Day 6, Kuqa to Kashgar

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March 3rd 2018
Published: March 3rd 2018
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Kuqa railway station is a modern, stylish and well-managed establishment, we arrived in good time but check-in was very easy and efficient, 30 minutes would be enough to allow prior to departure. Our 2nd Hard Sleeper had already done sterling service and the bunks in our carriage were arranged in tiers of 3 high divided by a narrow passage, with the south-facing window heavily curtained; after many hours, the sheets showed the signs, and our party of three was distributed as one per compartment, each in middle berth. It took some time to discover the folding footholds, which would assist an ascent, resembling those little blocks you see on the walls of establishments that train would-be mountaineers. Anyway, one member of our party announced flatly "I am not going in there", so we used the bunks as baggage racks and availed of the fold-down dicky seats in the corridor.

This must be one of the finest railway journeys in the world, an incredible vista of seemingly endless desert to the south and, brilliantly illuminated by the sun, a great sweep of plain to the north ending abruptly at a beautiful range of mountains (I think a western continuation of the Tien Shan). These mountains are sometimes red, sometimes brown, or grey, or sharply delineated by outcrops of white rock, or lying snow, and are raked and furrowed as the plunge towards the desert floor - to add to it all, the geological layers are frequently banded into contrasting colours, like a layer-cake.

In due course we headed to the dining car, where we had one of the best meals that I can recall on a train for many, many years (£4 a head). Very friendly staff, much cleaning going on and one noted that the same wipes and other materials were applied with vigour to the uniforms and even the faces of the staff. A change of on-board staff was due shortly and hthe incoming shift used the dining carriage for an impressive pre-work briefing session; it was not unlike the pre-match team building session for a rugby match.

Reached Kashgar after about 9hrs or so (exactly on time, almost 10pm) and must admit (for other travellers information) it was an odd arrival. The train, about 19 carriages in length, disgorged almost 2,000 people who then had to walk, wheeze, trundle or otherwise the full length of platform 3, cross the railbed, and walk back an equivalent distance on platform 1, a total of about half a kilometre. As if this in itself was not weird, they emerged into an area containing perhaps 150 taxis, in vaguely serried ranks which had become hopelessly log-jammed by later arriving vehicles. The drivers sought to maximise profit by refusing to use meters and seeking a 20% higher price; this they hoped to further maximise by filling each seat with independent clients, so that if (for example) they had found a single person, they could only accept two more. Finding a cab for three persons was difficult, and when it was achieved one could only wonder at the thinking behind the green policy whereby the vehicles had been converted to gas. Instead of putting the tanks upon the (empty) roofs of the cabs, they had all been fitted in the boot, a neat solution that unfortunately left very little room for luggage. Eventually, almost at a given signal, the entire melee of (by now) perhaps 250 vehicles attempted to leave the field through the sole exit, which was in the corner of a right angle. One thought of an entire caravan attempting to pass through the famous Eye of the Needle, but this had none of the grace and elegance of a throng of maddened, goaded, frightened camels, and it was quite late and dark.

Not a great arrival to Kashgar, but our hotel, The Sultan, was a great success, decked out in every feature of a high Victorian fantasy but very comfortable. The furniture, drapes, huge ottoman-styles (buttoned with crystals), chandeliers etc. might become oppressive in daily life but seem perfect for our 2 nights in this, the most westerly city in China, closest to the heart of Islam.

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