Nearly a quarter century ago, in another publication, I wrote about a rail trip from Moscow across Siberia to Mongolia and China. At the time, I was aware of an alternative route which the Russians and Chinese had jointly planned – one would be able to rail southeast from Moscow across the Volga into Central Asia and onwards to Urumchi in Western China.
Druzhba Sanatorium – Greyscape
The Soviets brought the railway to the new border post at Druzhba (Friendship) in 1961 and there the dream ended. The Sino-Soviet rift erupted and relations plunged to a nadir in the 60s, with the Cultural Revolution and murderous border clashes.
The railway was completed but the service was not inaugurated. Not until Gorbachev and Glasnost. By the time I got aboard, it was a truly international service, spanning 4 countries. Moscow was no longer the austere egalitarian city of my 70s visits. Now it was a traffic-choked haunt of nouveau- millionaires and nouveau-beggars. The sight of 2 old women in dirty overcoats singing in the Metro for a few roubles saddened me- in another time, they’d have had some boon-doggle job and enough to survive on. In short, some dignity.
My train slunk out of the city late one summer night. I woke the next morning as we crawled almost at walking pace through the dreary steppe. There were log cabins, without water or power. Farmland and trees came and went. One time, I waved to a group of women railway labourers (Some things hadn’t changed, after all). We crossed the wideVolga and through an industrial city. It was a place of chimneys and grey apartment mountains. ln a place of such unspeakable ugliness, the sheer lack of stimulation would either mean that your imagination took off and you became an artist or you gave up and became an alcoholic. Russia has plenty of both.
I’m not sure when I left Russia. If there was a border marker, I missed it.
One night, I stood at the door as we cruised through the desert. It should have been a lakeside journey. Out there, many miles away below the horizon, was what was left of the Aral Sea. It’s feeder rivers had long ago been diverted to the cotton-fields, leaving behind an ecological disaster to rival Chernobyl.
The dining car was sometimes open. One day, I got the entire menu- some vile canned meat- and wasn’t charged for it. I guess the Russians pitied me for my stupidity. Anyone with intelligence had stocked up on food in Moscow. Well, I was overweight at the time so. . ..
The scenery was now desert or semidesert. The towns took on a Middle Eastern appearance. Mosques abounded. When I jumped from the train in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, I was exuberant. Central Asia was the real goal of my journey. The ﬂat steppe stretched forever. The sun always shone. The irrigated fields were full of crops and I forgot about the Aral Sea.
For many days, I explored the cities of Tashkent, Bukhara and Samarkand with its famous Registan Square. There is only one thing to see- the glorious blue domes. Some are huge. Some are small. Many of them are falling down but many more are restored. Beneath them you can have markets, mosques, dwellings and palaces. And here, at last, I could eat the food again.
Many people here felt a sense of loss at the Soviet break-up. Being part of a superpower meant you were somebody and going it alone isn’t easy. One lady, a former Intourist guide, still couldn’t accept the fact that she now needed a passport to go to Moscow. But the USSR is dead, and nobody doubts it.
My final call in the old USSR was Almaty, capital of Kazakhstan. The Russian Concorde used ﬂy here one time. A green city with an amazing wooden cathedral. Music played in the square. Outside the city, steep slopes lead to snow-clad mountains.
Back on a dreadful train, with almost opaque windows and it was through farmland, hills, barren plains with miserable towns, lakes and swamps. Then in the distance across the stony desert, I saw a gap miles wide between 2 mountain ranges. Marco Polo saw the same gap, the Dzungarian Gate, the ancient entrance to China.
Marco Polo probably suffered. So did I. From arriving in Dostyk (formerly Druzhba) on the Kazak side to departing Aleyshenko on the Chinese side (where a few people got AIDS tests) took 10 hours.
That didn’t matter. Within hours, I was in typical Far Eastern farmland where not a metre of ground was left unused. Urumchi, the first major city, was quiet by Chinese standards. Signs are in Chinese and Uigur, an Arabic-looking script. I quickly learned that this wasn’t really China at all. The Uigurs are a distinctive race of people and some of them have aspirations to independence.
The journey out of Urumchi took me through glorious desert. Unlike Central Asia, this desert is almost empty of settlements. I snapped pictures all day long until a guard who questioned me severely in Chinese, which I didn’t understand, visited me. My camera had to be put away, on pain of I’m not sure what. Later on, I was told that we had been in the area where China tests its nuclear weapons.
Ahead of me loomed Jin Yu Gian with its pagodas and, amazingly, the train ran through a gap in the Great Wall of China.
I was still way out west but the pilgrimage part of the trip was over. I was in fertile land with teeming millions of people. The Yellow (should it be Orange?) River slid by. Vendors sold food on the station platforms and never did I miss a stop thanks to the kindness and concern of my Chinese fellow passengers. I had some days in Sian with its terracotta army, among other things. It was then southwards for a few days before an English-style high-speed train landed me in Hong Kong.
That was the end of the line. It was Heaven. It was Hell. I wouldn’t have had it any other way!
Written by Paul Holland
Published here 24 May 2023 and originally published Christmas 2001
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