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January 4, 2016

Heaven and Hell in Zhongwei

Last night I went into a bit of a negative thought spiral. This annoys me as I like to think that one of my most precious skills on the rails is remaining positive and even madly happy in the face of adversity. The subject of my thoughts was the rapidly deteriorating state of the train. The toilets had become seriously bad so quickly that I secretly wished I wasn’t on the train. Then just to push me over the edge, I returned to my compartment to find an overpowering stench of stale urine. I lay in my berth desperately trying to understand this. Is the toilet plumbed into the aircon of the carriage? Or have my cabin mates just been caught short and relieved themselves on our floor? After half an hour I come up with something I like to think is more plausible. I think that they must have been eating Durian, also known as stink fruit. It can sometimes be all about mindset. I give myself a stern talking to and resume positive thinking.
I tossed and turned and failed to get any real sleep. The air is very dry and I sleep in fits then wake with a dry mouth and eyes. A small boy in the compartment next door kicks and screams through the night. My last boss used to say to me that “the darkest moment of the night is just before dawn”, and I felt considerably better as we stopped just after dawn at Zhongwei. I pulled myself together and tried to embrace all that was going on – the man next door singing at the top of his voice, the lady with the trolley passing by every few minutes shouting what I guess is the Chinese for “breakfast”, the endless phone and text ringtones, the wet end of the carriage. It’s all about the experience, so I should just suck it all in – right?

There are some very good things to say about this train. Firstly, it is air conditioned to the right temperature – about 21C. It heats up then cools down in cycles, but the system seems to work. Secondly, it is very very smooth. At some points in the night I could not even feel movement. I can only imagine the line is modern and the track has been laid in a straight line. Thirdly, it is authentically a long distance Chinese “Z” train. Although I feel I am on the edge of my comfort zone, this is where I get a lot of personal satisfaction from.
Jenny leaves the train at Lanzhou, but the couple down below are travelling with me all the way to Lhasa. They are very nice (despite their love of stink fruit) and insist that they share their food with me. This includes a frequent dose of a rather severe looking glass vial of “health medicine”, sucked up through a straw. I hope no endanged species has been involved in producing it, but have no way of telling.

On the platform at Lanzhou there is quite a bit for sale. One woman is selling some sort of tasty looking ethnic food – what look like flatbreads stuffed with fried chicken. But I dare not risk it, as a stomach upset at altitude would be seriously debilitating. Instead I score some nectarines and hang out with the locals, who are very friendly. They all insisit on having their photo taken with me, and I oblige with a genuine desire to set a good impression as the resident single foreigner travelling on the train in their remote province. If I had remembered to pack the right map, I could even tell you which province.

The landscape outside the train is very unfamiliar to me. I sit for a few hours in the restaurant car drinking green tea whilst looking out at the steep bare mountains and huge flood plains. Everything starts to feel good again. Like any adventure, the negatives are quickly forgotten and it is the positives that become lasting memories.