Travel 3,000 Miles Through China’s Wondrous Wild West

Here's what our photographer saw when he and his family spent more than two days on a train traveling across China.

It’s one of the longest train journeys in the world—2,910 miles (4,683 kilometers) across China. And when photographer Matthieu Paley was looking for ways to get his wife and two sons from Hong Kong to northwest China, it looked like the perfect option.

“I thought it’d be amazing,” he says. “We will get to see China! It will unfurl in front of us!” Even better, the train’s 52-hour trek from Guangzhou, near Hong Kong, to the Xinjiang province was much simpler and far less expensive than flying.

Paley and his family saw China transform with every mile, from verdant jungle to arid steppe to dry desert. The train’s last stop is a city called Ürümqi, which translates to “new frontier.” The area is rich with oil, coal, and natural gas reserves, and like the gold rush to California in the 1850s, many people and companies in China are going west to seek their fortunes. Even the government has invested billions to develop the province.

The world inside the train was just as wondrous to Paley. As far as he could tell, his family were the only foreigners, and few passengers—if any—were making the entire journey. Paley says fellow riders kept to themselves, taking naps, doing crafts, or playing on their phones. Paley, who is French, admits his Mandarin is shaky, and few passengers spoke English, but those he was able to talk with said they were traveling to and from family visits and vacations.

The cars are well appointed, with purple and blue seats, floral tablecloths, and lace curtains depicting the promise of camels and mountains in the west. Each car has a hot-water dispenser, and the salty aroma of instant noodle soup fills the air.

The staff are impeccably dressed (blue for controllers, who check tickets and maintain the cleanliness of the cars, and purple for food vendors), and the whole operation is “army-like organized,” Paley says. Each stop is only 10 to 15 minutes, and while technically passengers can get off to stretch their legs, “you are looked on very seriously by the staff,” Paley says. “They don’t want you to stray.”

The comfort of the train, the ease of the journey, and the beauty of the landscapes had the Paley family enraptured. Paley remembers, “We were all looking at each other the last day wishing it would last another 24 hours!”

After a few days in Ürümqi, the Paleys next set out for Pakistan. They took a bus southwest to the city of Hotan, then boarded another train going northwest to the city of Kashgar. On this train, they saw a lesser known side of China. Most of the passengers were Uygur, a Chinese minority who live mostly in the west. Uygurs speak a language that is similar to Turkish and even written in Arabic script. Many of them are practicing Muslims.

In the fancier soft-sleeper compartment, a man browses his phone while his work colleague sleeps, as the train cruises past Xining in Qinghai province in central China, near the Tibetan Plateau.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHIEU PALEY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

This ride was “completely different,” Paley says. The train wasn’t as fancy—sand from the Taklimakan Desert filtered in through cracks in the windows, bathing the cars in yellow light “like it was California in the fifties.” He says the mood of the trip was completely different, too. “It was a short trip, just six hours, so there’s not much boredom that settles in,” he says. “It was full of students that were kind of rowdy and laughing. It was a much more exuberant atmosphere than the long trip from Hong Kong to Ürümqi.” And since Paley is fluent in Turkish, having lived in the country for years, he could converse with these passengers and get a sense of their lives.

Paley’s trek let him see the vastness and diversity of China. And trips like it could soon become easier. The Chinese government hopes that new high-speed rail lines will help connect the far west with the east. Premier Li Keqiang plans to spend $133 billion in the next four years to bolster existing train lines and build new ones. Should the plans succeed, perhaps even more Chinese citizens will get to see their country and meet their far-flung neighbors.

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