In the summer of 1996 I experienced one of the great adventures of my life, so far. After studying one more semester of Chinese in Beijing, I graduated from my US university in absentia and secured a job as an English teacher at a prominent local high school. There was only one problem; I needed to leave the country to change my student visa to a work visa. After having many good times in Uighurville I really wanted to go to Xinjiang and visit the fabled oasis town of Kashgar, however I feared leaving the PRC for a visa run to Hong Kong would seriously cut into my small traveling budget. But someone told me if I needed a visa all I had to do was pop over to Pakistan from Xinjiang. Well, why not?
Little did I know that two months on the road through Xinjiang into Pakistan and back to Beijing would entail encounters with a natural disaster, a questionable case of personal infestation, a bureaucratic paper chase that would make Kafka’s head spin, a religious experience of sorts, and a humorous encounter with a militant Islamist. All of these things happened 14 years ago, but it seems like yesterday. It’s truly wondrous how short life is.
When I boarded the train from Beijing to Urumqi I was well prepared for a 3+ day ride across China deep into the Gobi desert over parts of the ancient Silk Road. Unfortunately, it took me over sixty days before I ever set foot in Urumqi, and that was when I was doing my best to travel 2,417 miles overland on public transportation in 5 days to make it back in time to start my new job. So the only part of Urumqi I saw was a shanzai Hard Rock Café, where I stopped to catch a meal before getting on the train. It was memorable, because as I sat eating my meal the track lighting over the restaurant’s extensive buffet exploded, dropping shards of colored glass into the dishes below. To my horror, the staff then promptly used their fingers to pick out the glass and continued to serve the food.
After two days of hard-sleeper (think of a cattle car with bunk beds) I woke up one morning and the train wasn’t moving. OK, I think, no big deal, we made a stop. So I rolled over and went back to sleep. I woke up again an hour later and we still weren’t moving, this seemed strange. Then I found out we were in Lanzhou and the train wasn’t going any further; massive floods occurred over night and washed away roads, bridges, train tracks, phone lines and in some cases complete villages. It seems an act of God was about to severely put the kibosh on my vacation.
As I exited the train the first thing I saw was a large crowd of confused and irritated passengers milling about outside the train station. The railway personnel announced that refunds for the uncovered distance from Lanzhou to Urumqi would be promptly distributed to all ticked passengers, but of course there was a hitch. Only one window was open at the ticket office where the several hundred (maybe more than a thousand) passengers could go to get their refunds.
So, picture mid-morning in a desert city in July and several hundred unhappy Chinese asked to line up outside and collect their money — a riot was brewing. Pushing, shoving, cursing and spitting ensued with peasant enthusiasm; and that was just the women and children. Then I witnessed a lesson in Chinese crowd control I will never forget. Two uniformed officers stood at the front of the window, turned on shock clubs, then proceed to walk in a tight straight line; passengers got inline, out of line, or shocked. I saw one of the cops chase an elderly woman and threaten to zap her, it seemed to be in good fun though, she was laughing.
Well, so much for taking the train. Although I wanted to stay and witness the incredible scene that was unfolding at the train station, I decided to forfeit the 200 kuai I had coming to me and hop a sleeper bus to Kashgar; good riddance Lanzhou. For those Americans who have never taken a sleeper bus through the boondocks of China, let me draw you a picture. Imagine the Joad family on a Greyhound bus filled with two levels of chez lounges bolted to the floor; sometimes there are chickens on the bus, occasionally there are other bewildered foreigners, but there’s always some queasy passenger puking out the window. Once, on the way to Xishuangbana, I had a window seat, and the puking passenger sat next to me and leaned across my lap out the window to vomit steadily for several hours.
After about 20 hours of a blessedly uneventful ride through Gansu and into Xinjiang I woke in the morning and found that the bus was not moving. Oh no, not again I thought. Yep, sure enough, all the roads were out, and we couldn’t go any further. I found this out by having a remarkable conversation with the bus driver on the side of the road:
The author: So, what’s up? Why have we stopped in the middle of nowhere?
Bus driver: There’s a flood, roads are out, and we can’t get through.
The author: Yeah, I hear the flood’s a disaster; my train couldn’t get through to Urumqi from Beijing, that’s why I got on the bus back in Lanzhou.
Bus driver:(incredulous) What? You knew about the floods?
The author: Uhh… yeah.
Bus driver: You mean you knew that the roads, bridges and railroad were washed out by the floods and you didn’t tell us?
The author: Uhhh… I figure you knew about the flood. You mean you didn’t know, no one told you? Don’t you have phones or radios?
The bus driver walked off in frustration, he’d had enough of the know-it-all foreigner.
Actually, it wasn’t all bad. As luck would have it the bus had stopped at Turpan, a picturesque oasis city famed for its grapes, Emin Minaret, and the nearby Flaming Mountains. If you are ever going to be half stranded in Xinjiang and surrounded by a flood stricken disaster zone you could do a lot worse. I settled in for about a week or so, took in the sites and enjoyed myself.
I ended up meeting groups of other travelers, and when Turpan got a little old and Kashgar beckoned us, we planned our escape. Well, easier said than done. In our first attempt, a group of about 15 travelers rented a bus and headed for the aptly named city of Toksun (read ‘Toxin’) where we heard people were able to forge the flooded river, however we didn’t get very far. Half way there traffic literally got bogged down in the remains of a flooded village. Our merry little band of travelers spent half a day surveying wreckage of a flash flood hitting a village of mostly wooden structures. I recall the townsfolk taking it pretty well, the parents and grandparents sat around taking it all in and waiting for relief to arrive while the kids played joyously in the sandy mud. But after hearing more water was on its way after severe rains north of our location, our bus driver decided to make a hasty retreat out of town.
We tried again two days later, and this time we made it to Toksun, but not after ditching the bus in impassable traffic a few kilometers from the river and hitching rides on donkey carts – the preferred mode of transportation in many parts of Xinjiang. When we reached the river our jaws dropped. Some brave souls were crossing a roughly one hundred yard chest-high torrent while thousands of onlookers stood along the banks. The remains of the highway bridge could be seen half-sunken upriver.
Not to be daunted, we fearlessly plunged into the river and carried our backpacks over our heads. Ok, I was daunted, fearful and just plain scared shitless, but if about half of the people in the bus I came in were doing it, so would I. I almost lost my footing on a few occasions and visions of floating far downstream raced through my head, but I made it to the other side bathed in putrid river water, cursing my stupidity and happy to be on the other side.
Yet again we were lucky! Just as we climbed up the bank of the river a sleeper bus for Kashgar was preparing to leave, and it had several seats available. I, two Kiwi geologists, and three Brits piled into the bus; nothing could stop us now, and we’d be in Kashgar in little over a day. Several celebratory beers were drunk, and then I took a nap.
When I woke up the bus wasn’t moving. We had made it about five hours out of Toksun and into the mountains before being halted by a rockslide that was at least two stories high. One of us climbed the rockslide, peered over and saw cars there. So our band of intrepid Anglo-Saxon explorers said ‘fuck it’ and we climbed the rockslide determined to hitch a ride west. This was done over vehement protests by the bus driver who swore it wasn’t safe. “What if someone came down from the hills and robbed you?” We laughed off the warning about brigands, surely everything would be alright. No matter what, we were not going back to Toksun and the river.
When we got over the rockslide we immediately asked anyone with a car if they would give us a ride to Korla, a large town about halfway to Kashgar, or at least just a place to pick up a bus. Unfortunately no one was all that interested in giving six strange foreigners a ride. It got later, then it started to get dark, and the prospect of spending the night in the mountains without a sleeping bag or tent started to fill our thoughts. We all wondered if we should have listened to the bus driver’s ominous warnings.
Thirty minutes later a big flat bed truck came by and agreed to take us to a bus stop about an hour away, the driver and his buddy did us this kind favor for the exorbitant fee of 500 kuai. This is when I learned if you depend on the kindness of strangers you also have to factor in their greed.
We were dropped off at a crappy little town in some God forsaken part of Xinjiang, and we were thrilled to be there. After some nourishing noodles and beer we began thumbing on the side of road, eventually a bus to Korla picked us up, however there were no empty seats available, we would have to stand or sit in the aisle for eight hours. I struck up a conversation with a few of the locals, a couple of guys sharing a large bottle or baijiu, and I got stinking drunk and passed out on the floor of the bus. Given the situation, it seemed the smartest thing to do.
Have you ever woken up in the middle of the Gobi without any water after a night of drinking Chinese grain alcohol? The hangover was unmerciful. Worse yet; our bus wasn’t moving. We had hit another flooded river. Passengers from hundreds of cars on both sides of a small shallow river threw large rocks into the river to create a passable place to cross. It took all morning, but eventually, very slowly, cars started to cross the river. Yet another obstacle met and overcome and done in true socialist style too, with people patiently moving the earth with their bare hands in collective fashion to accomplish a shared goal; Mao would have been proud.
We made it to Korla; after a rockslide, brigands, and two flooded rivers we were halfway to Kashgar. The only memorable thing about Korla were the goat fat sandwiches I ate. It was the only thing available besides noodles and I was sick of noodles. My traveling companions were impressed by my intestinal fortitude. It is true; my small intestine is the thing legends are made of.
We then found a bus to Kashgar, and this was possibly the worst bus ride of my life. The bus was not a sleeper bus, nor a comfortable tourister, it was basically just like a yellow school bus – padded benches, kidney jarring shocks and noisy air breaks. I hadn’t really slept in two days, I reeked of river water and baijiu, and my last meal was goat fat on unleavened bread and a warm Coke. Now I had 30 hours on an uncomfortable bus to look forward to. Frequently I nodded off sitting upright and every time we hit a pothole my head crashed against the window or medal back of the seat in front of me. We hit a lot of potholes.
I remember that about ten hours into the ride I considered shocking myself unconscious with the electric shock club I purchased from one of my drinking buddies the night before (after seeing how effective they were in Lanzhou I had to have one). I thought about it for hours, but I just couldn’t come to terms with dying from a self-induced cardiac arrest on a shitty bus in the middle of the Gobi Desert; I’m better than that, right?
I think we were as happy as any travelers on the Silk Road ever were to reach Kashgar. We all promptly showered and slept for hours. Over the next week, I explored the amazing town, especially the incredible Sunday bazaar with a medieval atmosphere in the ‘Old City’. After spend many long tortuous days trying to get there the city lived up to the dream. Like the market surrounding the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, the open air Kashgar market had an ageless, mythical quality. An amazing assortment of hats and daggers, silk and wool clothes, as well as an abundance of raisins, melons and other fresh produce were negotiated over by hawkers and buyers in traditional Uigher, Tajik, Uzbeck, Kazak and Kygher clothing, in addition to plenty of faded blue Mao suits. I remember after buying several hats and a massive dagger I haggled for an hour with a vendor for a set of Soviet night-vision goggles. But then I figured crossing into Pakistan armed to the teeth and carrying night-fighting equipment might not be a good idea.
I have read reports, like this and this and this, that sadly Kashgar is becoming a shadow of its former self, the ‘Old City’ is being bulldozed over and replaced with tacky high rises and that all this is being done in the hallowed name of ‘progress’ or ‘harmony’ or ‘safety’... whatever. The argument that the traditional wood and brick structures would not survive an earthquake is dubious, they have stood for hundreds of years, a much better record than many buildings built by Chinese construction crews in recent years. In truth, it’s simply being done to help ‘Sinofy’ an ethic Uighur city. I understand the Party’s urge to pacify its frontier but I won’t defend their heavy handed policies - better results could be achieved with a far more enlightened approach.
I’m sure in the American Old West; places like Deadwood, Carson City, Tombstone, Sioux Falls, Dodge City, etc. were once also thriving melting pots of indigenous peoples and the prolific Americans marching westward. Those were special places at an incredible time in US history, but they have largely been homogenized by a single modern American culture. If the Party has its way, the same thing will happen in China, from the buildings to the people inside them, one Chinese city will look pretty much the same as the next. Culturally, China will be poorer for it. It’s tragic, and I’m glad to have seen the real Kashgar before it’s gone.
Please stay tuned for Part II of Rawalpindi or Bust as the author makes it across the Karakorum Highway only to be trapped in Pakistan by a paperwork snafu and unable to secure a visa to return to Beijing. The tall tale involves encounters with guns, drugs, body lice and an assortment of lively characters.
For more blogging on Xinjiang, I suggest you visit Far West China.