Northern China

17 days,  Dec 05- Jan 06


Kind of travel: me and a sweet girl through a wholly independent travel

When: 23rd December 05- 8th January 06

How I moved: train, train and still train apart of a bunch of times riding buses. Taxis in the cities are a convenient (0.8-2 euro) and safe way to move around

Freezing or baking?: freezing of course: Urumqi :-15C!!! Unlike Russia most of the times inside the  trains, hotels and public places you'll be still shivering

Where I slept: half of the nights on the train and the others in hotels. Sleeping trains are comfortable and very safe, while hot water in hotels is often unavailable (despite what they say you!!). Usually both the places are far from being warm,  bring your own sleeping bag!

What I liked: the approach of the people is laid back and dodgeys are rare. Travelling by train is fun, while getting the ticket can be a bet :-) I loved the food and had great laughs trying to communicate with the waiters. The frozen Saharan- like dunes in Dunhuang are impressive and. the great wall is...  great!

What I disliked: people spitting his catarrh everywhere (even on the train), the reservation system of the train tickets, the crowdy queuing to access at the train platform, freezing in the hotel rooms and the awfully smoky internet cafe'

How much daily: travel in China is not expensive, even far from a south Asian budget. Anyway consider the east coast is the most expensive part of the country. Our costs: hotel (double room: 6-18 euro), sleeping trains (12h in hard sleepers: 14-25 euro) and food (2-7 euro) = 20 euro/ day/ person

Dangers/ hassles:  frankly to me the country appeared very safe and not even the taxi drivers tried to cheat me. Of course bargaining is always an issue but far from being a real hassle. Beware crossing the streets since cars seem to have no brakes for pedestrians

What you do need: sleeping bag and wear warm! A pocket Chinese phrasebook + learning to count in Chinese can make a huge difference especially buying the tickets (personally I attended an evening Chinese class)


Landed in Almaty (ex Kazakh capital), we spent one day hanging around the green frozen city before catching the train for the long trip to Urumqi. To get to the border, to change the train wheels (the Russian rail gauge is wider) and to reach Urumqi turned out to take 33 hours. The train was quite empty, warm, and comfortable, so apart of the 10 hours waiting at the border, the time flew away.
The Kazakh landscape scrolling through the window was surreal: an endless desert covered by snow shaped by the wind.
In Urumqi the wind made us feel the real cold inside our bones. Although not among the best cities I’ve ever seen, it has been an interesting entry point to China, first of all for its muslim influence that makes Xinjiang an unique Chinese region.
One night on the train and few hours on a jumping minibus led us to the oasis of Dunhuang. Well worthy the visit for the Buddhist caves (“Mogao caves”) but overall for the frozen “moon crescent lake” surrounded by the huge Saharan like dunes: don’t miss the place!!!!
One night more on the train and we got in the grey and polluted Lanzhou, from where we arrived in the most rural town we have visited in China: Luomen. 18.00 pm: it was bloody dark when we got off the train, no street lamps and no paved road. We negotiated the price of the room in the small hotel of the town including three buckets of damned hot water. The day after we visited the canyon (“Lashao Si”) and its monasteries nearby the town.
We spent the New Year’s eve in Tianshui, three hours by minibus from Luomen. but at midnight it seemed very few people knew about it.
5h by trains and we reached the tip of the silk way: Xian. Frankly I didn’t get mad for the terracotta army here in Xian, maybe due to the coldness or maybe just because of my too big expectations.
While something quite funny happened afterwards in the snowy Taiyuan: we were visiting the pagodas when some Chinese guys, geared with their photographic outfit, insisted for some pictures of us and of course we agreed. We almost forgot about them in the next two days while visiting the cold Pingyao, but coming back on the train, a group of youths run to us flapping a newspaper: a picture of us greeting to the camera with the pagoda in the background was stamped on it (see it!!XXXXX)
In Beijing unfortunately we were short of time for exploring the city but we didn’t miss the trip to the Great Wall: I promised you, it has been really “great”!!!
By the way, would you guess how you can descend from the mountains of the Great Wall?
By rollercoster obviously!!



Despite initially not being deeply interested in the Chinese culture, my travel let me to appreciate this huge country and its paradoxes. In particular I was surprised by the relaxed approach of the Chinese towards the foreigners even in the rural areas. Of course sometimes I felt observed but I never experienced insisting and annoying behaviours. Nobody tried to cheat me even in the small things like giving the change or in the taxi.
On the other hand the paradoxes are generated by the government who want both to push like hell and to break completely the development according to his interests.
China is a huge country that year after year will become more and more heterogeneous; personally I found unique the western part (Xinjang) where you can really breath the Islamic influence, but from the “tourist” point of view, the eastern one is definitely more dense. Generally speaking, reading about the potential of the Chinese competitiveness or experiencing it in your country, it’s easy to get scared and pissed off, while travelling there you realise it’s the minimum reward they can deserve given their past. China drastically changed and will still change in the next years, I guess this reason is enough to travel there asap.









Usually abroad to change money it’s not that issue, but in Urumqi it hasn’t been a joke.
First of all it turned out allowed just at the Bank of China, so we by our first Chinese taxi ride we got there. Inside the bank the general appearance was pleasant: tidy and clean, but with some funny details. At each counter next to the employer there were small displays with a row of red star-like lights and three buttons:

not satisfied
normal service

Did you got it?? Once finished at the counter you were supposed to evaluate the quality of the service you received and the lights showed the average of the votes. Hence entering the bank it was immediate to spot the worst and the best employers: simply great!!! They should introduce in Italy as well, maybe adding an extra voice at the bottom like : “he sucks, keep away!!” :-)
I wished there was such extra voice when I wanted to evaluated the employer I spoke with. In fact when I ask to change my leftover of Kazakh currency she looked me disgusted refusing the money. While I was insulting her, a guy tapped me back, asking me if I was interested to change the money at the black market; I mean, inside the bank!!

I agreed, he counted the money but he didn’t have some small Chinese notes to give me back.
Guess whom he asked to?
To the employer at counter of the bank obviously, who, immediately, served him.




If buying a train ticket can be quite challenging, getting on the train usually is not the deserved reward.
In fact there’s a funny procedure that seems to have no exceptions in China. First of all there’s no direct access to the platform but you need to wait at a gate after having shown your ticket an indefinite number of times. At the gate there’s a display, or just several doors and you have to guess the right one, where you are supposed to wait. For the long distance train the waiting crowd can be huge and everybody carries his own big luggage.
Don’t think to rest while you are waiting: a large number of people are always employed in the coordination of this crowd and the typical employer is a determinate woman shouting in her personal loudspeaker. I promise you, quite soon in China this object to you will turn out terrifying and you will tremble seeing just one of this woman aiming in your direction with her loudspeaker.
In a certain moment, maybe defined by a secret signal I never understood, everybody gets up and starts pressing the people in front of him. Here the women with the loudspeaker give their best: they really shout like hell and it seems amazing a girl lower than 1.60cm could create such sounds.
You will experiment the concert-like feeling, where you are pressed and squeezed towards the gate where another group of serious and pissed off woman check your ticket. In such havoc the amazing thing is that everybody has a numbered seat and there’s no reason to be the first to enter the platform, even because when you access it the train usually is not there yet. Here you will find a lot of other women with their loudspeaker who will shout to form other queues. Again the amazing thing is that, when the train arrives, the doors don’t correspond to the queues so they screw up and everybody rush everywhere. To get on, again two women per each door, without loudspeaker (but don’t worry there’s at least a third one with it behind them) check your ticket and finally you are on! :-)




Dicembre 2006, Shaanxi (China)

....5200 km e' la distanza ferroviaria tra Almaty (Kazakhstan) e Pekino (China), cioe' una spezzata che da Occidente a Oriente taglia quasi orizzontalmente i 10 milioni di km2 dell'infinita China.

Atterrati in Kazakhstan un vuoto lungo treno inizia il viaggio verso la China. Dopo una 15ina di ore, si ferma e seri militari salgono per la solita routine: perquisizione dello scompartimento, dei bagagli e controllo dei visti. Fuori abbiamo visto scorrere per quasi tutto il viaggio un paesaggio lunare: deserto sabbioso coperto di neve e laghi completamente ghiacciati.
La cosa si fa lunga e, stufo del solito tea, scendo a cercare qualcosa da mangiare. Siamo a Dostyk, una di quelle cittadine di frontiera che non ti fanno venir voglia di rimanerci. Nonostante sia vestito da attraversata artica sento molto freddo (sui -15C) soprattutto per il vento gelido che lucida il ghiaccio che ricopre un po' tutto.
In giro solo qualche gruppo di militari. Chiedo a loro e arrogantemente mi indicano un anonimo emporio poco piu' avanti. Dentro: tante bottiglie di vodka, uova, salami, grandi pagnotte e poche altre cose. Le commesse sono russe cafonissime (ovviamente) e quelli che vogliono comprare la vodka non fanno altro che rubarmi il posto.
Mi chiedo chi possa vivere qui?
Risalgo sul treno e mentre mi sto scongelando entra ancora un altro militare, ma questo e' giovane e soprattutto ha una gran voglia di chiacchierare. L'attesa e' davvero lunga e lui non ha fretta, cosi' ci racconta:
"Ho 23 anni, ho fatto il servizio militare e poi ho deciso di servire il mio paese come guardia di frontiera.
Vivo ad Almaty (ndr: 15h da li') e ritorno a casa una volta all'anno per 30gg quando il mio capo mi dà il permesso. Qui a Dostyk non e' male: anche se non ci sono hotels o ristoranti c'e' un locale, dove la vodka scende giu' a fiumi (ndr: e non stento a crederlo)."
"Le donne? Preferisco Almaty, ma cmq qui una 30ina c'e' ne sono... a me (ndr: e agli altri 200 militari arrapati) piace la cameriera del locale, forse l'unica carina"
Sembra quasi inorgogliosirsi dicendo:" questo e' uno dei 5 posti peggiori al mondo per le condizioni climatiche: fino a -40C d'inverno e fino a +40C d'estate. Non e' una bella simmetria? Io adoro incontrare stranieri: il passaggio di frontiera via strada non gli e' permesso, ma in treno qualche volta ne trovo. In estate piu' frequentemente, mentre in inverno diciamo uno al mese passa da qui".
Mentre mi parla penso che le persone come lui siano completamente tagliate fuori e ti immagini tutta la sua confinata finestra sul mondo, poi esordisce e rimango basito:
"ho sentito che in Italia hanno introdotto la legge contro il fumo nei locali pubblici, come va? "
Stiamo uscendo da quella che prima era la grande Russia e quindi cambia lo scarto ferroviario. L'ingresso in Bielorussia lo scorso inverno mi aveva gia' svelato il trucco: le carrozze vengono sollevate, tutto il telaio inferiore con le ruote tolto e poi sostituito. Il tutto mentre tu stai comodamente a nanna nelle coperte e non osi spostare la sbiadita tendina delle ferrovie Kazake per guardare fuori dal finestrino quei poveri cristi dei meccanici a schiattare dal freddo.
Solo dopo piu' di 10 ore tra attese, controlli e cambi ruote, il treno si inoltra nel deserto Cinese. E In tutto saranno 33 le ore di viaggio fino alla prima grande città.

E' buffo arrivare in quei posti in China che sulla mappa sono un insignificante puntino in mezzo al nulla, a tal punto che tracciando l'itinerario ti chiedi se avranno stazione ferroviaria o ci sara' da dormire, e poi quando sei lì realizzi che sono citta' da 3 milioni di abitanti. Dimenticate Hong Kong o Shanghai da questo punto della China si fa prima ad arrivare in Europa che nei due colossi (e non scherzo). Cambiare I soldi solitamente non e' mai un problema ma questa volta proprio non si poteva se non alla Banca Centrale Cinese.
E andiamo in questo diavolo di posto!
Enorme edificio in un centro citta' stile New York al cui interno una lunga striscia di sportelli, mi metto in coda e subito focalizzo un buffo display di fianco al vetro di ogni sportello: sono 4 stelline luminose e sotto dei pulsanti con addirittura anche la scritta in inglese:

Molto soddisfatto

Nella media


Osservo, ci penso, realizzo il meccanismo: incredibile!!!
Praticamente alla fine valuti il servizio e le stelline si illuminano di conseguenza secondo la media delle valutazioni. Insomma se sei una sega, tieni mezza stellina su 4 illuminata e chiunque entri nella banca lo vede immediatamente. Al ritorno proporrò di adottarlo anche in ufficio, magari con un bel display che da' pure sull'esterno. Ufficio a parte, la tipa dello sportello mi ha risbattuto indietro I miei soldi Kazaki con uno sguardo pure un po' schifato. Mi sono girati cosi' tanto i maroni che mi sarei incollato al pulsante del non soddisfatto da fargli spegnere tutte le stelline.
Ma non ne ho neppure il tempo quando un tipo da dietro mi chiama, ha in mano una spessa mazzetta.
Non ci posso credere eppure e' vero.
Il cambio in nero lo fanno addirittura dentro la banca, senza alcuno scrupolo. E hanno anche le valute che la stessa banca cambia.
Cambio questi benedetti soldi, ma lui non ha gli spiccioli. Dove li va a chiedere? Ovviamente allo sportello del cambio della banca.

E' gia' un decina di giorni che siamo in viaggio e oggi abbiamo incontrato il primo straniero da quando siamo partiti: e' un simpatico inglese che viene dal freddo Tibet. Abbiamo attraversato gran bei posti e sono tanti i ricordi che si affollano: dalla cittadina in un oasi in mezzo alle altissime (un migliaio di metri) dune sabbiose coperte di neve la cui specialita' e' il 'brasato di zampa di cammello, al paesino in cui non c'era possibilita' di avere acqua calda e la contrattazione della camera ha incluso termos di acqua bollente per lavarci.
E dove le volete mettere le montagne russe di un parco di divertimenti (rigorosamente per adulti) a pedali??
Ma non fatevi ingannare la China non e' l'Africa, anzi cavalca sempre piu' veloce. Muovendosi nel paese e' evidente come qui in passato si sia sofferto e non poco. Ora le cose sono diverse; adesso e' il loro turno, vedono uno spiraglio di benessere, e non se lo lasceranno sfuggire.