The Daily Telegraph - China, a land on the move
October 23, 2004

Michelle Jana Chan returns to China after a decade away, and journeys by train across a country in the throes of momentous change.

Just over 1,000 years ago, present-day Xi'an was arguably the largest, most cosmopolitan and cultured city in the world.

Inside the crenellated city walls that still stand today, one million inhabitants spoke in a dozen tongues, including Chinese, Sogdian and Tibetan.

Merchants, missionaries and foreign diplomats travelled in and out of the city, westwards along the Silk Road that frays into a hundred threads through the forbidding Taklamakan desert into the "Stans", Iran and on to Baghdad.

One millennium later, the Silk Road is unravelling again. China is wide open to trade and travel, and commodities as well as cultural influences are being exchanged in both directions.

I lived in Xi'an in the mid-1990s and this was my first trip back. The city looked much the same as it did 10 years back and probably not too different from 1,000 years ago.

In the street markets there were bolts of silk, raw and refined, on sale in every colour and pattern. Alongside the textile merchants were fruit and vegetable sellers; traders of spices, pistachio nuts and crystallised sugar; butchers splattered in pig's blood; cobblers resoling shoes; mechanics fixing sewing machines.

In between were many stalls selling bowls of spicy noodles and steamed pork dumplings. I could taste chilli powder in the air and could feel the wetness of billowing steam lifting lids off the massive woks.

After a little more time there, I noticed the mountains of watermelons once for sale were now mere mounds and competing with refrigerated cans of Sprite and Magnum ice creams. There was a queue of chubby children outside Kentucky Fried Chicken with moon-shaped faces and flabby thighs.

I saw my first Chinese car park, with spanking new SUVs jostling for space. In the bicycle park were dozens of motor scooters, and some bikes had gone electric.

Locals were dressed in bright colours and, without wanting to sound trite, I think they smiled more. The familiar mantra is that China is booming. There is a strong drive to earn, a huge desire to spend - and there are more things to buy.

In every single conversation, I overheard the word qian - Chinese for money (one of the few words locals can say in English). Taxi drivers in Xi'an talked about not having enough of it.

Businessmen from Hangzhou boasted about how quickly they could make it. The whole country speaks about China's booming gross domestic product.

Nothing struck me more on my return than the money talk and the incessant trading. I was no longer asked the dated questions about my age and how many people I'd slept with.

They demanded to know the price of my train ticket, the cost of my bottled water and how much I'd paid for pears from the station platform sellers.

"Duo shao qian?" "Duo shao qian?" Fellow passengers would urgently ask me, "How much did you pay?" I might get a nod of approval for a fair price, or a smirk if I had been ripped off.

Ah me, I wasn't sure how I felt about this new country. Was this nostalgia on my part, fondly remembering the past? Frustrated by this steamrolling progress?

Or was I a little smug, having experienced Old China? I had almost a month to watch China changing, travelling on a train around this vast country of only one time zone but a wildly varying landscape.

Clackety-clack through the paddy fields of Guangdong, across the floodplains of the Yangtse, into the Tarim Basin and towards the foothills of the Hindu Kush. These journeys by plane would have lifted me above everything that mattered. By car, I would have missed out on living side by side with the Chinese.

I boarded my first mainland train in Guangzhou, a couple of hours west of Hong Kong. It is in the train stations of China that you really feel you are in a country of 1.3 billion people. I arrived an hour and a half early but in the waiting hall it was already standing room only.

More than 1,000 passengers squashed together with suitcases, crates of food and those red, white and blue striped nylon sacks used throughout Asia.

Children sat atop pyramids of luggage like cherries on cakes. More people streamed in and we miraculously made space. I instinctively looked around for a fire escape and realised that if there was an inferno I'd have no choice but to burn.

The ceiling fans were so slow the air barely moved. I wanted to nudge my neighbour and share my amazement at the crowds, but everyone around me was unfazed.

One stifling hour later, a uniformed official appeared wearing an oversized peaked cap. He paced by the metal barriers penning us in, watching us sweat, before staggering the opening of gates.

It was a human cattle market. I funnelled down the gangway on to the platform, joining the sprint to the carriages, elbowing my way down the aisle and landing on my bunk. With 36 hours ahead of me, I was already exhausted.

This train was an old green diesel locomotive with linoleum floors and ancient coal-fired samovars bubbling away at the end of each carriage. I took a "hard sleeper", a terrible name for a comfortable second-class bunk complete with clean sheets and a blanket.

Every carriage takes 60 passengers loosely boxed up in compartments of six, with two top, two middle and two bottom bunks.

The top bunk is the cheapest - and I soon discovered why. After hauling myself up an eight-foot ladder, I lay back on my pillow within inches of the ceiling.

The bright cabin lights and piped music speakers stared back at me. Behaviour on board is strictly controlled by lights-out at 10pm. Before that, we listened to sharp and rousing marching-band music (along with the occasional Carpenters track) from 7am.

Every morning, on cue, passengers slope bleary-eyed down to the couple of washbasins and the squat toilet. Someone volunteers to fill up the communal flask at the boiling samovar to make tea. We all slurp soupy noodles for breakfast, pushing back the curtains to see the magical new landscape on show.

Xi'an is the place to begin a journey along the Silk Road. The region's rich history of successive dynasties is chronicled at the Shaanxi History Museum, and an hour away is the 8,000-strong Terracotta Army of warriors built by China's first emperor.

From Xi'an, it is 26 hours to Dunhuang, the last stop before what used to be the most arduous journey of the Silk Road.

A mother and father in my carriage waved goodbye to their son, an engineering student in Xi'an. All three sobbed. The parents had spent the weekend here after travelling two full days on a train from Korla in the north-west.

They now faced the same journey back home. Through the tears, they complained about the high price of train tickets and how rarely they saw their only child.

The first few hours out of Xi'an made grim viewing as the train passed through industrial towns such as Baoji and Lanzhou, the latter once the world's most polluted city.

But when I awoke the next morning, we had left behind sulphuric smog and smokestacks and the day was rinsed blue. I gazed out at the vivid grasslands of the Gansu Corridor, a skinny province taking me from the heart of China to its western extremity.

This land is gloriously fertile, dotted with farm workers moving along neat furrows of wheat. Long-legged sheep mosey around the hillsides. Corn on the cob dazzles as it is dried on the flat roofs of brick homes. Sunflowers shine out. Shiny apples bob on trees.

Later that afternoon, we passed the station of Jiayuguan where China's Great Wall crumbles into the sand and officially ends at its westernmost point. From the train, I could see dark stone watchtowers rebuilt and eroded sand-coloured walls falling softly away. Chinese tour groups left the train, everyone wearing matching baseball caps.

With each mile, the landscape became more arid. The fields morphed into scrubland and the mountains drifted further from the tracks. We passed towns that were closed to foreigners, locals told me, whispering about the Long March rocket launch pad and how the government was scared of spies.

Not far from here is the Lop Nur salt flat, where nuclear tests are carried out. On the edge of the Gobi Desert, Dunhuang is an oasis of cotton plantations, red willow and white poplars. It is known for the Mogao cave temples, some of the world's best-preserved Buddhist art and a UN World Heritage Site.

Inside the caves, the religious icons are more than 1,000 years old; manuscripts found here - written on silk and linen - may be the oldest printed books in existence. Most of these documents are now in the British Museum, having been carted away by the explorer Aurel Stein in the early 20th century, but the caves are still beautifully decorated with statues and frescoes.

Sitting in the darkness, I cowered beneath the world's third-largest Buddha (promoted from fifth place after the twin Buddhas at Bamiyan were blown up by the Taliban).

From Dunhuang, I took the overnight train to Turpan, passing through inhospitable terrain. Turpan is the second-lowest place on earth, notching up some of the world's hottest temperatures. It was 47C and I felt as though I was roasting in an oven on Gas Mark 9.

I sheltered under vine trellises heavy with grapes, before walking through the old town of adobe mud houses where families scrubbed their clothes clean in gutters along the road.

It was here that I met Pamela, a fiercely ambitious 26-year-old Uighur woman in her penultimate year at dentistry school (the Uighur minority numbers six million in Xinjiang province - where I now was - and speaks a language intelligible to Turks). She complained about the cost of studying in China and the competitive job market.

"The government is no longer interested in finding people work," she said. "Now, you have to apply on your own and do interviews." Pamela said she wanted to go to Germany where dentistry was more advanced and she was more likely to find a job.

From Turpan, it is 21 hours to Kashgar - on new railway track through the severe Taklamakan desert, skirting the border with Kazakhstan.

The trains here are spanking new, air-conditioned, double-decker models with frilly sheets and flowers embroidered on duvets. Joyfully, there is a volume control to turn the music down, and a personal nightlight.

"Fangbian mian, niunai, mianbao" - noodles, milk, bread - is the familiar cry up and down the aisles as hostesses peddle their wares. Midday meals (meat, rice, vegetables) are packed in polystyrene and cost less than £1.

Outside the window, we passed brick-making factories, quarries, rubbish dumps releasing waste up into the air like tropical birds and electricity poles strung together like clothes pegs. We passed modern towns, now abandoned because the new railway line means there is no passing traffic any more. It was a desolate picture.

I woke to see the Tianshan mountains catching the early-morning sunlight. Some peaks were 21,000ft high and the snow glittered halfway down the slopes. Rivers were gushing milky-jade with meltwater. When I stepped out at the next station to stretch my legs, it was the first time I'd been cold in weeks.

By the time I reached Kashgar, I was further west than Delhi. I could see the high Pamir mountains, the so-called Roof of the World. To the south, the Karakoram Highway kicks off in the direction of the mountain K2.

Kashgar really is the meeting point of East and West, where Chinese mix with people who could be Romanian (green eyes, Roma features), even Celtic (red hair, freckles) and where the majority pray to Mecca.

Kashgar's Sunday market is the city's greatest draw. Crowds of merchants converge here from all over western China, as well as from Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan and Kashmir. Any other day of the week, Kashgar reverts to another faceless Chinese city of wide streets and fountain shows choreographed to Strauss symphonies.

I approached the market through streets gridlocked with donkey carts, bicycles, tractors, open-topped trucks, taxis and moto-tricycles. Children ran loose between the vehicles, playing hide-and-seek.

I watched a street magician attracting an audience with tall tales and card tricks. A boy volunteered from the crowd but was clearly in on the game.

The open-air market has now mostly shifted inside a modern warehouse, but around the perimeter there is still plenty of atmosphere - including a parking lot for donkeys, whose urgent braying sounds like whooping cough.

The stalls opened at 9am. There were carts of marrows, yellow carrots, green peppers, sun-dried chillis and ropes of garlic.

There were areas for bicycle-fixing and tools, another where fur traders sold silver fox, tiger skins and mink stoles. Entire families manned the stalls, with children cutting cloth or weighing raisins, dried apricots and walnuts.

In the Chinese medicine shops, I saw sacks of ginseng and dried mushrooms, skeletons of starfish and seahorses, as well as spindly goats' legs to boil in soup. Most ingredients, I was told, improved virility, fertility or longevity.

At the food stands, there were sheeps' heads piled in pyramids and buckets of sheeps' hearts. I went for shish kebabs and sesame seed bagels with freshly squeezed date juice.

I bought bags of almonds and Uighur shampoo resembling coal mixed with donkey dung. I bought a skullcap I will never wear and a telescope I didn't really need to be carrying in my backpack ("Russian technology, Chinese-made, very cheap, you can see beyond the stars").

I resisted the tambourines and curved daggers like the ones hanging from the hips of old Kashgari men.

After a day of bargaining here, and 150 hours on trains, it felt like everyone in China had become a peddler - from the fast-talking traders on the floor of the Shanghai stock exchange to the souvenir hawkers pushing Mao trinkets. The country was heaving with a mass of merchants moving along a new road made of something coarser than silk.

Travelling by train was the most intimate way to experience this great land transforming: with people ranging from the chicken farmers on the sluggish, Communist-style locomotives to the entrepreneurs on the east coast express service from Beijing to Shanghai, where every passenger gets slippers, a toothbrush and a hot meal.

Like China itself, the trains are getting sleeker and faster and they are expanding their reach.

But perhaps the country's finest metaphor is Shanghai's $1.2 billion (£666 million) airport shuttle that reaches 270mph, making it the world's speediest locomotive. On the eight-minute journey, the train hardly touches the tracks; instead it uses magnetic levitation to float friction-free downtown.

Around corners, the train tilts, even shudders. China may be undergoing the fastest, most frantic and most thrilling ride in the world.