A dirty white pick-up truck pulls over. It looks like a stubby cigar, with a kind of truncated rear end and an air of adorable inadequacy. The fat, moustachioed man in the driver’s seat leans out of the window with the beginnings of a grin.
I decide that his expression is kindly. Smiling or not, his face would seem kind. He sits there in bemusement for a while and I feel a little sheepish with my cardboard hitchhiker’s sign – here people pay for bus tickets when they want to get somewhere.
I say ‘As-salamu alaykum’ and hello in Uighur all in one breath, before following it up with some Chinese – in case he gets any wrong ideas about my Uighur being capable of anything beyond cotton-mouthed niceties.
‘I want to go East, can you help me?’
I get the impression that “going East” also wasn’t something people here usually did.
‘I want to go to Aksu.’
‘Aksu, Kuche, after to Kashgar’
‘Kuche is over 600km away’, he tells me. Here some pause, and my frustration – his confused benevolence. ‘I can take you to the bus station, do you have a ticket?’
His Mandarin is pretty choppy and there is a sense of familiar distance in his words. Not a problem – all throughout Xinjiang I’ve found it easier to speak to Uighurs in Chinese than I do to Chinese in Chinese. They are men and women whose tongues, like mine, fail to wrap themselves around alien Chinese words, and there is mutual understanding in our struggle.
I manage to convey where I’m heading, the urgency of this commitment, and that I don’t want a bus, that I want to drive. I don’t tell him that I can’t stand another crowded cattle-wagon, that I want to meet people, to road trip it – just me and some strangers on the open road – a whole new adventure.
I got up at half four today. I want as much time as I can squeeze into the day – I’ll need it for the bumpy 16 hours it’s going to take to drive straight to Aksu. Not even so very deep down, I know that I’ve made the plan to arrive in Aksu by nightfall the same way I plan to catch the last train home on a Friday night – it’s mostly wishful thinking.
A foolhardy goal, but an important one: a tangible way point in a world of unknowable bus schedules, and unfathomable routes.
I jump into the truck before I quite know what his plans are for me. There are empty metal containers knocking around the back. I ask him about them. He’s been delivering milk from his own cows to a shop in the city, back the way I’ve walked into Yining.
Yining. These places, they have so many names. It was also known as Ghulja, formerly Ili and Khulja. Today it has a Chinese name.
For being so close to the main road, the neighbourhood is quiet.
‘Where are we going’? I ask the man.
‘To my home’. I hope home is in Aksu, or Kuche, or even outside of Yining.
It’s not. We pull into a side road after about ten minutes.
He opens a pair of double doors – tall, ornately decorated wood under a carved archway, a bright turquoise blue, faded and peeling, forlorn and beautiful.
A gaggle of people suddenly materialize – a wife, son, perhaps an aunt and a grandma – several neighbours whom my cheerful moustachioed friend was probably pre-warning by phone as we drove.
One of them is brandishing a paper road map. We lay it out on the bed of the truck and hunch over it, like generals on the eve of battle. There’s chatter – some rapid fire – some measured, and all of it incomprehensible.
They discuss my plans with philosophic interest. My aims are re-established, I reiterate my urgency. Someone is mentioning the bus. I insist upon my fantasy road trip. They’re capitulating now, humouring my plans like the whims of a senile old man, without knowing why.
The joint-staff meeting is over, my friend invites me for breakfast.
My feet itch for movement. I want to be on the road, not wasting precious hours at breakfast.
I arrived in Yining fairly ill – in the early morning, crawling into town on the night train, crawling into a taxi, finding one of those hotels still under construction and literally crawling into bed.
I’ve spent the better part of a week puking up my guts – recovering – and now I’m made anew, born again with lust for the road. Eager to leave the den of my sickness. To be on my way with life’s provisions on my back and only the imagined and real ahead of me. That’s the ticket.
But the warm weight of this man’s kindness softens me; he wants me to meet his son.
The cows are there, two docile beasts who look near the end of their milking days. Sheep too, the fat-tailed kind you find this end of the earth, with wobbling behinds of wool-tufted lard.
They’re at the far reach of the small courtyard. A trellis overhead, a creeping vine heavy with the fat, juicy grapes Xinjiang is famous for. The table is up some stairs, still outside but with a canopy over head and a sheltered wood burning stove.
The man’s wife stands, warming milk over the stove. His boy, who’s about thirteen, has already eaten, but my moustachioed friend is clearly ravenous. We eat hard bread from a plastic bag at the centre of the table, and drink milk tea, sweetened with sugar. The wife brings large bowls of sticky jam. I dip my bread, but the moustachioed man is drinking the sweet-sour raspberry nectar like soup from the bowl.
The boy has light blue eyes and brown hair, harder looking than his father, with a nervous enthusiasm. His Mandarin’s perfect but he’s speaking English pretty well too. While we talk, the father kind of takes a back seat. I glance at him and he is looking at the boy. It seems odd for him to talk now – he has no need to. The father is a man of only functional speech. Especially when it comes to speaking Chinese.
The kid’s telling me he’s at school – top of his class and loves English. He translates for his father now, who relaxes into Uyghur.
I don’t know what has happened to the grand plans of moments ago, but Ehmet, that’s the boy’s name, and his father are ushering me back into the truck. We’re driving back into Yining.
‘Have you seen the Yili river?’ Ehmet’s father asks. I understand, but Ehmet reiterates his father’s words in clearer Chinese, then English.
The Yili river thunders through Yining into Almaty, Kazakhstan – I’ve seen it, but for some reason I don’t let on.
‘We must go, you need to see the Yili river.’ It’s almost half nine, I’ve been up for over five hours. We drive back into town; along the same road I’ve just trodden out of Yining.
The streets are burning with that ominous heat. I’d wished to avoid such things. I find myself annoyed at this man’s eager hospitality.
The Yili does indeed thunder. Ehmet says that many lives are snatched away each year by it’s tempestuous current.
We while away a few hours together – there is this old school funfair on the riverside, dated horror houses, bored young men at air rifle stands, soda cans on ice and oversized stuffed animals.
Here we find a squadron of golf buggies stationed on the walkway running parallel to the Yili river. It all looks very sad in the bleached white heat of late morning.
The passing of my youth in this third-tier city of dust and concrete – the constant roar of the muddy green Yili.
The tarmac passing beneath the wheels of the buggy we’ve rented is infuriatingly slow. The battery seemed to fizzle fifteen minutes ago and Ehmet’s father became embarrassed on behalf of the dawdling machine.
Ehmet is looking at me. ‘We both have blue eyes’, he says.
I take the opportunity.
‘Do you think me and you are more similar than you and a Han Chinese person?’ I ask Ehmet,
‘We both have blue eyes, yes, we are more the same.’
Bread and dairy. Blue eyed boys. I’m closer to home. Each step west brings me closer. But I feel torn. There is something both playful and aggressive in the air here.
Sometimes I find myself despising the fucking oppressors in their godforsaken capital in Beijing. Other times… a tide of youths sweeping the streets with their hateful faces, eyes sick with violence. I am alone. I find a restaurant run by a smiling family from Shanghai. I eat rice and good home style food, they laugh and play cards in the corner and I feel safe.
Ehmet wants to be a doctor.
‘What language are you taught in at school?’ I ask
‘In Uyghur, but half the time we learn Mandarin and all about Chinese books, history, this sort of thing.’
I probe a little, ‘And Uyghur history, Uyghur stuff?’
‘We have lessons on Uyghur culture’
Hijab, big red cross, Smiling lady in ethnic headdress, big green tick. These are the posters you see sometimes in convenience stores.
Uyghur culture is ubiquitous in Xinjiang: colourfully clothed ladies smile joyfully down from billboards, holding hands with their neighbours.
‘Ethnic harmony leads to national unity.’
The Uyghur music channel plays hit after folky saccharin hit on all the buses. I imagine English folk music piped over the tannoy by Russian overlords. Perhaps this comparison is unfair.
I’m probably crude with heat, ‘Do you like the Chinese government?’
‘Yes, it is better here now, more than it was’
‘The government build hospitals, there are more schools now. I can study and become a doctor. There are basketball stadiums now like there are in Beijing’.
If you think it sounds scripted… have you ever talked to a complete stranger from far off lands about your city, or the problems of your city? We write these scripts for simplicity’s sake. I say the same old tired things about London.
Ehmet’s dad smiles as we inch along the hot tarmac. I want to tell him that the impotence of this rented golf cart doesn’t affect my opinion of him.
We slow to walking pace, and then a little slower and it feels too absurd to stay in the cart any longer. We dismount and walk the rest of the way along the promenade.
Through the high-noon hot metal of the funfair we’re in the truck again, drinking ice cold cream sodas with relish, they are the freshly shucked oysters of this urban desert.
I cut my losses, it has been fun but I can’t afford to spend any longer in this city. I thank Ehmet and his father, and they drop me off where they had found me. Back to my purgatory, the only difference being the high and hot midday sun and a welcome pot of delicious raspberry jam, which, upon my genuine high praises of the stuff, Ehmet’s mum had pressed into my hands.
Stasis bores my mind into its own kind of entropy and in the name of progress I try to walk a few steps up the road.
I’m a few hundred metres closer to Aksu, sheltering in the transient shade of a tall tree.
A child plays outside of the house behind me and an old lady sits in the doorway, her head robed in a colourful scarf. I think they are trying to decide if I am a mirage or some life changing omen.
I want to avoid being picked up by another driver on their way home so I am standing at the end of the road where it joins the roar of traffic on the highway heading West. I know that I’m not going to get to Aksu today, but I want to put some miles between me and this city. I like it, but it sits heavy in the gut.
Another. A regular looking white car pulls up ahead. It waits. I hesitate a few second before running to catch it up. Inside are three men. Two probably in their late twenties, another a bit older and in a cop’s uniform. They all have dark complexions and unkempt faces, but the driver has bright green eyes and a handsome, chiselled face They look like a gang of bank robbers perhaps, or a small group of heavies. They have that kind of boisterous anger. They seem to find me curious. They have an expression that makes them look like kids who’ve been bought a fantastic new gift but want to appear cool about it.
I get in. The negotiations begin. Their Chinese is surprisingly bad for a group of young men. But the driver doesn’t seem to want to listen anyway. He’s insisting on calling up his mate to translate – his English is really good apparently. It is okay, but there’s still confusion. No, absolutely no buses.
We’re still uncertain, but I think I should get in the car with them. I think they understand where I want to go, I suppose I’ll see whether they feel inclined to take me some way along the road. I’m happy to get out of the sun.
The handsome driver, Sagardan is taking us to a friend’s house just before the slip road onto the highway. A residential area I must have overlooked. We drive for a minute. This city is inescapable.
Children run out to meet us – a flurry of nameless activity, hands are shaken, we are ushered in. As-salamu alaykum, As-salamu alaykum. Wa-Alaikum-us-Salaam. They are surprisingly un-phased by my presence. They react with a sense of cognitive dissonance, like realising something you thought you’d lost is actually in your back pocket.
A dusty white courtyard, desiccated particles of the desert wind and general detritus. A dog barks. Bird guano stings my nostrils, its thick stench rising from metal cages and a concrete floor peppered with chicken shit. A wall of wire cages in which high-breasted cocks strut around, their plumage desecrated with angry bald spots. They are fighting cocks, and my friends have a familiar argument with the short, fat man who seems to own the chickens.
Back in the car. The cop clutching a chicken, frozen in foreboding silence. He says it’s for eating and I guess it could be.
I ask where we are going.
‘We just need to take my friends to their homes’ is the answer.
‘And kuche? I need to go to kuche. If you can help me at all – I don’t have much time’.
‘Yes, yes, I will take you don’t worry, just this first – you’re English, how much is the pound worth compared to the renminbi?’
‘Will we go to kuche after this?’
‘Yes, yes, don’t worry’
The two guys in the back grin like bachelors on a stag.
Thing is, I do worry. I appreciate the twists and turns of fortune’s road as much as any man, but I resent my impotence. Tossed like a plastic bag in the wind. Worse, a sentient plastic bag, whose sense of purpose is mute, unknown to the oblivious observor. My leg is jiggling up and down in unreasonable frustration. I feel a little angry, pissed off at these friendly kidnappers. Resenting the language gap, and most likely Sagardan’s willing incomprehension. That’s the trouble, you can hide behind unspoken languages.
Through the outskirts of the city, flat yellow houses, tall trees and empty roads.
The chicken-cop has gone. We’ve stopped off at the remaining friend’s house, just for refreshments. Saccharin sweet, broken ice, perfumed with something, strongly sweet, thirst quenching on a day like today.
Sagardan’s place isn’t far. Again those carved wooden doors which open onto a dusty courtyard. A small, adorable child and a tired, beautiful woman walk out and Sargardan introduces me to his little kid.
He looks too young to have a family, and I suspect he is pretending at it somehow. He wants to play too much to look after his hard working wife properly. I met another man like this, in another Xinjiang city – while we drank beer and danced in the disco, his wife looked after the sick kids at home.
Inside, my eyes take more than a few moments to adjust from the neutrino-hot sun to the dark interior of the room. The floor is carpeted, with a raised section even more heavily draped with thick rugs, which cling to the warm air – there are cushioned piled high and lay in every crevice.
The low table comes to me like a line of text appearing from an often read book, these tables are always groaning under an assortment of snack in glass bowls: brown sugar crystals like chipped rock; dried and candied fruits, nuts; sweet, dry pastries; sweets still in their wrappers; bowls of salty fried and dried dough sangza; little colored cookies; pumpkin seeds; melon seeds, inexhaustible food that seems to sit eternally waiting the arrival of guests. We take off our shoes and Sargardan asks me to sit.
The door opens, a blinding chink of light, cut into the dank coziness of the room. Sagardan’s wife comes bearing tea and plates of steaming dumplings.
We sit and drink tea and I am ruined by my greedy eyes and the fat, groaning table. The conversation is slower than I’d like. How have I found Xinjiang? Do I think the people friendly? These are the questions they’re asking. They want to know how I see them I suppose.
‘I do not speak Chinese very well, but I don’t like to speak Chinese anyway’, Sagardan is telling me, in Chinese of course.
Back East they say ‘zhong wen’ which I suppose means ‘Chinese language’, they sometimes say ‘pu tong hua’, meaning common tongue, the ‘pu tong’ meaning common, the ‘hua’ meaning speak. They sometimes say ‘han yu’, named for the han ethnic minority.
The further West you go, the more you hear ‘han yu’, the less you hear ‘zhong wen’ and ‘pu tong hua’. Uyghur people you call ‘wei zu’, the ‘zu’ is ‘ethnic group. So ‘han zu’ are the hans.
I think of this only because Sagardan doesn’t say ‘hanyu’. He says ‘han zu hua’. I’ve never heard that before. It emphasises the peculiarity of Chinese to the Han race.
I ask him why he doesn’t like to speak Chinese, what he thinks of the Chinese.
‘I don’t follow them, they tell us what to do, I don’t follow them’
‘You don’t like the government,’ I’m saying this with a smile, to disarm it maybe.
‘I hate them’.
He speaks this in English. As he said it he raised both his middle fingers to the floor, now fingers still raised, he just says ‘fuck’. But not like an exclamation, more like the ‘you’ is silent.
They’re laughing like naughty schoolboys, but with a kind of randy anger that I think is ill concealed.
It isn’t uncomfortable, there just doesn’t seem much else to say than ‘fuck’.
We’re soon back in the car again, and I don’t know where we are going.
‘Do you like this music?’ Sargardan says, changing a track on the CD player.
I’ve reconciled myself to driving around with these almost young youths by now.
I admit that I like the music. ‘Is it Uyghur?’.
It’s all Uyghur music, but it’s good.
Sagardan is driving fast. Slappy twang of long necked guitars and a foreign Turkic warble of energetic – hand clapping – thigh slapping music – it lends a little beauty to the dust and broken road. I wind down my window and enjoy that there’s a breeze.
Windows down, ethnic music blasting, rocketing down narrow suburban-country roads. This tastes more like a road trip, I think.
‘Have you seen the Yili river?’
‘Yes, yes I have. I’ve seen the Yili river…’
Ah, the Yili river. It could be a euphemistic come-on, sounds like Polari. ‘Have you seen the Yili river yet?’
‘Have you swum in the ili river?’
‘We’ll go for a swim there now’
‘I don’t have any swimming clothes’ I say
‘No problem’. I don’t know why it isn’t a problem, but Sargardan’s got under my skin, he’s the master of my will, and it’s not too bad. Sargardan pulls down his shades and focuses his muscular, square face on the road. I lean mine out of the window to catch some more breeze.
Here the roads aren’t really roads and the car throws up yellow dust – there are tall reeds growing by the side of the river as far as the eye can see.
Up ahead, a gaggle of half naked youths further up stream. They jump into the river and are snatched away, towards us downstream, at tremendous speed. I remember Ehmet’s earlier warning about the thunderous speed of the river.
Sagardan has what can only be called a mischievous grin on his face.
They all strip down to their underpants. The large group of teens up the river are jumping into the mud black waters, three to a rubber ring.
Sagardan just dives from the nearest bank.
He must have been here before, countless times, else he’s just reckless.
He resurfaces in the middle of the river some several metres down, swimming furiously against the river’s might. Then he surrenders and floats on his bank, drifting out of sight behind the forest of reeds.
He had looked joyful rather than worried, so I assume he hasn’t drowned.
He reappears dripping wet, running up the road and urging me to take off my clothes. The water looks thick with mud, spun with speed into vicious eddies.
Sagardan is excited about a race to the far bank. I tell him he’s crazy. This will go nowhere. I jump in where he shows me.
I try to keep my eyes and mouth shut. I teleport, resurfacing far from where I’d jumped in. I’m literally part of something bigger than myself and it gives no two fucks about my orientation in space. An immense body, I am carried in it’s all pervasive arms, the constancy of land and its dry hot power, obliterated. I can see the pleasure of this place. The apocalyptic heat soothed by this cold fury of water.
We join the teens up river for a while. Sagardan commandeers their rubber ring. We cannonball down the river, three of us slumped pathetic with our arses touching back to back in the hole. Sagardan and his friend fall out with pantomime accident and leave me hurtling towards the city. Somehow I claw myself back to the shore, ring under arm, Sagardan thinking it’s the funniest thing he’s ever seen.
We are drying on the river’s bank like a wet frying pan on the stove, mud caching my toes. Sagardan’s still a joyful little boy – but the hot sun is crinkling my skin, and the roar of the Yili reminds me of advancing time, and the late hour.
Sagardan is slapping me on the back and urging an encore. It’s not that I don’t want the chilling lick of the river’s depths, so we hurtle down the river again together. But when we climb to the shore again we start drying off with intention – drinking the cans of sweet iced cream soda we’ve brought along.
In the car again, I ask Sagardan where we are headed, can he take me to Kuche, I say out of debt to a ritual.
We just need to pick up a friend, the English friend I spoke to on the phone. He’s wearing a shirt and smart trousers by the train station – I say hello – he’s just been for a job interview, he seems a nice guy, quiet, a little less of a bad boy than his friends – the geek of the group.
I ask Saggardan what he does for a living – he doesn’t have a job at the moment. Neither does his chubby friend. I don’t press it; they seem a little embarrassed. I think about this.
The English speaking friend is nice enough and his English is great – but I feel exposed, the excitement of earlier has passed. Friends are made more easily when all you have are smiles and simple sentences.
With fluency comes niceties and reluctance. And the true weight behind words is diluted again. No silence to hide behind. No excuse to let something dead drop. He no more understands my dumb hitchhiking because he speaks the same language.
The bus topic is raised again. I give in.
To the bus.
‘Maybe there is no bus’ Sagardan says
‘He doesn’t know if there will be a bus, at this time, but let us go to the bus station and we can see’, his English friend elaborates.
At the bus station, just a parking space next to the highway, Sagardan rushes around, interrogating on my behalf.
I’ve missed the last one going the right way apparently.
Sagardan is telling me that I can stay with him and his family, for a night, a few days – he’s said it a few times already today, but now it seems the practical thing to do.
‘Thank you so much Sagardan, you have been so kind to me’ I say
There is no bus. Staying with my new friend in his house would be far from awful. He’d feed me well and we’d laugh some more.
I tell him I’ll wait – There is still hope.
I say goodbye to my friends, and find another tall tree, whose shade will shelter my burnt and sticky body for the while.
Old men watch me, they while away time in plastic chairs, waiting for no bus. An hour passes.
Then the bus – As it always does and always will.
I’m standing now, straining to see the sign in the window.
I ask the driver – a silver haired fighter pilot of this dead, dead road.
The answer is not perfect, not nearly so. But it is in roughly the right direction.
I buy a ticket and stow my luggage in the hold. Everything is smothered in dust. I climb the stairs and look upon the faces of my fellow travellers.
I had something of the adventure I wanted, I just never managed to leave Yining.
Now, on the bus I had tried so hard to avoid, we pull away from the station. Yining is behind me.
A version of this story was originally published in The Topograph in November 2015