There are many ways to get from Kashgar, China’s westernmost city, to Aksu, about 300 miles to the east. If you left on train #7558, you would arrive in Aksu 9 hours and 28 minutes later. On this slowest and cheapest of the railroad options, a ticket costs only ¥53, or about US$8. That’s for a “Hard Seat” ticket. The Hard Seats are, I understand, hard, and you might arrive stiff in the joints and more skilled at using squat toilets than you were at the start of the journey. Or you could travel more comfortably with a “Hard Sleeper” or a “Soft Sleeper” ticket. Soft Sleeper carriages have both squat toilets and Western toilets, and that alone, I think, would justify paying the extra $16. Even if you didn’t actually sleep during the journey, you would have a comfortable place to sit and prepare yourself mentally for the transition from a busy Silk Road market oasis to an agricultural area famous for its apples.
Yes, apples. If you were in a hurry to sample apples so sweet that their sugar content is visible in the shape of translucent sugar stars hugging their cores, you would want to get to the Aksu Prefecture as soon as possible. In that case you could travel on the T9518, an express train with limited stops that will get you to Aksu in 4 hours and 44 minutes. A “Soft Sleeper” ticket will set you back ¥231, which is only about US$36, a real bargain! Of course the T9518’s speed will cut down on your transition time, but, oh, you’re looking forward to those apples!
There are other trains on this route, too, and these aren’t even the high-speed bullet trains that we’ve been hearing about. As far as I can tell, the bullet trains don’t run between Kashgar and Aksu, but they sound wonderful. The newest trains have sleeper compartments with bunks arranged so that sleeping people are facing in the direction the train is moving towards. Nobody has to sleep backwards. And it is possible to fly from Kashgar (KHG) to Aksu City (AKU), although China Southern has only one flight per day and their fares are considerably more expensive than the train fares. Flying takes only 1 hour and 10 minutes—not long enough, in my opinion, for transition time. I don’t like getting where I’m going before I’ve stopped missing the place I’ve left. I don’t like flying. If I were in China in real life, I would choose the train.
But in real life I’m not in China. My trip is virtual. I’m on the third leg of a virtual Silk Road walking tour that began in Istanbul on August 1, 2018. As you can see, I’m traveling slow. Very slow. I left Kashgar on March 12 of this year and didn’t arrive in Aksu until May 16. It took me just over two months to go a distance I could have done in under five hours on a Chinese train. But I’m getting there. I record my distance on a spreadsheet—actual miles that I walk wherever I am, and during the pandemic it has been mostly indoor walking, which is walking nonetheless. For this latest part of the journey, I have also been recording my progress on a website called My Virtual Mission, where many other virtual travelers are tracking many other virtual journeys and none of us is crazy. If you want to follow my progress toward Xi’an, my final destination, you can do so here:
About those apples, I Googled to see if I could buy them, either here in Ithaca or online. No, the local supermarkets don’t have them, but I did get my hopes up when I found the website of a family-owned business that sells Aksu Sweetheart Apples. Unfortunately their delivery area is restricted to New York City, parts of New Jersey, and Long Island. If I lived in one of those locations, some Aksu apples would be on their way to me as I write this. For now they will have to remain on my list of delights to be enjoyed in the future. Not now, because I’m walking again. Walking slow. I’m on my way to my next stopping point, Korla, where they grow pears.