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august 6, 2003 -> Across China by Train

Everyone warned us that the cities of northern China were terribly polluted. We heard horrific tales of Xian's smog, and Lanzhou was universally regarded as " a pit." No one really knew much about Urumqi (the capital of the westernmost province of Xinjiang), but I knew that it had once been officially pronounced China's most polluted city. Looking up at the Beijing sky - a miasma of smoke and dust - I was somewhat apprehensive about our planned journey westward.

We planned to cross northern China by rail, traveling from Beijing to Xian (14 hours), Xian to Lanzhou (13 hours), Lanzhou to Urumqi (24 hours), and finally, after collecting our Kazakh visas, by bus from Urumqi to the Kazakh border (18 hours). From Xian westward, China's Han Chinese majority would slowly be diluted by the Hui, ethnic Chinese Muslims; the Uygurs, Turkic Muslims; and numerous other minority peoples. Despite decades of Han migration - encouraged and incentivized by the authorities in Beijing - western China, and particularly the so-called Xinjiang Autonomous Region, remained a ferment of ethnic and religious animosity.

Belying our friends' advice, the skies above Xian were a beautiful blue, with just a few lonely clouds. The great walled city - old Chang An - was once the capital of imperial China, a metropolis that rivaled Rome in wealth and sophistication. The modern city had long since outgrown its walls, but the city center, and most of the interesting sights remained within. We climbed the Drum Tower, a giant pagoda that squatted in the middle of the city's main traffic circle, and walked through the Muslim Quarter, a warren of souvenirs and lamb skewers. The Great Mosque was something of a puzzle. We had expected domes and minarets, not a courtyard full of typical Chinese temples and pagodas. Only the Kufic script carved in relief into the walls, and the white-robed, bearded men that drifted through the courtyard like ghosts informed us that we were in a Muslim place of worship. One evening, we rented a tandem bicycle and pedaled atop the city wall on the wide, cobbled route between the ramparts.

Most tourists come to Xian to see the terracotta warriors, the legions of clay soldiers, horses and chariots buried with the Qin emperor who unified China. Many backpackers smugly debate the merits of visiting this "tourist trap," but missing them would be folly. One cannot fail to be amazed by the ten columns of foot soldiers, each one slightly different, caught mid-march as if by a gorgon's gaze. Only a small part of the army has been exhumed; in smaller buildings flanking the main hall, one can see shattered figures being freed from the earth; an outstretched hand, a chariot wheel, a horses hindquarters. In the rear of the main hall was a workshop where archaeologists were painstakingly rebuilding warriors, an army rematerialising from the shards.

I laughed as we disembarked from the train in Lanzhou to another bright, sunny day. Pollution was obvious, but at nowhere near Beijing levels. Lanzhou sits between two mountainous ridges, astride the Huang (Yellow) river. These cradling mountains often trap the smoke from numerous factories, but the noxious clouds had dissipated. Apart from the justly famous Lanzhou Beef Noodle soup, however, there was little to keep us in the city. After some initial confusion and not a little misinformation, we caught a minibus heading south. We wanted to see the cliff-side grottoes at Binglingsi and then continue on to Xia He, a Tibetan enclave built around one of the six most holy monasteries of the Yellow Hat Buddhist sect.

The three-hour bus journey took us through several Hui (Chinese Muslim) villages. All the men wore white skullcaps, and the women either peaked, white caps (like old nurses' hats) or full head scarves. Restaurant names were written in Chinese and Arabic, and pork (which the Han Chinese cannot do without) was absent from menus, and replaced by mutton. I had not expected so many Muslims this early in the trip. Though China is more than 90% Han Chinese, my notion of a homogeneous China was fast disappearing. We did not really know where we needed to get off the bus, so were relieved when two men came running up to the bus at a small village and flashed us a picture of a speed boat.

The only way to reach Binglingsi is by boat. We skimmed across a wide reservoir and then up a narrow gorge surrounded by sandstone towers that were pockmarked with natural caves. It resembled a dry, invigorated, and mortar-pounded Guilin, the famous karstic pinnacles of southern China. At a bend in the river, our driver let us off on the clay banks and we walked through a gauntlet of trinket sellers to the entrance gate. The path had been cut into the cliff and as we rounded a corner, we saw the profile of a huge Buddha cut into the cliff face, like the famous Bamian buddhas in Afghanistan, before the Taliban destroyed them with rocket-propelled grenades. Hundreds of grottoes, from room-sized half-domes to tiny niches, were carved into the sheer rock and decorated with Buddhist frescoes and figures. Each grotto was protected by a screened "window" that was swung shut in the evening. Together, these windows made the cliff face look like the home of modern troglodytes. For Rmb300 (about US$40) one could climb up a frightening stairway built into the cliffs and up to two large grottoes above the towering Buddha, but budget and prudence prevailed.

After a night in the very unwelcoming city of Linxia, we caught another bus to Xia He. Many people know that the Chinese brutally subjugated the Tibetans and annexed what is commonly known as Tibet in the 1950's. However, we also learned that during the "peaceful liberation" large swaths of Tibetan territory were carved up and grafted onto the existing Chinese provinces of Gansu, Sichuan, and Qinghai. Xia He was part of the Gansu portion of old Tibet. An hour into the trip, we passed under a gate topped with Tibetan Buddhist icons, and began to spy Buddhist stupas tucked into the hillsides. At several small villages, we picked up dark-skinned Tibetans, wearing long coats not unlike the Mongolian 'dels.' The women's hair was braided into two very long ponytails, which were sometimes tied together at the end. They more heavy silver jewelry and had a wild look about them. We spent two days in Xia He, and despite the rain, we managed to walk the "Pilgrim's Path," a three-kilometer route that the pious trudge around the monastery, spinning banks of prayer wheels and circumambulating stupas. We also took a tour of the monastery itself, guided by an English-speaking monk who seemed to stare at me a lot. I wondered if he sensed in me a ready convert or an apostate?

We had been dreading the 30-hour train journey from Lanzhou to Urumqi, so we decided to splurge and pay for a deluxe sleeper berth. In the event, we had the berth all to ourselves and the cabin attendant even arranged for us to rent a portable VCD player. It was bizarre to look up from "Analyze That" or "Minority Report" and see the desert of western China, but it made the trip go a lot faster. We were now skirting the northern edge of the Taklimakan desert, a Turkic word that roughly translates to "Go in and you don't come out." This was the northern route of the Silk Road, which passed the oasis cities of Turfan and Urumqi before angling south and rejoining the southern route in modern day Uzbekistan.

Urumqi sits in a wide plain, with the easternmost reaches of the Tian Shan (Heavenly Mountains) piercing the sky in the distance. We were in Urumqi for four days as we waited for the Kazakh embassy to process our visa request. Apart from one day of rain, the skies were incredibly clear (strike three for Beijing!)Urumqi has an extremely diverse population of Han, Uygurs, Hui, Kazakhs, Turks and Tajiks to name a few. Almost all of the signs were written in Arabic and Chinese (Arabic on top, but much smaller). The highlight of our time in Urumqi was unquestionably the two evenings we spent at the Wuyi night market. At nightfall, the street is closed off and hundreds of street vendors line both sides of the road selling everything from whole roast goat (look at the photo) to wriggling grubs. We chose less adventurous options: vegetable crepes, freshly sliced and boiled noodles, and amazing skewers of butterflied birds (I didn't have the stomach to ask what kind.) On the second evening, a table of drunk Chinese young men took an interest in us and ended up buying me round after round of drinks as they peppered us with questions about us, our trip, and America.