We bought bus tickets to a random town that, in my large-scale Xinjiang atlas, looked to be in the middle of the Tian Shan. We packed crackers, walnut spread, and a small watermelon. We boarded the bus the next morning with numerous workers, all Han Chinese, all of whom seemed to be miners of some sort. We careened through barren wastelands and suddenly opalescent fields of corn and wheat, long rows of recently sown crops stretching towards boundaries of elegantly whispering poplar and birch. Thanks to the eternal snows of the nearby peaks, the desert had been made to bloom. The oases were tenuous and, bounded by water channels and enlarged by aggressive planting of drought-tolerant hardwoods, maintained only with much effort. Some were quite large, massive acreages of recently germinated crops surrounding villages with names like “Production Brigade 24” and “Production Brigade 31.” All, however, had clear edges. At a boundary, the trees abruptly stopped; beyond stretched a barren, gravelly wasteland of soil and stone, a place whose very geological bones seemed to scream “Go home! This place was not intended for habitation!” The gentler lands left behind, we ascended into harsh, barren hills where seemingly nothing was alive.
We finally passed into the mountains, redrock walls rising abruptly above the river, and entered a canyon which cut deep into the ochre mountains. The narrow riparian plain was lush, with birches and tall grasses surrounding small, patchwork fields of wheat contrasting with the barren mountainsides above. The topography and colors reminded me of pictures I’d seen in newspapers of villages in Afghanistan or Pakistan, small places in every sense of the word, a world bounded by towering peaks and constrained to a narrow strip of water. I realized that I was now in central Asia; no longer were the mountains the comparatively lush peaks of the outer Plateau or of inner China, but instead they were mountains stripped bare, their bones jaggedly protruding above the valley, a visible warning.
We passed forbidding-looking compounds and a massive steelworks before arriving at the crossroads town of Baluntai, which is apparently the township seat of a majority-Mongolian region. We decided to hitchhike up the National Highway 216 which, in seeming defiance of its name and status, transformed into a narrow, potholed dirt track just outside of town.
We had gotten a ride from a driver-in-training and his ‘trainer’, a balding, paunchy man who told us to call him 老虎, or Tiger. Tiger joked with us all the way up the bumpy road, intermittently shouting commands to his trainee – “slow down!” “don’t aim for the potholes!” – but mostly asking us questions about our hometowns. We ended up in a small Mongolian village where, after a photo shoot with Tiger, we caught another ride in the back of a flatbed truck up into some beautiful grasslands. We wandered up the road, through an abandoned nomad resettlement complex and up to a small cluster of concrete yurts. I couldn’t tell if the structures had been built for locals or for tourists, but either way they were clearly uninhabited. We watched the shadows lengthen and deepen over the snowy peaks to the south, and listened to the echo of a distant train whistle reverberate through the vast, empty valley.
We returned to the town at the lower end of the grasslands. It consisted of four stores, a small railroad maintenance complex and a few herders’ homes. We stayed alongside a long-distance trucker in a small room adjoining a shop. One wall of the room was the exterior of the building’s coal-and-dung stove. The room was dirty and warm. We wandered outside to watch the shimmering waters of the nearby creek fade from shadowy golds to greys to black. We returned to our room and its resident trucker. We ate some watermelon and promptly fell asleep. We slept like sedated babies.
The next morning, we split up; I had to return to Urumqi to catch a train that afternoon, which entailed crossing what seemed like a high pass. I caught a ride with a man who, according to his associate and backseat driver, was not very experienced with mountain driving or with cars in general. As we drove up the narrow, dirt-and-ice-choked switchbacks, and as the dropoffs went from hundreds to thousands of feet, the driver started complaining that he was dizzy because of the altitude and couldn’t see the road clearly. After much exhorting and ego-smoothing, we made it over the pass, only to see the road deteriorate further and the dropoffs increase in height. We finally made it down to the base of a glacier, from which I could finally appreciate the spectacular scenery. The road continued to be terrifying, rising high above a narrow gorge in narrow galleries cut into cliff faces, but I decided to ignore the road entirely and simply concentrate on the natural magnificence outside my window. And it was grand: glacier-cloaked peaks descending through grassy meadows into luxuriant evergreen forests; the occasional yurt, smoke curling upwards from a stovepipe, dotted the landscape. After passing through a couple of hideously ugly industrial towns and some beautifully rich farmland, we finally arrived in Urumqi, where I was unceremoniously dumped amidst a highway interchange five kilometers from town.
Why did I go on this adventure? What was I doing, and what did I hope to accomplish? Why, several weeks later, do I find myself writing about it in ship-log format, as if it was something worthy of chronicle?
I certainly have no idea myself, but as I continue to spend time living and traveling in China, I find myself increasingly intrigued by randomness and illogic. There doesn’t need to be a reason why I go someplace – and if I go expecting nothing, I will only be more able to fully experience and appreciate everything. I’m not trying to extoll spontaneity for its own sake, but going into nowhere always makes me more aware, more conscious, more fully alive to whatever surroundings I find myself amidst. In a Nowhere, I’m not looking for anything in particular; I have no agenda, no need to replicate or seek out a particular experience. I don’t need to go to any specific place, and I don’t have to be on any schedule. Instead, I’m free to see and feel and be amidst the wonder that surrounds me – whatever type of wonder, whichever of the multitudinous manifestations of amazement one can find in this world, it may be.
I spent a week in Xinjiang, and managed to miss nearly all the famous, must-see sights. I was berated for not going to Kashgar, Turpan, Ili, Kanas Lake, Heaven Lake, the Karakoram Highway and numerous other life-list places. Instead, I went somewhere totally random – and, for that, loved the experience all the more.