Ah, life in Xinjiang Province, very different from the rest of China, very unusual…
I thought Nepal was exotic, with its erotic Hindu sculpture, saffron aromas, the sacrifice of goats, 500-year old gumbas, and strange clothing. But, Xinjiang… Even more ‘other worldly,’ both ancient (veiled Uyghur women) and modern (Chinese hookers).
Yesterday, we cycled up to Opal on highway #314 (same that Mamat and I came down on from Uremqi.), which, south of Kashgar continues to the Pakistani border (some 400KM / 240 miles). There were to be three other young Uyghurs accompanying me. Two Uyghur boys, Abdul and Nurmamat, plus one young Uyghur woman who didn’t make it (I was not surprised .) . But, maybe for the better, as in her place we were joined by three policemen who followed us all day long.
Opal, a ‘town’ of 20,000 inhabitants, is Maumed Kashgary’s tomb and museum. I hadn’t known a thing about him, but discovered the history of a much venerated Arab scholar and linguist.
Nurmamat and Abdul showed up at Seman Hotel right on time, 0800. We waited fifteen minutes for the girl, then I had my little ‘meeting.’
Just recently Kevin, a Canadian traveller, told me of a startling statistic… That everyday 3,000 people are killed on Chinese highways! That’s 1.1 million Chinese people every year! I suppose this is a way of help keeping the population down!
I think, in comparison, there are 100K highway deaths per year, or one-tenth the amount in the U.S. But, if you compare populations: China 1.2 billion version one-fourth that (280 million in the U.S.) something becomes evident. There are more highway deaths in the U.S., ‘per capita,’ than in China. In China, there’s one death for every 10,000 people. In the U.S. there’s one death for every 2,800 people.
I quoted these statistics to the boys (Nurmamat and Abdul) to make a point. As, to them, the insane traffic here in Kashgar is ‘normal.’ Of course, they don’t wear a helmet or light clothing at night (nor have lights).
I also explained I have ‘rules,’ when you go with me! Why? I said, ‘If either one of you is injured or killed while with me, your parents are going to come to me and ask me to explain!’ Of course, this never occurs to youth, as life just happens and not to worry! Anyway, I told them how it should be, and then we set out at 0820.
The temperature, when be began was about 02C or about 35 degrees F. I noticed frost on the ‘pumpkin,’ and that surface water was frozen. I remember my feet got cold in one pair of socks in my light-weight, hiking boots!
We went a route that had never occurred to them, out Seman Road to highway #314. This I had discovered this one day while cycling around. Because I’m constantly exploring I know the Kashgar area, in one month, better than many natives (like the little girl who couldn’t find the Seman Hotel).
We’d hardly gone any distance at all, when all I’d said in the meeting had been forgotten! They probably didn’t understand my English. So, I took to ‘reminding’ them (in English) when necessary! In situations, where I’m ‘responsible’ for people’s lives, I have no patience for ‘stupidity!’ I told them, ‘You don’t like my rules, you don’t have to go with me!’
So, on and on we go, me leading to set a ‘pace.’ I had explained about this, how if you go slow in the beginning you’ll have energy at the end. This is foreign to youth, as in the morning, ‘fresh out of the barn, the colts’ want to run.
In several kilometers, we’re out of the city and onto marvelous ‘concrete highway to ‘heaven,’ #314 , which eventually goes all the way to Pakistan.
It was a lovely morning, clear, crisp, here at 38 degrees north latitude, with the yellow leaves falling from the ‘Hai Hai Tilak’ (poplar trees).
I thank God for being able to do this, having the legs, the heart, the mind to be cycling with two boys in Xinjiang Province, China. It’s a wonderful experience with all the ‘challenges,’ with all the ‘pain,’ with all of having to deal with the ‘otherness’ of these, very different cultures. But, that’s the thrill of it to me! That’s what my life is all about--challenge!
We pass over the ‘Red River ,’ (in English) on a new #314 bridge. They said the Uyghur name of the river, but I can’t remember it.
I did learn the word for ‘beautiful,’ or ‘A-Cry -Luck’ (as least as sounding to me)!
In fifteen kilometers we pass thought a town called ‘Shula.’ It seemed like a good place for me to live, or so I thought until partaking of Opal.
Both the boys had told me that Opal was 60KM distance, so based on that I had planned out the day. But, it turned out they were wrong. It’s actually 48KM. I know these things, distance, elevation, grades, as important when travelling long distances on bicycles.
Another ten kilometers and we pass through a ‘village,’ then out into the barren desert and onto the ‘steps’ of the Pamir Mountain range.
We stop opposite the Chinese Government’s ‘jamming facility,’ and I take a photograph of them, my two young Uyghur cycling boys, Nurmamat and Abdul.
When we are about to take off again, Abdul happens to mention that we’re being followed by the police. Oh, I think, how interesting… I wonder why? He also mentions that we were followed a week ago when he took me through the ‘Old City.’ Gosh, I’m wondering… Why didn’t he say something about this before now?
I asked him how he knows? He says he’s always very alert, watching for such things. I think it must be because he’s Uyghur living in Kashgar (paranoid for good reasons).
So, we go on, and I start checking behind me, and sure enough there’s a black VW Santana with it’s trunk lid up (they’ve brought along a bicycle in case) always stopping when we do.
We stop for a rest, and I suggest a ‘game’ I’d like to play with ’chatter boxes:’ ‘Remaining silent por dinero!’ One of my rules was that there was to be no talking while cycling (at least in the city). I’ve told them, if you want to talk, we’ll stop and talk as long as you want, but on the highway this is distracting/dangerous! Of course, in one ear and out the other (there had been nothing but talking all the way). Plus, I try to explain one of my main reasons for cycling into the country (out of the city)… To get away from such incessant chattering, and other noise! So, I tell them I will pay them 10 Yuan for every one-half hour they are silent! They laugh, of course.
I suggest Nurmamat lead, then Abdul, and I’ll bring up the rear. We take off, and it isn’t long before Nurmamat is way out in front of us (going too fast of course). Just the opposite his buddy Abdul has ‘run out of gas,’ slowing considerably. I begin to worry about him making ‘120’ kilometers! Abdul is riding a version of a geared mountain bike, but of course, poorly maintained (chain oily). Thus, he’s not shifting much. The bicycle doesn’t really fit him either.
Abdul’s style of riding must be inbred Uyghur as it reminded me of Mamat on our trip down from Uremqi. Cranking wildly in the beginning, then slowing down to rest… So much for ‘pacing!’ Old habits (inbred) die hard!
Actually, both bicycles didn’t fit either boy. Mamat, fairly tall, is on his one-speed he purchased for 150 Yuan / $20 U.S. It’s basically a city bicycle. Abdul needs to raise his saddle but he can’t (it’s extended as far as it goes).
Oh, well, we’re on the road to Opal! My bicycle, ‘Ms. Fiets,’ is performing well as always, even with the rear hub ‘problem.’ What a great bicycle! Of course, at 65-years of age, I need every advantage. The boys, they don’t know the difference!
We pass a Uyghur ‘cemetery’ and I teach them the word in English. Basically, these trips are ‘English lessons!’ Both boys good students of English! I also learn a little Uyghur, but they’re better at English than I am at Uyghur.
At about three hours, they say we’re near Opal. Of course, I’m always glad to reach whatever destination, but I can’t believe we’re there as if 60 kilometers distance, we’d still be another hour away. I keep telling them, Opal is not 60-kilometers from Kashgar. They ask me how I know. I tell them I keep track of distances and time, and knowing what we average (in terms of KMPH) it isn’t hard to figure out. If Opal is 60-kilometers, either we’ve been ‘flying’ or it’s still another hour away.
Sure enough it isn’t long before we arrive in Opal, still with the police on our tails. It’s taken three and one-half hours, and I know it can’t be 60 kilometers from Kashgar.
Abdul knows where to eat, as he’s been through Opal (on highway #314) with tourists on his way to Karakol Lake (he works for the Kashgar Caravan Travel Service Company) many times.
We have a wonderful ‘polo’ (Uyghur rice pilaf dish) lunch sitting outside in the sun.
Nearby a uniformed Chinese policeman of some rank eats with his family. I go and give their young daughter a piece of candy, hoping our ‘shadows’ will see this. They’ve parked maybe fifty meters beyond us, always vigilant.
After eating I take a photograph of the boys, then wanting then to turn and photograph the police car. But, the boys advise against this.
Full of contradictions, they ask me if ‘I’m afraid,’ when I tell them we need Chinese boys along on these trips too. I believe it’s me with just Uyghur people that attracts police attention .
Youth just doesn’t think very well! I’m wondering now how I got this far, as I was stupid and unconscious as they come!
I pay for our lunch, some 20 Yuan or $2.80 for three people. Abdul informs me this guy/restaurant always charges tourists more. I explain that he should! I compare what a similar meal would cost in the U.S. or 7X as much. I tend to be ‘parabolic!’
After lunch we crank a couple of kilometers to the site of the tomb of the famous Arab linguist, Mahmed Kashgary (spelled differently on every sign)—our reason for coming to Opal. It’s up a lovely, poplar-lined lane! Here, because we’re higher in elevation (than Kashgar) the poplar trees have all lost their leaves. But, ah, the winter light… Lovely,’ ‘A-cry-luck!’ I love winter!
At this point one of the policemen is tailing us on a bicycle, no doubt the youngest and junior, while the older (senior) ones sit and have lunch. I’m now wanting to confront this guy, in some jocular way (putting him on). In a very loud voice something like, ‘Oh cool! A Chinese guy on a bicycle, maybe you’d like to join us?’ But, again the boys are against such.
At the site, park actually, it costs 12 Yuan each, which I pay. This along with 10 Yuan to Nurmamat who was silent for one-half hour.
It turns out to be a ‘75-Yuan day,’ for me, as I always contribute to the street people (wherever I go). And trust me, the Uyghur people in south Xinjiang Province are in desperate need!
Here at this park, commemorating this Arab linguist, the Xinjiang Provencial Government has done well. The first thing you see is a ten-meter high stature of Mr. Kasgary. Please see all the photographs of this day in the Gallery at www.cyclingpeace.org
We push our bicycles up to the ‘concession’ area (I’m sure in the summer this place is loaded with people—there are many stalls for feeding people.). Today, however, in November, we’re three of maybe a dozen more visitors.
We lock our bicycles, me to the ‘W.C. sign.’ We want to partake of the museum, but it’s closed. Only the tomb is open, we’re told. Note, they have to call some ‘higher up’ to bring the keys.
On the way up we stop to partake of a sign (all the signs in English, as well as Chinese and Arabic). This telling of an ‘uplifting’ (I explain this word to the boys.) story of Kashgary asking his spiritual teacher where he would eventually be buried. The teacher replying where his walking staff touched the ground and a ‘Hai Hai Tilak’ grew! And sure enough nearing the age of 97 such occurred (according to the story). The tree adjacent, now withering from being one-thousand years old. Note, this guy Kashgary lived during the Norman Conquest (1,000 to 1,100). Is the story for real, and this the tree…? Doesn’t matter, as the story is meaningful (a myth).
We climb up a long stairway (reminded me of climbing the stairs up to Swayambhunath in Kathmandu). At the top. the tomb is perched on a hill in the distance, views of the Pamir Range.
Here, in order to enter the tomb, we have to take off our shoes (again reminding me of Nepal) . Inside it’s, well… The kids are interested, but me… ‘If you’ve seen one tomb of an Arab linguist you’ve seen them all!’ Besides, I know for sure his ‘crypt’ is empty! But, it’s obviously important to venerable some people (this guy was from a Royal Arab family).
Outside reading one sign I discover the meaning of the word ‘Kashgar.’ I’ve been asking people, but none have known. The boys, who were born there, didn’t know either. I photographed it.
We walk to a view point, out on a hill. Here a panorama of the entire area including the adjacent Uyghur cemetery (where the ‘rich’ are buried according to Abdul). Abdul also knew of a short cut to climb up to another higher view point (complete with a fancy structure to sit and rest, shaded from the sun).
We climb a concrete pathway with stairs, going up another 100 meters. Here an even better view of the area, complete with a caretaker watering some young trees with a hose. I remember thinking, nothing could grow here without being watered. Behind us, some barren hills, looking like piles of chocolate ice cream.
Returning, Nurmamat wants to climb down the hill. I explain how to do with without falling. Abdul and I take the path. But, on the way back we discover this was also the site of a Buddhist monastery (see photograph). Note, the Buddhists were all over what is now Xinjiang Province in the 3rd to 9th Centuries.
Back at our bicycles, I notice another caretaker has been ‘so kind’ as to douse my bicycle with water! Strange, I think. Is he angry (envious) at the obvious opulence of this ‘Ferrari,’ or just watering the plants behind and not every thoughtful. On the way down and past him I shout, ‘Rackmet,’ ‘Rackmet !’
At the gate, our ‘shadow’ has returned to the vehicle in Opal, as they know the highway is our only way to return to Kashgar. When we turn onto the highway, sure enough, we see them waiting for us.
Now heading back to the ‘barn,’ the boys are fresh and eager. Abdul takes the lead, me in the rear wanting to observe. Sure enough our ‘escort,’ isn’t far behind, always stopping when we stop to rest, or to ‘W.C.’ it.
Unfortunately for me, my left knee (the tendon) is aching again, making it an unpleasant ride back to Kashgar. But, I’m at least as fast as the boys, now realizing they ‘have to chew the large bite they’ve taken.’ Coming up in the morning, it was Abdul that was slow and seeming to have trouble. Now it’s Nurmamat’s turn on the way home. He complains his ‘butt,’ is aching, so we have a discussion about the word ‘butt.’ They always want to learn more English, especially the slang!
Onward and into ‘da feng’ (wind) which has come up in the afternoon (from the southeast), and with it, the ride has become much of a ‘grind!’ Me, with my knee, Nurmamat now riding on the rack on the back of his bicycle (to save his ‘butt’) , and Abdul struggling back to Kashgar. But, of all three Abdul seems the best off.
We have to stop to rest too often. At one stop when Nurmamat says he’s thirsty I hand him my bottle of Orange (20% juice). He drinks, passes the bottle to Abdul, and then I partake. When Nurmamat, starts clearing his throat and spitting, I ask them what it is with men in China always clearing their throats and spitting? Nurmamat explains that he has a sore throat! Great I think, having drank from the same bottle. But, since I eat so much ‘samesuck ,’ I’m not worried. I also want to tell him, or ask him, is it such a good idea to exert, riding 100KM, with a sore throat? Ah, youth!
Onward, with the sun sinking to the horizon behind us.
By the time we reach Shula Nurmamat is way behind Abdul and I. Turns out he has stopped to purchase some food: bread and two bottles of juice. The boys eat, but I only drink my orange ‘juice’ (I can’t digest bread.). About to depart Nurmamat throws their bottles and some paper on the ground. I go and pick up this trash, putting it in his basket. They laugh! At this point I launch into my ‘lecture,’ about not despoiling ‘Mother Earth.’
With light fading I put on my rear flashing light. This will make it easier for the police to follow us.
Just before the ‘fork,’ into Kashgar (the old road which connects to #314), I tell the boys, ‘You go to the right into Kashgar, and I’ll stay on the highway taking the same road we came out on. I want to see who they follow!’
And thus, we parted at this point, almost completely dark now. I say a prayer for the boy’s safety! I continue on highway #314.
At the Red River bridge I stop to ‘take a leak.’ It isn’t long when I notice the black VW Santana passing me, possibly having lost my flashing light (as it’s on my backpack). Or, maybe it was too late when they realized and had no choice but to continue over the bridge.
Sure enough on the other side of the bridge, there is the VW waiting for me. I notice the trunk lid is closed so I figure the bicycle man followed the boys, the car tailing me. I almost stopped to knock on their window, surprising them with something like, ‘Seman Hotel, if you lose me!’ (pointing).
I find the lane, turn off the highway now completely in the dark. But, for some reason (‘dut’ ) I don’t put on the head lamp I borrowed from Xiao Xu. Here you risk a collision as there are many ‘ships passing in the night.’ Luckily I follow a tractor-trailer, using it as a shield.
Finally I’m back in the Seman Hotel compound, and put Ms. Fiets into the room behind the reception desk where I’ve been keeping it for the night.
Home again home again, jiggery jig! It’s been a ten-hour cycling day, not all bad, in fact for the most part good, but now it’s time to rest! I’m thinking 100KM has been too much for all of us, the old man, and the two boys. We need to build up to distance. Note, it’s been one month since ‘The First Annual Xinjiang Bicycle Rally!’ when I have cycled any distance.
In my warm room the first thing I do is have some hot tea. Then I get into the peanuts and almonds.
I worked on processing my photographs for awhile, not all that tired. It was just my knee that pained me.
Amazingly, I’m in better physical condition at 65-years of age, than one 19-year old, and one 21-year old. But, it’s taken a lot of effort to get ‘here!’ (and Opal!)
I hope Mr. Kashgary appreciated our visit! I hope the police had a good time!
We’ll be ‘out there’ again next weekend!