Travel: Railways - Slow train to China

The journey from Almaty to Urumchi was an adventure in itself for Amar Grover
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The Independent Online
Almaty, capital of Kazakhstan, is famous for its apples, but at the cavernous Central Market there were none. As the day wore on the city's wholesome, almost quaint complexion ripened into something less mellow.

Two men and a shrieking woman bounced out of a drinking-tent and biffed each other wildly. Later, beside the railway station, our taxi driver shook his fist and quivered with rage when I paid him what had been agreed. Outside, against a wall two thugs quietly slugged away at each other. I hastened to the ticket hall, anxious to please whatever tetchy clerk might trouble to sell me a ticket.

All fears proved groundless; within minutes I had a ticket and instructions to report for train No 14 the following afternoon. We were bound for Urumchi in north-west China's Xinjiang Province. The twice-weekly Genghis Khan Express started up in 1990 when China linked her railways to the USSR's vast network. It had been a sensitive border, bruised by ideological scraps and territorial squabbles; today business is the balm that soothes these once creaking joints.

Almaty's is a busy station, but in the rarefied hush of the Khan's separate waiting hall, we were cocooned from the hustle and bustle. Around us waited patient groups of Kazakhs and Chinese and a few Uighurs from Xinjiang, mostly smart and prosperous-looking, with ordered piles of baggage. A neat provodnitsa, or attendant, one for each car, confirmed the aura of privilege by escorting us to spotless compartments with a cheery smile.

We had treated ourselves to a first-class, two-berth compartment and for once, the Kazakhs gave value for money. Not only did the reading lights light and the locks lock but the sheets were crisp and the pillows soft. My companion began nesting - some 40 hours of languor lay ahead - and I darted out for provisions. Miss provodnitsa grinned when I returned with bottles of absurdly cheap champagne. "Honeymoon?" she ventured saucily.

Almaty's concrete blight had fallen away by the time she brought us small towels and a Thermos of boiling water. One of the pleasures of a long train journey is that with so few things to do, you can usually do them well - and so we began the first of several lavish picnics. The market stocked monstrous strawberries and dark, juicy cherries. Sensational Uzbek raisins exploded with flavour; dried apricots melted like fondant.

Our carriage was half empty. Down at the end a lone, gloomy Chinese scowled at the merest hint of conversation. But our neighbours, two elderly Uighur couples, cackled away merrily and dispensed Turkish delight. Years ago they had escaped to Istanbul and now, thanks to the Khan, could return with ease to Xinjiang and visit relatives.

Next morning we popped up the blind to see a vast steppe of feeble greens and burnt yellows. The placid blue waters of Lake Balkash stretched away like a sea. Occasionally we clattered past dreary hamlets that sketched hopeless, weatherbeaten lives. At Aktogay the track divides and were shunted south east off the TurkSib line towards the Jungarian Gap.

This unexpectedly broad corridor framed by dreary ranges has shaped history. It has acted as a conduit for marauding hordes and roaming nomads, and there is every chance that Genghis Khan himself charged through the scrub to conquer a good chunk of the then known world. We, too, rattled along - though not much faster than a gallop. I tossed raisins, caught them in my mouth and waited for Druzhba, where the fun began in earnest.

The Russians and Chinese may have agreed they were Communists, then bickered over detail, but there's no denying that their railway gauges are different. We drew alongside an interminable line of bogies, then gently budged to and fro for half an hour until just so. As the cars were uncoupled one by one, men in boiler suits clambered aboard. Off came the floor hatches, out came huge, oily pins, and when jacks had marooned us 15ft off the ground, our bogies were wheeled away. Navvies looked up, waved and guffawed.

I soon discovered why. The tinkering continued for many hours and meanwhile we were deprived of toilets - they were locked. Miss provodnitsa had refused to open them before disappearing. I studied our tickets for a caution, but the Cyrillic was beyond me.

A sudden jolt prepared us for Kazakh Customs and Immigration. While most passengers are treated with brusque indifference, some travellers are processed with menace; let's just say I was processed rather than treated. One strip-search later, an embarrassed Russian captain returned my neatly folded $100 bill, which had been secreted in his corporal's boot. "Excuse me" he said deferentially, before they calmly resumed lounging and chatting.

As we crossed into the People's Republic, a welcome breeze whipped through the windows. Many borders are peculiar places, full of stock suspicion and absurd posturing. Yet minutes later, we were met with charming ceremony in the Chinese sector. It was dusk; red flags fluttered patriotically, martial music screeched from a loudspeaker and guards saluted our arrival. I have rarely felt so important, and in China - where sometimes you feel painfully unwanted - this was no mean achievement. Officials bounded aboard, as happy as children, to start another round of inspections.

It was not my book that they disliked. Its 16 pictures of the Central Asia that preceded Communist meddling were ignored. Nor were they offended by the chapter "Urumchi: Most Sinister Town in Asia". No, it was our precious fruit that bothered them. The People's Customs had their regulations. All but one bag of our finest fruit was plucked off with salivating grins. A solitary guard appeared. "May I make this special request?" he faltered before pleading for English language magazines or papers. Eventually, in hot darkness, our train heaved away. The home run lay across stony desert gleaming under clear moonlit skies. Next morning, after nearly 1,400 km and just an hour late, we reached the hazy, bustling building site that is modern Urumchi. It was far too busy to be sinister, and we trotted off to find a room and something good to say.

You can spend a weekend in Almaty and the Kazakh Steppe on the new British Airways flight from Heathrow; the lowest official fare is pounds 622, but Regent Holidays (0117-921 1711) has a four-day inclusive package for pounds 599.