Siam I Am

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Siam Chronicles 25 - Mongolia by Plane, Gobi by Train

Zombie City

We arrived in Chengdu, and everyone was staring at us. We made our way with testudinal aplomb to the hostel right next to the bus stop. I thought we must make a sight, though we carried less than other backpackers, our burden still took on comic proportions. But after we had dropped off our things, showered away the dust that makes your hair snap under your fingers like a bundle of twigs, and changed into more urban attire, they were still staring. I couldn't understand it, we'd just come from the remote south and no one afforded us more than a bored glance. But here, the capital of Sichuan, a huge humming city, people just couldn't get over us. When we stepped forth the crowded street ceased all motion like someone hit the cosmic pause button. It was super weird. I had previously reserved this level of scrutiny for a ten foot albino in a tutu or someone whose face was half elephant. But even stranger was the intensity of the fascination, they'd be bustling by, a hundred things to do, then sight us. They'd stop to gawk a half an hour, an hour, two, as if they had nothing better to do, all prior commitments forgotten. Perhaps many babies were born without the presence of a father because two seedy capitalists were in desperate want of monitoring. That night we cozied into a traveler's restaurant in the rain, it was cheerful with posters of Jazz greats and leather seats. We were both a bit weary of the spicy tofu that had been our fare for days, it was the only thing out of the phrasebook that was not all chicken bone with bits of vein and fat. We ordered burgers and beer, there were rats that displayed a marked affection for people and an obese cat snoozing who seemed to have a truce with the vermin. It was alright. I noticed with interest a fellow whom I took to be an American as he was wearing a baggy sports jersey from some Florida team - I can't imagine why anyone would willingly advertise the state that elected Dubya unless they were from there. He was a gorgeous man with ebony skin, features cut into fine angles, clean shaven, tall, hair cut close. Alex and I both had the simultaneous thought that if our level of scrutiny was uncomfortable, for him it must be unbearable - he was only the fifth person with very dark skin I have seen in my year in Asia. As he paid for his beer and got up to go, a woman in a business suit on a bicycle did a double take and almost crashed into a dumpster. I went back to my book, after a while I was mulling over a passage, so I glanced out the window to the churn of the city. Sheer terror. A sea of faces pressed against the slick glass, gawking with open mouths. It was literally like being in a zombie movie.
This dread was intensified the next morning when we took the bus to Huanglongxi, a riverside village from the Qing dynasty that looks like it was sucked out of time in a state of perfect preservation. We were set to spend a few hours, but curtailed that notion as soon as we got off the bus. It was a city of zombies. And they were all wearing floral wreaths around their heads, like fat chain-smoking zombie fairies. They performed that synchronized cessation of sound and movement that by now was both so familiar and so disturbing, then followed us, shuffling slack-jawed. We took up evasive action, darting through cobblestone closes to dodge the horde, but then everyone in the alleys would literally drop whatever they were doing, their mouth would go slack, their eyes would widen until they bulged, and they'd come shuffling after us too. I've had this nightmare before, many times. Circular streets that go nowhere, houses leaning so far forward on spindly strands of wood that look like they've been woven by spiders closing in, and a zombie horde at our backs. They're moving slow, but there's nowhere to go. We looped and plunged through the old town and ran up as the bus was pulling out again, jumped on, and were safe with just the six zombies on the bus, who spent the whole hour and a half clustered around us, not saying anything, just staring, staring, staring, unblinking.

The Outer Edge of Inner Mongolia

We got a plane ticket. We flew from Chengdu to Urumqi, which is half a continent away, equivalent to flying from Kansas City to New York or from Prague to Moscow. Why? I had my reasons.
Urumqi is one of the poorest parts of China, and certainly the most remote, bordering what Alex calls the Stans: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. It is mainly Moslem, with a populace called the Uigar, largely coming from the Stans and speaking their own unique language, which is like a mix of Arabic and some Eastern European dialect - I could make out some from my deplorable Czech. Urumqi is also in the middle of the great Taklamakan Desert, and a few hours from Jiaohe, an extensive ruined city that was one of the great centers of the silk road. I wanted to see Jiaohe, I wanted to see the Uigar, I wanted to take a train through the Taklamakan desert into the Gobi. So we went.
We hadn't intended to stay in Urumqi, which by anyone's standards is a as appealing a week dead skunk. But it was the biggest city we were likely to see for awhile, and it had real hotels and banks and stuff. We'd been getting up at five AM for over a week, and the real reason we stayed a night is we were just plain tired. We needed some rest. So we stayed. Urumqi was like Mos Isley on Tattoine, a crazy mixture of cultures with a feeling that anything might happen, in the middle of a vast desert on the edge of another even vaster desert.
Urumqi looks like God spent a few hours vomiting up cinderblocks. We ate at a Pizza Hut, the second time we've had fast food in a year, only it wasn't fast food. It was a real fancy restaurant, with waiters and tablecloths and mood lighting. It was like stepping into an alternate fast food reality. We made our way from there through blocks of people selling an endless variety of raisins and nuts out of stalls to the Islamic quarter and the mad bazaar. Men with non-Asian faces in round white caps, flowing robes, beards and round glasses debated with animation on the steps. Women with non-Asian faces wore head scarves and covered their mugs with a pound of band-aid colored foundation, so thick it cracked like mud in the desert and huge chunks fell off and shattered into the pavement. Their eyes were covered in black gunk, like a raccoon, and their lips were universally bright red. There were beggars everywhere, wearing burlap sacks over their heads and hands. A few women had a wheel-barrow with them containing a child draped from head to foot in gauze like a mummy, except over a massive suppurating wound, glistening red and full of pus and flies. These were pulling in the most money, and I wondered if they inflicted these wounds on purpose. They had fists full of yuan, it is the custom of beggars in Inner Mongolia to display the day's take. For whatever reason, I found the huge piles of money discouraging for my donations.
The signs were all in Arabic, Cyrillic, Chinese, and Mongolian. Some had befuddling English insertions crammed into them too, but few speak English in China. After growing up in DC and mocking Japanese tourists in America, I now get why they go in huge tour groups. I now have much more sympathy. Going into a bus station where your language is totally foreign and pointing at a word you've carefully crafted onto a napkin can not substitute a conversation, especially if there is any complication, like the bus is full, cancelled, delayed, or there are no longer any buses going anywhere ever again because the bus station has been renovated into a full time brothel. Or perhaps the attendant is just having an unfulfilling day - we've all had those moments even in America where we have to cajole, whinge, flatter, truckle, and finally tease out a ticket from a surly agent. This is difficult when the gamut of your conversation is "Hello" "Thank you" and "I like beer." Luckily for me, I married a man with a sense of diligence, and he has been learning Mandarin at an accelerated rate. He usually pulls us through most scrapes, and has the added benefit of a beguiling smile. When his three weeks of Mandarin fails and his shy grin doesn't do the trick, I am ready to step up to the plate with my sheer donkey-headed obstinacy, willing and ready to divert everyone in the district to my indefatigable purpose. Language or no, I can make myself perfectly clear. We make a good team.

It was a strange night, this far north the sun sets at eleven PM or so - we didn't stay up to see it, going to bed in full daylight. We woke up the next morning at six AM to full daylight and got on a bus to Turpan. I've seen a number of deserts, one in Spain, the rest in America, and each was utterly different from the other. When I was a kid I was a voracious reader of novels, and I have held a romantic candle for the wasteland my whole life. I had expected every desert to be the same - I guess I thought they would all be the Sahara, a beach of massive dunes without water. I've never seen the Sahara, and I've never found this ideal. But none have disappointed, and the Mojave with its yellow flowers and purple mountains still tops my list with Donjana and Death Valley a close second.
The Taklamakan is an atrium of gray pebbles under walls of granite crusted with snow. Although entirely natural, the grayness of the rock seems almost industrial. But the way to Turpan was full of round buildings like breasts, yellow sand structures with a window slotted into the daub, marking cairn graveyards. It has its charm.
When we arrived in Turpan we were immediately overtaken by the garrulous hospitality of a Uigar man named Mama John. His features were Russian, but his hair burnished a flick of red, and his big face held the tan of the desert - Turpan is the hottest spot in all of China. He drove us to our intended hotel, modeled in Arabic arches and curves, smiling and laughing as he demonstrated his command of six languages - Uigar, Mandarin, English, Japanese, Korean and Russian. He asked nothing for the ride to our hotel, and I commissioned him to take us to Jiaohe later that day. Until the designated hour we walked through the grape-vine arbors of the city streets, taking delicious mutton pastries sublimely spiced from the carts and devouring them until I got one the special one filled with gristle and rancid grease. We made our way back and entered the white coupe to Jiaohe. There was a TV show in Uigar playing on a tiny flat screen embedded in the passenger seat sunblind. I had never seen anything like this before, but my attention was quickly diverted to our surroundings. When I finally noticed that our driver was watching the show, no eyes on the road, while he was simultaneously talking on his cell, no hands on the steering wheel, I ferreted out the seat belts from the black pile of gunk and strapped myself and my husband into the macramé cushions.
I felt like I was back in Turkey, with massive mountains and vineyards to each side, and people in full white Islamic robes walking under the sun. But the streets were packed with donkey carts. My favorite animal, my totem, is the donkey, the ass, a cross between a horse and a bunny with big fluffy ears and a singularly irascible disposition. I love the few that can never submit. In my past, present, and future, I am an irascible ass, this is my pride, this is my downfall. But a perfect existence if I can get a few choice head kicks in before I'm put down. Jiaohe was like a huge sandcastle city.
Yellow on cliffs between palm shaped rivers, the whole place was built of sand, water and hay. Although the signs told me not to touch in comical terms that required a certain amount of inference, the empty expanse of Flinstones style structures left me at the great temple pushing my thumb into the five hundred year old wall. It crumbled under the slight pressure, agreeably, as if wanting you to go to work on the rest of it, pressing the ruins into the ground. I wondered with real interest how this city of sand and hay could have stood for so long, how I could be walking through perfect arches set in such a friable medium. I thought the striations of rich tan sand so delicate in the fine blue ether might plummet into lumps at the merest sniff of rain.
We left after a bit, not running the whole gamut of the empty sand town on top of the cliff because I was feeling lazy. We eschewed the aqueduct agricultural theme park, and ended our journey at the Minaret. It seemed very new, elaborate but simple in classic Arabic design, true to religion no grand center point, and ours was just to wander and not offend. I risked offending when we found a ridiculously massive hand-made broom in a corner, and I inveigled Alex to grab it and pose for a photo. He did, its tines were long as a hog, this was truly a Minaret sized broom.
When we got back there was some consternation, as we asked to be dropped off at the only place in town that the guidebook prognosticated English fluency and travel advice. We ate there, spicy lamb that was mostly fat but delicious nonetheless, and sesame seed flat bread. They told us how to make our train, it was simple. We should just go there in the morning at our leisure, there would be no problems. Fantastic. As we were finishing up our meal, I noticed that Mama John was waiting for us, suddenly vulpine in his white coupe, and I couldn't eat any more. I felt a bit sick, we were such pigeons. Overall we had done an adequate job of not being pigeons and our whole year had cost us about a hundred twenty dollars total in stupidity levy for being cozened by shysters. But the truth is that we were sick of it, and the sight of this new vulture made me incredibly weary. As we walked out, he folded into a wall of shining flesh, and we told him that we just wanted to use the internet. This had been a problem for days, there is no functional internet in much of China. He ferried us from one place to the next, not taking no for an answer, until we found a dingy corner that was semi-online. At this he left, taking a fallacious promise from Alex that we would call him tomorrow for further excursions. But really we soon left, children swept singing in our wake, walking back to our seamy hotel at the ready to leave at five AM for another bus to the train to take us east to the Gobi.

Nameless Town
We took the bus as promised, no problems. Our problems started at the train station of an entirely Islamic burg in the middle of nowhere. When we got to the train station, after much jostle and feints at complete nonchalance we achieved the ticket counter. True to form, everyone coming in swarmed up and tried to push us out of the way. We had time, we waited until there was none about when Alex made his gambit. It didn't help. I don't care what anyone has to say, China is an incredibly rude country as a whole. There is a line in the sand where a single person waits at a lonely ticket booth in an empty station. The drive that pushes a man in a shabby suit with folds for a face to cram on and push this person out of the way mid-transaction is the divider between that which is reasonable and the fantastic sprigs of psychosis. So the patient discourse of Alex was continually interrupted. When Alex finally achieved some breadth and dearth he found that the next train left in ten hours. We had to wait in this nameless town for ten hours. Alex was tapped, it took all of his strength to jockey for interlocution. I was drained just watching him fight in that cavernous station, all squeaky shoes and echoes, but I took the lead, and forded to a close hotel where we could drop our bags for the long wait for the train.
We watched two movies entirely in Chinese, and I made up my own dialogue, read a few hundred pages of my refrigerator-sized novel, we ate even more spicy tofu. Those hours were introspective.

Gobi Express
The train through the Taklamakan and Gobi took 22 hours, 18 of which were awesome. We got a private car with soft beds and flowers. Out our window the biggest sand dunes in the world whizzed by in tan and red. The dining car was full of just staff, who all crammed in the booth with us to exchange English and Chinese lessons. This included the cook, who was incredibly dirty, with sooty hands and nails fulsome with filth. He was super drunk the whole time, and around midnight, after the sun had finally set less with color than in a slow drain of light, he and the assistant cook got into a wrestling match. Then a man came in, making a big scene, screaming and hitting the tables with his fists. The staff had to drag him away. We decided that was enough for one night, and turned in.


The Labrang Monastery at Xiahe is the third most important Tibetan Buddhist site in the world. The town is chock-a-block with Tibetans, wearing their hair in braids and their robes bundled over one shoulder, belted in piles with brass circles. The smell of yak lard is all pervading and Alex and I are learning Tibetan. We're staying in a traditional house with a big common room, and last night I got to drink too much whiskey and talk to a young man who was born here. He told me that this whole area used to be Tibet until 1959, when the Chinese came and murdered everyone, destroying all the temples as they went. He himself had fled a decade ago, going 48 days over the Himalayas to India on foot with a group of monks, eating nothing but barley flour in water. They had to walk only at night, the way is lined with corpses, they barely made it. Once he got there he studied with the Dali Lama. He comes back to see his family, and he's been thrown into a Chinese prison four times, each time tortured. His open face turned thoughtful, his eyes dimmed a moment, and he said that this may be the last time he comes back, his body has gotten so weak from the electrocutions that his nose bleeds almost constantly. He looked away for a moment then laughed and invited me to breakfast - barley flour in water.


At 8:23 AM, Blogger Mooms said...

Best blog yet. Surreal.

At 9:33 AM, Blogger Mooms said...

Our friend Lynn writes:

That was very evocative, and also within my vocabulary range.


At 10:45 AM, Anonymous The Chemist said...

Ah yes Maoism is no less a faith than is Christianity or Islam. There are always inquisitions and inquisitors enough to go around. One wonders how one hires a torturer. Do you place an add in the paper? Are there match up sites on the net? Wanted uncaring sadist to work in critical government/church intelligence job. The squeamish need not apply.


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