North Across China: Night Buses, a Bowl of Noodles, and a Rotund Sichuanese Migrant

I said a temporary goodbye to Beijing and boarded a night bus for Erlian, the Chinese Mongolian border town renowned for prostitution and gigantoraptor fossils.

As the bus pulled away I was surprised by the English inquiry that greeted my unsteady approach to berth 37. There was a helpful tone to this young girl’s voice and I quickly discovered it was not the common Chinese student wanting to practice pidgin English. She was part of a small group of Chinese American missionaries on their way to the border to extend their visas that they may continue to proselytize and preach. Amicable though they were, we lived in two very different Beijings. Their company on that first leg of the journey was enjoyable, from the Jazz age ‘ohs’ and ‘yeahs’ at meal prayers that they took turns saying to the odd conversation denouncing evolution at a Mongolian dumpling restaurant a few kilometers from the 2005 discovery site of 70 million year old fossils. We parted in Hohhot, the capital of the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, autonomous in China is a silly word.

Outside the train station in Hohhot a phalanx of Uyghurs sold snacks, those dried rice, sweet nuts and fruit squares of exceptional mass they weigh out in front of your nose to your surprise at the cost when the presumably small slice you have selected amasses more gravity on the scales than your appetite was hoping. It’s a known scam but one avoidable if you know how to place your order. I didn’t feel like buying but I had time to kill before my train so I started to chat with one of the vendors.

‘Are you Uyghur,’ I asked in Chinese. ‘Shi.’ I am, he said. ‘Yakshimisiz.’ In his language, I said hello. At first he had been quite insistent that I purchase some of his dried and overpriced confectionary but my show of linguistic solidarity changed the course of the conversation. He was curious about this foreigner who knew a few words of the Uyghur language. ‘Where are you from?’ He asked me in Chinese. I told him I was American and he perked up even more. He was excited to her this, excited because he looks up to the United States, he explained, because America is a friend to the Uyghurs. He then brought up the name that the Chinese Government detests, the source of Islamic terrorism and separatism by the propaganda of the Han. ‘Do you know our Ribya?’ He asked in reference to Rebya Kadeer. I replied that I did, presumably he understood this to mean that I had heard of her, that I knew something about the suffering of the Uyghur people. I did not mention that I had met Rebya in Brussels only a few months earlier. It was the feeling of comfort that someone knows about your pain, that someone cares enough to step outside of their own parochial concerns and troubles to take the time to learn about another’s. This is how the world changes. With a somewhat victories sheen on his face he glanced around at his compatriots to see if they had heard. Tonight he will no doubt talk about the American who knows about Rebya Kadeer.

Shortly later I was on train 1717 to Lanzhou, Gansu Province’s capital in the Gobi. The ride was a normal 18 hour ordeal. I arrived in Lanzhou at mid morning the following day with no plan or place to go. I wasn’t sure how I felt about staying in this city famous for the noodles to which it has lent its name so I clung to the train station, toying for a few minutes with my options. Eventually I walked back to inquire about the trip to Turpan, the oasis on the edge of the mighty Taklamakan desert, the site of ancient minarets and mummies, and a step closer to my destination.

All the seats and hard sleepers on the train were sold out. There were soft sleeper tickets available for all the money I had just withdrawn from the ATM or 100 Kuai, about 15 dollars, for a standing only ticket. To hell with it. I bought the standing only ticket, a right to enter the train and nothing else, no space to claim, no right to comfort. The train would leave in several hours and I resolved myself to the next five hours of Lanzhou exploration before the madness of migrant workers with their instant noodles, folding chairs and cigarettes; the train ride from Lanzhou to Turpan takes just over 24 hours, much of that along the ancient Silk Road and the inhospitable Gobi desert.

I had heard about German beer gardens at the top of Baitashan but when I arrived on the bluff below the White Pagoda I discovered that the beer gardens were still closed for winter. It was early April, but with the beating sun, magnified by the thick insulation of pollution and a humidity that rose from the Yellow River that bisects the city, my heavy traveling pack, the hike, it sure felt like summer. I passed several migrant workers, stopping in the shade for a brief chat with one or two. Eventually I ordered a bottle of Snow beer, one of the world’s best selling brands with 61 million hectoliters of annual sales, an example of the sheer size of the Chinese market that an unknown beer to the rest of the world is made one of the best selling by virtue of domestic consumption. With my beer I settled under a tarpaulin to read James Millward’s Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang. After a few hours of charging my phone and getting lost in the past of the Tarim Basin I made my way down the hill and toward the train, with a necessary stop to eat Lanzhou lamian, hand pulled noodles.

I put my bag on the ground up in front by the brass railing. I figured this was a good idea and the best way to wait. It would be another two hours before the starting bell rang and the hordes began their frenetic dash for space on the train. I sat there on the floor amid the migrants and their bindles, with my over-packed backpack and a small red plastic bag containing naan; the only foreigner in the massive waiting hall, I attracted a lot of attention.

There was some confusion and commotion; the train was late. The scheduled time had approached and the scattered clumps of bodies that had been waiting, some supine on large parcels others squatting sipping steaming broth and tea or harshly chain smoking with yellowed finger tips and blackened missing teeth, congregated en masse and crowded their way to press against the rails, row upon row of smelly bodies, mostly dusty men, the occasional woman in a brightly colored veil, all waited, all pressed forward and I was smack dab in the front where I had positioned myself hours earlier. Behind me, in many distinct and gruff accents from the men that travel the entirety of China, complaints and impatience, some made jokes about rushing the conductors but the gate finally opened. The women in multicolored and sometimes sequined hijab and the children with expectant faces were the first to be let through the gate, from among the amorphous throngs of dirty suits and great bulging bags the frail and young were freed from the corral that still held the rest of us. Finally, the time, all the little gates opened, the space trembled for a moment as in a vacuum, and everyone was off dashing. I made a fevered dash with the rest for train car 15. I made it past some 10 cars before my lungs, under the weight of my heavy pack and the humidity refused to process oxygen and I had to slow my pace. Still, even walking the last few cars I found a little space of my own on the train, a little space next to a portly worker from Sichuan. We would become friends in the confined space. We crammed ourselves into a little nook, with a sink that had no water and a window that did not open, across from the toilet; I edged against the corner of the sink. It would get very full very quickly.

The Sichuanese migrant was a veritable encyclopedia. We drifted from American foreign policy and Chinese domestic labor regulations and monetary regulations. We spent a long time going over the unique foods of different regions. He had traveled all over China. When he wanted to really make a point he would slam his right hand down into the palm of his left hand. I noticed he was missing the tip of his right index finger every time he made an exclamation mark with these gesticulations. He would eventually pass out leaning against the corner of the wall for an hour or two. I found myself hoping for nothing but a surreal unconsciousness tinged with delirious dreams that distort space. Propped up, wedged in, obliquely resting, sleeping on their feet. I hung my head and in the canvas behind my eyelids I stared into the faces of my fellow passengers, tearing into their histories we exchanged knowing glances as we each got lost in one another’s tired visage, expecting an answer or sympathetic wink, and all this with my eyes closed, on the verge of something close to a dream.

I dreamed that the train car was full of Hajji, Muslim pilgrims on their way to Mecca, the benches had been swept up on each other, crowded against the window to make room for the isles to expand into a vast room with a single great red Afghan rug below the individual prayer rugs rolled out, unfolding and unfolding, hundreds of hajji praying to Mecca. In the soundscape of my dream the muezzin had become a gestalt, the adhan an amalgamation of Chinese workers from Gansu, Hebei, Sichuan, and Qinghai, their faces melded together into one great gaping maw to utter the adhan in a cacophonous prattle of Mandarin and local dialects.

After a while of some ersatz sleep I was startled back from the land of sand by the loss of blood in my whole right side. My leg was freezing and my hand had no feeling. This pins and needles, a mala sensation like that of spicy hot pot, would linger for a few hours. To pass the time I tried to speak with some of my cellmates. One man from Gansu, on his way to Aqsu, started to complain to me that his boss wanted to send him to Pakistan. But it’s so dangerous there. The money doesn’t matter he was saying. He didn’t want to go. These faces were all bronzed by years of outdoor labor. What I earlier mistook as angry or suspicious glances were nothing but the looks of confusion and curiosity. They wanted to speak to me but some of them head such thick local accents or dialects that I could barely understand them, they could barely understand each other. Admittedly, my Chinese could use a lot of improvement.

There was a whole crew from Hebei going to Korla. One man, simple, glowing, toothless in a Mao suite, we barely exchanged words but forged a friendship over peanuts. We shared a cigarette and tossed shells onto the floor. He had a child’s grin and the eyes of a Buddha. He couldn’t open his iced red tea bottle or close the toilet door so I stepped in to help with these easy tasks. I shared access to his folding stool for a few minutes and we took turns leaning against the same chunk of wall. At one point, in my sleep deprivation, I really mistook him for family or my traveling companion, a full 10 seconds of pure confusion before I realized we barely knew each other. When I finally got off in Turpan I made a point of shaking his hand and saying goodbye. We was continuing another ten hours to Korla.

Youths played cards and slammed down their last cards with triumphant yelps. Some, those who had purchased hard seat tickets in advance reclined on their torn green pads while others loomed above, leaning, swaying with the train. One woman had slid herself under the seats, presumably to avoid the conductor as she likely had no ticket. My Sichuan bigman pontificated for all who would listen. He had that tone you couldn’t help but trust, his confidence more than made up for any lack of experience or grasp of the text. He didn’t like to work in Sichuan in the summer, too much rain. He preferred the torrid temperatures of Hami, in Xinjiang. He had made the trip a few times already. He was traveling with his tiegemer, iron blood brother, but he did all the talking. I never saw him eat anything on the train. How did he get so fat? Around 6am the conductor brought hot water in a trolly. There was a mad rush, people pushed and some nearly scalded; those clutching their instant noodles tight would eat, others would miss their chance. There was only so much water in this tiny metal water buffalo that was wheeled out a few times throughout the journey.

After some time, around 7am, I saw an empty spot on top of a pile of coal in thick white plastic sacks. I curled up, not quite an IKEA product, and forgot about my empty stomach. I snatched an hour of sleep, folded into myself like another chiseled bag on top of the coal. There were four columns stacked up chest high, but in the center of the four columns of sacks the empty space acted like a chimney for the freezing desert night air that rushed in from the Gobi outside and blasted up. I could only sleep for a short time before I was freezing; the coal shards themselves, sheathed in coarse plastic bags, were surprisingly comfortable.

The exhaustion wore on and the train continued. How do these people do this? My Sichuan friends eventually departed at their stops. Those who got off at Shanshan would free up a seat. I had a place to sit for the last hour before we arrived in Turpan. The seat was sticky but heavenly. Chinese pop music suddenly came blasting from the speakers. I started to think about power and the influence of discourse.

These people were all tired, deprived, struggling to make a living. They were transporting themselves where they thought there was work. They bore no malice. The struggle between subaltern and bourgeois is poorly understood. This was the case of Sartre’s introduction to Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized, both are dehumanized, both are exploited. In this situation it is both the Han migrant and the Uyghur local, or the Kazakh or Yizu, who are exploited, somewhat dehumanized. Their animosity is misdirected, their prejudices and misunderstandings unnecessary. But I am no Vanguard among these people.

I hoped that with close proximity to one another such stereotypes would be shed. One migrant grumbled something at a veiled Uyghur as she passed him in the train, “These stupid minorities can’t speak Mandarin. They don’t listen or understand.” To which a quick witted and strong willed Kazakh women shouted back, “Ah, and you don’t understand their language. Don’t be so cocky.” Another point, I overheard some Han guy remark in disbelief that a minority eats the same foods. I hoped that some sort of exchange would happen when those from the interior are shipped off to the hinterlands, or when they share a confined space for extended hours, but I am sure they will sequester into native place camps once they arrive to work. There will be little discussion or learning among them. Maybe Han from Chengdu or Chongqing will argue with Han from Hohhot about who has better Hot Pot but I doubt that Kazakh, Uyghur, Han, or Hui will manage to break out of the carefully placed roles they have been taught to accept.

Thinking about this I drifted off in my green seat, finally able to sit properly after more than 20 hours; from staring at the passing landscape my mind returned to a concept I was toying with on the night bus from Beijing to Erlian a few days earlier. Power exists in interactions. It cannot exist in a solipsistic sense. It requires an opposite by which to demarcate its borders. While dialogical power is certainly a constructive force and one that owes its origin to the interactions of grossly unequal hierarchical structures it also resides in the everyday reproduction of collective identities. It is true that repertoires of resistance follow an evolutionary path, in that they generally slowly evolve from previous episodes, otherwise they would lack resonance and no one would know how to follow them. Equally this should be the case with grievances. Understanding and processing grievances follows something of an evolutionary or memetic pattern. Therefore, this evolution of grievances is very much a part of the linguistic world, the world of theory, that has a hard time breaking into the world of action. Of course it is more than symbolic violence that drives revolutionaries forward but it is beginning with symbolic violence that violence becomes structural, from mocking a minority woman on a tight train car to institutionalized prejudices. It is this immaterial, systemic violence encoded in the collective consciousness and understood in shared discourses that reifies the grievances that lead to action. What dictates the path of this action is the degree of political and symbolic opportunity space afforded by the regime and society, the influence of space. As I drifted about in these thoughts, the train finally rolled into Turpan. The Turpan depression is the second or third lowest point on Earth.

We pulled into the station and I got off. The train station was lost in time, an Old West feel; this part of Turpan was a frontier town on the edge of the desert. I asked at several lodgings and nowhere would take a foreigner. After several chaodaisuo, the Chinese equivalent of a hostel for migrants and students traveling on the super cheap where a night might cost around 4 dollars, and bingguan, hotels, that rejected me I was getting concerned. I needed some food so I went in for a steaming bowl of lamian and struck up a conversation with the proprietor, a friendly Uyghur man.  I ordered my noodles, moments later we were fast friends. I explained the problem. I could tell, even though they spoke Uyghur, that he was arguing with his wife about offering me to stay with them. No luck, the fine if they were caught harboring foreigners was too high. They suggested heading into the city center. The train station is 50 kilometers from the city.

I meandered, lackadaisically from place to place, in a daze, the lack of sleep over the few previous nights, the distance, the train food, the baggage of swirling thoughts of politics and ethnicity, my brain was having a hard time comprehending the simple situation. I stumbled back into the train station and asked about tickets to Korla one more time. I could buy another standing ticket, forgo sleep one more night, fight for a space at this late distance. Unlike in Lanzhou, where I came in relatively early in the life of the passengers, here I would be a new comer, relegated to the bottom rung, the lowest in a vile hierarchy. Others would have already forged bonds. I would have a hard time but I decided to push on, to forgo comfort and make momentum my deity.

I bought my standing ticket to Korla. It would be another slow train, about 10 hours or so. I bought some naan and water. The secret of good naan I am told is the salt and Xinjiang has the best salt in China. I made my way again through the metal detector, the prying eyes and incredulous looks of the security guard and the other queuing patrons. In the waiting hall I went to the toilet. Inside the floor was standing urine, acrid, the air was viscous with smoke, teary eyes, there was no place to stand or pee, the urinals were clogged and overflowing. The smoke and ammonia were asphyxiating. Soggy mounds of paper crumpled and made mounds on the floor and turned black from the fallen cigarette ash.

I went back into the waiting hall. Every eye was on me. Every face bore into me with interest and distrust. Why was I there. It didn’t sit well in my stomach. Bags overflowed their benches and oozed off of one another. The heaving mass of flesh and textile inspected me with one amalgamation of interest, dark circles under the collective eyes that protruded toward this wayward foreigner. In places where even the Chinese are considered foreigners, it is natural to be curious and concerned when you see yourself as a subject in an occupied place. They would all be competing with me for a place to stand or sleep on the train. The owners of these bags are experienced at fighting for space armed with a standing ticket, I told myself. They have a language they share. I couldn’t shake their glances. I felt the awesome weight of it all, the situation, the prospect ahead; anxiety swelled up. ‘To hell with it,’ I said. ‘I’m not doing this. I’ll let the 30 kuai ticket go to waste. I’m going to Turpan City.’

I stepped back into the darkness. I thought about options. I could also spend the night sitting in the wangba, the internet cafe, wait until around 6am when the bus station would be open. Standing in front of the noodle restaurant with the friendly Uyghur owner, a cab pulled up, 20 kuai, about 3 dollars, to Turpan. ‘Curse the hotel employee that told me that at this hour it would be 100 kuai,’ I muttered. I could easily manage a 20 kuai cab ride out of the dust, out of the darkness. The car filled with two others and we sped along in the pitch of the desert emptiness. The driver was another wonderful soul who, after dropping off the other riders, took me around to three different places. In many parts of China, especially the contentious border regions, most hotels are not allowed to accept foreign guests. My driver stopped at two that refused before we ended up at Turpan Bingguan, where I would pay 50 kuai for a room in the basement with two beds, a shower, and a TV.

I followed the woman from the desk down the stout staircase into my room, smiled and thanked her, closed the door as she left and collapsed onto the bed, wishing I had someone to share the moment with. After a most glorious shower, I was out in the Turpan night market eating the best roast mutton I have ever tasted. Seasoned with the sudden alleviation of days of traveling discomfort, buses and trains with nowhere to sit. Through small periods of deprivation that which is not often a luxury is gilt and sure enough that night I walked around the streets of Turpan for a little while with hhe broadest grin on my face and tasted the sweetest apple before returning and sleeping on a bed.

The next day I took the bus to Korla. All I had to work with were the instructions, “Go to X Restaurant. Tell them you are a friend of mine and ask for Billo. They will take care of you. They will give you something to eat.” That’s how I ended up sleeping on the floor of a Uyghur noodle restaurant in Korla for four nights. The rest of the Korla story and what happened next will have to wait.

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About michaelcaster
Michael Caster is a human rights advocate, researcher and civil society consultant. He holds an MA in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and an MA in Conflict Studies and Human Rights from Utrecht University. He has worked in China, Thailand, Myanmar, Turkey, and Tunisia.

One Response to North Across China: Night Buses, a Bowl of Noodles, and a Rotund Sichuanese Migrant

  1. Earnest says:

    I also assume it would be fascinating to see a Stanley Parable film which comments on film tropes alternatively of game tropes.

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