Wednesday, 8 June 2011

The Road to Miran: Travels in the Forbidden Zone of Xinjiang

I now visit another 'Autonomous Region' of China - Xinjiang - courtesy of "The Road to Miran" by German author and traveller Christa Paula.

Christa Paula, an intrepid young student of Asian art and archaeology, set off in 1989 to explore an area closed to Westerners as well as to most Chinese, and one which is firmly under military rule. Tall and blonde, she travelled for the most part incognito, disguised in a Pathan cap, old grey jacket and big padded trousers. Her goal was Miran, the ancient Buddhist site of second-century wall paintings. In the company of Chang, a maverick taxi driver, Christa Paula travelled through an area dotted with nuclear testing sites, forced labour camps and mines in which prisoners dig and process asbestos without protective clothing. She discovered that villages which exist on maps are now radiation-contaminated ghost towns, and she witnessed everywhere the seeds of discontent and political unrest.

This book is a truly engaging and insightful account of this remote and politically isolated region. A full review which does this book justice will follow soon - however, time constraints mean that I cannot complete this just now. As soon as I have finished an appropriate account of this fascinating trip – which it truly deserves - I will update this entry.

In the meantime, I take my leave (for now, there will be several more trips in the future journey) of the massive landmass that is China, and make my way to the former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan, courtesy of Christopher Robbins’ “In Search of Kazakhstan.”

I decide to take the twice-weekly train (N895) that links China with Kazakhstan, starting in Ürümqi and running to Almaty. The train is called the 'Zhibek Zholy' and it has modern air-conditioned soft class (4-berth sleeper compartments) and hard class (open-plan bunks). A Chinese restaurant car runs from Ürümqi to Druzhba and a Kazak restaurant car runs from the Chinese frontier at Druzhba to Almaty.

The ticket is very reasonably priced at 834 yuan - £78 - and is sorted out by a local (Ürümqi) travel agent with minimal fuss. He charges 100 yuan commission for each ticket which is fine given the smooth transaction. His name is Steven Zhang ( and he speaks excellent English.

What makes the price even more of a bargain is the fact that I get the tickets in advance at my hotel and I am the only person in a four bed cabin on this journey – an unexpected luxury! And such a luxury should not be underestimated on a trip of this nature: despite travelling to a neighbouring country, this is no short-hop trip: the train leaves Ürümqi at 23:58 on Monday, arriving at the Kazakh border at 09.20 on Tuesday, before finally pitching up in Almaty station at 06:40 on Wednesday…

It takes a long time to cross the border, about three hours wait on each side but I have to say it wasn't a bad place to wait, looking out at the empty steppe and the mountains. I would recommend getting this train, it's quite an experience and a very comfortable way to travel from China to Kazakhstan.

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