Quick change in China
For the Appeal
I’d never plan to fly in China.
Flying here was for the seasoned masochist, or those with a goal of a nervous breakdown.
But there I was, stuffed knees to chest, within the ridiculously scant space of a Chinese airliner. Reeling at the depth of my most recent misfortune, my flight began when a passenger approached and clocked me in the head with his briefcase.
Just after he stepped on my foot, he took the seat next to mine. Almost immediately – without so much as a word exchanged between us – I was certain of three things about the man: He loved garlic, didn’t use deodorant, and possessed the almost inexhaustible ability to produce gas.
After liftoff, I was engulfed by the feature film, (a Chinese documentary about the mating habits of grouper fish), before I caught my new friend as he began to drift. He’d fallen asleep as if by the snap of a hypnotist, his neck seemingly unhinged over my armrest.
Just as his head nearly settled upon my chest, a young boy in the seat behind me began screeching. This alternated with kung-fu kicks to the back of my seat. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, a toddler dropped a doody on a seat across the aisle.
When the flight attendant was called for cleanup, she gagged mid-mop and ran to the bathroom to vomit.
That’s when I felt something wet drip on my arm. Then again. When I looked up, it was like a scene pulled right from a Hitchcock film.
There, racing through the cracks in my overhead compartment was – blood. Neat little lines of hemoglobin slowly raining down on me. I ripped off my seat belt and jumped to the aisle – ready to scream like a little girl, when the flight attendant barked at me to find another seat.
As much as I wish them to be, these were the least of my problems.
As I moved to a new seat, I collapsed, head in hand. I wondered how, in seven short days, this trip had gone so wrong.
For the millionth time, I replayed that moment. The moment I’d realized someone had gotten away with my passport, $2,600 in cash – and most depressingly – my chance at riding to Tibet with my co-rider and new friend Christoph Fladung.
He had quite simply been one of the best touring cyclists I’d ever had the good fortune to ride with.
It’d all begun a week earlier on the western-most edge of China’s Xinjiang Province.
Directed off the road by a pair of Kyrgyz border officials, we pulled to the center of a dilapidated bordertown – a derelict village whose population lived entirely within the rusted-out hulls of trucks, railroad cars and tumble-down shipping containers.
Human waste gathered in muddy pools next to stinking heaps of garbage that fretting dogs picked upon. When we reached the center, a sizable crowd began to gather.
Dirty and listless, they closed in with curious stares.
“Is there someone here I could talk to about purchasing property?” I asked sarcastically.
“Let’s go,” Christoph followed, “I’m not really in the social mood right now.”
After brief border formalities, and a 40-mile ride across a virtual no-man’s land, the sun began to sink, before casting brushstroke shadows across the twisted folds of land.
When we came upon a river, we searched for a place to camp. That’s when a diminutive Kyrgyz sheep herder, watching his herd, called from an overlooking bluff.
After a short conversation, he showed us to his home where he invited us to stay for the night.
Two days later, we reached the Uyghur city of Kashgar.
The Uyghurs, or ethnic separatists, as the Chinese government refers to them, originated from a Turkic-Uzbek ancestry. Arriving from Mongolia, they’d ushered in Islam, then swept out the Tang Dynasty around the 9th century.
When the Manchu Army invaded the area in 1865, China had recaptured an oil-rich chunk of desert. A new hunk of real estate roughly the size of Alaska.
Since that time, the government has flooded the area with Han Chinese, purposefully diluting the Uyghur population from 90 percent, to less than 50.
But if anything, the Uyghurs are resilient. Their culture booming within Kashgar’s Sunday Market. Less a market than an explosion of Uyghur merchants gathered 50,000 strong.
When Christoph and I arrived, it was like a mind warp back in time.
Wandering first through the Animal market, we were instantly overtaken by the dirt, dung and debris – all of which flung from the surrounding livestock. Then came the calls of the herdsmen, who haggled, balked, or constantly counted their money.
Many of these same animals met their fate in nearby food-stalls – a massive conglomerate of tarp-covered cookeries that billowed with a bluish-white smoke.
Vendors brandished flaming sticks of shash-lik (shish-kebab), the most popular of which being liver on a stick. Charred goat heads lay slung in a bowl ready for consumption, next to large spirals of sheep intestines piled high with cornmeal.
That afternoon, deep within the market, we perused an endless array of fruits, vegetables, fabrics, crafts, carpets, metalworks, and knives, until we finally found ourselves within a large spice market. Once there, medicine men and maniacs boasted freakish potions, and their unique abilities to heal. A partial list of these concoctions included: dried snakes, lizards, frogs, starfish and live scorpions – their purposed sting a part of some sadistic healing regiment.
When we finally tumbled from the market, our brains rattled like marbles in a jar.
Dizzy from the height of it all, I made my way to a hotel phone to share the experience with a friend.
That’s when it happened.
I’d simply set my money belt down on the counter and walked away. By the time I realized what I’d done, it was gone. My passport, documents and three months worth of budget … gone.
As it had many times during the last year, my trip had changed on a dime.
My raced back to the words of a best friend, a compliment before I left. He said, “Rick, if there is one person who is not afraid of change, that would have to be you.”
I stood for a moment in realization of the change that had occurred, I struggled hard to believe his words.
Then came a hell week.
Seven days later, I had taken four flights. More than 8,000 miles later, I had frequented two police stations, eight banks, five government offices where I filled out countless forms.
I was harassed by police, swindled by cab drivers, taken by merchants, laughed at by children and cursed at by an elderly woman.
When I was done I returned to Kashgar from the east coast cities of Hong Kong and Guanzhou.
When I finally reached the light of my dingy hotel room, I came upon my bike, sitting dusty, locked and lonely. As I opened the lock, I thought of Christoph.
He had bent over backwards trying to help me before he’d left.
But pushed for time on his ever dwindling visa, he finally realized it was time to move on.
Waiting for me might have meant jeopardizing one of his life’s dreams; cycling from Germany to the base of Mount Everest.
That night, as I crawled into bed, I wondered about MY dream. I was halfway through this roller coaster bicycle journey around the world. I wondered what other obstacles I would come across, and to what heights I would once again soar.
As I did, I recalled something I said to Christoph just before saying goodbye.
I said, “I have no idea how long it will take me to return Christoph, but if its humanly possible … I will see you on that hill.”
• Editors note: This is the latest in a series of journal entries written by former Nevada Appeal photographer Rick Gunn about his two-year bicycle journey around the world. Along the way, he is raising awareness for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to wish.org.
To read more of his entries and see more photos go to rickgunnphotography.com, or nevadaappeal.com and click on the Wish Tour icon.
Where in the world is Rick Gunn?
WHEN: July 28-Aug. 10, 2006
WHERE: China – Kashgar, Urumqi, Guanzhou, Hong Kong, Urumqi
MILEAGE LOG: 10,550-10,650 miles
ELEVATION: 0-3,200 feet
To read more of Rick Gunn’s travels, go to http://www.nevadaappeal.com and click on the Wish Tour icon.