see what’s going on, but people pull out there cell phones to record the action.

Some people make their way out of the line and as they pass, others ask if they got a flight? “No, there’s no flights to Chongqing.” “No Guilin.” “No Nanjing.” We don’t here anyone mention the city we’re going to – Urumqi, so that leaves me with a glimmer of hope, but I start to wonder … will I make it in time? I send a message to my friends who will meet me in Urumqi. Charlie starts to think about backup plans. He says he might take the train to Xi’an and could fly from there. That would cost me too much time and I’d miss the backpacking trip!

The line doesn’t seem to be moving, and we’ve also realized we don’t see anyone else from our flight, so I send Charlie to go ask around while I watch our stuff and spot in the line and pray desperately that there’d be a way for me to get there in time. He comes back a few minutes later with good news! He saw some people from our flight and they’ve got tickets from another counter for a flight leaving at 6 AM. We grab our stuff and move one aisle over to stand in a much shorter line. Finally, at 4 AM, 12 hours after our first flight was to leave, we’re checked in for a flight leaving at 9:30AM.

“What’s next?” Charlie asks. “Coffee,” I say, knowing that there’s no chance I’ll be able to get any sleep after such an ordeal. We pass the time sipping our coffee, exchanging bits of life stories, and talking with another Chinese girl on her way home after a semester in Illinois.

Later, as we were leaving the coffee shop to go to the gate, we run into Leonard and Carol. They’d slept for a few hours in Burger King and still didn’t have a flight to where they were going. We told them where we’d got our tickets, but at that point it’s all we could do. I sure hope they managed to get where they needed – what an experience for first time to China!

Looking back, that was probably one of the worst travel experiences I’ve had while in Asia (aside from a 26 hour journey by pick-up truck, train, bus, and another pick-up truck the northern Thailand to the beach in the south). But at the same time, it was one of the most meaningful travel ordeals. Normally when I travel alone, I don’t interact with the other passengers. Maybe a polite hello or nod to the person sitting next to me, but beyond that, as an introvert – I travel in a shell. This trip I didn’t. I couldn’t. We were strangers, but we were looking out for one another, making sure we got to the place we were going. Somehow in the midst of chaos, I found blessing. I’m not sure if I’d have made it otherwise.


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