Monthly Archives: June 2015

Why Young Chinese People Love Ultimate Frisbee’s Hippie-Go-Lucky Culture

ivan dope

(link to original piece on The Huffington Post)

BEIJING — These are not the Chinese athletes you’ve seen on TV, those scarily synchronized divers or the gymnasts plucked from preschools for their bone structure. The Ultimate Frisbee players running and diving all over these fields are too scrappy, too goofy and having way too much fun.

Ultimate Frisbee (often called just Ultimate as “Frisbee” is a trademarked brand) is growing in China, and 17 teams gathered here in Beijing for the national championship in late May.

The sport’s hippie-go-lucky slice of American culture has also migrated to China, and tournaments offer some grassroots cultural diplomacy. Many Chinese players have their first meaningful interactions with foreigners on the field — and at the after party. It’s an intoxicating gulp of fresh air for young people coming out of the stultifying Chinese education system.

The game resembles a mix of soccer and American football — you score points by catching the flying disc in the end zone — but without the tackling or stoppages in play. Competitions in China are self-officiated, with players resolving foul calls on the field.

The weekend Ultimate tournaments are 48-hour marathons of sweat, beer and social bonding. The co-ed teams cram onto overnight trains and converge on the host city. Games last all day Saturday, culminating in a dinner banquet and costume party. Sunday sees more games, a finals match-up and an awards ceremony.

The May contest served to crown the Chinese champion of Ultimate for 2015. Teams came from 13 provinces. Squads include graduates of local sports colleges, Chinese returning from university in the U.S., and Uyghur players from Xinjiang province. Many teams also feature foreigners, although the weekend’s rules limited the number of non-Chinese players on the field at any time. A team of graduates from the Tianjin University of Sport was a consistent favorite, but they faced a veteran Hong Kong squad as well as last year’s champion, Wuhan C.U.G.

selfie pic

Tournaments like this give the players a taste of what’s often lacking in the lives of Chinese youth — sports, dumb decisions and a chance to get weird.

If you’re a Chinese teenager with ambitions beyond a factory job, your high school life revolves around one event: the country’s college entrance exam, or gaokao (pronounced “gow-cow”). The test is sometimes likened to the SAT, but in reality there is no comparison. Thegaokao is an all-consuming black hole at the end of high school.

The two-day test is given once a year, and a person’s score is the sole criterion for most college admissions. High school seniors often study more than 12 hours a day, six to seven days a week. Some schools have hooked students up to IV drips during cram sessions and installed so-called suicide nets at dorms.

In the minds of many Chinese parents, the gaokao determines a child’s future. Succeed and you go to a top university, securing a place among China’s rising middle class (as well as a comfortable retirement for your parents). Fail and you’ll be working construction or other jobs serving the new elite.

warm up buttkickers

But that obsession with job security and status no longer sits well with 29-year-old Ivan Xu.

“F–k the job,” said Xu. “Just be good at what you love, become the best possible at it, and then you’ll be fine with the jobs and income.”

Words like that strike terror in the hearts of conservative Chinese parents. They might even have shocked Xu himself a decade ago. That was before he fell in love with Ultimate, founded the first team at his school, became one of the best players in the country, and started a bike journey around the world.

Growing up in a small city in central China, Xu was a short, shy kid. He stood just 4’10” when he started high school, and he was bullied for his size and poor grades. His parents run a dumpling restaurant. Xu threw himself into test prep for the last years of high school.

“I just studied, only studied,” Xu told The WorldPost. “I come from kind of a hard background — my parents are not rich. If I don’t study well, they don’t have any means to support me. … I don’t have another choice.”

Xu’s cousins working in the factories of southern China serve as a constant reminder of the way life’s path can be changed by a test score. For him, the hard work paid off. At the end of his senior year, Xu tested into a top-ranked university in the provincial capital of Wuhan.

leapord skin tights

Chinese college life is much less pressure-packed than high school. But after years of intensive test prep, many students lack hobbies or the habits of socializing. They end up sleepwalking through a bachelor’s degree on a diet of instant noodles and computer games. If they’re lucky, something — a romance, a sport, a trip abroad — shakes them out of their post-gaokao stupor.

Xu first encountered Ultimate in 2006 during his junior year of college. An English teacher from the U.S. schooled him in the basics, and at the end of the year the pair traveled to a tournament in Shanghai. For Xu, the weekend’s antics were eye-opening.

“It was crazy and something I hadn’t seen before,” Xu said. “These people seemed happy.”

Xu returned to the China University of Geosciences his senior year on a mission to spread the gospel of Ultimate. He started by converting a room of freshmen across the hall and anyone else whom he could grab (“I made all my friends play”). Together they founded a team: Wuhan C.U.G.

ivan fris

After graduating, Xu moved to southwest China, where he started a local pick-up game and worked a series of jobs. But his mind was never at the office.

“All I thought about was Frisbee so my boss didn’t like me,” said Xu.

He spent almost all of his earnings traveling to tournaments around the country. Chinese people associate suntanned skin with manual laborers and farmers, one reason why young men and women play so few outdoor sports. When Xu returned to his hometown with a tan, he’d make sure to come in at night so as not to lose face for his parents.

His travels eventually went international, taking him to tournaments in the Philippines and then Prague. A chance meeting with a Russian model at the Prague airport inspired Xu to study Russian. In Belarus for three years, he developed a working grasp of Russian and got the idea for his next project: biking and walking across every continent, promoting Ultimate along the way.


Last year Xu traveled around 14 European countries by bike and won a Latvian Ultimate championship along the way. Those exploits earned him a corporate sponsorship that is funding his current 1,000-mile journey across China. Along the way he puts on clinics and speaks at universities, hoping to shake students out of their obsession with job security. A U.S. trip is planned for this fall, followed by South America and India.

But on this May weekend, the goal is to repeat Wuhan C.U.G.’s championship run from last year. Xu has supplemented a core of C.U.G. alums with players from around China and a Cambodian all-star he met there on a trip to donate Ultimate discs. (This author also played with C.U.G. during the tournament.)

Saturday went as planned for the squad: C.U.G. won all four games, including a nail-biter against a Beijing team. After each game, the two teams cheered for each other and huddled together for a pep talk.

“Today we’re opponents, but next time we might be teammates. Let’s go, Chinese Ultimate!”

high fives

Sunday morning saw players trudging to the fields while nursing sore legs and hangovers from Saturday night chug-offs. As the championship bracket took shape, players on eliminated teams climbed into the bleachers to heckle their friends.

In the semifinals, C.U.G. faced the veteran Hong Kong team. Xu started the game off with fireworks, diving and snagging a long throw as it faded over his shoulder. But that grab proved to be the peak for C.U.G. An ankle injury sidelined Xu for part of the game, and the rest of the squad struggled to break through Hong Kong’s suffocating zone defense. Hong Kong won the game, earning a match-up against the Tianjin University of Sport grads in the finals.

With the grandstands filling up with players-turned-fans, organizers handed out the beer. The Tianjin team plays a fast-and-loose style ripe for highlight reels. Their athleticism proved too much for Hong Kong’s defense, and Tianjin took home the title.

As the victorious athletes drank out of the trophy cup, other players hugged it out and promised they’d see each other at the next tournament. The sun hit the tree line, and everyone loaded onto the tournament bus and then the trains and planes carrying them home.

liang zhuang crazy face


Rhapsody in Beijing

“Rhapsody in Beijing” is my video tribute to the city I love. It was inspired by the people who live here and the song Rhapsody in Blue, a piece that perfectly captures a city on the verge of something big. You can watch the video below (I recommend full screen), and read my (somewhat gushing and often cheesy) write-up below that.

Here is a link to the same video on Youku.

Beijing is a city with a public relations problem. It’s plagued by all manner of 21st-century urban maladies: clogged streets, packed public transit, an astounding wealth gap and the occasional “Airpocalypse.” Those are real problems with real consequences for real people.

But beyond the banner headlines there is another Beijing that’s rarely seen in the international press. The city is home to millions of human beings trying to make a life in one of the fastest-changing societies on the planet. They grind away at offices, schools and construction sites with a patience and a tolerance for drudgery (the Chinese call it “eating bitterness”) that astounds foreign eyes. Many of Beijing’s newly arrived urban workers — called “Beijing floaters” — are one generation away from tilling rice paddies, and the sacrifices that brought them to this metropolis aren’t easily forgotten.

Each city block or packed bus is a human medley of class and culture: migrant workers fresh off the train from China’s poorer interior provinces, first-generation college students getting a taste of international lifestyles, and multi-generational families whose roots in the city date back to China’s dynastic era. It’s a bubbling and sometimes volatile mix that turns an ethnically homogenous city into a stunningly diverse human cityscape. For its many problems, Beijing is a city with a pulse, a place that is changing the world as it constantly reinvents itself.

I made the short film “Rhapsody in Beijing” because I wanted to capture the city in all of its grit and glory. One video in itself could never encapsulate Beijing’s manifold lifestyles and characters, but my hope is that this brings the city to life by zooming in on the people and places that drive it.

Privacy is rare in China, as few Beijing residents are blessed with spacious living rooms or solitary studio apartments. As a result, private lives — the romantic courtships, conversations between old friends and instrumental jam sessions — unfold in the most public of spaces. Many Chinese parks are packed at sundown from March through November. Three generations are often interacting in the same space, doing everything from singing Mao-era “red songs” to taking cheesy group selfies.

For a culture often derided as clan-like and a political system averse to crowd-sourced anything, Chinese urban life is a miracle of spontaneous organization. There’s no app or listserv needed to create and sustain the daily badminton games that endure for years, and the line-dancing grandmothers aren’t part of any Facebook groups (not that they could be if they wanted to). What brings them together is a desire for connection and ritual, something most Chinese don’t have the luxury of finding in their crammed apartments.

At the 2:15 mark of the video you’ll see Beijingers rallying for deceased Chairman Mao Zedong in the city’s central Jingshan Park. Thirty-five seconds later, you’ll see a woman from China’s Uyghur minority dancing in the same park despite ethnic tensions in the city running high; one day before, an Uyghur man had killed two people while speeding through crowded Tiananmen Square in a car, just a mile and a half from where the woman danced.

For all the bustle, pressure, tension, pollution and poverty at play, Beijing still manages to chug along. In that way it bears a resemblance to the New York that George Gershwin had in mind when he composed “Rhapsody in Blue” in 1924: a city that combines exorbitant wealth with widespread injustice, and harsh realities with almost limitless possibility.

A Day in the Life of a Chinese Muslim Migrant Family

This piece documents a day at a small restaurant in my neighborhood run by the Mao family. To read the original piece on The Huffington Post click here.

 A Day in the Life of a Chinese Muslim Migrant FamilyDSC_4268

BEIJING — Fourteen-year-old Mao Baolong wears a goofy grin as he pinballs up and down the restaurant’s cramped aisle — taking orders and delivering bowls of noodles, taking money and returning change, taking dirty dishes and returning with a rag to whisk over the tabletop. It’s grinding work, but Baolong appears to be on the edge of a giggle, and the regulars love him for it. Ignoring the baby fat that still softens his features, some of them have taken to calling him shitou — “rock.”

The restaurant is a family business through and through, funded by family savings and operated by everyone. Baolong and his 19-year-old sister Mao Fangfang act as the wait staff, while their mother and father chop, fry, knead and boil the day’s offerings. A second sister, Yufang, works at a cousin’s restaurant nearby, but comes back after midnight to help close up.

Baolong and his family came to Beijing from their hometown in Gansu province, 900 miles to the west and a world away from life here in the capital. Gansu is a rural and rugged corridor that once hosted Silk Road traders shuttling spices and religion between China, Central Asia and Europe.

baolong mirror happy

Baolong peeks out from the restaurant’s kitchen. (Matjaž Tančič for The Huffington Post)
But today, interior provinces like Gansu pale in comparison with cosmopolitan coastal regions. Members of the Mao family have been traversing the country in search of work for decades, as have most of the 260 million migrant workers in China. The children’s father left home at the age of 15, traveling to neighboring provinces on construction jobs. Their mother was on the move at a young age as well, staying home in Gansu mainly around the years her children were born.

When Fangfang was 10, her parents deemed her mature enough to take care of her two younger siblings. She began cooking the family meals while her parents labored in distant cities. All three children dropped out during middle school (“I just couldn’t sit still,” explained Baolong), and they joined their parents in Beijing during the years most Chinese students would be in high school.


The Mao family is part of China’s Hui ethnic minority — Muslims who trace some of their ancestry to Persian and Arab traders on the Silk Road. While scrupulous in their avoidance of pork and alcohol, the family does bend certain religious dictates to the realities of running a business. They serve beer to their customers, and opportunities for prayer are scarce.

“We should be praying five times a day,” lamented Baolong’s father. “There’s just no time.”

family close

Baolong (left), Fangfang (right) and their parents in their restaurant. (Matjaž Tančič for The Huffington Post)
Time flies when you’re working 15 hours a day. Doors to the restaurant open around 11 each morning and close when the last patron calls it a night, usually around 1:30 a.m. It’s a grueling schedule, with the only benefit being that no one has time to reflect on how grueling it is. The family works 364 days most years, with the lone day of rest coming at the end of Ramadan. Like many Hui, the family doesn’t celebrate Chinese New Year, the one time of year when China’s churning economic engine sits idle.

Such thoughts are no help during the lunch rush, though. On Dec. 9, Baolong and his sister arrive at 11:22 a.m., two hours after their parents began work and about 15 minutes before the rush begins.

The restaurant’s patrons are primarily men who work with their hands: construction crews, delivery men and self-employed mechanics. Menu offerings are an Atkins adherent’s nightmare and a working man’s dream: large bowls of noodles and piles of white rice sprinkled with fried meat and vegetables.

The tables fill up, and orders echo off the walls. In the small kitchen tucked in the back of the restaurant, four family members move in an intricate choreography, handing off steaming bowls of noodles as flames dance around the wok.

Out front, Baolong laughs when the regulars tease him about his outfit (pleather on top and bottom, every day), and he dishes just enough back at them so they know he’s got it. Fangfang is quieter with the customers, but still commands the attention of her younger brother.

At 1 p.m., after an hour of unceasing activity, the restaurant empties just as suddenly as it filled up. Customers will drift in throughout the afternoon, but the next four hours will be the calmest of the day.

mom sleeping

Baolong’s mother sneaks in an afternoon nap to break up the 15-hour day. (Matjaž Tančič for The Huffington Post)

As the midday crowd subsides, Baolong buries himself in cell phone games and Fangfang walks the one block back to the 12-by-12 room she shares with her brother. At night, both parents sleep on a cot nestled between the tables and the kitchen, and Baolong’s mother uses the afternoon lull to nap there while her husband and son handle any customers.

A Silicon Valley denizen might describe the Mao family as “serial entrepreneurs.” They’ve opened and closed about half a dozen restaurants in different cities. The current location is their third in Beijing. The previous two were bulldozed to make way for new construction, and this one will almost certainly meet the same fate.

“They say the neighborhood is gonna get torn down,” Baolong says. “If not this year, then next year. If not next year, then the year after that.”

Amid apartment towers and multistory buildings, the neighborhood is an anomaly in this part of Beijing — a two-block cluster of single-story dwellings that share walls and public restrooms. Narrow alleys between the shack-like homes open up onto small plots of total destruction: About a quarter of the homes in the area were bulldozed several years earlier by a developer who failed to finish the job. The caved-in structures now serve as open-air bathrooms and community gardens.

baolong in room

Baolong and his sister Fangfang share the one bed in this room a block from the restaurant. (Matjaž Tančič for The Huffington Post)
When the bulldozers reach the Maos’ latest restaurant, the family will likely pick up stakes and move to another location on the margins of Beijing society.


Working in the restaurant means the Mao children don’t have to worry about the punishing preparation for China’s college entrance exam. But they also lose any chance to hang out with kids outside their own family. Baolong had one friend in Beijing, the son of a local street sweeper, but the boy has now returned to his home village. Given a day off, Baolong says he would love to visit the Beijing zoo.

The world outside these walls filters in by way of the always-on television and talkative customers. Those are narrow channels, and glimpses of far-off countries produce more questions than answers.

“Do black people come from America?” one member of the family wants to know.

“Are American cartoons in English or Chinese?”

“So Americans don’t really believe in any religions, right?”

dad barbecue

Baolong’s father uses a hair dryer to prepare the barbecue coals. (Matjaž Tančič for The Huffington Post)
Fascinating as these questions are, the family has more pressing matters at hand. By 5:30 p.m. the restaurant begins to fill again with dinner customers and everyone is back at work.

Now Baolong gets to show off the two newest bullets on his resume: whipping dough into noodles and roasting lamb kebabs. The noodle strands he casts into the steaming cauldron are usable, but he can’t make the dough dance the way his father does. Trips to the outdoor barbecue mean braving the biting wind, and after he deposits the finished skewers, Baolong grips the room’s hot water pipes with both hands.

“When I first learned to barbecue, it’s all I wanted to do all day,” Baolong says with something between a smile and a grimace. “Now when I hear ‘kebabs,’ I just want to throw up.”

restaurant outside night

The restaurant on the night of Dec. 9, 2014. (Matjaž Tančič for The Huffington Post)

By 11 p.m. the customers are thinning out, and Fangfang and her mother sit around a table, skewering lamb and mulling over the next few years.

“Back at home, a lot of girls my age already have their families setting them up for marriage,” says Fangfang.

Her mother recalls how girls were pressured to marry between ages 16 and 19 when she was growing up. She’s decided to be more lenient with her daughter.

“When our friends come by, they’re already starting to say, ‘I know a really good guy to introduce to your daughter,’” she says. “But she’s still only 19, and I don’t think she can handle that kind of responsibility. We’ll wait until she’s 20.”

Baolong still has a few years before marriage prospects enter the conversation. His earning potential will weigh heavily in those calculations. For now, he’s playing his part and learning the fundamentals of the family business.

“Of course we’d have liked him to stay in school a little longer, but that didn’t happen,” his mother says while pouring water over the kitchen floor. “Now he’s in a big city like this and we hope he can find out something about himself, find out what he can do.”

chuanr skewering

Fangfang and her father preparing lamb skewers. (Matjaž Tančič for The Huffington Post)
After midnight, Baolong’s other sister, Yufang, comes back from work at their cousin’s restaurant, and the family sits down together for the first time all day. They devour a massive plate of flat noodles and chicken, and the three kids clear the dishes, wipe down the tables and sweep up. When the kids say good night and head out, the parents are left hanging a sheet across the sliding glass doors.

At 1:18 a.m., 14 hours after it opened and 10 hours before it opens again, the front door to the restaurant is locked shut for the night.


The piece below documents my thirty-nine hour hard seat train ride from Beijing to Urumqi at the height of the 2015 Chinese New Year migration. All photos by my partner in crime, Matjaž TančičYou can read the original piece on The Huffington/World Post by following this link:


39 Hours Inside The Biggest Human Migration on Earth

large crowd

Looking across this sea of anxious faces, it’s easy to forget this is a holiday. Knotted brows frame weary eyes in a crowd as deep as a football field, all of them waiting to catch a train out of Beijing.

The mass exodus from China’s cities is the roaring crescendo leading up to Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival as it’s known in the country. On paper the holiday can be equated to Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s rolled into one, but on the ground the holiday unfolds on an entirely different scale.

Spring Festival is a crater in the middle of China’s calendar, a multi-week event when factories, schools and offices are shut down, and the country’s 30-year urbanization drive is jolted into reverse. Tradition dictates that all Chinese return to their hometowns during Spring Festival, spurring the largest human migration on Earth. Chinese New Year is the chance for migrant workers who have been grinding out 60-hour weeks in the city to show off their earnings at home, and for grandparents still tilling the soil to size up their collegiate grandchildren.

On Monday alone, two days before New Year’s Eve, China saw roughly 80 million departures by train, bus, boat and plane. That’s equivalent to every single resident of California, New York and Florida skipping town on the same day.


Slow train to Xinjiang

For this crowd pressing up against Beijing’s ticket windows, those numbers are just an abstraction of the very real crush of humanity they will soon be inhabiting. Trains are swamped, with the unfortunate holders of standing-room-only tickets setting up shop in the aisles, stairwells and sinks.

Seating stakes are highest on long-haul routes, and the T177 is about as long as they come. This hulking vehicle will take 39 hours and 25 minutes to traverse the 1,998 miles from Beijing to Urumqi in northwest Xinjiang Province.


Xinjiang is home to the bulk of China’s Uyghur population, a Turkic and central Asian ethnicgroup that practices Islam and maintains a culture and language indecipherable to members of China’s dominant Han ethnic group. Tensions between Uyghurs and Han have boiled over in recent years, with deadly riots and terrorist attacks sparking state-mandated bans on Islamic hijabs and long beards. Chinese police say that foreign-trained jihadist cells operate throughout the province, while Uyghur activists decry what they call discriminatory treatment on jobs and religion.

Passengers on the train T177 hail from Han, Uyghur, Kazakh and Mongol ethnic groups, but during boarding they all share a common goal: locking down a (relatively) comfortable surface for the ride ahead. Chinese train cars have a clear hierarchy of accommodations, with the “hard seat” compartment at the bottom of the totem poll. Those sitting in the stiff seats share their floor, bathroom and luggage space with the standing passengers, making for compulsory coziness.

Hard seat compartments present a cross-section of middle-class Chinese society. Here in carriage 17, migrant workers rub shoulders with bubbly university students eager to show off their big-city styles to high school classmates. Policemen, noodle chefs and white collar workers face each other across cramped booths, and the combination of card games, grain alcohol and forced cohabitation nudges most people into conversation.

cell phones

Cigarettes and Instant Noodles

“Is it easy to find work in Urumqi?” asks 42-year-old Liu Changbao, looking up from a sturdy squat in the linkage car.

Beside his feet lies all the luggage he’s bringing for the train ride and the year of manual labor ahead of him: a plastic bag holding two cups of instant noodles and a pack of cigarettes.

Liu is unusual in that this train is taking him away from home rather than back there. He says he doesn’t care about the Spring Festival family gathering –- a sacrilegious sentiment in China’s Confucian culture -– and that he’s trying to get a jump on the job rush that kicks into gear after the holiday. Liu has worked as a farmer, welder and driver across China, and he picked Urumqi after seeing a television segment about Xinjiang.

After the 39-hour ride, Liu plans to find a flophouse near the station and immediately commence his job hunt. He doesn’t know how to use a computer or a cellphone, but remains confident that once he hits the streets he’ll be back at work in a matter or days. For now his main concerns are whether it’s cold in Xinjiang and whether locals will speak Mandarin.


“We welcome you to Urumqi”

Back in carriage 17, a young train attendant named Zulpikhar is checking tickets against IDs. He makes small talk while squeezing past people huddled in the aisles, commenting on the passengers’ hometowns.

“It says here you’re a journalist,” Zulpikhar says while scanning a visa. “We welcome you to come to Urumqi. I’m a Uyghur.”

He holds the glance for a moment and flashes a smile before winding his way down the crowded car. Once Zulpikhar is out of earshot Wang Xin, a 32-year-old dentist standing over my seat, leans in with a worried look on his face.

“You’re not afraid of going to Urumqi?” he asks.

The city has seen knife and bomb attacks on local Han, and that has scared many Chinese tourists away from the province’s gorgeous landscapes.

“If you stay in the city it should be OK, but don’t go out to the villages on the outskirts,” Wang continues. “The Kazakhs are alright, but the Uyghurs … it’s hard to say.”

Wang’s unease is partially rooted in fear of Uyghurs’ foreign customs and religion, but he echoes a common Han refrain about the superiority of his culture’s business acumen.

“When Han businessmen arrive [Uyghurs] just can’t compete,” Wang claims, “so they turn to violence.”

guitar sleepers

Li Xin dropped out of middle school and has been playing music on the road since he was 17.

As the sun tucks itself in behind rolling hills, Li Xin unpacks his acoustic guitar. The initial rounds of small talk have died down, and 26-year-old Li feels out the mood as he picks a few gentle chords. His first Chinese love ballad receives approving applause from the carriage, and he transitions into a smokey-voiced tribute to his adopted home of Beijing.

Li grew up on a grape farm outside of Urumqi, and he dropped out of middle school to apprentice as a welder. At age 17 he joined a traveling song-and-dance troupe that tricked him out of a year’s worth of wages. After singing folk ballads on the streets of Urumqi for a couple years, he headed to Beijing and found good work performing at a local bar.

After a couple of songs, Zulpikhar steps in and asks to borrow the guitar and a seat, quickly launching into flamenco-infused Uyghur folk songs. Syncopated rhythms and pleading vocals fill the carriage, captivating the surrounding booths and drawing shouts of encouragement. After a couple songs and a crooning duet with Li Xin, Zulpikhar makes his way back down the aisle, blushing at the compliments as he heads to his booth.

Half an hour later, Zulpikhar’s manager marches him back into the car, this time with her video camera in tow. When she hits record, Zulpikhar introduces himself, offers to play his culture’s traditional music for weary travelers, and launches into a reprise of his earlier performance. While Zulpikhar plays a song called “White Rabbit,” a middle-aged Uyghur woman is summoned from an adjoining car to perform a traditional dance to the music. The orchestrated curtain call makes for a well-documented display of ethnic unity and social harmony, slogans the Chinese government has plastered throughout Urumqi and backed up with heavily armed military police on street corners.

After the performance, passengers return to their phones, blasting out the videos they just took across Chinese social media. Minutes later Zulpikhar walks back down the aisle, this time with a large black bag in hand.

“Trash, trash, anybody have trash?”

guitar dancer

Zulpikhar entertaining carriage 17.

Pompeii on a Train

Once the card games, drinking games and cell phone games have shut down for the evening, the people of carriage 17 shift and wriggle uncomfortably toward sleep.

Even in the dead of night, fluorescent lights in the hard seat compartment never shut off. It’s a policy with a purpose — total darkness in a packed car would be an invitation to mayhem — but the unceasing illumination presents passengers waking at 4 a.m. with a Pompeii-esque tableau: hundreds of men, women and children slumped unconscious across the booths, sinks and stairwells.

At 5:30 a.m. one chipper passenger signals the start of the day by blasting local music out of a tinny radio. For most of the day ahead, the carriage exists in the throes of a collective hangover, never fully awake and nowhere close to comfortable.

sleeping legs

Consolation comes in the form of a steady thinning out of the train. The western half of China’s landmass is home to just one-twentieth of the Chinese population, and by the time train T177 has entered the deserts of Ningxia province, empty seats begin to open up.

In the dining car, young couples snap selfies and tease each other as they prepare to meet the parents. Bringing a partner home during Spring Festival can be a nerve-wracking experience, with parental judgment often coming swift and harsh. But for now the train is spacious and the scenery is gorgeous. T177’s entrance to Gansu Province is marked by the appearance of camels set against snow-capped mountains.

Welcome to Urumqi

The final 16 hours of the train ride practically fly by. At each stop in the Gansu corridor passengers step out to breathe the crisp mountain air they’ve sorely missed in Beijing. As night falls for the second time, carriage 17 breaks into several games of the “Struggle the Landlord,” the official card game of long-distance train rides.

lone house

T177 crosses into Xinjiang Province around midnight, but it’s another six and a half hours to the provincial capital of Urumqi. For Zhao Xiaohui, an economics master’s student in Beijing, Urumqi isn’t even the final destination — he’s got another 12-hour train ride to the village where his parents grow peppers, wheat and the occasional batch of watermelons. He’ll stay there for seven days before making another 50-hour hard-seat journey back to Beijing.

But is it worth it?

“It’s all right,” Zhao shrugs. “When I was an undergrad I would ride this same train but I wouldn’t even have a seat. I’d just lie on the ground at night.”

The sky is a deep purple as T177 pulls into Urumqi station at 6:40 a.m. It’s been 39 hours since these passengers left Beijing Railway Station, and in another 41 hours they’ll ring in the year of the sheep. They grab the bundles, buckets and suitcases stocked for celebration and set off into the Urumqi dawn.

night boarding All photos by Matjaž Tančič.