The middle of nowhere

Don't ever go to Kuche (a.k.a. Kuqa). There's nothing to see or do, and it's largely inhabited by cretins with nothing better to do than stare and snigger at any foreigner who sets foot in their pointless little town.

I got here by a double-decker sleeper train (not seen one of those before). It's a new posh train with only four people per compartment and they charge for it accordingly. If only the aircon and running water worked. I feel sorry for the staff: they have to carry all the stuff they usually sell from trolleys, because of all the steps in each carriage.

The train continues to Kashgar but stops in Kuche at 5am. Or at least they woke me up as if it would. I then sat awake for another full hour. It took a full 35 minutes at the Traffic Hotel for the receptionist to fill in a small form about me. I know I woke her at 6.30am, but she was working the night shift and I did apologise, and I didn't deserve the full-on receptionist's scowl that I received. (You come to expect these all over China, but this one could win medals if, as I fully expect, the discipline is awarded Olympic status in time for Beijing 2008). I crashed out for a few hours and tried not to think too much about the hygiene of the bathroom.

There is nothing to see in Kuche, just a few ruins that the guide book gives you wrong directions to and a public park that you can be arrested for visiting. People come here, if they come here at all (and, sensibly, they generally don't), for the Buddhist caves and ancient ruins in the surrounding area. A taxi driver, touting for business, shows me a local tourist guide book and from the pictures I conclude that it's safe to leave the Kuche area as soon as possible.

I only came here so that I could leave, in any case. There is reported to be a spectacular 22 hour bus journey from here across the Tian Shan (heavenly mountains) range to Yining. We'll see.

Oh, and the being arrested thing. Well there I was, killing time by sitting in the local park reading my book (nothing objectionable to the authorities: Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything") when a policeman told me to give him my passport come with him. I'm led out of the park and into a van, which takes me back into town and to the police station in the company of a senior policeman and a junior but English-speaking policewoman. When I ask what is happening, I am told that there was a meeting of minivan drivers in the park and that I therefore shouldn't have been there. The logic of this goes straight over my head. I politely point out that the park was open and produce the entrance ticket sold to me at the gate as evidence. Surely the best way to stop people getting into a closed park is, well, to close it or at least to stop unwelcome people from entering.

I am asked to leave my passport and camera with them until 4pm. That doesn't sound like a good idea to me, so I tell them that I am leaving town today (true) possibly before 4pm (not true). I show them my bus ticket to Yining, which doesn't specify a departure time, and say that I don't know when it is due to leave. That's rather hard to believe, of course, but it seems to me no less preposterous than the idea that I would visit a park with the intention of photographing a light goods vehicle drivers' union meeting for foreign propaganda purposes.

Amazingly, this hastily concocted pretext works and instead we go round the corner to a baby photographer's studio where my (digital) photos since Tongren are downloaded onto his PC and inspected. Not a bad selection, actually. There is no picture of the park. In fact there is no picture taken anywhere in Kuche, since there is nothing to photograph there.

This done, I am told that I can go. Well, gee thanks. Can I have my park entry refunded? Or can you tell me where it would be lawful for me to read my book? I don't ask either of these questions, of course. I don't want to see a Kuche police cell, especially if the hotel rooms are anything to go by. As I emerge onto the street I realise that I don't know where I am, but I'm not going to ask these people for directions. I eventually find the bus station and sit there and read my book. The surroundings are less than idyllic, but at least you can't (I think) be arrested for waiting for a bus.

So that's Kuche, folks: a paranoid, unwelcoming town in the middle of nowhere with no attractions. The only pleasing thought is that the people who most deserve to live in a place like this are some of the very same people who actually do.

  1. (c)Nicholas White 2005

This article was published in an abridged and edited form in the Observer, 13th September 2009.  See: