Spiritual death during travel in China

Just outside of Kashgar, China's westernmost city.
Just outside of Kashgar, China's westernmost city. Cale Lawlor

FOR all travel's benefits, everyone will admit that it is not without its difficulties. While some of these are manageable, an arduous journey between point A and point B is high on the list of things that can really sap your life force. While they make for good stories, eventually, the struggle can sometimes be so overwhelming that you feel a spiritual death just having to partake in the events. The following is the first of three times when I have felt a spiritual death while living the travel dream.

Dunhuang to Kashgar, China

Everything about travel in China is difficult. The crowds, the chaos, the bags of food, the pollution. China has the perfect storm of ingredients for a difficult trip.

In an effort to save time, and maybe under the influence of gastroenteritis, we had self-arranged a multi-day effort to make a significant distance across the Chinese landmass. Starting off early, before light, we forced ourselves out of our terrible accommodation and on to the street, where we got a taxi to the station.

The first ride was quite painless - through the Taklamakhan Desert from Dunhuang to Jiyuguan. A potential vulnerability in the trip was the change in Jiyuguan, where we had to make it across town to Jiyuguan South station. Luckily we were armed with a note written by some Chinese friends we met on the road stating where we needed to go and how much we would pay. Seamless. We made it with plenty of time, even for coffee.

The next trip on the new high speed train took us from Jiyuguan to Urumqi South station. We had 40 minutes to change platforms and get on the next train at about 9pm. Easy, right? Wrong. The train pulled in on time, and as we left it, we realised it wasn't as easy as changing platforms, we had to leave the station and re-enter.

We saw thousands of people trying to enter the station. And we had 40 minutes. So we ran. We ran around the crowd, a growing sense of doom in tow.

A sign in the distance stated our train number, and running towards that through the crowd we didn't see a small string fence that had been knocked over by the masses. I nearly ate pavement as this thing hovered just above ground level. After passing through a security gate, we joined a long security queue.

At this point, our train was to depart in 15 minutes. We slowly wound our way to the front, watching people with less shame than us cut to the front. Finally, we arrived and passed through the metal detectors and body search. As I went to grab my bag and make for the platform, an attendant grabbed my bag. The bag was scanned again. On arrival, she put it on the bench for a search. She was adamant I had a deodorant can (maybe, I don't speak Mandarin). I was adamant I didn't. That didn't stop her from spreading the contents of my meticulously packed bag over the counter for the next 10 minutes.

My friend stood by my side and, smartly, she grabbed the bits of my travel wardrobe spread across the counter and was packing them into our grocery bags. Eventually, another station attendant intervened, stating we had to catch a train which was supposed to leave a few minutes ago. The security guard gave up, started shoving items in my deflated bag, then motioned to follow her as she started running through the terminal.

So we ran too, my bag trying to shed loose items as I cradled it. I lost my friend, determined to at least make the train if it was still waiting and hold it up. Luckily for us, it left about 40 minutes late. But when I nearly collapsed at the door to the carriage, exhausted and angry, I didn't know that. We slept well in our cabins, and pulled into Kashgar the following day.

Read about Cale's second tough trip in next week's magazine.

Topics:  china general-seniors-news train travel travel-international

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