Ignoring the official Peking clock that dictates one time zone for the entire landmass of China, U ru mqi in the far west obeys the sun and at 9 a.m. is only just awaking. Street vendors selling yogurt and flat bread call out as I rush past them on the way to the bus station. A white-capped adolescent in a donkey cart offers me a ride. The bus for Kashi leaves at 9 sharp, I have been told. I am late and have no time for breakfast nor for price haggling with the boy.
I arrive at the bus station, breathless, to find a confused crowd that does not know which buses to board. Official-looking people are instructing them to stand in line, but the passengers are demanding answers. The two groups ignore each other.
Only after an hour -- after suitcases, bundles of blankets and baby cradles have been secured on the top of the bus -- are we ready to leave. There are tearful goodbyes, and the crowd makes way as our primitive bus pulls out of the parking lot.
I am not emotional about leaving U ru mqi, an exotic-sounding yet grim industrial city in the Xinjiang province. I am anxious to see Kashi. The travel-guide descriptions of this remote city with mosques, bustling market places and the exotic Uighur people paint only a misty vision. Even Marco Polo hardly gave honorable mention to Kashgar (the city's original Uighur name).
The tales I have heard, passed on from traveler to traveler, of provocative political discussions in tea shops and of dancing late into the night during Uighur festivals, combined with the fact that the city recently has been opened by the Chinese government for individual travel, make Kashi an intriguing destination. Horror stories of dysentery and the pool conditions at the one, over-priced, foreign hotel do not discourage me. And the prospect of a three-day bus ride through the July desert only nourishes my determination.
Westerners used to joke that all the buses in China were 20 years old when they came off the assembly line; this bus, with its worn seats and door that must be kicked to open, is no exception. The vehicle is about the same size as a regular U.S. city bus with the See CHINA, G4, Col. 3 CHINA, From G1 seats arranged two on one side and three on the other, divided by a very narrow aisle. But the atmosphere aboard is lively and festive.
Of the 50 passengers (not counting about 15 seatless babies and small children), about 40 are Uighurs. The Uighur, who are part of the Turkic race, make up the major percentage of Kashi's population, though they represent only 6 percent of China's population. The women's colorful dresses and scarves, along with the men's embroidered hats and boisterous laughter, create the holiday atmosphere.
Despite my cramped position between two wrestling brothers and a fat Uighur wearing an intricately embroidered hat, the first two or three hours convince me that I am somehow making a pilgrimage, searching for a deeper understanding of these mysterious Uighurs. I am amazed that the fragile bus can weave along the bumpy road with so much confidence. Pakistani music from the driver's cassette player, warped and static-y, is a refreshing change from the usual Chinese opera. The hoots of victory from the card game in the back of the bus add to the drama, as do the scenes flashing by the windows.
The Taklimakan desert and the snowcapped Tian Shan Mountains in the background are fascinating. The dry, flat, seemingly endless desert is strangely coupled with the lush, snowy mountains in the distance. The people, the noises and the scenery leave me in a state of quiet awe.
After about five hours, the tireless bus driver finally stops for lunch. The fat man sitting next to me invites me to eat noodles and mutton in the nearby fly-infested food stall. I am not hungry but join him to be polite. For the first time I notice his green eyes. I hear his name as "Yahofo," though I know I hear wrong. He is 55 and is returning home after two weeks of meetings in U ru mqi. But that is as far as his Chinese goes, and my Uighur is nonexistent except for "thank you" and "good." The rest of the meal is spent in silence, except at the end when I tell him the food was good and thank him.
Back on the bus, I trade places with the two boys. Another fat man, sitting across the aisle, notices me for the first time and immediately demands to know where I am from.
"Ah, Amerriga," he says approvingly.
"I'm Uighur," he declares in heavily accented Chinese. "There are lots of us out here. We're Islamics. You know -- don't eat pork. We're a very talented, capable and extremely intelligent group of people."
And so the ride continues. I am drowsy from the big lunch, and my head nods, only to be jolted by the next bump on the road. Across the aisle, my Uighur friend is absorbed in the mysterious Arabic script of his novel. He finishes a chapter, tears out one of the pages from the beginning and uses it to roll a cigarette. The pungent smoke of the Turkish-style tobacco drifts past. He continues his novel.
The rest of us, under the hypnotic droning of the engine, gaze out the window. Occasionally punctuated by a grove of trees and lush fields or a village of perhaps a dozen small bungalows, the desert continues, although the snowy peaks have been replaced by a range of dry, low hills. The once-refreshing music has long since become endless whining. We patiently endure the boredom; it's 9:30 p.m., and just as the sun sets we pull into a truck stop in the desert town of Korla. We will spend the night here and be on the road again at 6:30.
After almost a year in China, I proudly consider myself quite the hearty traveler, but I am shocked to see my 75-cent room. With hard mud floors, a thatched ceiling and the constant stench from the nearby outhouse, I am reminded of an animal stable. Dusty and sweaty as I am, I cannot bring myself to use the water from the dark and stagnant trough behind the hotel -- even to wash my feet.
Sharing the room with me is a pregnant woman in her eighth month -- her husband will sleep in the men's dormitory. She finds companionship with a young mother who nurses her seemingly unhealthy baby. With their dresses hitched up to their waists, revealing colorful knee-length bloomers and thick nylon panty hose, the two talk with each other. The young brothers who sat next to me during the day also share our dorm room with their mother and grandmother. I attempt small talk with the older brother, a bright boy with dark skin. I ask how old they are.
"Eight. And four and a half." They are going to Kashi "visiting," they tell me ambiguously.
Their mother kindly forces a piece of bread on me, but for the most part everyone is much too worried about tired grandmothers and sick babies to be impressed by their foreign roommate. As they busily chatter away among themselves, I fall asleep in the glare of a naked light bulb.
Only on the second day, when we stop for breakfast, is my presence as a foreigner finally noticed throughout the bus. With my black hair I have successfully (though unintentionally) remained anonymous. Because of the language barrier, I have spoken with only a few people.
A girl with shining eyes and two knee-length braids tied in a bright gauze scarf approaches. She and her father want me to join them for bread and yogurt. Yahofo is quick to come to my side and, in their language, gives me a brief introduction.
The girl from "Amerriga" who is going to Kashi all by herself becomes the main subject of conversation among my fellow travelers as they gather around me. I look up from my yogurt bowl and self-consciously smile back at their curious staring eyes. From now on I will have the constant attention of my 50 travel companions.
Back on the bus, we return to our seats. With time I become more and more uncomfortable. Not only are my shoulders cramped, but my feet are hot from resting on the floor directly above the engine. The reserve oilcan nearby is not reassuring. The dusty wind and the sun in my eyes frustrate me more.
The scenery is starkly beautiful but monotonous nonetheless. Yet I resist napping for fear of missing something -- even if only a herd of camels, or a grove of trees, or a group of boys swimming naked in a spring.
Our restlessness has drained us of energy by the time we stop at the next village for lunch. Most of us stumble to the nearest shade (scarce as it is in the noon sun) rather than the food stalls. Our presence disturbs the sleepy village; even the shopkeeper lies napping on the ground next to his kiosk of hair ribbons, laundry soap and cigarettes with Pakistani labels.
The restlessness continues back on the bus, and only increases when I think that we are barely halfway to Kashi. For a few seconds, our boredom is broken by a roadblock. A public security officer boards the bus and scans the passengers. The gossip is that he is looking for a criminal or an escapee of some sort. He leaves when he finds nothing unusual among the crying babies and weary travelers asleep with their mouths open.
The sun still high, the driver pulls into a truck stop for the night. Arguments about whether we can reach Kashi by tomorrow erupt from the passengers. The driver calmly declares that he is tired and checks into his room. The mother of the two boys is quick to make sure I find a bed and shows me where the toilet and water pump are. She invites me to join them in a dinner of noodles and mutton, but I opt for a few slices of watermelon instead.
Though it also rents for 75 cents, this dorm room is less crude than the one the night before. I wash in the cool water of an outdoor pump. I share my dorm with Nulimen, a student from an agricultural university in U ru mqi who formally invites me to visit her parent's home in Kashi. Her grandmother does not understand our Chinese but watches intently as I brush my hair. She asks her granddaughter to ask me if there are Uighurs in America.
With the annoying hum of mosquitoes around my head, sleep comes less easily tonight.
Eager to start the last day of our journey, the passengers are ready at 6:30 but the bus, wedged behind several other buses and trucks, cannot leave for another 50 minutes.
By now the frustrated restlessness of yesterday has almost become a comfortable habit. Although we passengers have shared little more than smiles and handfuls of sunflower seeds, we feel strangely bonded.
A small child with long eyelashes and big black eyes finds her way onto my lap. I share my philosophies with her in long-winded English; bored, the child runs off to bother someone else. The 4 1/2-year-old sitting next to me, jealous that he has lost my attention, catches it again. I perform "itsy-bitsy spider" for him. He mimics me and runs off to show his mother the newly learned trick. When he returns, he turns on a self-satisfied grin and says "hello" in English.
When we stop for gas and must all get off the bus, I offer water from my canteen to a sick-looking passenger -- one of the few Han Chinese on the bus. I have noticed her pallor since U ru mqi and ask what is wrong.
"I feel a little travel sick, that's all." She has been on the road for nine days: To come from her parents' home in southeastern Fujian province involves a total of five days on trains, two nights in train stations waiting for connections and three days on the bus from U ru mqi back home, where her husband and child await. I ask if she makes the trip often and she sadly reflects that no, since her marriage seven years ago this has been the first time she has had the time or the money to visit her parents.
Our tiny bus continues its journey through the vast desert, still stretching endlessly ahead. In the shadows created by the folds of the distant mountain range, I seem to see the outlines of bearded faces, animals and reclining nudes.
An unexplainable feeling of melancholy lays its blanket over me as the sun begins to set and I realize that we are fast approaching Kashi. Although I have traded addresses with one family and promised to visit another, I am disappointed that I have not made especially memorable friends, disappointed that I have gained as many insights into peoples' lives through the dirty windows of a speeding bus as from my fellow passengers.
The outskirts of Kashi are bathed in a poetic crimson light as we enter, and we catch glimpses of dusty, winding streets, trouserless children waving and signs written in English outside of seedy inns that say, "No Foreigners Allowed."