North-North East: From Kunming to Xi'an
From Kunming to Xi’an, through the swollen heartland of Modern China
I settled into the 2nd class sleeper early that morning in Kunming. It would be my home for the next 35 hours or thereabouts.
It was comfortable. I was happy and content. I could watch a different world roll by from the comfort of a bed no worse than any dorm-bed I’d slept in all year. My kindle was refreshed, my unlistened podcast collection waiting to be devoured.
I’ve always loved train travel. Seeing China through the window was something I’d been imagining much of the trip. Whatever I expected, though, the reality was vastly different.
The train itself was adequate. It wasn’t even particularly busy, which was surprising considering my ticket debacles. But the views were dour.
It felt like most of the time the train passed through tunnels. So phenomenal is the extent of China’s infrastructure binge that they have driven through almost every topographical barrier standing in the way of progress. The tunnels are endless - fascinating in their own way - but contribute to the feeling that you're traveling through the world's longest subway.
When in open air, the train passed through an endless stream of concrete jungles. Mini-Kunmings, in all their colourless ignominy.
Author Henry Miller returned to the US in 1939 after time abroad, searching the truth about his homeland. What he found did not comfort him. America, he wrote, had become an “air conditioned nightmare”: one in which “the divorce between man and nature is complete”.
As I rolled through China, past a ceaseless view of unappealing townships shrouded in smog and grit, I wondered what Miller would have written were he warped to my time and place. Surely pre-war America would have seemed a continental eden compared to the swollen chaos of China’s unadorned modern-day interior.
I should strive for something kind to say about the commute from Kunming to Xi’an, but even the faintest praise would be a lie. For those without an over-land obsession, catch the plane.
I disembarked in Xi’an after 37 hours lying in bed on a train.
I’d spend a few days in this town of a dozen million or so. Too often this year I’ve found myself in big cities which I don’t really enjoy. Be it Bangkok, where I was stuck in limbo waiting on visas, or Jakarta, where I passed through for company, I never really enjoy these big metropolises. Ironically, it’s in these larger cities where I feel most isolated.
But I was curious about China’s megacities. I had no expectations, but thought them valuable to see on this trip - particularly before my journey through a vast and empty Mongolia.
I was surprised, immediately. I liked Xi’an. It had a healthy buzz, appealing architecture and accessible history. It didn’t have that same kind of frenetic, overwhelming nature you might get in a South East Asian metropolis. It felt orderly, clean, accessible, and unintimidating.
I spent the best part of 4 days strolling its streets. I watched men play checkers on the sides of the road. I peered at the elderly peeking through apartment windows, watching them watch world go by. Traders lay in their carts during the afternoon sun reading newspapers or taking naps. It was busy but at the same time felt calm and comfortable. The weather was perfect. To me, Xi’an was one of my favourite cities I’ve ever traveled to.
I of course popped my head into the Terracotta Warriors - and left almost immediately. Their place in history is interesting - but the museum itself was saturated and claustrophobic. After 45 minutes and a handful of pictures, I darted straight back to a city-center I felt at home in.
Xi’an was an important milestone. Somewhere along that trip from Kunming to Xi’an, I become closer to my destination - London - than my home town. I’d made it halfway.
A few comfortable days later, I kept moving towards the capital and the promise of the world’s most touristy outing, the Great Wall.