The moment I stepped aboard I knew the next 26 hours were going to be odd.
I stuffed my backpack in a rack near the toilets, stepped cautiously over the people on the floor, and took my seat in the middle of five elderly Mao-suited Chinese women.
I’d experienced my fair share of train journeys, some far longer than this one, but never in such a hard, straight-backed, uncomfortable chair.
These chairs were set in rows three-wide and faced one another across a space of less than a meter. Given my height, my enormous legs engulfed the lady in front of me.
Less than ten minutes outside of Turpan the scorched Taklamakan rose all around us. I did my best to enjoy the view, or at least what I could see of it from where I sat.
When I grew bored I thought to read, but when I took my book out two heads sprouted over my shoulder and began chatting, I suppose in an attempt to decipher the strange characters I was looking at. I put the book away. I began looking at people. When they caught me I would look at someone else. Then went on for some time.
After awhile the women in Mao suits initiated a ruthlessly competitive card game. They shouted, threw cards, bumped me back and forth, raked in money, reached across me cursing and roaring with laughter. All around, seated on buckets and peaking over shoulders, spectators had gathered to watch, and I was there in the middle of it all, lonely, oblivious, ignored, only occasionally afforded a suspicious or perfunctory glance. I had never felt more like an extraterrestrial. To distract myself I watched how briskly and effortlessly the other passengers walked down the aisle, often with two feet between them and the ceiling. Some could even jump without hitting their head.
By contrast, everywhere I went was a journey fraught with self-consciousness. As I made my way down the aisle, lurching, crouching, my head cocked to the side to avoid the ceiling, an Oh My God Here He Comes look came into peoples’ eyes. Husbands stared. Children gasped. Wives and old people pointed. Card games paused. Conversations ceased. Earphones were removed from ears. With my long hair, my huge eyes, my pale skin, my scraggly beard, my enormous hands, I must have looked like a monster to them.
After lunch, the two women across from me took off their shoes, stretched their legs out and wedged their feet under my thighs.
A lady in a purple suit kept passing by with a basket of snacks – dried yak meat, dumplings, pickled eggs, pickled chicken’s feet, vacuum-sealed packages of tofu, baby octopus and other unappetizing delicacies.
The aisle was soon full of spat-out sunflower seed husks. The woman beside me fell asleep with her feet sprawled out. I hadn’t moved in hours and felt numb. A teenage boy came and crouched next to me. He typed a question into his smartphone and showed me.
“What are you?” it said.
The lady in purple walked by with a red plastic medical waste bag full of instant noodles.
“USA”, I typed.
He shared this information with interested eavesdroppers, smiled, nodded for awhile, and then left.
The land beyond the window changed from blaring sandy mountains to scrubland, a swift river coursing through it, to barren scorched earth lorded over by craggy oddly-shaped buttes.
Hours passed. The land darkened. The woman across from me began spitting on the floor. Over and over she spat, not giving a damn, accumulating a little puddle that eventually reached my socks.
I got up and began walking aimlessly through the railcars.
People had passed out everywhere, on stairs, on luggage, on top of one another. Near the bathrooms men with haunted, gaunt, desperate-looking faces stood stoically chain-smoking through the night. Each car I entered felt like another chamber in some endless humid metal intestinal cavity.
I eventually came to the end. A locked door. Nowhere further to go. There was a little uninhabited space on the ground near the toilet, below the luggage racks, just enough space for me to lie down and curl into a ball. Which I did. For the next eight hours I lie there in a daze, slipping in and out of sleep as people stepped over me and the smell of urine leaked out into my dreams. And then I got up and went back to my seat, with ten hours remaining to Kashgar.
D J Jennings