The train ride from Turfan to Kashgar is fifteen hours long. I sat down in the crowded car and threw up my lunch within two hours, so needless to say, I was not having the time of my life. However, I am grateful that the people on the train with me–both from our Dragons group and from Xinjiang–made the experience far better than it could have been. Highlights of the long night included Wade’s six-hour ukulele singalong, Noam’s dances with other passengers in the narrow aisle, and the arrival of the young family who shared our seats.
The family consisted of a mother, two daughters, and two sons. The oldest son couldn’t have been over ten years old and the youngest daughter looked around two. Three members of our group gave up their seats so the kids could sleep (they got on the train past midnight), and for most of the ride, the younger son used my arm as a pillow. I was touched by his immediate familiarity with us and tried my best not to wake him as I reflected upon the family’s situation. The mother had told us that her husband was in jail; more specifically, he was in one of the camps set up by the Chinese government. These camps keep Uyghurs from their families and aim to slowly erase their culture and religion under the guise of “job training.” I had learned about this topic through lessons from our instructors, but coming face-to-face with those affected by it put things in a new light. These sleepy children, this kind mother, were missing a member of their family and had no idea when they might see him again. I got the feeling that my stomach sickness was not the biggest problem on the train.
As the sun rose over the mountains, our group chatted with the kids. We learned their names and ages and shared our snacks. The older girl pointed at my drawings and smiled. Eventually, our group got off the train, and we waved goodbye to our little friends.
Now, as I sit in a van traveling from Kashgar to Osh, I am reflecting once again on this experience and on my own privilege. I have the privilege to own a passport, to travel within and without China, to write emails to my family, who are home safe in Massachusetts. I know that I’ll see them again soon. The family that we met on the train does not have the same assurances. As I travel on and cross the border between China and Kyrgyzstan, I know that I can’t write a happy ending to their story, but I can express gratitude for my own safety and opportunities. I can learn from the parts of their lives that they shared with us, and I can appreciate that strength and hope to emulate it myself.