Urumqi >> Kashgar
'Puncture Repair' - Elbow
A quick entry this, or so I plan it as I begin, which will hopefully bring a bit of welcome relief to those of you struggling under the weight of some of my longer texts.
Back in Urumqi and back at the same hostel again. A mother and daughter from the coach party brought me across town in their taxi but went on elsewhere when they discovered that the place was too full to offer them beds in the same room. We agreed to meet again in the future though as I planned to visit their home town of Pingyao at some point in the future. The rest of the day and all of the next were mostly no more exciting than laundry and catching up on the net. Also on the following day, I took the bus down to the south bus station, which was a bit of a maelstrom of chaos, to buy myself a bus ticket to Kashgar for the day after. On paper the train was the nicer option, of similar length (twenty four hours), and not significantly more expensive. But, when in Rome I feel it is important to do as the Romans when possible. Or at least, do as they do a bit so you get a feel what life is like for the average Roman. Not like the party of English tourists sitting at the next table to me as I type this, who should make an appearance in a future journal covering Turpan. No, I would take the bus there and the train for the return leg a few days later.
Arriving at the bus station again the next morning, I was directed through some pointless airport-style security checks. Pointless, in this instance because it may well stop me taking anything undesirable onto the bus, but other people with their luggage boarded at later points along the roadside. Also, we were all able to get off and on at any of the many toilet breaks or the hour we stopped for lunch that night. If I were a trouble-causer bent on getting a gun, a bomb or whatever else security may have been looking for on to the bus, I'm pretty sure I could arrange for someone to meet me on the way to pass it to me. A few days later when I boarded the bus to Turpan from the same bus station, I was asked to surrender any cigarette lighter I may have on my person. I doubt many lives were saved by this exercise, although it is conceivable that instances of lung cancer in the area will begin to go down in the longer term.
Inside the bus were three rows of bunks, stacked two high, running from front to back. Each passenger's head rested on a curved shelf above the feet of the person behind. Possibly the length of the bunks is to the perfect satisfaction of the Chinese, who are neither as short as you may expect nor as tall as the average European, but it was six vital inches too short for me so I spent my time altenating between a variety of crunched positions, none of which are commonly recommended by doctors.
We stopped four times over the first three hours and I was beginning to question how we would ever get anywhere. When we were moving we crawled through the twisting roads of a long rocky valley of gravel. The further into the journey though and the more confidence the driver had in everyone's bladders so rests became rarer. That night we stopped by a rough roadside settlement of little more than shacks in the dust for something to eat. A sixteen-year old boy with limited English had befriended me so took it upon himself to make sure I got fed, although I would actually have been happy to have survived on my biscuits and fruit just to keep the bus moving. I explained that I didn't eat meat so he ordered me some food with rice. When it arrived, it was a mix of vegetables with, of course, meat. I declined to eat it and he was mystified why not. He then picked out the pieces of meat he could see to transfer to his own plate and was laughing, gobsmacked that I still didn't want to eat it.
Although I had read that the bus took twenty four hours, the man at the hostel in Urumqi had suggested that it could take up to thirty, depending upon traffic and delays, so by the middle of the following morning when a full day was up, I had no idea if Kashgar was just around the next mountain or still three hundred miles away. It turned out that we took twenty seven hours, which wasn't a bad compromise I figured. Thirty miles outside of town we stopped at a security check where everyone disembarked and handed in their ID cards to the police to register. Shortly before we got back on, I found a small crowd of people were gathered around one of the wheels on our bus. Sticking out of the side was a piece of metal which I shall describe as a large nail for the purposes of this journal. It was well secured and there was no obvious sign of air escaping so it was probably best to leave well alone until we reached journey's end - I don't know how to change a tyre on a coach or even if this vehicle was carrying a spare, but I'm guessing that it's a more complicated job than a little twisting jack and half a dozen little nuts that we have all used to change wheels on a normal family car. I'm also guessing that the RAC have an average call-out time higher than twenty minutes in the middle of this desert. To my horror, the driver then appeared from the back of the bus where he had fetched a pair of pliers. He then grabbed the 'nail' and yanked it out, with air gleefully pouring out of the hole in the rubber he had just created. Suddenly I could picture myself being stuck at this little abandoned check-point for most of the rest of the day before he managed to jam the nail back in and hammered it home with the side of the pliers. Leaking air, or at least the sound of it, was stopped for long enough to get us to our destination.
Once in Kashgar, we were dumped in some dusty yard on completely the opposite side of town to where I was expecting, which meant I could make no sense of my map. Fortunately, I got my north and south the wrong way around so the two problems complemented each other rather well to ensure that I at least stumbled in the right direction for twenty minutes until I worked out where I was and where to find my planned hotel.