To ask for the moon in China would have been easier than to request the authorities for a pass to Kashgar—the eternal city of Xinjiang and presently a dreaded Islamic terror hub (it used to be better known for its promise in the ancient Silk Route). A dream came true when I boarded the metre-gauge train for the 76-hour journey. Trains are comfortable, attendants smartly uniformed in semi-military fashion—they open doors when the station arrives, check tickets, lock doors when the train moves and swiftly take the broom to sweep the floor, collect garbage and again get on to the ticket-checking business. It's all so natural that it bewilders a caste-conscious Indian. We passed through the ravines of the snow-clad Gobi desert, negotiating 3,100 km from Chengdu, with hundreds of bridges and tunnels as if the barren brown mountains were made of wax. I stopped counting after 173.
Pakistani? Moslem? These were the two questions I faced everywhere, from curious taxi drivers, shopkeepers and other passengers. And with a broad smile I would reply—no, no, Hindostani, Hindu. We met an Uyghur girl, Aike Dan, with her Han teacher, Xu Kun'e, and spent hours discussing their land and our culture, finally singing our respective national songs to the amusement of fellow passengers.