Today we catch the overnight train to Xi’an. For the moment we are waiting in the hotel for the appropriate departure time. The sun is beginning to break through now (11:00 a.m.) but when we awoke at 8:30 a.m. it was another smoggy day with very little visible and light similar to that of first light at home. We have to wait as trains do not run everyday and because Urumqi is in a far corner of China the train we catch probably arrived here early in the day having travelled overnight from Xi’an or beyond. It will be cleaned and readied for the return journey during the day.
We went downstairs to the restaurant for lunch in case there was little to be had on the train, and were surprised to see the restaurant virtually full of people. It was launch to celebrate International Women’s Day and the locals were out in force having prepaid for ‘an eat as much as you can’ lunch.
We boarded the train Z106 at 17:40 p.m. A ‘Z train’ is a higher speed one and so cuts several hours off the journey to Xi’an. Our train departed from the new station in Urumqi.
The public areas are like an airport with departures handled on the upper floor and arrivals beneath. Tight security started on the approach road where we had to leave the taxi and put everything through the X-ray machine. Our taxi driver did not like this because his meter is running during this time and therefore could result in a higher than normal charge. The next security check was to get in the building. This time accompanied by passport scan and facial recognition cameras. The final layer of security was on approach to our departure gate and finally as in many UK stations the train tickets have to be inserted into the barrier to give us access to carriage 11. We left Urumqi with the Tien Shan Mountains to the right and the snowy peaks of the Bogda Shan to the left.
Although darkness fell quite quickly it was obvious that the landscape here is particularly challenging for railway construction. As we turned in for the night we were passing through an area known as Lop Nor, a salt lake, that is constantly shifting depending upon rainfall on the surrounding mountains. The Steppe here is particularly rocky as the mountains are largely made of a very old and quite soft sandstone. Although we will miss this as we sleep we are passing through the geographical centre of China. Essentially this means that if you traced a map of China onto a piece of card and carefully cut it out it would balance on this point on the tip of a pencil. (Meridan, near Coventry, is Britain’s equivalent to this.)