After leaving the town of Dunhuang, I arrived back in Liuyuan a couple of hours before my train was due. Last time I had passed through this town was late at night, and I have to say it looked better in the dark. It is a ruin of a town; I’ve never seen so many boarded up shops or closed factories, the main street has so many potholes that it would be more accurate to say that there are a few strips of bitumen amongst the dust. The only reason that Liuyuan is so important is that it’s the only water source between Dunhuang and Hami, every passenger train must stop here to take on water.
I went for a walk before the train was due, and the town depressed me. Closed down factories with rusty signs proclaiming communist slogans, lane-ways full of rubbish leading to slum housing, yards full of rubble where houses used to be, greasy apartment blocks and a hotel that would be second choice to sleeping on the street. And everywhere is dust and grit.
I made my way back to the railway station, where a half dozen taxi drivers offered to take me to Dunhuang. I shook my head and replied “Lanzhou”, leaving them scratching their heads.
As I have previously mentioned, every railway station in China has an X-ray machine. When entering the station, you must put your bags through the machine. Normally, the conveyor belt on the X-ray machine is running constantly, but the station at Liuyuan has so few passengers joining the train that the conveyor belt is only switched on as required. There were also 3 bored looking cops watching the screen.
I had bought a small folding knife in Urumqi to cut fresh fruit with. The blade is about 3cm long, it’s not a big knife. The knife had already made it through the tight security at Urumqi station without a problem, but at Liuyuan, a triumphant policeman pulled my luggage aside and pointed to the poster showing what you weren’t allowed to take on the train. Amongst the prohibited items was knives (depicted on the poster as a machete), the policeman said that I would need to hand over my knife for destruction. I explained what the knife was for and showed them how big it really was. The 3 police officers had a quick conference, and graciously agreed to let me keep my ¥4 knife. It was probably the most exciting thing that had happened in the town all week.
The waiting room a Liuyuan station is right next to the toilets. In this desert town, the smell was more unpleasant than normal, so we decided to wait outside the waiting room. There were five fake tree stumps in the station concourse, arranged as a picnic table and chairs (don’t ask me why). We ate lunch here, away from the stench of the toilets.
Shortly after we finished lunch, an untidy station assistant herded the handful of waiting passengers into the waiting room and made sure our luggage was neatly lined up. The toilets had been deodorised and the station staff were all running around cleaning and polishing. It was explained that some high level railway officials were to visit the station for an inspection, everything had to be in tip-top condition. I never did see these officials, I don’t blame them, I wouldn’t have chosen to go to Liuyuan either.
Our train was late. How late? No one was sure, but it was late. At departure time, we were all lined up at the entry gate, but in true Chinese bureaucratic style, we were not allowed on to the platform until 10 minutes before the arrival of the train. We waited in the hot station building, and finally we were allowed on to the platform. Our train was said to be leaving from platform 3, so we had to negotiate the footbridge. Chinese stations are not designed with long distance travellers in mind; there are seldom ramps, never elevators and only the larger stations have escalators. At Liuyuan, we had to climb the stairs with our big, heavy bags and then back down the other side.
We were waiting on platform 3 as instructed, and could see a train approaching. As the train approached, it was clear that it was not ours; it was only 6 carriages long, had no sleeping cars and made up of the old 22B rolling stock. 22B stock is not air-conditioned and painted dark green with a thin yellow stripe below the window line and a thinner yellow stripe above. The windows open to allow ventilation. This train was going to some remote desert siding, mainly servicing the railway towns I had previously seen.
As the old train wheezed to a halt, an announcement was made that our train would be departing from platform 2. Fortunately this was the adjacent platform and did not require another trip over the footbridge. Several minutes later, our train came into view and we were ordered to move down the platform. Where would carriage 10 be? I don’t know, just keep moving down. Carriage 10 ended up being next to where we were first standing, before we had been ordered to move down, so we walked the 4 carriage lengths back.
Our train was the same first generation air conditioned stock that we had travelled on previously(25G). Again we had 19 cars; 9 cars of hard sleepers, 1 car of soft sleepers, 3 cars of soft seats, 3 cars of hard seats, 1 restaurant car, 1 power car and 1 luggage van.
This time, we were travelling in soft sleeper. Soft sleepers have compartments, containing 2 tiers of 2 bunks. The bunks are slightly wider and there is a mattress (instead of a sheet covering a vinyl shelf as in the hard sleepers). There are individual reading lights, and the main lights may be individually controlled within each compartment.
We were soon under-way departing before the ancient train beside us. In our compartment was a young woman who was quite shy, and a young man who wasn’t. The young man worked for his family’s gold mining company and had just been to inspect one of their mines near Hami. He was returning to Lanzhou by train before flying back to Shanghai.
We travelled on through the afternoon, passing through the southern end of the Gobi desert. The window outside our compartment was able to open slightly, and we enjoyed the fresh desert air. A dinner pack was purchased from the cart that came through the carriage, and before it was completely dark all in our compartment went to sleep.
I had set the alarm for 4:45 the next morning; 10 minutes before our scheduled arrival into Lanzhou. I was just getting out of bed when the conductor arrived to exchange our boarding cards for tickets. We arrived in Lanzhou 30 minutes late, and after some photographs of the train, we exited the station into the cold morning air.