When i first began researching the fabled rhubarb road from China to the West, I acquired this immovable picture that the route would largely involve hopping between oases in the desert, and switching between camel to clapped-out Soviet bus in the heat of the day.
I’d heard countless tales of the temperatures regularly encountered in the great deserts of Turkmenistan and Iran, and more than one Southern European friend commented that I was of slightly questionable sanity if i wished to cross his country by local bus in late July.
So, I packed accordingly. Lots of cotton short-sleeved shirts, breathable materials and shorts, with the odd pair of trousers slung in the backpack should my bare legs not get too warm a reception amongst the local population.
I reluctantly stuffed a Decathlon fleece in the bottom of the bag in case of unpredictable weather, which i largely intended to use as a pillow when i needed a whiff more comfort than the Chinese style bricks at the end of the bed could provide.
Once more the delights of budget backpacking were showcased by an evening of minimal sleep. Not only were the kebabs cruelly plotting their revenge in my stomach all night, but i was treated to the live soundtrack of an amorous performance from the restaurant owners upstairs. Enough to put you off your lamb gristle dumplings at breakfast really.
I did, however, manage to find something quasi-edible next to the mosque by the bus station whilst waiting for my departure further west. Obviously it was made of lamb, and bread, and washed down with copious amounts of tea.
“Don’t worry, it’s a good bus – it will get you there no problem”, the hostel girl informed me enigmatically when i told her i was heading for Xining.
In theory, at least, it was indeed a very pleasant vehicle. My ticket declared that it was in fact a “new A *****” bus – yet i suspect it had been given the rating back in 1976 when it first trundled along the bumpy Xinjiang roads.
Quite aside from the usual traits of long distance bus travel (total lack of A/C, faint smell of sick) I was delighted to be awarded with the kind of seat with a life of its own.
Ah, this is the life. Sitting cross-legged on the bottom berth of an ancient iron bunk-bed trying to charge up every electronic item I own – every backpacker has been there. It feels somewhat nostalgic to be doing it again, though – it’s been a good few years since I did the rounds of dodgy hostels, manic bus stations and generally getting lost in city after city, too tight to splash out USD1 on a cab.
Eat up, eat up... this'll put hair on your chin, madam
I’ve made it to Urumqi, capital of China’s far-western Xinjiang province and supposedly the furthest place in the world from the sea (bit of trivia there for you folks, 225okm no less). This place also tends to get poo-pooed by the great unshaven backpackers, but compared to many large Chinese cities, I personally find it a perfectly pleasant place. The food is great too (see pic) – but perhaps more on that later.
By far the most noticeable thing already, however, is the sheer variety of faces milling around the streets. You get the distinct feeling that Han China has backed onto the rest of Central Asia and created a hub that has managed to suck in all the other nationalities in the countryside around. It is fascinating.