The following is an account of my experiences at Urumqi station in the far northwest of China. It was around 8am on an August morning in 2011 and I had just disembarked train 1085 from Jinan after a 48 hour train journey.
As we emergeded into the hot Urumqi morning, a totally foreign scene greeted me. Soldiers are in the station forecourt, silently keeping watch. The policeman near the station exit held an AK-47 machine gun and another yelled into a microphone, ordering everyone to keep moving, don’t stop here. Then there were the masses of people. I had seen Chinese crowds before, but nothing prepares me for the chaos of Urumqi station. I held my bags close to me, and pushed through the crowds.
We needed to try to exchange our onward tickets to Liuyuan from seats to sleeping berths, so we headed to the ticket office. To get in to the ticket office, our bags were put through an x-ray machine, and we are put through a metal detector. A policeman was conducting identity card checks but because I am Low Wai (foreigner), we were waved through without harassment.
The ticket office at Urumqi is actually a large hall. The ceiling is at least 15 metres high and there are 24 ticket windows, side by side. The room is not air-conditioned, and it smells as if many people in the hall are yet to discover deodorant. All 24 windows were open, and each had a queue at least 15 people long.
We chose a queue at random and shuffled slowly forward. After waiting about 10 minutes, a man came rushing up to us. He was short, shorter than me, with round, wire framed glasses and a goatee beard. At a guess, I would have said he was in his middle 30s and had 2 taller travelling companions of around the same age.
“’Ello, ‘ello” he said with a heavy French accent. “Do you speak Ingleesh?”. He told us that he and his companions were trying to get to Kashgar for the Sunday markets. It was 10:30 on Friday morning, and the quickest train to Kashgar takes 24 hours – I didn’t like his chances. We offered to buy the tickets on his behalf, and he was very grateful. His friends had a little Mandarin between them, but it was not enough to negotiate the complexities of purchasing tickets in a hurry.
In the booking office, there is a huge LED display above the windows, with listings in both Chinese and Uighur characters. This a tally board for every train departing Urumqi today, showing all of the places left available; soft sleeper, hard sleeper and seat. All of the trains leaving for Kashgar is showing 0 in each column except for one leaving in 70 minutes, which still has 40 hard sleepers available. As we waited, the train flashed up again, but this time, no sleepers are available!
Finally, it was our turn at the window. There were no sleepers available on any train to Kashgar over the next few days, but there were seats available on the train leaving in 50 minutes. The deal was done, and some very grateful Frenchmen ran off to catch their train. Later, we found out that the train we sent them on was the slowest train from Urumqi to Kashgar, stopping at every station and taking 34 hours to get there! To make matters worse, it used the old, non-air-conditioned carriages.
We often laughed and thought of the three Frenchmen cursing us as they sweated in their hard seats on their hot journey through the Xinjiang desert. At least they would be in time for Kashgar’s Sunday market.