When we arrived in Odessa, Ukraine, we discovered that the Chinese Government had refused us permission to stop in Urumqi in the north west of the country, reportedly for our safety but also where there is an underground nuclear testing site and reported minority human rights issues. The Chinese had instructed the Moscow Railway Headquarters to delay our arrival at the Chinese border for 48 hours, then switch to a Chinese train which would travel the 4 days across China without stopping. Attempts to negotiate proved futile and we spent two extra days touring central Russia by train before embarking on the 4-day leg of the journey through a largely deserted and arid Kazakhstan. In this country we occasionally saw wild camels, ornate Muslim cemeteries, melon sellers on the platforms in brightly coloured clothing and huge Russian sculptures of virile soldiers in the capital, Almaty.
When we reach the Kazakhstan/China border the train was boarded by approximately 75 uniformed guards demanding passports, a list of participants and urgently hurrying on to school buses with no room for luggage except on the seats. Since this was a border and not a station, there was no platform, requiring a jump of several feet; The one blind and two disabled women in our carriage needed to be helped down from the train with their luggage.
After a tortuous and cramped bus journey we arrived at the station proper where there seemed to be at least another 100 uniformed guards. Our arrival was clearly worrisome. Cassette tapes, videos and articles were scrutinised, and some were confiscated. Word circulated that rather than seen as peaceful activists, we were perceived as subversives likely to cause trouble.
Hungry, having had no food for 12 hours we were finally able to board the Chinese train at midnight where we were fed in a double shift. It was a handsome train, apparently used for dignitaries, with each of the four berth compartments having embroidered pillow cases and duvet covers. Unfortunately, all our meals for these 4 days were served on Styrofoam plates and cups with plastic utensils and we were given to understand that this was because we as Westerners would prefer such items; but the food itself was good and authentically Chinese.
On this final leg of the journey, there was a heightened sense of being observed with approximately 100 security guards travelling along with us taking up four carriages. The authorities did not want us to get off the train at stations but relented after some negotiation to allow us a 5-minute exercise break with security guards patrolling the deserted platforms until a bell rang and we all trooped back on board. At each stop to replenish supplies, there were no people to be seen on any of the platforms. Food carts had been abandoned with their owners and other travellers visible behind metal fences – all traces of humanity removed until our train pulled out. The atmosphere was one of total control.
The gathering excitement of our arrival in Beijing quickly turned to disappointment as the train rolled into the station. Buses were parked right up on the platforms; a handful of journalists had managed to get through but none of the triumphant fanfare we had expected as a result of our press releases en route. A far cry from every other city we had come to with reception groups in national dress, occasional brass bands and welcoming refreshments. Once again, urged to hurry on to the buses, we were whisked out of the station only to see floodlights showing hundreds of banner waving groups and cameramen who had been refused entry to the station.