Category: Uncategorized

Riding El Chepe: Part 3

Back on the Train

As the train pulled out of Bahuichivo, memories of the past several days flashed before me: the boozy, musical afternoon in the El Fuerte cantina; the enchanting train ride into the mountains; the close shave with death on the narrow road; the splendid chaos and grandeur of Urique and the canyon it calls home. All of it added up to a heady string of hours, the kind of travel I hadn’t properly tasted for years now.

By my standards this was to be a short trip — just a week — so I was wringing it out for all it was worth. Perhaps the time limitation forced me jump into things head first and do my best to truly live in the moment. What I do know is that most everything that had transpired since I stepped off the bus in Los Mochis only reaffirmed why I do this — why I find this kind of travel so intoxicating. I’ve found few other avenues that come close to charging me with such an electrifying sense of freedom.

El Chepe weaved through the highlands now, a world of pines, small farms, and white rock formations approaching the psychedelic. It was a bright, sun-soaked land of big sky and blooming clouds. Again, I was reminded of the American West, before chiding myself on the worthlessness of such comparisons. The land itself was the same on either side of the border; it will always be indifferent to those very temporary, large lines drawn up by small men. A magnificent stone spire doesn’t give a damn about the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo and it never will.

One of the more thrilling parts of the trip took place when we passed the El Chepe train heading the opposite direction. There are only two trains each day — one heading east from Los Mochis, and one heading west from Chihuahua. The moment the two meet is cause for celebration for the passengers and crew on both sides. I leaned out between two of the cars and cheered, and was met with smiles and fanfare from people on the sister train. It was a very simple, childlike moment of recognition, of saying, Hey, we’re all doing this same thing and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

El Chepe, meet El Chepe

After a couple of hours, the train pulled into the stop known as El Divisadero. This popular viewing and access point sits atop the rim of the canyon and is home to a cluster of luxury hotels, along with a ramshackle track side complex of handicraft and food stalls. One look and whiff had my mouth gushing, despite the fact that I had bought and taken down three excellent tamales during the ride there. I just couldn’t resist the pull of freshly prepared fare offered up by local women from humble little food stands.

Photo by Matt Nager

We were now in Tarahumara Indian country, and all of these women were natives, dressed in colorful shirts, headscarves, and long skirts. The smoky aroma of frying meat hung in the air, underscored by the constant sizzle of the pans. One stall caught my eye, and I soon walked away with two thick flour cakes — gorditas — over which the woman heaped fat little piles of pork cooked up with loads of onions, spices, and red chilli peppers. I spooned on two kinds of salsa and tucked into these juicy, hot, delectable treats, eating just for eating’s sake. The fact that I wasn’t even hungry never entered into it. This was a chance to experience a native take on Mexican street food, and there just was no way I wasn’t getting down.

Afraid that the train would pull away, I hurried back aboard, where I sat for another 15 minutes. El Chepe makes a 20-minute stop at El Divisadero to give passengers a chance to visit the viewpoint that looks out over the expanse of canyon. This fact must have sailed past my ears (or cerebral Spanish comprehension center) when they announced it as we pulled in. I somehow didn’t get the memo and missed out the big photo op and vista, but those gorditas were so damned good that I didn’t care.

A Town with No Bars

I jumped off El Chepe in the town of Creel, which serves as the tourist base camp for the whole Copper Canyon region. It’s full of hotels, restaurants, and companies that book excursions in or around the surrounding canyon land. After a few days in the hinterlands, I felt firmly back in the realm of civilization.

I really had no idea where to stay, so I threw my fate into the hand of a hotel tout who greeted me when I walked off the train. I’ve dealt the touts and hawkers throughout my travels and have learned how to ignore or avoid them accordingly, but sometimes they come in use. If you need a place to stay and guy working with a hotel promises to bring to you a decent place to stay, it’s not always a bad idea to take him up on the offer. Most hotel touts aren’t there to rip you off; they’re just trying to get their cut while hooking up the proprietor with guests.

His name was Oscar, and he led me to a more-than-acceptable hotel for a price that seemed fair. I got a fully-outfitted, clean, warm room (Creel is a high elevation town, and it was late October and cold), and he got his commission. This is what scientists call “win-win.”

I hadn’t hit a proper boozer since El Fuerte, and after talking to my wife and grabbing a couple of quick tacos, I figured that I was overdue for some cantina time. My trip was winding down and I longed for the drunken polka-beat and according squeal of Norteño music washed down with proper Mexican lager.

I asked Oscar about any bars, and he told me there was a joint on the town’s main drag, but numerous trips up and down the strip revealed nothing. Eventually, I came across the place he was presumably talking about, but the lights were off, and a padlocked iron gate stood in front of the door.

Undeterred, I continued my march through the streets of Creel, but my recon proved fruitless. I just couldn’t locate a cantina, and the temperature was dropping. It was now see-your-breath cold, and the only real warm-weather clothes I packed were a padded vest and a long-sleeved thermal shirt. My teeth were chattering and I was assed out from a long day of travel, so I picked up a couple of Tecate tall boys from the shop, trekked back to my hotel room, and sipped cerveza while I read a fantasy novel on my Kindle beneath a positive avalanche of blankets.

*

Most people who’ve haven’t visited Copper Canyon have never heard of Creel, but this all changed August 16th, 2008, when the town became another infamous entry in the tragic history of the Mexican drug war. A heavily armed gang in three SUV’s pulled up to a group of locals as they talked on the street, got out, and opened fire. By the end, 13 people lay dead, including a baby boy. It was cold-blooded killing, straight up.

The next morning I got up, tracked down a decent cup of coffee, and walked around the layout of the town in an attempt to get my bearings. Soon I came across a large compound housing a high school, and behind it, a massive white mural.

What was once an empty lot had been transformed into a simple memorial for the 13 victims. A plaque listed their names, and statue of a woman reaching into the sky with two children at her side, stood on a pedestal up front. But it was the mural itself that delivered the deepest impact. The 13 faces were painted onto the white wall with photographic detail. It seemed to me a simple, yet very effective way to keep their memory alive.

This was as close as I got to seeing any of the drug war violence during my week in the country. It was sobering to take in those faces, knowing that these were just a few of the tens and thousands of people murdered by the sicarios of the cartels. The tendrils of violence had reached all corners of Mexico, though it was the northern states — especially Chihuahua — that had been hardest hit. In fact, just two years later, sleepy Creel would see even more violence, when another cartel gang rolled into town, broke into a home, and slaughtered 9 members of the same family, including their 14-year-old daughter.

Despite the fact that I never once felt unsafe during my whirlwind visit, the killing continues in Mexico, unabated. 2017 has been the worst year yet, with over 18,000 people murdered. That is an insane number to try to wrap your head around, the kind of body count racked up by conventional warfare. When confronted with such grim statistics, it’s no wonder so many tourists are giving the country a skip.

Despite the grimness of my morning pilgrimage, I was determined to see more of the place, so I rented a mountain bike and headed out to explore a nearby Tarahumara settlement and country around it.

The road out of town was thankfully free of traffic. I peddled under a brilliant high country sky with gnarled, layered rises of rock and pine expanses on either side. Clouds floated by like fat sailing ships, and an intermittent breeze sliced through the insulation of my vest, reminding me of the elevation.

It had been years since I’d hopped on the back of a bike and just it felt good to move my body after several days sitting in busses, vans, and trains. Soon I was at the gatehouse for the settlement, and after paying a toll of 25 pesos, I peddled on over the dirt track leading in.

My first stop was the San Ignacio, a 17th-century Jesuit mission with a big white cross carved out of stone in front. A few local women in colorful clothing stood nearby, selling necklaces, bracelets, and little dolls. It was a cool old building, but like temples in Asia, I have a hard time getting excited about churches, so after a quick peek inside I jumped back on the bike headed out, just as a van full of Mexican tourists arrived.

Hongos

I really had no idea what to expect when I rode out to this settlement, other than open space and fresh air. I quickly learned however, that this area was famous for the beautiful and bizarre rock formations that popped up around the landscape. Each one went by the name “valley:” The Valley of the Frogs (Las Ranas), The Valley of the Mushrooms (Los Hongos), The Valley of the Monks (Los Monjes), and my favorite, The Valley of the Titties (Las Chichis). These were impressive and very trippy stands of stone that more than often clearly resembled their namesakes. Taking these in reminded me of my younger days, when I’d head into out into the open country with a few friends, where we’d attempt to enter new realms with the aid of some particular compounds. This piece of land was perfectly designed for such vision quests, a kind of natural psychedelic theme park.

Chichis!

When I left Creel, the clouds appeared fluffy and harmless, but after an hour of peddling through Indian country a much larger, menacing cloud took shape. It began to pelt the area with bursts of frigid rain, which would ease up, and then return with a stubborn intensity.

For a while I took cover in a nook carved out form the rock underneath a great pine. From there I watched the world pass by in what seemed like quarter time. A farmer worked his field, while his two bristly dogs paced the perimeter of his little field and barked my way. A couple of pickups, one packed with what must have been fifteen locals, rolled by, and three women scurried along the road in hopes to get out of the unpredictable precipitation.

The dark cloud refused to blow over. Instead it just parked its stubborn ass over the land and unleashed its wet payload in waves. Sensing a lull, I jumped back on the bike and blazed out in search of a local lake on my crude, hand-drawn map, which I hoped would be out of rain range. After an hour of grinding trail riding, I managed to locate it, only to discover that my back tire was nearly flat.

Once I got the bike back out to the sealed, main road, there was no air left in the tire. It was dead flat, so I had no choice but to push the bike all the way into town. This, however, turned out to be one of the most pleasant legs of this day’s journey. The rain let up, allowing me to savor a walk along an empty road through stunning quiet, stunning country, reminding me that no form of transit beats my own two feet.

As soon as I got back to Creel, turned in my bike, and retired to my room for a late afternoon nap, the cloud — which had been growing in size and darkness for hours now — let loose an icy, thundering deluge that pummelled the town and drenched the landscape. As the drops exploded on the roof of my hotel, I was serenade into an inky, syrupy sleep.

Creel after the rain

Chihuahua

The last leg of the eastbound El Chepe is said to be its least scenic. After Creel, the train descends onto a flat expanse of high plains that offers up little for the eye or camera. As a result, many travelers elect to take the bus instead, which saves both time and money.

I opted for this choice, and after a few hours found myself on the outskirts of Chihuahua City, the financial and political center of Mexico’s largest state. This was to be my last stop before the long slog back to Phoenix.

Chihuahua stretched through this flat range of scrubland with a few little mountains rising stark from the clusters of pink, green, and white buildings that made up the neighborhoods of the town. A couple of high-rises — nods at skyscrapers — poked up from the general sprawl, reminding us that this is a place of commerce — the center of ranching, mining, and agriculture in this vast, rugged part of Mexico blessed with resources galore.

The bus deposited me in a corner of town far from everything, it seemed, but a very friendly taxi driver ferried me into the city center, where I decided to spend the night. Like several Mexicans I met, he had lived in the U.S. for some years, but was now glad to be home.

This is a great misconception that a lot of people from the U.S. have towards our southern neighbors. Because of the flow of immigration, a lot of us assume that most Mexicans are desperate to cross the Rio Grande or the Sonoran Desert in order to make a new life in the great, big, shiny U.S.A. While this may be true for some of the poorest, most Mexicans that I met who have lived in both places actually prefer life south of the border — where things are still more centered around family, friends and a kind of happiness that can’t be found chasing material gain. And despite widespread poverty, Mexico has a very large, thriving middle class — one that, for the most part, is very happy just where it is.

Chihuahua City

As I walked the streets of downtown Chihuahua, I got the sense that the place didn’t draw too many international tourists. Still, I liked it a lot. It had the clean, well-ordered look of a regional capital. Government workers in business attire and lanyards walked down the uncluttered sidewalks, carrying briefcases and paper cups of coffee. The city’s plaza was home to a huge, centuries-old church, while nearby the tricolor of a gargantuan Mexican flag flapped in the high desert breeze from atop a towering pole.

I also noticed scores of young people walking the streets wearing black jeans, band t-shirts, and black leather boots. Some had pink, red, or green dyed streaks in their hair. Many of them sported eyeliner and visible tattoos. As I came around one corner, I saw what most have been a hundred of them lined up at a bank. My only guess was that they were buying concert tickets. What else could explain a snaking afternoon queue of emo kids and goths?

Now I had known for some time that Mexico is home to a sizeable subset of young people into darker music. Bands such as Depeche Mode play sold out soccer stadiums both in Mexico and all over South America. Perhaps this is a nod to their Day of the Dead traditions — who knows — but for some reason this subculture caught fire south of the border, especially among the middle class kids who have the luxury of chasing such trends in fashion and music. I had always been curious about this phenomenon, and it was interesting to see a gathering of this scene’s adherents up close.

Northern Mexico is serious cowboy country, and downtown Chihuahua is the place for all of your vaquero outfitting needs. I came across three city blocks packed with stores selling hats, boots, shirts, chaps, even saddle and tack. It was like cowboy Costco, with ranchero music blaring out from each shop.

I needed a room for the night, and while I thought about splurging for something nice, I realized that I would probably be spending very little actual non-sleeping time there. In the end settled for a bare-bones $20 affair that looked like a very good place to bring a hooker of the same price.

The only mistress I’d be meeting that evening was one so familiar to me: beer. So, I located the bar closest to my hovel and walked through the door.

It was called El Tradicional Cocina/Cantina, and while I found it more than sufficient, the only thing “traditional” about the place was its name. It was a kind of shrine American sports; the walls were completely decked out in pics and memorabilia from MLB, NFL, and NBA. The clientele was mainly middle-class, educated guys who worked for the government, and spoke decent English. I stayed there for several hours, watching football and baseball at same time on two separate TV’s, chatting with the friendly locals, while washing down the evening with bottles of Indio beer and a couple, well places shots of Don Julio, which I sipped, of course.

After a late-night meal of tacos al pastor straight off the kabob rotisserie (tacos as we know them are said to come from Syrian immigrants to northern Mexico), I decided to get one, final nightcap. As I wandered the streets of the city center, I heard music flowing up from a side street. A young man sat playing guitar and singing in front of a small restaurant/bar. A number of tables were set up outside, with customers drinking and listening to the tunes. I pulled up a chair and soaked it in, happy to spend my last night in Mexico as I had my first.

As I sipped my beer and basked in the overwhelming romance of it all, I noticed young woman waving me over to her table, where she sat with two male friends.

I joined them an immediately bought a round of beers, for which they were grateful. From one look I could tell that they were twenty-something bohemians and probably light in the wallet. I know, as I had lived it.

I was right, the girl’s name was Rubi, and she was an aspiring theater actress.

“You looked so miserable, over there, alone,” she said, in fluent English.

“I’m actually very happy,” I said, smiling. “It’s been a hell of a trip.”

Her friends were Adan and Ivan. Adan was a musician, while Ivan, resplendent in his long black hair and Che Guevara beard, was a painter.

Rubi had lived in the USA, but it wasn’t a great experience.

“Where were you?” I asked

“Oklahoma. For two years.”

“Oh, dear.”

“Yeah, it was terrible. Every day the racist kids at my high school called me ‘wetback’ and ‘spic.’

It crushed my heart to hear this, especially after the kindness and beauty of spirit shown to me by her countrymen. All I could do was apologize for her mistreatment by my fellow “Americans.”

Pendejos,” I spat. “Lo siento.”

I tried to assure them that her view of the States may change if she were to visit a more enlightened pocket of the country. But who knows? The ascendance of Trump has brought out this nasty hairball of anti-Mexican bigotry all throughout the country. Could I guarantee that she would be immune from such abuse in so-called liberal enclaves as San Francisco or Seattle?

What I can say is that the three of them were very happy to hear of my adventure, especially the fact that I was ending it in their city. As the music reverberated along the walls of the alley, Rubi said:

“You say you are a writer? Then write about this. Tell people about Chihuahua. Tell them how lovely it is. And, please, tell them to come.”

What could I do, but smile, nod, and order another round?

Chihuahua at sunset
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Riding El Chepe: Part 2

Into the Canyon

I jumped off of El Chepe at the town of Bahuichivo — a picturesque hamlet nestled among the mountain pines — and immediately came across three white women carrying big packs. They had been in my train car, and from the sound of their language, I pinpointed them as Dutch. Years of meeting travelers in Southeast Asia had attuned my ear when it came to picking out accents and languages, and Dutch was one of those that I just knew right away.

There were also heading to Urique, so we boarded the dusty white minivan going there and rolled out of town. Our driver was a thin young guy with a soccer player’s fauxhawk and thick eyebrows that threatened to meet in the middle. He immediately slammed the gas and began screaming down a narrow road replete with cracks, ruts, and potholes — not to mention dogs, cows, and chickens aplenty. Two of the Dutch women (one blond, one dark-haired) immediately piped up with calls for him to slow down: “¡Tranquilo! ¡Tranquilo!” they cried. The one in the dark hair then went on to explain in emphatic Spanish, that she had been in a car wreck just a couple of months before due to speeding. Laughing nervously, our driver smiled, nodded, and just barely let off the gas.

We soon pulled off into a kind of mountain depot with a couple of school busses parked outside. This is a common sight in Mexico, since they routinely buy old American school busses and reuse them for public transportation. A dozen or so locals milled about in front, while a tough-looking woman in jeans and a ponytail (who had been riding shotgun with us) got out, slid open the passenger door, and informed us in military-sounding Spanish that we’d now be transferring to a very shitty looking school bus sitting next to the van. The thing was covered in dirt and grime and most every window had at least one major crack. We could see a number of locals sitting inside its dark cavity.

Now all of us had agreed to pay 230 pesos (around $15) for the two-hour ride, which, while not exactly a king’s ransom, wasn’t exactly a bargain, either. We knew we were being charged the “gringo price,” which didn’t bother me so much, as I think double-tiered pricing in parts of the world where people are seriously poor is just fine. What bothered me — and the Dutch trio — was that they were changing up vehicles on us. We were initially led to believe we’d get to ride to Urique in a private van, but now we were being foisted off onto a filthy bus that looked like it was held together with glue and baling wire. And we hadn’t even seen the inside. Though two of the Dutch women spoke good Spanish, I nominated myself to make a stand.

I jumped out of the van and located the woman in charge.

“If you are… changing vehicles…” I sputtered… “then… you have to change the price.”

“No, no. Everyone pays the same price.”

“But we paid for the van. Not this old bus.”

“You are taking the bus.”

“But it is not fair. “

“230 pesos is the price. Or you can walk.”

She had us by the collective ballbag and had no choice but admit defeat. Before we knew it they were tossing our bags from the roof of the van into the bowels of the jalopy. We soon followed, slinking onto the crowded little school bus and squeezing into our seats, where we took our hosing in grim silence.

Not only did the passengers change vehicles, but so did the driver. The Dutch women groaned as our fauxhawked speed demon sat down at the controls. They understood clearly that he was about to navigate us down the narrowest of roads that descended into a very deep hole in the earth, a place where one miscalculation would mean the death of us all.

Damian, our driver, the “Angel of Death.”

The bus was now filled to capacity, with four foreigners and local folks of all ages and sizes. We found this out very clearly just before departure, when a young woman lumbered on board with her daughter, who must have been about five years old. At this point there were no seats left, so she and her little girl were forced to stand as the old bus herked and jerked out of the depot and onto the main road.

I felt sorry for this woman and for a moment I was seized with the impulse to surrender my seat, but one good look at her mammoth ass quickly disabused me of such a notion. Her ass was so big that it nearly managed to touch edges of the seats on either side of the aisle. To top it off, she had it squeezed into a pair of short shorts which did little to contain the cascade of blubber. The ass fat just fell out of the bottom, huge slabs of cheek being called the ground by the brutal bitch named “gravity.” Feeling the eyes of the bus drawn to her beef flanks, she kept trying to pull down the tiny strips of denim in a futile attempt at modesty, but they were invariably pulled back up while that ass just made a run for her feet. There was simply no way she was going to fit into just one seat. I tried to avert my eyes, but each jostle of the bus shook her cheese in tectonic waves, and I just couldn’t help but stare.

Luckily, our creaky bus pulled into another improvised station just 20 minutes down the road. Much to my relief, the woman and her daughter exited the vehicle, though I’m sure some of the local boys were more than happy to have such an addition to the area’s landscape.

We soon pulled off the main road onto a very rough gravel track which brought us out along the top of the Urique Canyon. It was gorgeous country. The river carved out its path over millions of years, revealing golden and red rock toward that rose from the verdant valley in sheer magnificence. The sky was a brilliant blue, with blossoms of white and purplish clouds hovering just over the spires. Far below we could see the silvery brown thread of river snaking through the bed of the canyon, with the settlement of Urique splayed out as a motley assortment of colorful buildings. It was the kind of scenery that punches you in the chest; all I could do was gasp in a kind of blissful disbelief.

But the savoring of the canyon’s grandeur was interrupted by our maniacal driver, who blasted the bus along the tiny gravel track a rate that made our hearts sprint. With each jerk forward and hard corner we left claw marks in the seats in front of us.. The dark haired Dutchie (Katja) who sat across from me was especially horrified, having just recently survived a crash. Along with Jessica (the blond), she again protested, admonishing the driver to slow down. “We don’t want to die!” they shouted. “We don’t want to die!”

And “die” is exactly what would happen. This particular route was blasted out of the face of the cliff, with sheer drop-offs of thousands of feet at the road’s edge. This left zero room for error, yet our driver lurched and careened as if there was no danger in the world.

We were offered a respite when we turned off and stopped at the mirador, a large viewpoint with metal platforms bolted onto the lip of the cliff. This installation offered vistas of the whole valley, opening up the wide expanse of canyon for all of us to take in. We took turns snapping photos and breathed in the pure air before once again boarding our rolling tube of death.

Urique from above

As we began to drop back into the canyon, I noticed that our driver was having trouble with the gears. He was grinding them pretty hard, and a one point he just stopped for a while and revved the engine in neutral, as if he had lost the gear altogether. I took advantage of the pause in horror to retrieve a small bottle of Jameson that I had stashed in my pack. I immediately unscrewed the cap and took a few hot swigs to dull the sharp edge of fear slicing my guts. I was straight-up afraid of dying in a Mexican bus plunge.

After more revving and clashing metal he found his gear and we throttled forward once more, only now the bus picked up even more speed. His driving became extra-erratic, lurching and weaving within inches of the road’s killer edge.

The locals rode in seemingly unconcerned silence, while the four of us looked on with faces drained of blood. I was seriously pondering the possibility that this may be it, that at any moment we were going over. After all, we read about deadly mountain bus plunges all the time. Who was to say that I couldn’t go out that way, in a crushing tumble of glass, rock, metal, and blood?

I had been on these hell rides before — on a crowded Vietnam highway, in a minivan in Sumatra, on the Karakorum Highway in far western China — and each time had come face to face with real, cold sweat fear. Here I was again. I thought of a passage from Paul Theroux’s “Riding the Iron Rooster,” where his own terrible driver crashes the car while heading balls-to-the-wall to Tibet:

“It infuriated me that this had happened on a dry road, under clear skies, so early in the trip. Now we were stuck, and it was because of the incompetence of Mr. Fu. He had been driving too fast. But it was also my own fault for having said nothing. “

Inspired by Theroux, I resolved to raise my voice, but Jessica beat me to it. She had had her fill. She shot up the aisle of the heaving vehicle and shouted, in very demanding Spanish, “What part of ‘slow’ do you not understand? Are you crazy?? Do you want to die???” Our driver grimaced, and the two of them continues with a short, hurried conversation.

Jessica turned back towards us and announced in loud English, “THE BUS IS BROKEN. HE SAYS HE CANNOT USE THE LOW GEAR. IT’S NOT SAFE FOR ANY OF US.” Switching back to Spanish, she shouted “Stop! Open the door! I’m not riding on this bus any longer.”

Abashed, the driver obeyed and brought the bus to a halt. She wrote down his number so she could later track down her bags, and motioned to her two companions, who got up and walked down the narrow aisle in solidarity.

For a moment I froze. After all, I had supported their attempts to get this driver to slow down. For me, the most nerve-wracking aspect of traveling in less-developed countries is the stupidly aggressive way that so many people drive. I hate it. The fact that these women weren’t putting up with it made them heroes in my eyes. On the other hand, we were on a mountainside somewhere in… Mexico. Could we just jump off this bus and expect everything to turn out okay?

Of course we could.

I grabbed my light pack and joined their walk out.

As the bus rolled away, we were left with nothing but the rocks, earth, wind, and clouds. I was decked out in my new light hikers that I had picked up for this trip, but the women were in flimsy little flip-flops and totally unprepared for a long slog down a road with jagged rocks jutting forth like so many crude arrowheads.

We were probably about halfway down the mountain. We could clearly see Urique below us, with the road making countless switchbacks in its seemingly never ending descent. Any way you cut it we had a long way down.

As we walked (with a lot of sliding and stumbling on their part), I learned their story. Jessica and Katja were doctors. They had been working at a hospital in Mexico’s southernmost (and poorest) state of Chiapas. Sylvia, Jessica’s sister, was a mother of three back in the Netherlands and had flown into Tijuana for a visit. They had spent several days travelling in Baja, before taking the ferry across the gulf to Los Mochis, where they jumped on El Chepe. They planned to continue on to Chihuahua City before heading back to Chiapas, and Europe, respectively. They were enjoying bit of girls’ adventure, only now with a random American man thrown in.

The Dutch trio.

We hiked down the road into the wide embrace of the canyon, marvelling at the rocks and the sky, which took on a supernatural look. A bruised cloud unleashed a streak of rain onto a nearby mountaintop, with the low rumble of thunder confirming its presence. It seemed to be wafting our way, but we managed to stay dry on our side of the canyon.

“So what’s it like working at a hospital in Chiapas?” I asked. A large hawk circled overhead.

“It’s a Catholic hospital,” Jessica said.

“Run by nuns,” remarked Katja.

This caught my attention. “Nuns?”

“Yes, but we think they’re actually brujas,” Katja replied, using the Spanish word for “witches.”

“That’s right,” said Jessica, laughing. “We’re crazy bitches who work for witches!”

After about an hour on the road we heard the sound of a vehicle crunching on the loose rock behind us. Jessica and Katja waved it down and soon we joined two local dudes sitting in the back of the black pickup. We rode in the rocking bed for about five minutes, until we spied another vehicle heading up the road towards us. It was a red jeep, piloted by none other the driver of our bus. He had been sent to retrieve us.

The four of us jumped down from the back of the black pickup and poured into the jeep. “¡Tranquilo!” admonished the women. “¡Tranquilo!” Our driver, Damian, was all now all smiles, as if the incident on the mountainside was all forgotten. He pulled a very careful three point turn and, to our relief, delivered us into Urique at a speed that could only be described as geriatric.

Urique

It was around five o’clock on a Sunday evening and the whole town was drunk. As Damian rolled through its streets, we were greeted by red-eyed, swaying men gulping down red and silver cans of Tecate. Music blasted from doorways, balconies, and the few vehicles putting along. People shouted to us as we passed by. From the look of things, it seemed like we were catching the tail end of Urique’s all-weekend bender.

The town itself was made up of about three main roads and a minor maze of side streets. The houses and buildings were all just one or two stories, while a handful of tall trees provided shade from the punishing canyon sun. Urique was originally founded as a mining center, but now relied on tourism and local agriculture, not to mention the drug money that was surely circulating through. Damian made sure to point to a few of the “mafia properties” to me, which included the biggest house in town and an empty motel with a few hard-looking men sitting in the parking lot next to a couple of menacing, black SUV’s.

The Urique River gurgled past, penned in by expansive rock fields on either side. Like most deep canyon streams, the silty water resembled a heaving, rolling channel of chocolate milk. A pedestrian footbridge made from cables, chain-link, and wooden slats spanned the river, delivering crossers to a collection of humble houses across the way, as well as the town’s baseball diamond.

After driving in circles for the better part of thirty minutes in what I supposed was an attempt to introduce us to the town, Damian brought us to our guesthouse, a wide compound of traditional stone outbuildings called “Entre Amigos.” The Dutch trio took a private room, while I opted for a bed in the dormitory lodging, which, to my luck, was empty of guests.

We were, in fact, the only people there. Aside from the couple of backpackers I’d seen at my place in El Fuerte — as well s the American senior citizen tour group at the train depot — I hadn’t come across any other non-Mexican tourists during my admittedly short time on the road. Foreigners just weren’t making the trip and I was absolutely sure this was due to the drug violence that continues to plague northern Mexico. While everything I’d heard and read assured me that — as bad as things may be — tourists are almost never targeted, the bloodshed was enough to keep people away, and Urique was feeling it firsthand.

Still, I was glad to have a private room for the price of dorm.

The two nights and days I spent in Urique were hallucinatory. I could wax for pages, but in the interest time, it’s best to boil it down to just a few snapshots:

*The food at Restaurante Plaza, where Dona Tita offered up down home fare that scratched a deep itch. Each meal was a massive plate of rice, beans, chili-pepper fried meat or slabs of fish, served up with lettuce, avocado, salsa, and flour tortillas. It was the food of the home, of the family. She was a woman in her 60’s and respected throughout the town. She kept a cat that, every night, slept on a shelf over a portrait of her late husband. She told me that the cat never much cared for her husband when he was alive, but now honored his memory. “Animals, know these things,” she said.

  • Endlessly cruising the circuit of the town with Damian while the weekend’s party staggered to its conclusion. Over the course of the evening I bought several six packs of Tecate at the walk-up open air beer mart and shared them with him and anyone else who needed a one (which turned out to be a lot). They sold the cans in plastic bags that include a scoopful of ice. Damian cranked the Mexi-music as he drank and drove at around the town at 5 mph, introducing me to el patron (his boss), his very pretty wife and son, as well as a long chain of friends and relatives, including his cousin — an M-16 wielding cop who gave me a handshake and Damian a couple of smokes.
  • Hiking up the canyon along the dirt road skirting the river in the press of the afternoon heat. After an hour I was forced to turn back, dizzy from the early signs of heat exhaustion. I revived myself by plunging into the cheap, algae-choked above-ground swimming pool of the Entre Amigos compound, which was also home to actual, live fish.
  • Sipping an ice-cold Dos Equis in the shaded courtyard of the guest house while the compound’s cat lounged nearby.
  • Bisecting a nasty-looking black scorpion as I whapped it off the side of the candlelit bathroom/shower outbuilding wall with a broom handle. I didn’t want to kill the thing, but its presence in such a intimate space was just too much too bear.

Urique was a charming vortex, and I regret that I didn’t have more time to spend there, to do a proper canyon hike, or even a horseback trip. This was driven home as we boarded the white minivan for the trip back up to the canyon rim to the train stop at Bahiuchivo. El patron (Damian’s boss who seemed to owm all of the vehicles that got us to and around town) implored us to come back and see and do more, and to also tell our friends to come — that Urique was actually a safe destination.

This was the overriding mantra I heard during my week in northern Mexico: Tell people to come. It’s good here. Really.

Heading back to El Chepe at sane speeds. Gracias, Damian.

Riding El Chepe: Part 1

Riding El Chepe: Part 1

Already There

I was still in Phoenix, but it felt like Mexico. As I sat in the one-room bus station in that sprawl of a town, I was surrounded by a flurry of travelers chatting in lilting Spanish. All the posters were in Spanish, as were the handwritten paper signs clinging to the greasy glass with Scotch tape. I had even mustered my best Spanish when I purchased my ticket: “Un boleto para Los Mochis, por favor.” The girl behind the window humored me for few sentences until I hit a snag in comprehension. Sensing my confusion, she switched to flawless, unaccented English, which caused my face to heat up and redden like a tomato. I’d made a pretty good stab at it, but I hadn’t regularly spoken the language for nearly fifteen years. My tongue had atrophied. The only way to give it life would be to speak the damned thing, which, judging from my first go, was going to be a messy endeavor.

I was the only guero in the room, but people paid me no mind. In fact, as far as bus stations went, it wasn’t so bad. It was well-lit and clean-ish. It didn’t reek, and it certainly had any Greyhound terminal beat. There was none of the drug-soaked detritus that so often washes up at such a place. No junkies, no crackheads, no tweakers — no sketch cases nodding, scratching, or twitching about. The people in and outside of this station were honest folks on their way back home. They were happy to be on the move and it showed in their loose shoulders and broad, uneven smiles.

It was a Friday night and the place was abuzz with kids, grandparents, men, and fleshy women in jeans that often threatened to burst. An old man approached. He wore a checkered shirt, tan chinos, and the white cowboy hat ubiquitous to northern Mexico. He sported a mustache and was traveling with a dark, diminutive woman. She gave me a shy, sugary smile as the two of them squeezed past to take a seat on one of the faux-stainless steel chairs bolted to the bench frame next to me. I eavesdropped as she talked over her phone to her who I gathered to be her daughter, picking up bits and pieces of the conversation. She was obviously thrilled for the upcoming reunion somewhere south of the line.

I was hungry and I had some time to kill, so I got up and wandered in the dark around the side of the building and through the parking lot to a food truck parked across the way. A line of multi-colored Christmas lights blinked from the edge of a canopy that was attached to the truck. Beneath was a collection of red plastic tables, at which sat a smattering of men and a few women taking down their food from white, disposable plates. I took a seat of my own, ordered, and was soon tucking into three tacos al pastor washed down with the long-necked glory that is a bottle of Mexican Coke. As I savored this exquisite little meal, I took in the overcooked action of the telenovela flashing on the TV screen above and was soon filled with a warm bloom of pure happiness. Sure I had yet to cross the border, but this was already the Mexico I was seeking — colorful, humble, and absolutely delicious.

Why Mexico? Why not just continues to chill poolside at brother’s place in Phoenix? Certainly that would have been easier, cheaper, and — at least according to news reports — safer. While I did enjoy a few terrific days with my family, they were now getting back to their routines of life and work. I still had a week free and was just a couple of hours from another country — an intriguing, tragic, and brilliant place that continued to pull me like magnetic ore. How could I not go?

The fact is Mexico had been calling me for a long time. Aside from a few short visits years before to a couple of towns near the border, I had seen almost nothing of the place, despite the fact that it had long been an object of my fascination. After moving to Korea I got to explore much of Asia, but Mexico and greater Latin America had managed to stay out of reach, if for no other reason than that they just were so far away. Sure, I’d been back to the States every couple of years, but adding a second country to the itinerary of a trip back home had always seemed like a theft of precious time.

This time, however, I resolved myself to go. This compulsion to taste a deeper version of Mexico had steeped in my bones for years now, through the books I’d read, the music I’d listened to, and the food I’d cooked in my little kitchen back in Busan. Hell, I’d even started making my own corn tortillas. So when my bus finally pulled up, I boarded it with the enthusiasm of an astronaut about to blast into space. Screw it. I was going to Mexico, cabrón.

El Fuerte

We crossed the border at Nogales around 2 A.M., and despite a half-assed inspection of our bags (presumably for American guns heading south), they waved us through without even glancing at our passports. After that the bus shot straight down the east coast of Sea of Cortez, through the towns of Hermosillo, Guaymas, Cuidad Obregon, and Navajoa, before pulling into Los Mochis, which lies at the northern end of the notorious narco-infested state of Sinaloa. I hopped off, grabbed a taxi downtown, and boarded a local bus to take me up into the countryside. Two hours later we pulled into my first destination of the trip: El Fuerte. It had taken me nearly eighteen hours to get there, but I was immediately glad I had come.

Towns in Mexico can be uninspiring places of utility and commerce, or seductive, multi-hued historical jewels. El Fuerte could confidently claim place in the latter camp. It was a colonial town built around a wide plaza and stone church whose steeple towered above the aging settlement. The streets were also made of stone and the buildings painted in shades of lime green, ochre, crimson, and sky blue. The afternoon sun blasted down in vivid slats, while palm trees and overhanging roofs gave ample shade in which big dogs lazed. As I strolled through the town’s streets, I couldn’t help but notice a dignified shabbiness surrounding me: the sidewalks and doorways and walls were all slightly cracked and crumbling. Nothing was too shiny or overly done-up. This was no museum piece, but rather a very lived-in town with its own story to tell. El Fuerte was a beautiful place that made no efforts to obscure the patina of age. This honesty only served to enhance its charms.

El Fuerte side street

I checked into the Hotel Guerrero, which offered up basic rooms in a courtyard colonial style. After showering off a day’s worth of road grime, I locked the room’s gargantuan metal door that just may have come from a jail (very reassuring) and made my way out into the common area. A tall white woman in bright hippie pants stood with her nose buried in a French edition of the Lonely Planet. This came as no surprise, as I was at the northern end of the Gringo Trail (the Latin American backpackers’ circuit), but I still had to momentarily get my bearings. For just that second, I could have been in a guesthouse in Vietnam, Thailand, or Laos.

Once again confident that I wasn’t in Banana Pancake Land, I headed out the gates of the compound in search of some grub. This was a daunting task, since the town was bursting with cheap, drool-inducing choices. After nearly pulling the trigger at a ceviche stand, I settled on a stall offering up tacos at the street market just across from my humble hotel. Why reinvent the wheel? When I go to Bangkok, my first meal is usually a plate of pad Thai. The taco, to me, is the very definition of Mexico. What better way slide back into the country?

So I sat my ass down and ordered up three tacos de carnitas. A young guy manned the grill in front of us, which hissed and sizzled under a mountain of finely chopped pork. He loaded up six corn tortillas (doubled up, street style) with the steaming meat and topped them off with a generous layer of grilled onions, which was a taco first for me. I, in turn, slathered them in their homemade red and green salsa, added a few pinches of fresh, fragrant cilantro, and dug in.

The pork was succulent and the grilled onions added a burnt sweetness that just added to the melody of flavors. These tacos were even better than I expected. I groaned with each bite. I saw fireworks. I wanted to weep. The two guys eating next to me looked up from their own little plates of heaven, nodded, and smiled.

Now that I had some food in my belly, the next order of business was ice cold beer, which, to my luck, Mexico happens to do quite well. During my previous visits to the country I had passed a lot of time sipping cervezas in shabby little bars with boozy Norteño polkas blaring at volumes unacceptable and I was determined to replicate the experience. So I jumped off the stool and began a quest for a cantina.

My wish was granted just a few doors down. I came across a white doorway with the word “BAR” painted in unadorned letters above. Accordion music accompanied by bravado vocals blasted forth, and I girded myself for entry.

Now entering unknown bars in foreign countries (not to mention small towns back home) can be an intimidating experience. Mexico is no exception, especially when you’re alone. To top things off, this bar, like most in the region, had no windows out front through which I could peek in and make the call whether or not to enter. But I was determined to have that beer, so I sucked in a lungful of hot, Sinaloa air and made the plunge.

The bar was a boxy, one-room affair, windowless and brightly lit by sickly radiating fluorescents. About ten men sat a few tables, all of whom sported white cowboy hats. My eyes darted from table to table as I walked towards the bar itself, but aside from a couple of glances, most of the old boys paid me no mind. Once I made it across the room, I greeted the bartender.

“Buenas tardes.”

“Buenas tardes,” he returned, wiping his hands on a bar towel.

I ordered a single can of Tecate, paid, and retired to a small table against the bare concrete wall. The beer was arctic and gave new life to my dry throat. I took down half the can in two swallows.

There were several televisions bolted to the walls overhead. Companionless and still feeling squirrely, I glanced up at a TV in the far corner, expecting to see footage of a soccer game or a talk show. I was instead greeted by the moving image of a naked black guy (with a rod like a coffee table leg) giving a white woman a hard backdoor delivery. He drilled the hell out her while she gasped in pain or pleasure or perhaps a mixture of both. As I checked out the other TVs in the bar, I saw that they too were broadcasting the same slamming anal action. A few of the men seated across from me glanced up at the screens, while most of the other sipped theirs beer and chatted with a studied nonchalance.

While I don’t’ consider myself a prude, a bar blasting hardcore porn from its monitors isn’t the kind of place I prone to relax in, regardless of the country. I was already feeling self-conscious enough, so, I drained the remnants of the can, thanked the barman, and made a beeline for outside.

I wandered in search of a less penetrative experience, and soon found myself outside another joint with festive music pumping. This was a larger place with a much more palpable energy afoot. I could just glimpse people up and moving inside, so I leaned into the swinging doors and crossed the threshold.

To my great pleasure. I saw that the music pouring forth was being played live by proper little Norteño band — bass, guitar, and accordion. Again, the clientele was primarily the white cowboy hat brigade, with a few women sprinkled in. The one TV in the room was playing an actual soccer game, so I knew right away that I had come to the right place.

I ordered a large bottle of Tecate (served in a mini bucket of ice) and nestled myself at a small table in the middle of the room, where I soaked in the splendor of local music played masterfully by a local band. Soon, a silver-haired old vaquero ascended the stage and joined the trio as a singer. His soaring vocals glided over the tight notes and rhythms of the combo, reaching points both mournful and joyous — often at the same time.

The music washed over me as I took down the sweet Tecate from the tiny plastic cup accompanying the bottle. My head bobbed and my body began to sway as I melted into the chair, and soon I felt the eyes of the room warming to me. They seemed to get that I was appreciating their thing, that my love for the music and surroundings was genuine.

My sweet spot.

One guy in particular kept looking my way and waving. He was an emaciated old dude with a pair of jeans cinched up with a frayed piece of rope. His deep lined face was a roadmap of the ravages of booze. I braced for the worst as he staggered my way. Years in Korea had taught me that being a foreigner all too often makes me a magnet for the worst drunk in the room. Why shouldn’t this translate to Mexico?

Once he reached my table, the teetering old borracho held out his bony, calloused hand. As I gripped it, I looked into his foggy eyes, where I saw no malice. Just two tables over a big man shook his head, as if to say, “That guy is bad news,” but for the moment I was cornered.

The skinny dude now addressed me in a slurred waterfall of words that I had no hope of understanding. I just smiled and concentrated my energy upon the stage, hoping he’d lose interest and just leave me be. Swaying above me, my new amigo struggled to retrieve a pack of cigarettes from his front pocket. Despite his state of hyper-inebriation, he managed to fish out three and deposit them on the table as a gift. He then pointed to the door, brought his hands up next to his head in a pantomime of sleep, and weaved his way out of the bar.

The band finished its set and I got another beer. As I walked back to my seat, I was greeted by a man at a neighboring table.

“Are you alone?” he asked. “Come sit with us.”

His name was Luis. He was a big-bellied man in his mid-40’s. He told me that he was recently divorced, so he was now free to spend his Saturdays boozing it up without getting nagged. His companion must have been north of 70 — another aged bag of bones beneath a white cowboy hat. Soon a much younger long-haired dude pulled up a chair, completing the quartet. Luis ordered more beer from a rather flamboyant waiter who walked with what could only be described as a pronounced sashay.

“He is a maricon,” remarked Luis. “Un joto.” He had managed to casually employ two pejoratives for “homosexual” in just one breath. His two companions nodded in silence, as if to confirm an unmovable truth.

Some patrons whistled as the waiter swished by. More than one grabbed his ass.

“Is this a problem around here?” I asked.

“No, he’s fine here, “the young guy answered. “Everyone knows him. He can do what he wants. It’s no problem.”

Soon the band retook the stage, thankfully delaying any more discussion of homosexuality in small town Mexico. Luis and I traded rounds of Tecate, dissolving ourselves into the endless stream of traditional tunes. What is it about this kind of music that goes so well with drinking? It’s the perfect soundtrack to throwing it back. Music for drunks, made by drunks…

The music and beer flowed on, melting the hours into one moving mass. It was an afternoon and evening of pure magic — exactly what I was after — but by 9 o’clock I’d hit the wall. After I stood up from the table, said my goodbyes, I stumbled back to the Guerrero, where I called my wife to let her know that I was, indeed, very much alive.

El Chepe

El Chepe is the nickname for the Chihuahua-Pacific Railway, a 637 kilometer line that links the city of Chihuahua with the port of Topolobambo on the Sea of Cortez. For much of its span, it climbs and runs through rugged mountain terrain that’s home to Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon), a system of river gorges offering up some of the best scenery in North America. The railway serves as a vital transportation link for locals, as well as a spectacular ride for tourists such as me.

The train was a good 30 minutes late, but eventually the big diesel beast rumbled into a view and came to a stop at the forlorn little station on the plain outside of El Fuerte. People grabbed their bags and made their way to the tracks as the line of cars squeaked and groaned into place. El Chepe generally runs just one train a day each way, so this was our only chance to jump aboard.

A couple of conductors disembarked and helped direct passengers to the appropriate cars, since none of us had actual tickets. You just told them your destination and they responded with a car number. I had done some research and decided that second class was my best option, since the only advantage to first class seemed to be the availability of a wildly overpriced dining car. I had eaten a fantastically good breakfast of birria del chivo (spicy goat stew) at a street stall back into town, so I was set for food. Second class was said to offer roomy seats and relative comfort, without any other amenities, for a solid one third cheaper than the cars in the front. And even better: by purchasing second class, I avoided the busload of American retirees that poured into one of the front cars from a massive tour bus. While I applaud every one of them for making the trip, travelling with a posse of Yankee silver hairs was the last thing I wanted to do.

Upon boarding, my suspicions were confirmed. My car — the last one in the train — was at best half full. I had my whole row to myself. It was clean and spacious with a seat that leaned back to near bed level. While a visibly drunk dude who I had chatted with on the platform immediately fell into a boozy, snoring sleep, the rest of us were wide awake and excited, as a ride on El Chepe is not something you want to snooze through.

The train clanked and jerked as the engine made its way up the long shot of track towards the hills rising in the distance. A conductor walked down the aisle and collected cash based on our final destination. Mine was the town of Bahuichivo, some four hours up the line. From there I planned to hop onto a local bus and head down into the depths of the canyon to the town of Urique, which, from the cursory research I’d done online, was said to be quite a treat.

But I didn’t know. I certainly had no guidebook to continually consult, as I’d made the decision to give up the Lonely Planet some years ago. I like to pack light, and the Lonely Planet is a bulky item. This is why I was amazed to see the hippy-pantsed French woman referencing it just one day before. It just seemed like such unnecessary weight in this age of instant wifi gratification. Do people still need to cart around a three-pound book whose information is invariably inaccurate and out-of-date?

Just an hour into the journey, El Chepe began to climb up into the mountains, and immediately I understood the particular pull of this journey. The plains we had trundled across gave way to rocky shoulders, which in turn became sheer walls. As I sat in my seat, working a crossword, I noticed a few of my fellow passengers shuffling past to the back end of the car. Curious, I got up and followed them.

Two restrooms occupied the left and right ends of the car, with a door in between that led to the outside. I followed a young Mexican couple to that final door, and was somewhat surprised when it opened up. Upon passing through, I realized that this train had no caboose. Our car was indeed the last in line, with just a bit of iron railing between us and the track moving beneath our feet.

El Chepe was by no means a fast train. It pressed forth in a meaningful chug, a determined pull forward with nary a hint of haste. In a way it was perfectly Mexican means of transport — tough, determined, but never in a mad rush.

There was no better place than the actual outside of the train. I leaned over the railing to snap phone shots of the ever-stretching track behind me. The sun doused the scrubby landscape in a hard wash, with a few quilted clouds hanging back as a kind of cottony protection. As the warm air blew across my face, I knew I was living a moment sublime. The rush of the earth and air pierced straight to my spine, and I was immediately high on the fumes of big country.

El Chepe snaked up into the knobby hills, over bridges and tunnels one after another. At one point we trucked over a sizeable river pouring through a broad sandy basin down onto the plain, the mouth of the canyon land that is the trip’s main draw. As the train climbed higher, the vegetation transformed from scrub to pine and I could feel the subcutaneous pinprick of the cooling mountain air. Soon I was yawning to pop my ears in an attempt to equalize to the higher elevation, where the lay of the land was suddenly much more eastern Oregon than southern Arizona. The cacti and sand were gone, replaced by green conifers and thumbs of white rock.

As I leaned into the sweet mountain air, I looked to the Mexican couple, both of whom continually snapped away on pricey-looking Japanese cameras. My mouth opened, but my Spanish was far too weak to describe my feelings. I would need deep superlatives, but came up short. Even English did no justice, but still, I tilted out into the wind and exhaled, “Isn’t it wonderful?”

Into the Wild West: Part 3

donkey-man

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.

Shipton’s Arch.

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.

Donkeyland

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.”

“What?”

“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.

“See what?”

“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.

 

Epilogue

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?

Into the Wild West: Part 2

kyrgyz-yurts1

The Olympic Spirit Comes to Kashgar

“The security forces are here,” whispered Hamish. “They’re on every street corner. You can fuckin’ well guarantae it. You just have to know how to spot them.”

As his name suggests, Hamish was Scottish, and spoke with a heavy brogue. He sipped from a can of Coke while he fiddled with a small, expensive-looking video camera.

“I thought this place would be in lockdown,” I said, “after what happened.”

“Not with the Olympics on, mate. The whole world is watching China right now, and you can bet they’ll put their best face forward. Any real reprisals will have to wait until the glare of the spotlight has been removed. Once everyone’s packed up the cameras and gone home—that’s when the heads will roll. But I’m not gaein’ anywhere. I’m stayin’ right here.” He gave his own camera a little shake, for effect.

We were in the town of Kashgar, sitting at the courtyard café of the Chini Bagh Hotel—the gathering place for the smattering of Kashgar’s tourists and expats—as well as our headquarters for the next few days. The massive compound occupied the grounds of the former British Consulate and was of the few places in town that housed foreign travelers.

The Western media always seem to describe the country’s Uyghur population as “restive”—a word utilized so often that it’s become the default adjective when discussing the region. Despite its overuse, it’s not an inaccurate description, since the Uyghurs clearly bristle at the heavy-handed Chinese rule. In fact, just two days before our arrival there was an attack on Chinese security forces. Sixteen cops were killed by two Uyghur radicals in a combined grenade/knife assault. The assailants were apprehended at the scene and dragged away, where they disappeared into the bowels of the state security apparatus and surely faced a nasty, brutal fate.

We were about to leave Ürümqi on the day of the attack, but the trains were held up due to “sandstorms.” Two days later, we were allowed to move on, and after a twenty-four-hour trip, we now found ourselves in this ancient Silk Road city. I was sure the place would be under martial law, but things were strangely normal, at least on the surface. As the Scottish journalist Hamish said, the Chinese needed to keep up appearances. It was the opening day of the 2008 Olympics, and they weren’t about let it be marred by a couple of Uyghur extremists.

Kashgar has been a vital city for centuries, serving as the seat of the Uyghur Empire and the meeting place of both the northern and southern silk routes that skirted the Taklimakan Desert. Stepping into Kashgar is to be, at times, transported to an exotic past. The film The Kite Runner was shot in the city’s old town, a picturesque stand-in for pre-Taliban Kabul, with its rabbit warren of alleys and ancient buildings. It’s a very traditional place, where the men wear skullcaps and the women cover their heads with beautiful, colorful scarves. While moderate when compared to some other Muslims, the people in and around Kashgar are still quite observant. The city’s main mosque—a looming, yellow structure—is mobbed with men during Friday prayers. Donkeys and carts are the chief mode of transportation. The houses are mostly made of mud and supported by wooden beams. Everywhere are locals selling melons and freshly made bread, known as naang. Bread is not just important in Uyghur culture: it is sacred. To step or sit on bread crumbs is a cultural taboo, a kind of blasphemy. Steve joked about insolent, rebellious Uyghur teens, hanging out on street corners, smoking cigarettes, and crushing bits of bread under their derrieres. We imagined some them picking up guitars and forming a punk band called “The Crumb Sitters.”

That afternoon we explored the town’s labyrinthine streets, walking past the many haberdasheries and restaurants serving up steaming bowls of langman, their staple noodle dish. Wafting smoke from grilled mutton was a constant and made our mouths gush: we eventually gave into temptation and took a few savory skewers down. The streets were alive with people—buying, selling, walking, working, or just hanging out. As we ambled through the shaded alleys, we were followed by throngs of children dressed in brightly colored clothing. Some of them—both boys and girls—had shaved heads, a lice-prevention measure. These kids begged not for money, but for photographs. They were fascinated by our digital cameras, and screeched and squealed as they crowded around the screen to get a look at the photos they posed for. They wanted us to take photo after photo. They couldn’t get enough—like the dog who never wants to end his game of fetch. At one point, we had to literally try to outrun the kids, who, when we stopped, grabbed our arms and shirttails and hung on with all they had.

That night the three of us went to back the one restaurant attached to the compound—John’s Travelers’ Cafe— where we drank bottles of watery beer, nibbled on oily piles of stir-fried vegetables, pork, and beef, and took in the full spectacle of the Olympic Opening Ceremony with the rest of the Kashgar’s truly international crowd. About twenty of us sat in the cafe’s wobbly plastic blue chairs, cheering each other’s countries as the teams paraded across the small television screen set up in front. When the camera zoomed in on the dopy visage of George W. Bush, the café erupted in a chorus of boos, most virulently trumpeted forth by our trio of liberal Americans. I ended up sitting with a group of English guys who, after enough beers, began hurling abuse at everyone both on the screen and in the café. I like this idea of affectionate insults and, as a result, often find Brits good company.

The ceremony lasted a good three hours, with coverage and previews afterwards. We continued to make merry. We were eventually joined by Chris and Ian. Chris was an Aussie who was working as a travel guide for rich, middle-aged tourists along the Trans-Siberian Railway. He was enjoying his downtime by doing a little touring himself. Ian was from Tennessee and taught English in China. He claimed to be wanted by the IRS for eighty thousand dollars in unpaid taxes.

“Hell, I might live and die right here in China,” he said between sips. “I can never go home again.”

When the staff tired of us and John’s eventually closed, we ended up in the courtyard of one of the compound’s grungier buildings, which also happened to be the permanent home of a bunch of guys from neighboring Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. We non-Muslims had been drinking for hours and were good and sauced. The café may have kicked us out, but the party’s heart was still beating. At one point someone handed me a guitar and I drunkenly serenaded all of Kashgar with howling renditions of rock standards. Nirvana figured in prominently. Some of the Muslim guys came down and joined us, and before I knew it I was arm in arm with a huge bearded Afghani, pledging international love, brotherhood, and world peace.

 

Up and Down the Karakorum Highway

I woke up to banging.

“Yo! Time to get up!”

Someone was pounding on the door. I jerked up, shook myself awake, and ran my hands through my hair.

“It’s time, boys!” It was Steve’s voice. He knocked some more. “Wakey wakey!”

Sam put a pillow over his head and groaned in agony.

“Yeah, yeah… we’ll be right there,” I shot back.

Sam was a wreck, passed out on his bed without pants, but still wearing his boxers and white tennis shoes. He had raged through the night with a handful of other travelers and was now gripped by a hangover of Nagasakian proportions. I’d taken the evening off and was glad for it; I’d enjoyed a nice, sober sleep, and so had Steve, who also had his own room and was always the earliest riser. He continued his knocking.

“Well hurry up. I’ll be down at the café getting some breakfast.”

“Sure thing.”

I kicked Sam on the soles of his Nikes and ripped the pillow from his head.

“Wake up, asshole. And for the love of God, put some pants on.”

“Urnnnngggg… huh?”

I picked up his jeans from the floor and fired them his way. They landed on his face, which helped to rouse him. In ten minutes, he had them on and the both of us were seated in the café, next to Steve, staring at the menu. Steve sipped coffee, nibbled toast, and worked on a crossword. Sam looked brain-dead and was likely seeing in duplicate, but he managed to order some eggs, and this was a good thing. We needed our sustenance, because after breakfast we were heading up the highest highway in the world.

Our driver’s name was Bao. He was a compulsively laughing Chinese man whose rank breath was an affront to all things living: it smelled like a cocktail of road kill, cigarettes, and dog shit. To make matters worse, he drove like a thrill-junkie high on bath salts. Like so many Chinese drivers, he piloted his vehicle with a surging insanity, careening down the road as if his very manhood was at stake. Bao drove as fast as possible at every moment, laying on ten-second horn blasts to warn any other motorists, pedestrians, cyclists, dogs, cats, goats, or donkeys in the vicinity that he was pushing through. He passed ore-laden dump trucks on blind curves with thousand-foot drop-offs without blinking. He screamed over mountain passes slick with mist and condensation. It seemed he had a death wish; more than once, I had flashes of twisted metal, mutilated flesh, and shattered bones. Was this all worth it? Did I really want to die on the road in one of the most remote corners of Asia?

The Karakoram Highway links Kashgar with Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. On the Chinese side, the road starts by shooting through the arid flatland of the desert—past dusty Uyghur towns packed with donkeys, chickens, and melon carts—before climbing toward the Pakistani border. This atmospheric route jumps over the continentally dominating mass of Kunlun, Pamir, and Karakoram Ranges—all of which converge atop one of the mightiest plateaus on the planet. This area is most famous for K2, the mountain which claimed had the lives of eleven climbers just a week before our journey. We never got within eyeshot of this deadly peak, but we did manage to skirt two of her impressive sisters, Kongur Tagh and Muztag Ata—both behemoths in their own right.

The road slowly rose into the mountains through brilliant red desert hills—reminiscent of the American Southwest—and then entered a sheer gorge, down which the Gez River tumbled in a violent froth. A few pedestrian suspension bridges crossed the canyon, linking the highway with the hardscrabble stone villages on the other side. I was astounded that people were able to eke out a living in such a hostile environment. Things looked tough enough in the summer; the winters must be brutal.

Soon we were stopped at a military checkpoint—one of several on the route—involving stone-faced soldiers sporting flak jackets and automatic weapons. There were sandbags and a couple of armored vehicles on hand. With the Olympics on, security was tight, especially given that the Karakoram Highway is China’s one link to that hotbed of arms and extremism known as Pakistan. One of the men—clad in a camouflage uniform and wearing a helmet—checked our passports, along with Bao’s paperwork, before gruffly waving us through.

The road wound out of the gorge and continued to rise. At this point the elements began punish the hapless pavement. Rivulets ran over the surface of the road like a streambed, partially washing it out in some places. Large rocks sat defiantly on the roadway, deposited there by the water flows and periodic slides.

We were now solidly in the mountains. The temperature dropped and the air became wetter, with periodic patches of mist and grey clouds pouring over the ridges and peaks. The landscape then opened up into a wide valley, with a few small settlements and free-roaming horses in the frost-scarred fields. To our left stood the fattest mountain I’d ever seen, a rocky gargantuan that dwarfed everything nearby. Its top was shrouded in clouds, and much of its rocky face was covered in snow. A few glaciers stretched toward the earth like long white fingers, the beginnings of rivers seeping from their tips.

“Kongur Tagh!” Bao pointed and shouted over the warbling Chinese tunes blasting forth from the van’s cassette player.

“Holy shit,” said Sam.

The three of us stared agog, gut-punched by the mountain’s glory.

Eventually the road entered a huge drainage full of grey runoff and glacial melt, an upper holding tank for the Gez River. Bao pulled over for a pit stop and we got out for a short break. A pack of merchants had set up on the roadside, selling trinkets and handmade rugs. “Kyrgyz,” Bao said, motioning toward them. As soon as we stepped out of the van, we were enveloped by these desperate hawkers, who buzzed around us like hungry mosquitoes. The high mountains are a difficult place to scratch out a living. No creature is immune, and this breeds desperation in all. These Kyrgyz were no exception; they were relentless in their pursuit of a sale. They just swarmed us and repeated the one word in English they had mastered: “This? This? This? This?”

In the end I succumbed to “This?” and bought two small rugs woven from yak hair, but my purchase only served to kindle the fire of the other sellers. They followed me every step I took—grabbing my arms and jostling with each other until I managed to make it back into the shelter of the van—and even then, the rabble banged on the windows and shouted while displaying their wares. These people were hard poor, and stared through the tinted glass with sad, starving hope.

After four hours on the Karakorum Highway, we arrived at Karakul Lake, a glacial-fed alpine reservoir that has become a regular stopover for travelers. Bao dropped us off at the main Kyrgyz settlement on the near shore of the glassy lake. This village consisted of a couple of dilapidated buildings and a cluster of yurts. A young Kyrgyz man met our driver and led us to a vacant yurt. His name was Sereket. He wore a filthy red jacket and black baseball cap. His features were pointy and sharp, his small black eyes friendly and smart. He spoke some English, and once we negotiated a price (meals included), he handed us the keys to our very own yurt.

“What about Bao?” I asked, nodding to our driver.

“He come back tomorrow,” said Sereket. “He stay other place.”

Bao smiled and waved as he got back into the van. He started it up and shot off, peeling out in the gravel. A plume of dust followed the dirty black van as it screamed up the dirt road toward the main highway.

“At least now he’ll only kill himself if he careens off the road,” remarked Steve.

This Kyrgyz village was an actual village—a real, lived-in place—despite the fact that they hosted tourists. It was my first time in a yurt, and it was tidy and inviting: colorful rugs covered the floor, and the rental fee included a fat pile of blankets. The yurt also contained a small metal wood-burning stove in the middle, with a chimney sprouting up through the roof. It was pleasant and cozy and looked like a good place to spend the night, but once I stepped outside, I was greeted with a less-inviting world. The village was nasty, a living garbage dump. Animal and human feces littered the ground, along with trash of all stripes—beer and soft-drink bottles, bits of plastic and paper, discarded clothing, motorcycle tires, and animal bones. The squalor was real, but contained to the area where the people lived. The natural wonder that surrounded the village was staggering in scope—goliath peaks, endless sky, a pure, glacial lake—and luckily the villagers’ hygienic shortcomings did little to diminish the area’s greater effect.

Also, like the roadside carpet hawkers, the touts were unstoppable. As soon as I emerged from my rented yurt-dominium, they converged like zombies. Dead-eyed women held up carpets and mumbled, “Yes? Yes?” Men dangled trinkets and baubles and necklaces in front of my nose when I attempted to breathe in the cold air and absorb the view of the lake. Personal space and privacy meant nothing. “No buy, no buy,” I said firmly, shaking my head. But these hawkers were undeterred: they followed me as I walked away and thrust their goods back in my face when I returned. These were the most persistent touts I’d ever encountered, anywhere. Summer is brief in the Pamirs: it’s the only time the tourists come. The villagers know this, and they milk the teat for all it’s worth, pushing their goods on an endless sales-pitch loop. They’ll even attempt to barter. One man walked up to me holding a massive crystalline geode. It was a giant hunk of geology, a dark stone broken open, with a thick purple-and-white bloom of crystals inside. It was gorgeous but looked impossibly heavy; the skinny old dude visibly struggled as he placed it on ground for my inspection.

“Very nice,” I said, leaning in.

The man gestured to me: Will you buy?

It was a brilliant, mesmerizing stone, and for a moment I savored the thought of a purchase before the practical side of my mind assumed command.

“Sorry. No, no buy. Very heavy.” I pantomimed lifting the thing.

The man then looked toward my feet. I was wearing a brand-new pair of hiking boots purchased for this trip—a two-hundred-dollar set of footwear. He pointed to my boots and then pointed at the geode, offering a trade. I looked at his shoes: they were in a sorry state, beaten to hell and hardly ideal for such taxing surroundings. Quality boots must be a prized possession in such an environment and I felt for the man, but politely walked on. After all, I needed my boots. I couldn’t wear a cluster of crystals.

At one point I asked our host, the impish Sereket, where I could find the nearest toilet. He gleefully pointed me in the right direction, without a hint of shame on his face. Now I understood that I was in China, which, let’s face it, has some of the worst toilets in the world: on this particular trip, I’d shat in open, filthy, collective troughs (just inches from other men) which were flushed out every minute or so, blasting whole cascades of crap right underneath; I’d pooed in reeking, fly-swarmed squatters, and once even evacuated into a tarpaulin-covered ditch on the roadside, next to a rotting dog carcass. Yes, I was in China—Western China—in a mountain village without running water or even electricity, let alone sewers. My expectations were pretty low… but I was still not prepared for the horror which I was about to face. The toilet—or WC, as they’re universally labeled throughout the traveling world—was little more than a shack that covered a creaky wooden platform built over a pit. Three holes were cut into the platform, with black shit towers rising out of each at least a foot above the rim of the holes. The pit below had been filled to capacity. Things had gotten so that most people forwent the holes altogether and shat anywhere in the shack they could, resulting in countless turds littering the dirt floor and other parts of the platform. You could barely walk without hitting one. I later found out that most villagers had given up on the toilet altogether, electing to crap in the field behind the yurts instead, which resulted in a veritable minefield of human excrement.

What was abundantly clear was that the WC needed a thorough shoveling-out, but no one in the village (understandably) was willing to undertake the task. In my opinion, the best course of action would have been to drench the thing in mutton fat and burn it to the ground.

Soon after arriving in the village, Sam crawled into his sleeping bag to sleep off his booze binge from the night before; Steve and I decided to take a hike around the lake. It was a great afternoon walk, though I felt myself gulping for air in the thin atmosphere. Oxygen was scarcer at such elevation, and it was difficult to get a really satisfying breath. At one point, we scurried partway up the loose scree of the mountainside to get a good view of the turquoise water below. The panorama was impressive, giving us a sense of the sheer scale of the place. Just northeast of the lake, Muztag Atta stared down. She was nearly as huge as her sister, Kongur Tagh. Steve and I sat on the rocks and gazed back, looking permanence in the face, filled with a thrilling sense of both wonder and dread.

As we continued our hike, bruise-colored clouds blew up the valley, suddenly menacing our afternoon outing. The wind sliced through our meager summer clothing and into our flesh like blades of ice; soon the clouds opened up with a frigid rain. We were stuck in the open without umbrellas or raincoats: Steve hadn’t packed any, and I’d left mine behind in our hotel in Ürümqi. Our luck prevailed, however, in the form of a villager and his horse, who, for a few yuan, offered us a ride. Steve and I mounted the grey mare while its minder walked, leading us back to the village and the warmth of our yurt.

We returned only to find Sam wrapped in his sleeping bag with several blankets on top. He was near comatose. The rain had chilled Steve to the bone and turned his mood foul. Like Sam, he made himself into a human blanket burrito and set about trying to warm up. He was soaked and shivering. Young Sereket pulled up on his motorbike and entered the yurt. He started a fire in the woodstove, which took an eternity to heat up, eventually providing a modicum of warmth. I sat down just inches away and basked in the welcome radiation of the wood fire’s heat.

Whether Sereket was determined to be a good host or just wanted to escape the constriction his mother’s yurt—which he also shared with his sister and her baby—was anyone’s guess. After he lit the fire, we assumed that he’d head out, but he stuck around, stretching out on the floor and endlessly yapping into his cell phone in whiny and guttural Kyrgyz. A girl’s voice drifted from the speaker. Sam and Steve lay in silence while I sat and sipped from a bottle of whisky I’d brought along—which, along with the wood fire, succeeded in warming my insides. Sereket chatted and chatted away for over an hour and a half, impervious to Steve’s groans of protest.

“Was that your girlfriend?” I asked.

“Yes,” Sereket blushed.

“Would you like some whisky?” I held out the bottle.

“No. I am Muslim. It is forbidden.”

“Fair enough,” I said, taking another pull.

“Are you hungry?” he asked. “Is time for dinner.”

“I’m starving…” groaned Sam.

“Not me. I’m not leaving this yurt,” moaned Steve.

Sereket mounted his dented bike and kicked it into life, while Sam and I followed on foot. We walked through the cold drizzle and over a rocky rise to the second part of the village, made up several concrete yurts. This area was much cleaner, with little refuse on the ground and no human shit—definitely the good side of the tracks. Sereket’s mother lived in one of these more permanent structures, where she served us hot milky tea, followed by huge bowls filled with a kind of buttery Central Asian pasta. It was hearty and delicious, the type of food eaten by people living in a place that even drops below freezing on summer nights. We were also joined by his shy sister and her very new baby. I didn’t ask where the men were. His mother had a soft, gentle way, with a smile and voice that matched. Once we finished up, she laid out a few of her hand-woven carpets and tapestries.

“Maybe tomorrow,” I said, smiling.

“We’ll bring our friend,” Sam said, setting Steve up. “He is very rich.”

Sereket’s eyes glowed at the prospect.

After leaving, Sereket ushered us along the path, back to the humbler side of the village that we were calling home. Once we got back to the yurt, I was expecting him to bid us goodnight and be on his way, but again he came in with us and made himself comfortable, plopping on the floor and calling his girlfriend once again for another interminable puppy-dog conversation. I got the impression that he hung out in this yurt every day, with guests or without. After all, he had the keys.

“How was dinner?” Steve asked. His spirits had improved.

“Great,” Sam said. “You missed out.”

“I should have come. I got hungry and ended up going to the little restaurant near the village entrance, which was a mistake. It was the direst bowl of noodles I’ve ever eaten. I couldn’t finish it.”

“We were properly stuffed with some homemade, Kyrgyz stodge,” I added, rubbing it in. “His mother makes beautiful rugs. You should check them out in the morning.”

“That’s great and all,” Steve said, “but can she knit me a cheeseburger?”

He then motioned to Sereket and lowered his voice: “For fuck’s sake, does he just plan on staying here all night?”

“Maybe so,” I shrugged.

“He lives with his mother, sister, and her baby in a yurt,” said Sam. “I’m sure he’s just happy to be out of the house.”

Sereket was an oddball, with dark, clever eyes and a mischievous grin. He was motivated and ambitious, and had obviously ingratiated himself with the drivers who ferried in the trickle of tourists from Kashgar. His English was self-taught and minimal, but enough to communicate with the people who came to stay in his village. While I understood Steve’s annoyance with Sereket’s continual presence in our yurt, part of me was glad to have him around. The three of us were run down from a combination travel, altitude, drink, and the elements, but Sereket seemed invincibly happy. He helped to cheer up our gloomy little world.

Eventually Sereket left. By this point, we were wrapped up in our sleeping bags and blankets, totally spent, craving only sleep. I heard him walk out the door into the rainy night, start up his dilapidated motorcycle, and putter away, back to the cramped confines of his mom’s concrete yurt. We lay on the ground, staring up into the dark, listening to the rain hit the woolen domed roof. The only other sound was the lull of a man’s voice floating in from the neighboring structure. Though I couldn’t understand the mysterious language, I knew it at once as poetry. It was lyrical and metric, delivered with reverence. From the frequent utterances of “Allah” and “Mohammed,” I took it to be passages from the Koran. The man was reciting holy verses to his family, before they, and we, drifted off to sleep.

 

*

 

The next morning, we had more yak milk tea and the Uyghur version of bagels back at Sereket’s mother’s place. We were joined by our driver, Bao. The bagels were incredibly thick and hard, with “the density of a neutron star,” according to Steve, who joined us for the meal. They were only rendered chewable after a prolonged dip in the steaming hot tea.

After breakfast, Sereket’s mother laid out her handicrafts and her son made the pitch; Steve bargained hard, but in the end walked away with an impressive, hand-woven carpet.

“Where do you go?” asked Sereket as we shook hands.

“Tashkurgan.”

“Oh. You meet Tajik people. See fortress.”

We said our goodbyes, boarded the van, and shot off with our mentally unbalanced driver for a cruise further up the highway through some of the most stunning country yet.

Just as we were leaving Karakul Lake we saw two Western travelers by the side of the road. They were packing up their bags outside of a yurt of their own.

“Don’t we know those guys?” asked Sam.

“Hey Bao,” I said. “Stop here.”

It was Chris and Ian, whom we had met at John’s Café in Kashgar.

I leaned out of the passenger-side window. “Howdy strangers.”

Chris was stuffing some clothes in his pack and looked up. “G’day.”

“Well sheeit,” said Ian, Tennessee twang in full swing. “Did y’all stay here last night?”

“Yeah, down on the lake shore,” I answered.

“Damn… I wished we’d have known.”

“How was it?” asked Chris.

Steve replied: “Wet and cold.”

“Same here.”

“Y’all headin’ up to Tashkurgan?” Ian inquired.

“Yeah,” I said. “We want to check out the fortress. Have you been?”

“Yeah,” said Chris. “We went up there yesterday.”

“How was it?” asked Steve.

Ian put his hand on his hips and shook his head. “Y’all can go if ya want, but there ain’t much to see. It’s just a pile of rocks.”

“It is a beautiful drive,” admitted Chris.

“Yeah… it’s nice drivin’, and all,” continued Ian. “But that fortress? It’s just a pile of rocks.”

Tashkurgan is the end of the line, the last main town before Pakistan, and an ancient trading post. The Chinese wouldn’t let us continue on without the proper visa and no doubt some other onerous permits issued by the local Public Security Bureau, the government cops who regulate travel through “sensitive areas,” of which there were many in the summer of 2008. The place is mainly occupied by Tajik people—close cousins of Persians known for their tall hats, fierce tempers, and large hook noses. There is little in the way of tourist diversions in the town, save taking in the ruins of an ancient fortress.

On the way to Tashkurgan we went through another military checkpoint, this one more sinister than the first. Again, we were all made to get out of the vehicle and present our passports and travel permits. A dour military officer questioned Bao in Chinese. I understood just one word from his response: Meiguo, or “American.” When the officer heard this, his expression turned grave. He slowly perused our documents, repeatedly looking at the photos and faces and back again, examining each stamp and visa for the slightest irregularity. Two soldiers—each clutching a Chinese AK-47—came up just inches behind our backs. The one nearest to me was a towering, broad-shouldered brute. He stood so close that I could nearly feel his breath on my neck, as he menacingly clicked the safety switch on his rifle on and off, on and off.

After about fifteen minutes we were allowed to press on. We drove along a vast, flat region, rimmed with even bigger mountains. A couple of tiny villages dotted the plains, like clusters of dollhouses against the imposing landscape. We then switched back up even higher, until the road came to a slick pass absorbed in moist white clouds. The surroundings took on an eerie, otherworldly flavor, and the road was covered with visible patches of snow and ice. These treacherous conditions did nothing to deter Bao, who pressed on at terminal speeds, chain smoking and singing along with his stupid tapes. I felt the blood pour out of my face. I looked to both Steve and Sam, who were just as scared as me. We were now screaming along the highest highway in the world, when in fact we were in no hurry to get anywhere.

Steve erupted first: “SLOW DOWN!” he yelled. “SLOW THE FUCK DOWN!”

Sam and I joined in: “SLOW DOWN!”

We all pressed our hands down in unison, making our point absolutely clear. Bao gave us a sheepish grin and lay off the gas pedal… slightly. We were paying him to deliver us in one piece, and he was putting everything at risk. He lost some face, but a lot more was at stake.

Bao managed to get us to Tashkurgan safely, just in time for lunch. I wanted to try Tajik food, but he instead brought us to a tattered joint owned and run by people he knew—Chinese—which I’m sure was the plan all along. The meal was oily and unremarkable but did the trick, and after lunch he took us out to see the fortress, driving us to the back side to avoid the entrance fee. He stopped the van, pointed, and signaled for us to get our cameras out. We obliged him and shot away.

Ian was right. The vaunted fortress was indeed “just a pile of rocks”—so ruined and rubble-strewn that it held little interest for the three of us—historical and architectural philistines that we were. After a few clicks I looked at the shots on my camera and realized there was no way to make the object come alive, so instead I pointed my lens in the opposite direction, shooting the herd of yaks grazing in the brilliantly green field to the side of the road.

You don’t have to guess which side gave me the better photo.