09/01/17 – 36 Hours

Xian to Turfan – 2008 km of reading a past PhD Thesis, five articles, and three separate broken charging cords. My MacBook is officially a brick until I get to Chengdu.

Getting off the train in Turfan at 8:15 am was like peeling myself off a sticky fly trap – I’d wrapped myself in a Soft Sleeper cocoon for a day-and-a-half watching the epic scenery of Gansu, Qinghai, and eventually Xinjiang pass us by. It was still really dark – because the entire country runs on Beijing Time everything in Xinjiang runs two hours behind: the sun, the schools, and the restaurants – it’s 11:30 and I still haven’t eaten breakfast because the shops only opened half an hour ago.

The good thing about that is that it allows me to finally kick this weirdly-long lingering bout of jetlag (likely exacerbated by the cold I’ve finally recovered from) and start surveying Buddhist caves like a normal person…even though normal people decide to do their Buddhist cave-surveying in the summer when it’s not 10 degrees below zero at noon.

(Mom, if you’re reading this, thank you for making me pack long underwear).

The meeting with the professor in Xian went really well, and we’ve been invited to join their survey in Rongxian (a small area in Sichuan that kind of looks like Lothlorien with Buddhist niches everywhere) at the end of January before I fly off to Cambodia. I’ll talk more about that when I finally get down there, but what you should all take from this is that we had the meeting at a dessert restaurant in the middle of a yoga club’s self-congratulatory “happiness luncheon”.

A solid 5/10 on the Robert de Niro WTF Face Scale.

Yup, you heard me right. We spent an hour and a half talking to one of China’s eminent Buddhist archaeologists sitting at a long table with fifty well-dressed Chinese moms giving each other congratulatory speeches on “happiness” while their kids got crazy off dessert sugar and started a game of Pictionary. Yep, definitely #onlyinChina.

But before we got on our epic train ride to Turfan I decided to do one touristy thing by the subway: see the Little Wild Goose Pagoda. I’d already seen the big one two years ago on a trip through China’s “Golden Triangle” of Beijing – Xian (with Pingyao) – Shanghai with my girlfriend, but the small one is both more unique and on the grounds of the Xian Museum, one which Francesca calls “The Best Museum in China”.

Small Wild Goose Pagoda – as per somewhat usual when it comes to large spires and towers (Salisbury Cathedral, Lincoln Cathedral, Big Wild Goose Pagoda, Porcelain Tower of Nanjing, etc.etc.etc.), the top collapsed in an earthquake.
Tiers in Heaven.

So rather than chronicle every single moment of this long-haul, I’ll do what worked so well last time: show the journey in pictures. Also, thank you so much for all the positive feedback from my last entry – I’m new to this world so anything over 10 likes is really great support!


8:30 AM: The first morning view of Gansu – this continues on like this for about 700 of the 2008 km. We boarded at nighttime (dark by 6:30pm) so there’s not much to show from the first thirteen hours.
9:30 AM: I finished the 3D model of the niche I photographed in Gansu overnight and it’s the best one I’ve done yet !
10:30 AM: I hazard a look out the door and decide to wash my face and brush my teeth. Water tanks on trains do this amazing thing where they rise or fall to the temperature of the outside. Washing my face was thus like doing a Polar Bear Dip in the Arctic.


12:30 PM: First view of the mountains over lunch. We’re traveling across something called the Hexi Corridor at this point – the Tian Shan Mountains run north and the Qinghai Mountains are to the south.
2:30 PM: A rare glimpse of the ancient Great Wall of China. You’re probably used to seeing something that looks like a rolling brick monstrosity snaking over various epic hills, right? All decked out in charcoal-grey with greenery? Well, this is the REAL OG Great Wall of China, constructed nearly 2100 years ago during the Han Dynasty and kept alive because of the dry climate of Gansu. It doesn’t run over mountains, and has been chipped away by modern roads, but it still looks pretty badass after two millennia.
2:45 PM: Watchtower and all.
5:00 PM: The best vierw of the Qinghai Moutnains all day as the sun begins to set. By this point I’ve done 90% of the reading I’m going to do thast day. The discussion in our cabin turns to politics and religion and I don’t get back to working until 8:30 that evening.


8:00 PM: The sun has set again, the laptop is away, and the cabin begins to smell a little bit like two people who’ve lived in it without a shower for 24 hours. We’ve both perodically deodorized, we’re both somewhat hygienic, but the room is getting a little…icky.
7:03 AM: The final hour – we’re off the train at 8:03 and the conductor has come around to tell us to GTFO or we’re going all the way to Urumqi. I’m up, the water in the sink is now ice-cold and the Polar Bear Dip feels like it’s migrated from the Arctic to the Antarctic. It’s time to move on.

Was it worth it? Absolutely not – you can fly from Xian to Turfan via Urumqi in approximately three hours. But it was for sure was a journey, and that surprise view of the Great Wall was incredibly inspiring.. History is everywhere in China, even out west where there is something more nothing than something.

Advice for a long train ride like this? BRING STUFF TO READ. There’s no internet, no cell reception for most of the way, and laptop cables (such as mine) like to randomly explode so don’t rely on computers. I’m lucky in that I’ve got two (one is my field computer and now has a VPN so I can actually write this) but if I didn’t I’d be walking up and down the streets in Turfan looking for a replacement cable – DO NOT RELY ON IT. Instead, pick up a book (I’m currently working on Siddartha by Herman Hesse) or print off some articles or anything! Reading is underrated, and yes, my mom is probably laughing to herself while reading this knowing the stress and strain it took her to actually read for pleasure after Middle School.

Today we’re heading into rural Turfan to see the Emin Minaret, China’s tallest, and tomorrow we have another travel companion joining us for a few days: Erin West, the third arm of the Northern Wei Trifecta.

More to come – I can’t tell you when because the wifi in Turfan is so abysmal, but I can promise some sweet, sweet cave-temples along with abandoned cities and a set of Flaming Mountains over the next three day!

Andrew Harris

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