We felt well pleased with ourselves having crossed the Taklamakan Desert, frequently described as “the terrible…” and “the super-dangerous…” without a scratch. When we even found a marvellous Sichuan restaurant in Ruoqiang with two charming young men more than willing to learn Chinese poker the Hong Kong way, we could go to bed with two smiles plastered on our respective faces.
But we were running out of time, and so chose a hotel near the bus station so we could get on one of the many buses we were sure would take us across the Kunlun Mountains and into Qinghai province the next day. Our friends in Urumqi had said there were no such buses but we never believe locals’ lying ways.
Imagine my consternation when I got up at six to secure tickets, had to wait until eight for the bus station to open, only to find that the only buses going were those going the way from which we had come. Into Qinghai? Zero.
Now we knew that hitchhiking was likely to take slightly longer than we had planned; i.e. no time at all, so were glad to be told that there were some so-called bao che, private passenger cars, which would take us to the border of Qinghai. I found a guy who would drive at ten o’clock, charging 100 yuan per head. Excellent! We rocked up at 9.50 and found three other people waiting. Now we could set off.
Ah, but he needed ten peopleto get going, the shameless geezer told us amid much laughing and spitting. Ten? The car could hardly hold six. And with luggage – forget it! We’d have to sit on top of each other and even then we wouldn’t have enough space. We felt cheated and hurt. Yes, hurt like the people of China when one of them or a foreigner dares to utter that for example the sacred olympicsare but a sham and money-milker for McDonald’s. That’s how hurt we felt.
Time was running out fast so we said we’d pay the difference, 700 yuan instead of 200, if we could only get going NOW. The other three guys, a Chinese and a toothless Uighur and his one-eared son (disabilities and disfigurements seem to be more prevalent among these, the indigenous people of the desert, than the newly arrived Chinese) looked well pleased and did a lot of thumbs-ups. Off we went to the petrol station where the driver wanted our 700 yuan straight away. Fair enough.
But when he stopped 200 yards down the road to pick up two other guys with a LOT of luggage, an incredulous, nay, shocked, silence descended on the car.
Vexed to the hilt I leapt out and told the driver in not so many words that we had paid for seven people and no other bastards would be allowed on. Sorry other travellers, but goodbye. A muffled applause sounded from the back seat and we set off again with the driver mumbling words I felt sure were not compliments. But: The nerve!
The road was beautiful and smooth, and looking at the map it was hard to believe that this little stretch of Go West Infrastructure would take six hours to cover. However, a few hundred yards down beautiful road the driver suddenly yanked the car to the left, and we were thumping across gravel, rocks … and more rocks.
The road looked more like anything like a hastily dug-out path to a construction site and yes, it was a “new road”, the driver told us. Then we started to ascend, and suddenly we were transported back to Tibet which we had visited the year before; a donkey path of scree, landslide, rock-avalanche and awful 2000 meter drops to the left. Or right, depending. If it hadn’t been for our aforementioned trip to Tibet, with five days of constant driving on so-called roads which could hardly accommodate the width of one car and where one second’s inattention on the driver’s part would result in a fall so spectacular nobody could even tell the wreck would be that of a car, I would have felt rather anxious.
As it was, I just held my camera out the window and hoped for the best.
We stopped on the top – to admire the view we thought, before we realised that the view was to be that of the toothless guy taking a dump right in front of us and without any evidence of toilet paper. On and on we drove at 20 to 25 kilometers an hour, and now we could start to believe that this little trip would indeed take six hours. Or, as it turned out, eight.
When the worst vertical drops were finally over I started to enjoy the scenery, and suddenly there was a building in the middle of this awful loneliness of rocks. A house where the driver wanted to have a meal. Three people and a donkey lived there, and there was a depression in the sand and rocks where only the top half of anyone’s body could be seen relieving itself.
Eventually we came to the place where we wanted to go – but wait. This wasn’t the oasis we had envisaged but a terrible hell-hole, really, really far away from all transport. “Yes, I told you so,” the shameless driver now said, adding that for only 100 yuan each he would take us to a transportation hub. Words cannot describe the words I let rain over him. Yes they can, actually. And “bastard” is only one of them. There were some shacks and some open-mouthed yokels, not even a Sichuan restaurant, and that’s were we were supposed to spend the night waiting for a bus which may or may not come, or pay the cheating bastard to take us out of?
No way. We were the middle-class westerners and would rather walk than be held ransom to. .. etc etc. In the event a taxi anti-climatically swung around, offering to take us to Mangnai (the transport hub) for 20 yuan.
Another endless stretch of road through desert followed. On the way we drove over a dropped sack, whose white, powder-ish contents drifted into the car. At the same time we became aware of some industry in the distance with a spectral white fog hanging over it. What’s that? Shi mian, explained the driver. Shi mian? Sounds like “rock face.” Must be some kind of quarry, we decided.
Probably a cement plant or whatever. It was only the next day we realised that “shi mian” (rock cotton) means asbestos, and that it was this charming substance which had wafted into the car; indeed that the place where we had just spent the night in a truck drivers’ hell-hole dwelling (40 yuan) where, if we hadn’t happened to have flashlights we would surely have fallen into the toilet which was two planks hovering over an abyss, “everybody gets ill and dies” according to a book about the Silk Road by Colin Thubron I happened to have with me.
Ignorance is surely bliss and personally I loved the little place in the middle of a huge nothing where workers with burnished faces and blackened teeth went about their business in identical overalls – red for the plebs and navy for the office workers. Like in every civilised place in China there were several Sichuan restaurants too. But without being a scientist or anything, I can tell you that the chemical reaction between asbestos and chili powder creates this: A lot of coughing.