Ugly at the Arch
We had just arrived back into town after our jaunt up the Karakorum Highway, having dinner and beers (of course) at the Chini Bagh’s John’s Café.
We were joined by Simon, a towering Englishman we had met the Olympics opening-night piss-up. He was sinewy and bald and looked a lot like Peter Garrett from the Australian band Midnight Oil. His eyes shone wild as he carried on about a day trip he had just taken to Shipton’s Arch, a rock formation a couple of hours outside of town. Shipton’s Arch, or Tushuk Tash (“Pierced Rock”), is the tallest natural arch in the world, standing at over 1,200 feet, and located in a very remote part of the desert.
“I was just out there today,” Simon said in his lilting Yorkshire accent. “I had the whole place to meself. No one goes there. It’s spectacular. I would highly recommend checking it out.”
He showed us some video that he had shot a few hours earlier with his cell phone camera.
“See! It’s fucking incredible. I mean, look at it.”
I squinted and peered at the footage. It did appear to be a cool spot, but it’s hard to deliver the wow factor on a two-inch screen. I was skeptical, but my two companions were sold. And the next day was special: it was Steve’s birthday as well as his last day in Xinjiang. After nearly three weeks of travelling with us, he was due to fly back to Shanghai, and then on to Korea. It had been an epic trip, and we had to see him off in style.
We made arrangements to hire a Jeep and set out early the next day on the two-hour drive to the trailhead. After a little more than an hour on the paved road, we turned off onto a dried-up riverbed, where the driver switched into 4WD. We slowly worked our way up the rocky bed until we came to the stone-and-mud hut of a goat-herding family, where we were waved down by a teenage boy. Our driver—a Chinese guy in a pink polo shirt—rolled down the window and spoke with the kid in Uyghur. When they were finished, the driver told me that there was a twenty-yuan-per-person “entrance fee.”
I immediately balked. It seemed everywhere we went on this trip had some sort of hidden “entrance fee.” Plus, we were paying the café’s travel desk a lot of money for the Jeep and the driver, so the thought of coughing up extra made all of us bristle. Three weeks of hard travel had made us frequent targets for cheats, grifters, and thieves. Our patience was sapped.
I looked the driver in the eyes and said, “No fucking way.”
Whether this registered or not is anyone’s guess, but he waved goodbye to the kid and drove off.
We proceeded on for about ten minutes more until the road ended in a gravel parking area. Ours was the only visible vehicle. This was the trailhead. We got out of the Jeep and the driver pointed toward the starting point—he would wait for us in the Jeep. We thanked him and began our hike up toward the arch.
As we approached the actual trailhead, I heard the whine of a small engine reverberate up the canyon. It was the sound of a motorcycle—a dirt bike. Soon the rider came into view behind us, quickly closing the distance. It was the kid from the goat herder’s hut. He was coming… to collect his fee.
He rode his motorbike as far as it could go, got off, and broke into a sprint in an attempt to overtake us. We picked up the pace, but we saw no need to get into a running contest with this kid. He eventually passed us, and it was only then when I saw why he was in such a hurry: about one hundred meters in front of us, the canyon narrowed and steepened dramatically. A wooden ladder lay against the face of the rock. Climbing this ladder was the only way you could continue up toward the arch.
By the time we got to the Uyghur teen, he was clutching the ladder like it was a briefcase full of diamonds. He then firmly requested twenty yuan each, about three American dollars. We shook our heads and said no. He gripped the wooden ladder even tighter. It was a standoff and he had us by the balls.
We could have gone easily. We could have each just given up the twenty yuan—the cost of mug of shitty Korean beer—and been on our way, but we weren’t having it. This was the day we would stand our ground. It was Steve’s birthday. Surrender was impossible! We would draw a line in the sand and fight.
At first I tried bargaining. After a few weeks in China, I had gotten a pretty good hold on the numbers, so I had confidence when it came to negotiating a price. I offered twenty yuan for all three of us. I was sure he’d take it. I’d given him the courtesy of saying it in Chinese, which, even if not his first language, would have been easier for him to understand than English. He understood me all right, but just shook his head and held firm. I came up to forty, but the kid wouldn’t budge. He insisted on sixty and that was that. This only served to stoke our indignation—mine especially. I demanded to see some ID. After all, how do we know that he was officially allowed to collect tolls? For all we knew, he could just be some local punk ripping us off. When no official card was forthcoming, I ridiculously threatened him with the police—using my best mime skills to act out reporting him via telephone—as if they’d race out to the middle of the desert over a disputed entrance fee. He met my eyes and stood tall. Sam joined in as I stammered and sputtered and foamed at the mouth. I tried to grab the kid’s ladder but he yanked it away. I shook my finger in his face and called him an “extorting little fucker.” Following my lead, my two accomplices joined me cornering the poor kid and let loose a torrent of abuse. The boy, however, would not be intimidated. He just stared back in proud defiance and contempt.
It was Steve who caved in to reason. After huffing and puffing and thumping our chests, he yelled out, “Hey Tharp. Let’s just pay the kid! It’s my birthday and I want to see the arch.”
I turned to him in disbelief. He just shrugged and reached for his wallet.
That was that, then. We finally relented and gave this kid his nine bucks, though I did feel the need to dramatically spit on the ground when I handed him the cash, likely a grievous insult in honor-driven Uyghur culture.
What is it about righteousness that can be so all-consuming? All three of us were convinced that we were in the right and that this kid—this goat herder—was trying to rip us off, that he had seen an opportunity to squeeze some foreigners for money and was jumping at it. At no time did it occur to us that EVERYONE who comes to the arch had to pay this little tax to the locals who live on and work the land, who make and maintain the ladders. And twenty yuan certainly pales in comparison to the two hundred or more that we had to pay at other sites during the trip, sites run by hordes of uniformed, unsmiling Chinese.
After paying, we continued up the trail—scurrying up five or six more ladders—rattled by our anger and loss of face. We plotted revenge against the kid, even having a serious discussion about shitting on his motorcycle. But our anger quickly gave way to serenity because of our surroundings. We were enveloped in pure silence, save for the light breeze blowing up from the desert floor.
We ascended a canyon of red and ochre, of stone worn into gnarled, psychedelic shapes by centuries of desert wind, only to come across a hole at the canyon’s end.
As we approached the hole, we realized that we were actually on top of a mountain. On the other side of the hole was a chasm, a sheer drop of over one thousand feet.
English Simon was right. It was absolutely amazing.
The arch only reveals its true size once you are up on it. It looks slightly dramatic from a distance, but you have no idea of its scale until you are right there, almost on top of it. It is enormous. It ripped the breath right out of us. We were floored. And, like English Simon the day before, we had it all to ourselves. We were at one of the most beautiful sites in the most populous country on Earth and there wasn’t a soul to be seen. Everything about the place simply blew us away, but our euphoria was soon dampened by the realization of the people we had just been thirty minutes before: terrible, terrible people.
Shipton’s Arch is in a very inaccessible part of the desert, and this is why the Chinese have yet to destroy it. They have yet to build a road and a parking lot with souvenir stands, a cable car cranking out awful pop music, and soft-drink advertisements. They have yet to pave a concrete stairway up to the top, with a fenced-off viewing platform and karaoke room. They have yet to open the sieve and direct fleets of tour buses there on a daily basis. They have yet to ruin the place.
Let the Uyghur goat herders maintain their stewardship. And please, unlike us, don’t give them any hassle when they ask for your three bucks.
Consider the alternative.
Yarkand is a town dug into the sand, originally an outpost on the southern Silk Road. It sits on the fringe of the Taklimakan, a place of moving sand dunes so desolate that the Uyghur still refer to it as “Desert of Death” and the “Place of No Return.” The town itself is famous for its knives, which is appropriate: it seems like a very good place to stab somebody. Other than that, it’s dusty and unremarkable, save for the spectacle I took in when I left the bus station that morning in search of a cup of coffee:
As I exited and descended the building’s steps, I noticed a small crowd of people gathered around a cart attached to a donkey. In the back of the cart lay a horribly deformed child. His head was swollen, gargantuan, the size and color of a twenty-pound holiday turkey. His eyes glared out from deep-set sockets; his mouth was a maw of jutting teeth, and his pink tongue writhed wildly. I heard myself gasp as the blood left my head and then shot cold. The boy lay on his back and jerked and twitched, moaning intermittently. The throng of locals standing around the poor kid gawked accordingly. What I took to be the boy’s father addressed them nonchalantly, perhaps appealing to their charity, or just describing the horrific extent of his son’s infirmities. After recovering my breath, I had an impulse to snap a photo, but surrendered to the better part of my nature. Instead I rushed away, half-jogging down the street, where I ducked into an unlikely, garishly colored Chinese fast-food joint called Veary Hamburger. There I ordered an obscenely sweet iced coffee drink and sat down, attempting to erase the image of the disfigured boy from my mind by bombarding it with the radioactive combination of sugar, caffeine, and blaring pop music.
When I returned to the bus station, I found my two travel companions where I’d left them: sitting on one of the squalid building’s metal benches while staring at Olympic coverage flickering from the TV above. American swimmer Michael Phelps stood on the platform and smiled his horsey grin, while yet another gold medal was slung around his neck.
The bus to Hotan finally arrived and we boarded. Sam and I were joined by Simon, the Englishman that we’d met back in Kashgar. During the afternoon bus ride, we passed an overturned melon truck on the side of the two-lane highway. Hundreds of watermelons had been thrown from its payload and now littered the ground around the wreck. Many had burst open, splaying their gory red innards for all to see, acting as a warning to the humans piloting the passing vehicles to slow down and look out, or face a similar fate.
Choking clouds enveloped Hotan, covering everything in a fine desert dust. The air was a brown haze, obscuring the shiny modern Chinese buildings, as well as the mud-built Uyghur warren-like compounds—with their carpet looms, teapots, and dried dung. Even the famous statue of Mao shaking the old Muslim man’s hand was made nearly invisible by the dull screen of airborne grit, surely to the pleasure of many of the locals, who bristled at such an ostentatious display of dominance. There was dust in my hair, granules grinding on my molars, hard clumps up my nose, and desiccated wax in my ears. The simple act of breathing could cause me to cough or sneeze. The dust scratched my eyes. It saturated my clothing. It scoured the skin of my ass and made everyday existence an exercise in irritation. No wonder most everyone we saw seemed so pissed off.
Like so many of the places we stayed in Western China, the “Happy Hotel” was filthy. Despite a glowing recommendation from the guidebook, we were received with casual indifference by the Uyghur owner. Grubby-faced kids—clad only from the waist up—played in the courtyard among the buzzing flies and grime. One of them had left a sickly yellow turd in a small grate in the concrete; judging from its moistness, it appeared to have been very recently deposited. The smell of grease and human waste hung damply in the air as we paid and then waited for the owner to find the key to our room. He rummaged through his box-like, unlit reception office and shouted to his wife, who just shrugged and carried on hanging the laundry on the second-floor balcony. He eventually gave up on his quest, walked over to our room, and easily snapped the cheap metal lock off the door with a small screwdriver. The wooden door creaked open and we were finally allowed access to our new digs.
“For God’s sake,” Simon gagged.
A demonic, eye-stinging stench filled the room. It emanated from the bathroom, which was little more than a tiny sink, a broken mirror, a barely functioning water faucet, and a stained ceramic hole in which to crap. This hole must have led to some kind of septic tank just feet underneath, since it filled the air with a noxious miasma of piss and shit that smelled as if it had brewing for months on end in the blazing desert sun. The bathroom’s door acted as a seal of sorts that made the room barely tolerable when closed, but any time it was opened, a hot, nauseating blast filled the space, assaulting the nostrils, sticking to the tongue, and burning the lungs like some sort of biological-gas attack.
The room’s one window provided us with a modicum of ventilation, especially if opened in tandem with the door. It also gave the dank space a bit of light, which sifted through the greasy, dust-covered glass. Outside, an ancient bed lay in front of the window, on which was piled a heap of stained and neglected laundry. Above it, on the sill, sat a cracked egg. Its amber contents oozed down the outside wall like a waxy drip of hardened snot; it had obviously been there for ages. The fact that—over the course of weeks or even months, no one in the whole facility had bothered to clean it up spoke volumes to the commitment to hygiene at the Happy Hotel.
Hotan is famous for its jade, but unless you’re looking to stock up on the semi-precious gem from one of the town’s numerous Chinese-owned shops, there’s not much to do. We certainly weren’t in the market for any stones, so we wandered through the haze for a couple hours along the ruined sidewalks of the town, at one point pausing to watch a woman burn the hair off of a dismembered goat with a blowtorch. We strolled through a silk market and stopped at a PC room to check our email and illegally access our Facebook accounts through proxy servers. We then walked some more, wrapping our faces to protect our lungs from the dust, taking in the town around us, and above all, marveling at the multitude of donkeys.
“I find it remarkable,” Simon said, “that so many people still use donkeys as transport. I mean, this is the 21st century. China is rapidly developing into a high-tech powerhouse. Just ten minutes ago we were using computers. I sat there and uploaded hundreds of photographs from my digital camera onto Facebook, and now I come outside only to see men driving carts pulled by fucking donkeys. It boggles the mind.”
“They’re such sad creatures,” remarked Sam.
“I find them quite adorable,” admitted Simon.
“I’ve never been around donkeys until coming here,” I added. “We don’t have many in America.”
“Did you go to the livestock market in Kashgar?” Simon asked.
“Yeah, we did,” I said. “We actually priced the donkeys. How much does a healthy adult go for, Sam?”
“About a hundred and seventy bucks.”
Simon raised his eyebrows. “Wow, that’s a bit dearer than I would I have expected.”
“That’s the going rate, evidently,” I said, “pre-haggle.”
“What I loved about the Kashgar livestock market,” mused Sam, “was how occasionally a serious donkey would let loose a loud, harsh bray that kind of rallied all the lesser donkeys to a common cause. Donkeys from all around would follow suit and loudly bray in solidarity.”
“I remember that,” Simon added. “It would catch on and spread, wouldn’t it?”
“Yeah, like a brush fire,” continued Sam. “The donkey’s bray… man, listen to it. It’s a ridiculous sound… HEE-haww! HEE-hawwwww! It’s a vigorous complaint against all the yokes those poor beasts are forced to endure by our hand. It’s a moan of protest—a sound that tells us just how much donkeys hate having to toil for the benefit of humans. It is an implacable honk of slavery. My heart just bleeds for those guys. You can’t help but pity them.”
Like all towns in Western China, Hotan was segregated, with newer Chinese residents and the Uyghur majority living separately and rarely mixing. But with each year, more and more Chinese settlers were arriving in Xinjiang, urged on by the government’s view that large, permanent populations of Chinese in the country’s far west will act as an insurance policy to keep the province firmly in the Motherland’s fold. In my travels throughout Xinjiang, it was obvious that the Uyghurs had no love for, and little in common with, their Chinese masters.
In Kashgar, a huge television monitor had been erected in the main plaza, directly in front of the central mosque. This giant screen played Chinese Olympic events throughout the day and evening, yet was coldly ignored by the town’s residents. In any other part of the country, it would have been the site of much rooting and revelry, but no crowds gathered to cheer the Chinese athletes on, because most Uyghurs believe neither themselves nor their land to be part of China.
In Hotan, the Communist Party constructed a huge statue of Mao Tse Tung receiving Kurban Tulum, the old Uyghur man who is said to have traveled 1,500 kilometers across the desert on the back of his donkey to “thank” the great Premier for “liberating” his people, making him the only person in China to share statue with Mao. The Uyghurs are forced to see this every day, a constant reminder of who is in control of their destiny. That statue is an insult from the east; it only serves to rub their noses in the shit, and they hate it accordingly.
The citizens of Hotan seemed to chafe under Beijing more visibly than anywhere else we had been in the region. The frustration and hostility toward China and even the tourists they brought in was palpable. As we walked the streets that day, we were subject to hot glances and hard stares. The people we passed were all scowls and furrowed brows, and I could taste their anger and disgust. The air was literally heavy with dust, but it was also heavy with the peoples’ despair, which physically manifested itself in the form of that omnipresent, grey-brown cloud.
That evening we went for dinner at a tiny restaurant. We quietly munched on skewered lamb, thick noodles in savory broth, and the heavy naang bread served up everywhere in Xinjiang. Just two tables away sat a man and his wife, also eating dinner. The man sported a black mustache and wore a white skullcap, looking very much the part of a conservative and pious local Muslim. He sat facing us, and throughout the meal he glared our way with eyes afire. He ate slowly and said nothing to his wife, boring into us with an expression of pure, naked hatred. She chewed in silence as well, in the manner of a woman well accustomed to her husband’s foul turns of humor.
The next morning, we left our room for coffee and breakfast. A fresh, glistening yellow turd once again graced the courtyard’s drain grate. After eating, Simon went back to the hotel, and Sam and I headed to the travel desk of a large Chinese hotel in the center of town in an attempt to book a flight back to Shanghai. The pretty woman behind the desk spoke zero English; this went for everyone at the hotel, and was to be expected in Xinjiang province. With my tiny amount of Chinese I’d picked up during the trip, along with the guidebook—which contained the Chinese characters for all the place names—we managed to convey where and when we wished to travel, and soon our tickets were secured.
Our flight left from Ürümqi, Xinjiang’s capital city. How we would get there was still an open question. We could travel back to Kashgar and jump on the train—a two-day trip—or take the twenty-four-hour sleeper bus through the heart of the Taklimakan. The latter was the cheaper and more practical option, despite the fact that the “beds” on Chinese sleeper buses are generally designed for Chinese-sized people. Tall Westerners such as us find that it’s impossible to fully stretch our legs on such buses, and after a few hours, what is supposed to a comfortable ride becomes an endurance test aboard a rolling torture machine.
When we walked out of the hotel, we heard a man’s voice reverberating through the street.
Sam pointed: “Check it out.”
Across the road, a man was shouting. His cries were a high-pitched wail that seemed to erupt from the very core of his being. He was half-crawling down the sidewalk, carrying a young child in his arms. He was beyond distraught, drenched in misery and inconsolable desperation, appealing to the passersby for some sort of assistance, it seemed.
“What’s he doing?” Sam asked.
“Probably some sort of extreme begging.”
“Is the kid sick?”
“Could be,” I said. “Or maybe he just drags him out of the house to score sympathy points, like the beggar women with their naked babies on the sidewalks in Bangkok.”
“Hmmmm….” Sam pursed his lips, taking in the scene. “I wish I could understand what he’s saying.”
Puzzled by the man and his child, we walked back to the Happy Hotel to get Simon and then head for lunch.
“The smell is getting worse, I think.” Simon complained as we walked away from the effluvial complex. “I can’t stand it any longer… I can feel the typhoid taking root. This whole town is a shithole.”
“It’s not so bad,” I said, denying the obvious. “Besides, we still haven’t seen that much.”
“Well I’d like to see a restaurant soon,” said Sam. “I’m starving.”
“Okay,” I said. “What are you guys in the mood for?”
“How about some Chinese food?” asked Simon. “I’ve been eating nothing but mutton and bread for two weeks now and am well stopped up. I haven’t had a decent shit in yonks.”
“Yeah, I could do with some actual vegetables,” Sam said.
“And it would be nice to eat away from the glare of Al Qaeda sympathizers,” said Simon.
“Well then, Chinese it is.”
My pronouncement proved to be premature, however, as we soon discovered that actual Chinese restaurants were hard to come by in good ol’ Hotan. We walked around for over an hour in search of an open place serving up proper, oily Chinese grub, but kept coming up short. I would have never believed that one day I would have to look hard to find a Chinese restaurant in China, but this was only China by the loosest of definitions.
Eventually we happened upon an actual Chinese joint and were warmly greeted by the husband-and-wife owners when we stepped through the door. We were their only customers and ordered large, diving into a huge lunch of beef, chicken, and countless veggies, all fried up in heaps of oil in a big metal wok. We washed this feast down with ice-cold beer, far away from the disapproving glances of any local Muslims. For just that hour, we were back in China and glad for it.
After lunch we hiked to Hotan’s main traditional market in an attempt to flatten our now-distended bellies. The markets in the towns and cities of China sell everything, and are often the clearest glimpse into the character and soul of a place. Visiting the local market is always a must, and that of Hotan was no exception.
The market was located clearly on the Uyghur sides of the tracks. The men baked bread and sold intricate carpets, while the women manned the clothing stalls. Kabob smoke filled the air, causing my mouth to gush saliva, despite the fact that I was still nearly sick-full from lunch. Men sat at tables sipping tea and smoking cigarettes, eyeing us warily as we strolled by. The narrow streets were full of jostling locals buying and selling or just passing through on donkey carts or motorcycles. This was a real, working market—gritty, multihued, and expansive—all the mystical splendor of Central Asia laid out for us to see. Simon stopped here and there to snap photographs, while Sam and I walked and turned our heads in 180-degree arcs in an attempt to fully absorb the scene. Suddenly, Sam cried out: “OW!”
He stopped and put his hand on a spot on his upper back.
“What’s up, man?”
“Motherfucker…” He bent down and picked up a rock from the street. “Someone just threw a rock at me.”
“Someone chucked this rock at me and it hit me in the back.”
We turned around to spot the culprit, but no one stood out in the general hum of the scene.
“Did you see that?” Sam asked Simon who was just catching up.
“Did you see someone huck this rock at me?” He shook the stone in his fist.
“Naw, mate. I was taking photos of that hat stall. Why would someone throw a rock at you?”
“That is a very good question,” Sam said, releasing the rock, which fell onto the uneven street below.
We pressed on through the market, basking in the sights and smells, until we heard the familiar sound of man’s howling voice.
“Isn’t that the guy from before?” Sam said. “The one carrying the kid?”
I searched for the source, and just up ahead saw a cluster of people gathered around a man who was kneeling on the ground.
“Yeah, that’s him.”
Again he screamed to the sky, calling to God Himself for comfort. He still held the boy, only as we approached, we noticed that the child’s face was pale blue and his limbs stiffened.
We were wrong: this man wasn’t begging. He was absolutely crazed with grief. He had crawled all day through the dusty streets of Hotan, screaming out to God, carrying the body of his dead son.
Sam and I got out of Hotan as soon as we could—that night—to be certain. We abandoned the Happy Hotel, even though the rooms were paid up through the morning, and bought tickets on the first night sleeper bus back to Ürümqi. From there, two days later, we would fly back to Shanghai and then on to Korea, our home. Simon planned to tough it out in Hotan one more day before moving east, further along the southern Silk Road, all the way the route’s terminus in the lonely outpost of Golmud. I shook his hand, wished him well, and along with Sam, climbed onto the bus and squeezed my body into the micro-bed, settling in for the long ride across the Taklimakan.
Like most bus journeys in that part of the world, it took a near-eternity to get out of town. A bus doesn’t leave until it’s totally full, and this was no exception. I noticed that there were a few empty bed/seats, and hoped in futility that the driver would press on, but this, of course, was expecting too much. He stopped several times on the way out of town to pick up more passengers, at one point pulling over to the side of the highway while he loudly negotiated a fare over his cell phone.
We waited thirty minutes for these final passengers to arrive. They came by taxi, and got out, stashed their bags underneath, and proceeded to take the last four beds, which happened to be directly above us. Each of these men sported the requisite mustache and skullcap of the truly devout.
The bus jolted into gear, beginning its lengthy journey across one of the most inhospitable places on the planet. At the same time, one of the four men above began his monologue.
In loud and theatrical Uyghur, this young man proceeded to hold court among his three peers. He talked and they listened and he talked some more. From his mouth poured forth an uninterrupted cascade of passionate, guttural language. Every few minutes one of his rapt compatriots would humbly interject or finish a thought, but otherwise it was all about this one man and his one voice.
This went on for hours, building in a crescendo. From the frequent Allahs and Mohammeds peppered throughout this ongoing soliloquy, I managed to suss out the general subject of his rant. This guy was endowed as a religious authority by his friends and embraced it for all it was worth, delivering a several-hour sermon for all of the bus to hear. As I looked up at him, his black eyes were animated and ablaze; his chest heaved, and beads of sweat formed above his mustache. The man radiated zealotry. Several times, as if to prove his piety to the rest of the Muslims on the bus, he dismounted the upper berth and prostrated himself in prayer on the ground, only to return to his perch and sing.
I tried to block out this man’s tirade, but nothing I did could stem the tide. I tried to read from a book of short stories. I tried working on a crossword. I tried to nap. At one point Sam and I attempted to drown him out with our own loud American conversation (something about J.D. Salinger, I think, since it was his stories I was reading), but quickly lost focus and energy. I then tried to really concentrate on and enjoy the fantastically violent Uyghur-dubbed Rambo IV that played several times back-to-back on the coach’s TV, but nothing could block out the endless drone of this young man’s fervor. The only thing that gave me any kind of solace was a fantasy played out in my head that involving the use of long, sharp knives.
Eventually the Imam of the Bus simmered down, and like the rest of the passengers, fell into a light sleep. I tried to snooze as well, but the cramped quarters made this impossible. The only way to stretch out my legs was to thrust them out into the aisle, but the metal edge of the bed’s frame just cut into the bottom of my calf, creating a whole new annoying pain to reckon with.
The Taklimakan basin is home to China’s state-run petroleum industry. Most of the other vehicles on the road were oil trucks. The few settlements we passed through were all drilling stations: towering metal assemblies lit up by orange orbs; alien permanence among the ever-shifting dunes. The men that work such stations must be deeply acquainted with the dull ache of isolation and loneliness.
After many hours, we stopped at a wind-beaten outpost in the middle of the wasteland. It was a truck stop of sorts. A large building stood defiant against the perpetual onslaught of dust and sand. Inside the building was a small store and dingy restaurant, along with a brothel, glowing hard against the night in white-and-red neon. A dozen or so bored-looking prostitutes lingered on couches in front of the glass storefront. I lit a smoke and watched them, squinting in the grit-filled air. Several of the girls noticed my curiosity and jumped up, revealing slim hips stuffed into hot pants or miniskirts, cleavage, and brown legs. Wobbling in ridiculous platform heels, they rushed to the edge of the glass and hurriedly waved me over. I raised my hand and waved back. They lingered at the window, smiling, and beckoning with grand, arcing gestures. I went to wave again but gave up midway, dropping my arm and releasing my cigarette, which fell onto the dirt. I snuffed out the ember with my foot, turned, and walked away over the parched ground. As I re-boarded the bus, I tried not to think about the thousands of truckers and oil workers that had been in and out of those poor, poor girls.
In July of 2009, less than a year after our visit, Ürümqi was wracked by five days of ethnic rioting. What exactly set it off is up for debate, though many maintain that the unrest was in reaction to the murder of two Uyghurs in the southern city of Shaoguan. Uyghurs in Ürümqi reacted with protests that quickly turned into a rampage, with mobs attacking Han Chinese in the streets; they in turn organized and struck back accordingly, resulting in blood on both sides. Chinese authorities say 197 people were killed and 1,721 injured, though Uyghur exile groups maintain that the death toll is much higher. The crackdown was swift and harsh, with the Uyghurs bearing the brunt of it: Many men were detained and some “disappeared” in the police sweeps that followed.
The rioting seems to have poisoned the climate for Uyghur-Han relations, with things just getting worse since 2009. Recently Uyghur separatist groups staged bloody attacks within China, both inside and out of Xinjiang. In October 2013, a car driven by alleged Uyghur separatists plowed into a crowd at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, bursting into flames and killing five. Thirty-eight people were injured, including foreign tourists. In March 2014, a group of black-clad Uyghur men and women entered a train station in Kunming and attacked bystanders with knives, killing thirty-three and injuring more than a hundred. A month later, a similar attack was launched in Guangzhou, injuring six. In May 2014, two cars packed with explosives plowed through safety barricades and detonated in a busy street market in Ürümqi, killing thirty-one and injuring ninety. And on October 18th, 2014, just two days before I sent the final edit of this book to the publisher, four Uyghur attackers armed with knives and explosives killed eighteen Han Chinese at a farmers’ market near Kashgar.
The situation is clearly deteriorating, which is a shame, since travelers and tourists will avoid Xinjiang out of security concerns. And this is a region that could benefit from more foreign visitors, as both sides could reap the financial rewards that such tourism brings in. I also fear that the Chinese authorities will use the recent attacks as an excuse to further gentrify Xinjiang and suppress Uyghur culture. When we visited Kashgar in 2008, I was told that the entire old town—the real heart of the city—was slated for destruction in the name of Communist Party “progress.” The Chinese are very good at bulldozing, and an agitated Uyghur population may motivate them to do it as quickly and thoroughly as possible. Never underestimate the ability of China to completely accomplish its goals, both those noble and nefarious.
From the outside, China often appears to be this monolithic, rising, unstoppable force that will soon overtake the West. Many people accept this as a given—that it’s China’s turn, that their dominance is inevitable. But traveling inside the country gives you a different perspective. Sure, you can clearly see the outward displays of new wealth and power, and they are impressive. Just how far China has come can be a shock to some visitors. This is most evident in the big cities of the east. But as you move across the country and collect a larger sample, you begin to see cracks in the edifice. You see another China, a paper house held together with the flimsiest of glue. You see a country that may be just one big economic downturn away from coming apart at the seams. It’s a place full of unfathomable inequality and deep unrest, and when you see it firsthand, you understand why the Communist Party insists on keeping things so solidly under the boot. After all, if they let up for a moment, the whole thing could unravel, and then where would they be?