From the

The Lunatic Express in China is more comedic than lunatic.  When I left Delhi I left many things behind, some unfortunately more precious than others.  Like my guide to China.  I now speak about five words of Mandarin, which is to say I can ask for or understand nothing, and English speakers are few and far between – at least where I am.  The language wall is total; it is like I’m trying to communicate with fish in the sea.

It took me four trips to the train station in Urumqi to get a ticket to Hohhot, there to catch a train toward Mongolia.  An hour after boarding, a woman in a blue conductor’s uniform came to me and unleashed a torrent of indecipherable words.  Thank you, I said.  How are you?  It was all I could say.  She stomped off, returning with another conductor.  He unleashed the same torrent.  Thank you, I said.  How are you?

He tried harder.  She tried harder.  Thank you, I said.  How are you?

They left, returning a few minutes later with two passengers who spoke some English.  “Where are you going?” they said.

“To Hohhot,” I said, showing them my ticket.

“Yes,” the men said in harmony, “but where are you changing trains?”

“Changing trains?”

“This train does not go to Hohhot.  You must change trains.”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “You tell me where!”

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About this author

  • Carl Hoffman

    Carl Hoffman is traveling for The Lunatic Express, to be published by Broadway Books in 2009. He is a contributing editor at Na…

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