Globalising Uighurstan

               The southernmost road headed east through Xinjiang took us through some pretty disgusting places. Trash piles burned on the sidewalks, and little kids just shit in the street. Goat skins and carcasses were discarded in a pile throughout the day as the meat was sold off at a city market stall. 

                We left Kashgar at night in a taxi and got into the next city, Hotan, around three o’clock in the morning, Uhigur time, or maybe Chinese… the two are different, but I can’t remember by how much, so clocks are extremely ambiguous. It was the middle of the night. We tried to sleep on some steps outside a closed shop until the sun rose, but it was much too dusty, and much to strange and uncomfortable a place to be able to sleep. So we just laid until the sun rose.

                We were quite well into the Uighurs’ land; the dress and manners of the people of the people, and the style of the town, was more of what I would have imagined to find in the Middle East, not China. They were Muslim by long tradition, and as a relatively small tribe they maintain a very strong culture, evident in almost all of the Uighur people. Their own language is written in Arabic strip, and thus looks pretty much like Arabic language to me when written. But it has a distinct sound, similar to the Kazakh and Kyrgyz languages, not so much to arabic. 

                But these people are far away from everything. The entire province of Xinjiang, or Uighurstan for the native people, sits just north of the massive Himalayan plateau. It has borders with remote parts of Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan, none of early pioneering of industrial development or global commerce. In only the last generation were they tapped by this system. So, all the trash was a new thing to them, and they had no idea what to do with it or how to deal with it.

                In comparison, our ancestors in the United States going back to the 1940’s have slowly been introduced to the concept of having large amounts of waste to dispose of. By waste, I mean tin, aluminum, plastic, styrofoam, paper, cardboard, and other garbage. I mean all the garbage: old furniture, computers, bed frames, construction waste, plastic cups, chap-stick tubes, candy wrappers, old shoes, fast-food bags, class handouts, newspapers, boxes and bags, wrappers and boxes for food, bottles for water or industrial chemicals, broken cars, and plastic utensils.

                 Our people has grown up with it all, slowly for several generations. We have garbage cans all throughout the cities, in public places, and in our houses, all of which are attended to by municipal or private workers. Our landfills are engineering feats, assembled with great machines. It’s all had time to set in. 

                But in Uighurstan, this barrage is brand new. “Medieval” is what my journalism professor called parts of eastern China he saw as it just began to open to the West in the 1970’s. And this place is far away from everything, even eastern China. Quite recently, these people lived in a manner relatively unchanged for many thousands of years: localized production without petroleum power, industrialized. The roads and the trucks and all the stuff in them just hit them by surprise.           
Thus: the disaster. They didn’t know how to deal with it or what its effects or qualities really were. No one ever had trash before. How could they know already that burning it is bad or have developed a disciplined method of bagging it, collecting it, and shipping it away? The scene was really revolting. With so little municipal trash collection, most shops and houses burnt garbage outside their door, and the streets were jam-packed with people and tricycle motor carts. There was a huge open junk market selling piles and piles of rusted metal parts and industrial cuts of metal, all leftover or salvaged from broken things. The place was just dirty, in general, almost as dirty as anywhere could be.  

And for me, it is sad to see this have befallen a people. Has it done them any good? We call it modernization, or globalization, but it seems that the side effects of this upgrade are not so mild. Now a very big mess has been made of the places where desert merchants once traded beautifully handcrafted rugs and tapestries and urns and such things along the great Silk Road between the West and the East. Here people had traded their art for food and other goods, to be like a regal desert tribe. They built eloquent, golden-domed mosques that still stand today. The air was clean before, and you could drink the water. People lived and died as they almost always had until the quiet was broken by petroleum motors as the trucks start coming in. 

 When we compare ourselves and the city around us with others, places we call the third-world, we never realize the scale of the change in global lifestyle that our people led in the last century. Just three or four generations ago Europeans in the United States were some of the first people to industrialize and capitalize, and since then the infrastructure and idea has grown, large and larger with time. 

                If we are the subjects of capitalist industrialization, then these people are the objects. The concept came to them, and what could they have done? The world needs roads, today it seems, for after all they carry goods to market. In eastern China, tens of millions of workers labor in the factories that stock the markets around the world. Roads make factories money. They are necessary now, and all people must be tapped by the system
                Thus, bear in mind when you bask in euphoria when you bask in the wonder of what our civilization has done; you are not seeing all of it.


Colonialism in China

Western China is not Bruce Lee country. People there don’t even look like Bruce Lee. I – we – have a well-established idea in mind of what “Chinese people” look like. If you try and imagine China, the Chinese person will quickly manifest themselves in your imagination. I think that I need not describe the characteristics of such Chinese people. Our image is not hazy. In fact, the image of the Chinese is quite the same image that most Americans refer to with the simple word Asian. Either way, such people are whom I expected to encounter. Enter China; meet Chinese people, right?

Incorrect. In fact, my assumption was as incorrect as would have been sailing to Peru in 1600 and expecting to see the streets bustling with obvious European Spaniards – white skin, beards, black hair, collared shirts, etc., living their lives beneath the Spanish flag. In reality, our hypothetical 17th century sailor would encounter the populous throngs of the native American people, Inca, in this case, completely unrepresented by the flag of Spain. Similarly, I entered China to find a nationless nation of Central Asian Muslim people populating the vast majority of all the region (as far as I could see).

 The place harkened a sentiment more like my image of Arabia than China. The people of this land are called Uighurs (WEE-goors) and once lived out the exquisite legend of traders on the Silk Road (Local legend says that Marco Polo passed through these towns of southern Xinjiang province). Their land is one of date palms and desert scrub clustered amidst the seemingly endless expanse of dry and lifeless sand dunes. Some days before, on the Western side of the great Tian Shan Mountains, herders sat atop horses to drive their clamorous flocks of sheep through the lush green river valleys or up and down the rolling slopes carpeted in thick vegetation. Now, two-wheeled carts drawn by a donkey seemed to be the solid preference for animal-powered transportation, and wild camels moped around the expanses of rock and sand, seemingly asking themselves eternally why they had to be a camel in the desert and not a monkey in the jungle or a fish in the sea.

In the faces of the Uighur I see (or possibly imagine) a hefty resemblance to the Iranians, or maybe the Turks. Either way, they do not resemble the Chinese. Here is one thing I learned quickly in China:

To describe someone as Chinese is ambiguous, because the word may describe two characteristics of a person: nationality or race. By the first meaning, everyone within the borders of this great Eastern empire is Chinese, simply because they fall under the authority, for good or for ill, of the Chinese government and the bureaucracy established to organize and orchestrate such a hefty magnitude of people and commerce. But, by the other meaning, only about 9 in 10 Chinese are really Chinese  (which, in an empire of 1.6 billion people, leaves a significant population aside). Racially, this word describes the Han people, known more often as the Han Chinese. This is the race responsible for 5000 years of Chinese civilization, and to it belong such people as Confucius, Lao Tzu, Mao Tse-tung, and Bruce Lee.

But, the ten percent (160,000,000) people remaining, for the most part, didn’t take part in that history and don’t identify anymore with the Han Chinese than the French do with the Russians. In fact, I find this place to reek of contemporary colonialism. Of all the Central Asian peoples, the Uighurs got left without sovereignty. The Kazakhs got Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz got Kyrgyzstan, the Tajiks got Tajikistan, the Uzbeks got Uzbekistan, and the Turkmens got Turkmenistan, but, unfortunately, China got Uighurstan. Amidst the beautiful gold and turquoise mosques, the sprawling market bazaars, and the heaping mounds in the old town of thousands and thousands of years of human constructions atop one another, Han Chinese military police patrol the streets with bullet-proof vests, automatic weapons, battering rams, plastic shields, and helmets. The entire province, like many under colonial rule, has had a recent history of violence against its foreign government, and the Eastern police maintain a strong presence here to send the message: We will always beat you.

The Uighurs have their own language which is now written in Arabic script. From my observations trying to show them Chinese characters for ‘bathroom’ or ‘bus’ in my guidebook, I have inconclusively inferred that many Uighurs don’t even speak Mandarin, and I vaguely remember an NPR report about the region in which the Chinese government mandated that schools in this region teach less in Uighur language and more in Mandarin. Yet, it seems to be by law that every sign, every big of publicly posted literature, whether it be for a shop, a restaurant, a warning, a bathroom – anything, be written in both Uighur and Mandarin languages.  

 But, the most colonial of all are the massive settlements being constructed as overflow storage for Han Chinese people, who are pouring out of the Far East, ballooning its walls with their sheer numbers. In Kashgar, the westernmost city in China, large parts of the old town had already been bulldozed to make room for new concrete towers. For my readers at the UT community, I will relate that this process is something similar to what’s happening now in West Campus, with some key differences. First and foremost, the constructions being demolished in West Campus to make room for the new Soviet-style living blocks are between 150 and 50 years old, most of the time. The old towns of the Silk Road area are between 2 and 4 thousand years old. Indeed, the archaeological term for these types of ‘towns’ is “civilization mound.” Imagine a small town inhabited by several hundred or maybe a thousand people. As time goes on, every generation is constructing new things – new rooms, new roofs, new shops, etc. With time, as the population grows larger and large, the city expands outward in all directions, but also begins to expand upwards. I don’t mean high rise towers; were still in 1000 CE, I mean a pile of construction rubble that has well been worked into the foundation of the city. The entire settlement, after some thousands of years, sets itself atop its very own man-made hill, created by the continuous process of human cutting resources outside of town (brick, mud, rocks, wood) and taking them into town. Through this construction, in the very style of humanity’s oldest surviving cities, the Chinese government cuts, in order to allow space for more efficient housing.

But, outside the cities, the projects are immense. The government is building cities from scratch. Forty cranes all labor simultaneously to raise dozens of concrete towers. The streets are built in orderly square blocks around master-planned centers for shops, restaurants, bus stations, banks, and so on. Nice gardens line the streets and building entrances. But, not a single person lives there yet, in any of the numerous new super-settlements. They are constructions projects taken up in the barren desert and worked until a shiny new city punctuates the natural beauty. Then, like many empires facing problems with population, the Chinese government will likely fund the voyages of many Han Chinese into Uighur land.

It’s a sad story to hear how a people loses their land, their autonomy, their identity, and ultimately their livelihood and lives, but this story is not uncommon in our era. In the Western hemisphere, our idea of colonialism is based on the notion of white people traveling thousands of miles to pillage resources from another land and enslave its people.  Colonialism in Asia, it seems, is a bit different, because the people sit on the largest landmass on Earth, so no ocean crossing ever proved necessary in order to find lesser peoples to steal from. The relationship between the Han and the Uighur is something similar to that between the Europeans and the native American people around the early 1800’s. The Europeans had to keep expanding, and rather than building cities on top of the oceans to the East, the build cities on top of the other people to the West. If this trend continues in China as it did in the Americas, the Uighur people will someday be lost to history, made irrelevant; all of their thousands of years of history shared in their stories and their dress, their prayers and their general way of being will be condensed into a couple of paragraphs in the voluminous text books on Chinese history.


A Goal and a Path to Get There

Leaving Kyrgyzstan went smoothly by any standards we'd managed to maintain. The trucker drove us the three or four kilometers to the Chinese checkpoint (which turned out to be only one of five), but we were then told by the guards that we'd be required to take a special (pricey) ‘international’ bus to Kashgar, the first city over the border, 'for our safety.'

As the Chinese border guards searched all our things, they paid particular attention to books. They dug every book out of our two backpacks and thumbed through them for anything that was obviously not allowed. For closer inspection, they were all delivered to the apparent head guard, who spoke and read English. When he came across our Lonely Planet China guide, it was clear that he recognized the sort of book it was, and in the conversation between the guard I picked out the word ‘Taiwan.’ Sure enough, after sifting through the pages and the index, the guard settled on the double spread map of the region on the inside cover. It showed China in illustrated geographic detail – mountains and rivers and deserts and forests with blues and yellows and greens and browns. But, all of the surrounding countries were grey without any detail included. Taiwan was grey, and consequently we were informed that the book could not be brought into China lest the illustration cause confusion amongst the citizenry.

Uh-oh. That book is vitally important. Not only does it contain the only maps we had to use, but it provides the only descriptions of the area in general. Without that book, we would have no idea where to go or why, and would likely end up drifting from one city bus terminal to the next heading slowly East to Hong Kong. We would have no idea where to find the old palaces, towers, walls, and other hallmarks of the ancient ancestors of this land, and actually we wouldn’t know how to find even the bus or train station in even a medium-sized city. If we’d spoken Chinese, it wouldn’t really have been a problem, but because we didn’t (and not even a little), it was a problem.

But then, the guard presented the option that he merely remove the map fromt he book, and I opted for this before he finished the offer. With one swift and spiteful motion, he tore out the page and handed back the book. Our passports were collected as military men conducted a thorough search of the official ‘international’ bus, complete with hammers and screw drivers and drills, tapping and listening on all hollow places. Then our small group of border-crossers on that day was herded inside.

There, our identities were checked once more as our documents were handed back, and the bus was cleared to leave. Apparently, they had to be absolutely sure that no undocumented human could enter China and sink off into anonymity amongst the 1,400,000,000 others. There were only a few people on board, mostly Kyrgyz, one Tajik, and two Americans. The four hour bus ride lasted 10 hours, and took us through some ruggedly inhospitable terrain in the process of a massive development effort.

There are certain construction projects that bear the unmistakable mark of imperial capital, and in this era a solid hallmark of that is one piece of work that disappears off into both horizons. Also in our modern era, this project don’t come from many sources. In fact, there have only been three who build on such an epic scale: the USA, the USSR, and now, China. These continental empires build (or used to build) great and colossal works to feed their populations. In the same fashion of the Roman aqueducts, power cables are run on huge steel towers, anchored in concrete, across vast expanses of land to bring electricity where there would not be. Here in China, they were building roads on the same fashion as our own Interstate Highway system that was built in a mad rush of productivity.

 For hours and hours we passed work crews laboring away on a wide and modern highway to lead up to one of China's most remote border crossings, but, as a cause of great discomfort to us, the road was yet to even nearly be completed. So, we didn’t quite reap the benefits. But, so spectacularly, they were constructing the entire thing at once, and not laying it out before them in a line progressing westward towards the end of their country. No, for hours and hours men and beastly machines worked beside our small dirt road to cut through mountains, pour pillars for bridges, flatten fields of boulder, and lay the path for China’s modern era. There were jack-hammers and scooper machines and dump-trucks and even sites of clear explosions to remove huge swaths of mountain. And, to heighten the intensity, we were hours and hours away from any sort of town. Where did those men and machines come from? I can’t imagine.

With such power at work besides us, our bus lumbered bumped along at a deathly ironic crawl, pressing onward through clouds of intrusive dust and deep desert road ruts. We passed multiple checkpoints, at each of which we were taken off the bus, our documents were collected, the bus was searched, and then our passports were handed back as we entered the bus again, single file. Each time, we lost a little bit of sense of what was going on. We passed each checkpoint then asked each other, “So…   Was that it? Are we here?” But, each time, everyone got back on the bus, so we got back on too. I tried to ask the driver what was going on, and I did this by pointing to the ground then putting my palms face-up at shoulder height with cocked elbows in what I believed to be an internationally inquisitive stance. “Where are we?” was what I was trying to get at. But, I think that in his eyes I was dancing for him, because he only ever chuckled.

But, things cleared up when we approached a checkpoint facility 25 times bigger than any we had passed through. This giant complex consisted of a long line of checks, four separately staffed desks all in a line, by which we had to pass in succession, through the length of a long, epic hall with ten-meter-tall ceilings. At each one we handed in our documents and were given some degree of approval before passing to the next one. Clearly, each ran our passports through different systems, printed out different colored registration cards, inquired in bad but excited scraps of English who we were and where we were going.

I told them, “Hong Kong” and they laughed like I was crazy. They understood it in the way that an American border guard would asking a traveler with no personal transportation and just a backpack where he was going as he crossed into Texas at Laredo. The traveler says, “Alaska.”

 Thirty minutes later and 40 meters farther than when we had begun, we handed our passports one last time to the guards protecting the exit gate, and got the go ahead to be free.
And finally, that was it. This battled that I had waged against the Chinese bureaucracy, the Central Asain transportation infrastructure, and the monumental geographic barriers of that land seemed over. Ever since my hunt for the Chinese embassy in Bishkek began to draw its self out, this was the moment I had fantasized about. As far as I could tell, we were officially in.
But, wisdom tempered the thrill. I had felt this same ‘victory’ when I got my visa, when we caught a car to the border, and when we walked up to that wretched crossing facility in Irkestam. I had planned to be in China eleven days before but had been met by such unexpected resistance from all around. Something was beginning to become clear: I’d been thinking about this journey all wrong. The thrill, and the sense of accomplishment, was not ever going to be in the destination but in the arduous trek down the path that eventually and inevitably ends. Consumed by the idea that I had somewhere to be, somewhere to get to that seemed fantastically more glorious than wherever I was, I had convinced myself that the eleven days past were days spent in passing; in preparation. In trying to get to the peak, I hadn’t really paid attention to the rest of the mountain. I thought of a proverb I’d heard once from the Andean people: The goal does not exist. The goal and the path are the same thing. How true it is. This path that I was on meant much more, served me much better, than would simply being in China. The lessons, the memories, the insight, the stimuli, and the adventure were hidden all along the way. This struggle I’d just overcome was the path that I had taken, and from my time on this path I have written these stories. It is the same in the course of a human life. Too often we fix our eyes on where we are going, and thus forget that the life we are given is but a single path. It has no great destination, no peak called adulthood or success, but rather is a short time that we are granted to learn and explore, to grow and develop each day given our surroundings at that time. Being alive, we must always live to learn and to explore, to collect the information around us and synthesize it as only a human being can, then store in in our great databases of wisdom housed within every human head. Now I was ready to go forth into China and turn of the mysteries that danced throughout my dreams.  

The bus continued some hours farther to Kashgar, the westernmost city in all of China.


Barriers of Every Sort

So, like I was saying, we left Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan in a southbound car headed for the 3000 year old Silk Road city of Osh. I had envisioned something along the lines of those big old hunky South American buses, all painted and hung with frills, puttering along with its deep and gaseous bellow to get us where we needed to go. But, in fact, there seemed no other option than to take a small car piloted by a duo of men who planned to pack it well beyond capacity and drive all night. Once we found the ride and demanded a fair price, my brother and I got in and waited for the seats to fill.
By a lucky chance, we found ourselves in the company of a Kyrgyz man who'd been a foreign exchange student in Kansas some 8 years before, and we had some good talks along the 14 hour ride over two rugged mountain ranges. Strangely, he spoke English with the same quirky accent that I relate to the Tonkawa and Navajo people I've spoken with, and he told me all about his time in America. Kansas was quite boring, he said, but he thought Chicago was great. Taco Bell was delicious, but he noticed a bold tendency towards obesity in his high school class. Americans, he said, drive for even the shortest distances, and he couldn’t understand why they were so shocked to see him eat bread all by itself. On that note, American bread, he said, was not bread at all. But, he liked the country and hopes one day to return.
            Before the car ride, I had told my brother stories of long night time bus rides in South America, bouncing over hopelessly bumpy roads with loud blaring salsa music keeping the drivers alert all night long, but also keeping my eyes open like full perfect circles, loathing the absurdity of my sleepless situation. I had hoped that he, my brother, would be fortunate enough to grapple with the same sort of night, and I was quite content to find our ride be all the same, save salsa replaced with traditional Kyrgyz songs.
"Old people like this music," my friend said of the songs. "We used to sing these songs after we broke from the Soviet Union, during the difficult times. That's why old people like to remember." In fact, as I learned, general expressions of traditional culture was forbidden (to such an extent that it could be policed) during the Soviet Union, and all peoples were forcibly encouraged to adopt the new Soviet culture, which was not Kyrgyz or Kazakh or Uzbek or anything else. Actually, it was quite Russian. So, upon the fall, the identity crisis that ensued prompted people to walk away from their several generations of Russian tradition and rediscover their own. Among such rediscoveries were the songs of the Kyrgyz people’s nomadic ancestors, many of which have been sung to those lands for many, many centuries past. 
`Sometime in the middle of the night, our driver stopped to switch with his co-pilot, and accordingly found his way to a late-night roadside stand for a nice tall glass of Russian vodka before his sleep. But, as it turns out, the new driver was no so directionally inclined, and quickly lost his way on the dark mountain roads. So, they switched back. Christopher put on his seat belt, but I, sitting in a spot never intended for a person to sit in, had no such accommodation. Rather, I decided to plan some bracing position, tucked under the seat in front of me, that I could quickly assume in the case of a crash. It almost certainly would not have helped me, but with our good luck, it was not necessary.
We arrived at Osh near day break, having slept so little that night, and picked up our bags to continue the journey.
            "Hey!" shouted our friend. "Where are you going? It’s too early. Get some rest."
Never had I heard such a welcome invitation. So we, along with the other occupants of the small van, passed out for two hours, flopped over the seats inside, sleeping off the early hours until life picked up in the city. Then, we set out to find out next ride in a small vehicle disturbingly similar to the one from which we then emerged.
            The drive to Osh over the Kyrgyz mountain ranges in the dark had taken about 12 hours, and, from what we could understand, the Chinese border was just about 10 hours away. With a sense of impending victory, anticipating our arrival to the destination that had thus far proved harder to reach than we had imagined, we were off to the high mountains pass of Irkestam, where the border crossing facilities are located. It was again a long ride, winding up high green grassy mountains, past encampments of modern day nomads living in yurts with horses, donkeys, and sheep, watching their flocks as they wandered about the paradise fields, and procuring their foods by age-old ancestral methods around a fire.
            At one point the road took us past a large yurt and homestead on the side of the mountain and the car stopped at the word of the oldest man. Our English-speaking fried said to us, “He wants to invite you for a bowl of kymyz.”
            Kymyz, I happened to know, is fermented horse milk – a sort of dairy beer. I had drunk it before, but had never really enjoyed it. It gets you tipsy, sure, but for a weak baby’s stomach like me, it also gets you sick and gassy. But, we could not decline. We took of our shoes to enter the yurt, the inside of which was lined with wool blankets on the floor, ceiling, and one circular wall. A steel stove burnt wood for warmth, as those mountains are chilly in the summer (I can’t even fathom the winters there). We sat cross-legged around a tabled laid with bread and hardened balls of salty milk curds, and the owner of the home, a hefty old woman, brought before us three large bowls of the milk, which I expect was drawn from the horse we’d passed to come inside.
            The milk essentially tastes like what Americans would call ‘bad milk.’ Its not quite the same of course, because it’s both drawn from a different animal and left to ferment in a most eloquent and practiced manner. But still, I found a lesson here. Many things that we consider bad or even unsafe to eat are not so. These phrases are just a way of side stepping the truth. This food is not good enough for us. For people who take their livelihood from the land by the products of their own toil in the natural manner of human beings that goes so many hundreds of thousands of years back, there is no such thing as ‘not good enough for us.’ Once you are able to think in this way you’ll ask yourself, “Does this really taste bad or have I just convinced myself of that from the start? Is there actually any reason that this food should be paired with this adjective: bad? Or, am I simply espousing the training I’ve received from people far, far away from here who’d learned to live a life that neither I nor any of my surrounding companions are living here?”
            Well, the kymyz was good, and it made it easy to quickly fall asleep.
            The rest of our car ride took us through some of the most dramatic terrain I’ve ever witnessed. We ascended slowly a range of mountains that forms part of the same macro-range of the Himalayas; thousands of miles and millions of tons of Earth thrust upwards to the sky by the South Asian tectonic plate smashing steadily, intently, and yet furiously into the rest of Eurasia. For many hours we continued up and up, until the trees began to disappear and jagged rock faces protruded with a monumental grace from the living cover of vegetation. Then, things got muddy: giant riverbeds plastered with the fine red silt ground by high glaciers, the melted waters of which saturate the ground each year from Spring to early Fall. Farther up the range, the water never melted at all. Coming over a crest, the highest point the road would take us, we found an almost psychedelic landscape. There, in those mountains, the snow hadn’t melted for many thousands of years, and had created its own kind of glacial ground. Compressed by its own weight accumulating every season since the dawn of mankind, the icy crystals has been smash so eloquently over the face of those massive mountains that it seemed like a rough blueprint for Earth. The most basic texture was there – that which you’d see from outer space, but the fine details on it were gone. No color, no pumps, no rocks, no trees, just a thick glacial plaster that was smooth in every sense. It was June, and we were along latitude close to that of San Francisco. 
             The high crest of this range separate Kyrgyzstan from Western China, so the border facilities were located just below this highest pass. We arrived in the early afternoon. Victory. We had arrived. I’d spent the past few months in Central Asia, and the adrenaline surge prompted by total helplessness and ignorance to everything around had subsided somewhat as I’d grown more and more comfortable with the people’s way of being (and their language, not to mention). Now, I was pumped to be at it again, diving into another great unknown to explore and build ideas from very bottom on up. Victory, at last. The new journey was about to begin.
"The border's closed," we were told. "It will open on Monday morning." It was Saturday.
            I turned and looked around. The place we had landed in was not a village, but rather more like a trashy encampment; the ruins of trailer park. Along a 100 meter length of road, amidst heaped up piles of accumulated garbage and food waste, about 30 rusted out Soviet trailers housed the unfortunate inhabitants of the 4000 meter high pass. The mud was dotted with homemade toilet facilities, built of whatever material could be salvaged and nailed together in a square around a hole in the ground. I will now discuss these toilets in some more gruesome detail, so feel free to abstain from the paragraph that follows.
            First, I will describe the design. A large hold had been dug in the ground, approximately 2 feet in diameter and two meters or so deep. On top of that hole a surface was placed. Because construction materials didn’t often make their way so far up the mountains, no single piece of wood (or anything) was large enough to sturdily cover these holes, so something was nailed together and supported on rocks or even tied at points to create a chunky composite surface of garbage. In the very center of this surface, directly above the hole in the ground, a rectangular hole, approximately five by twelve inches, was cut, and foot-sized board were nailed to the ground on either side. These boards served as pedestals on which the feet could be placed while the owner of the feet assumed a squatting position aimed straight down into that hole. The ‘walls’ that surrounded the floor of this bathroom facility were similarly constructed: any imaginable sort of material was heaped up, attached with ropes, nails, or simply gravity, to create some sort of vision barrier. Essentially, it was a dark stinky cave of garbage suspended above a great pit of shit. There were two poignantly unpleasant aspects of using these toilets. First, they were an insatiably popular hang-out for the flies; I guess sort of their equivalent to a pub. This proves unfortunate when one assumes the functional position. If you can imagine this sort of squat, with your knees up in your armpits, you could understand how vast regions of generally well-insulated and protected flesh are suddenly exposed to the air, and these deep forbidden crevices are also, it turns out, really nice places to be in the minds of the flies. They jump at the chance to slurp some fresh human slime, and activity which is unsettling to host. The next really bothersome thing is that, given the constraints of a community without any sort of government services (mostly garbage disposal), throwing toilet paper into the hole that was so laboriously dug to store human waste is really a waste of your effort. You wouldn’t want your hole to fill up so quickly with paper then go off to dig another one already. But, at the same time, ‘trash cans’ are a silly idea, because once trash is in the trash can, where does it go? No garbage trucks come to get it, so it must be inevitably dumped into heaping piles on the ground. For who knows how many generations, industrial waste has accumulated at this encampment – plastic, paper, concrete, and rubber. Also, toilet paper. These little bathrooms are surrounded by the soiled papers of all their patrons passed, and these damp mounts of paper, brown and yellow with the occasional red, also make a great hang-out for the local fly population, and must be sidestepped in order to achieve optimal positioning over the hole in the floor. To cap things all off, these ramshackle constructions bore all the marks of a bathroom not cleaned since ever. To be more explicit, large parts of the inside were crusted with dried shit.
            But, enough of that. Back to the present moment, in which China had once again repelled us for a few more days. I got a sinking feeling as that word, “closed,” ran over through my head, and my mind raced to identify alternative options to waiting it out in that filthy camp. But in the obvious foreground was the concession that, so long as the border was closed, we would be in Irkestam. China: still not yet.
By the nature of the border crossing, a long line of freight trucks was amassing before the closed gate, anticipating their crossing into China come the start of the work week. As a result, the encampment took on a sort of disgusting liveliness, as if it were some filthy medieval trade hub. The truckers spent most of their two waiting days sitting with calm indifference in their trucks, which offer far less living accommodations than American big rigs. They drunk tea and vodka and smoked cigarettes: a lot of cigarettes. At other times, they paid the women of the trailer household a few com (currency) to be served tea and eggs or to pick through a collection of pirated DVDs to watch on the TV. My brother and I found a shanty hotel, one of two solid brick buildings in the town, and drank ourselves to sleep the first night, wondering how we would pass the day to come.
In the morning we headed out of the population center, back in the direction our car had come from, to hike in the mountains. In a quite ironic fashion, the hideous scar on the earth that is Irkestam was set just in front of some spectacular high mountain peaks, blanketed flawlessly in a smooth and purely white coat of snow, shining with a heavenly brilliance as proud pillars in the sky. This was beauty in its realest form, I thought. There was beauty in its scale: inconceivably massive, like all of the New York City metro-plex ground into rubble and piled upon itself several times over. There was beauty in its color: white as pure as white could be here on Earth. It was a perfect juxtaposition of peace and power, a gently raging force that tore the planet’s crust apart and thrust it towards the sky with such graceful agility. There was beauty in its nature: it had made itself. The colossal pillars upon which I gazed in that pass were not an art project nor were ever mean to decorate some human’s home, but were simply the by-products of simple metabolic cosmic activity. Yet, they could never be outdone except by the same natural forces on a larger scale.
And, rather unpleasantly, there were the humans dumping filth upon its majesty. The pass was a necessary place for commerce, and thousands of trucks moved goods between China and Central Asia, filling great bazaars with every imaginable manufactured good – from TVs to pots and pans to shirts and sandals, decorations, electronic gadgets, furniture, bicycles, blankets, and anything that you could possibly imagine finding on the shelves of Wal-Mart. All of it is born in the industrial complex of the far, far East and then dispersed on trucks and trains and boats and planes around the whole entire world. That is the reason why people lived in such gut-wrenching conditions: they had to. Someone had to. And all those people needed food and drinks and other basic commodities, all of which come in a frail wrapping of garbage – bags, bottles, plastic, paper, etc. All these things, once emptied of their humble nutritional contents, lie eternally below the mountain’s majesty. Where outside of our own kind do we encounter ugliness? Nowhere. There are no ugly mountains, no ugly forest, no ugly river or sea. Ugliness is in garbage, waste, violence, and misery wrought by the vitality of people living in such places where no people should seek to live. We have slums and war zones a refugee camps, garbage dumps ad toxic wastelands, city back alleys and housing projects. As it would seem, we are nature’s tool for crafting the vile.
The entire surrounding region, a river valley cut through the high mountains, sported a treeless high-elevation environment with thin air and piercing rays of sun. On our way out of town, a woman with (relatively) impressively coherent English capabilities stopped us, professed her love for foreigners, told us how rare it was to meet such different people, and invited us to her home that evening for a meal and a good night’s rest. We agree to find her upon our return.
And, over the course of our 5 or so mile hike through the mountains, my brother and I got separated when he opted to scramble 150 meters up the side of a steep slope of cascading gravel, and I opted for the more obvious lower route by the side of the river. Once our paths diverged past earshot and out of sight, we didn’t encounter again until we’d both crossed the terrain on our own and found Irkestam once more. AS fortune had it, I had the water, and he had my shirt, so when we met some five hours later, I was ravishly sunburnt, roasted by the inescapable sun without shelter of a single tree for shade or even a standard hefty atmosphere for protection, and he was dehydrated. But, our evening had us making hopeless conversation with Kyrgyz, Chinese, Tajik, and Pakistani truckers, sitting on the floor around this old woman's table. Those conversations mark the height of my Russian language capabilities, which, after 4 months of survival in Almaty, reside around the level of a half competent 4-year-old who’s been struck soundly in the head. But, we communicate in was more than words. I’ve learned to laugh a lot in such conversations as these, laugh mostly because I have no idea what they are trying to say. Often times they laugh for the same reason, and as we sit together over dinner, our small group of absurd encounters – some big fat truckers who espoused Soviet nostalgia in every way, a skinny Tajik man with a sheep skin (and hair) vest and a decorated pill box hat, the old women of the mountain pass, cooking on the most rudimentary assembly of industrial cooking equipment, and my brother and I, two dirty white Americans – we all laughed about how strange it was to be sitting together. With may language capabilities, I was able to communicate that we two were brothers, that I had lived in Kazakhstan, that we were going to China, that I was 20 years old and that my brother was 18. From them, I could not gather so much, except that they were ecstatically please to be meeting me.
Often times the fattest and loudest man of the group would grab my shoulder tenderly, look me in the they eyes, and speak to me. I would reply, almost always, with a thumbs up and “да, да, да.” – “Yes, yes, yes.” Sometimes they would all howl with laughter, and others the leader would let out a whooping “Yeppah!” They had great fun, and I enjoyed myself in their company thoroughly.
Through the crude translation services of our host, one Chinese trucker agreed to drive us over the border come morning and leave us in the first town on the other side.
            Then, together, we retired to the trailer’s second half to watch some Russian mafia TV series with the truckers until the day became too much to bear and we fell asleep on the floor, then we were so kindly blanketed by our hostess. In the morning, it seemed, we might possibly be entering that great mysterious land that had thus far proved surprisingly hard to find.