I was supposed to be on a bus right now, chugging up the Yili Valley and over a high pass, taking me back to the grasslands (see tomorrow’s post…).
Buying the ticket yesterday wasn’t as easy as it should’ve been. The woman behind the glass couldn’t seem to grasp what I was saying. It wasn’t my Chinese, because I ended up with a small group of ‘assistants’ round me, repeating my words to her in various accents, and with varying degrees of amusement or exasperation. Eventually we got there, and I left with my ticket.
There may have been dialect issues at play, but the fact is that with some Chinese people (the woman was Han), they just see a foreigner and decide: that’s it, they can’t understand me. They can’t make that conceptual leap, that this foreigner might actually be speaking Chinese. Education doesn’t come into it; it’s an outlook. I’ve had quite complex conversations with illiterate peasants - and drawn a complete blank with hotel clerks and railway staff.
This morning I strolled into the bus station, past the sign prohibiting inflammable liquids with four 500ml bottles of stove alcohol in my pack. The X-ray machine operative was too busy tapping away at her smartphone to check the display. In the waiting room, I could see two members of staff eyeing me up. One came over and asked to see my ticket. Looking puzzled, he called his mate over. They both gazed dolefully at my crumpled ticket. “This is for yesterday’s bus,” one said. I looked at the ticket. I looked at my watch. Arsebiscuits…
I didn’t even bother trying to get a refund, and long queues meant I was never going to be on today’s morning bus (the afternoon run gets there too late in the evening). I’m back in a hotel, having bought (and carefully checked!) a ticket for tomorrow’s bus. The Uighur ticket seller knew exactly what I was saying, and we even shared a joke about the speed of her computer. I’ll get there eventually.
I saw the yaks first, black specks on rough pasture, and knew I’d soon be meeting the first people I’d seen for eleven days. Cresting a rise, I dropped down into a basin by the river. A small building, the inevitable barking dog; two figures emerging from a doorway, shorter one shading its eyes to look up at me.
Drawing closer, I saw they were a young woman and an old man. “Good morning,” I said, and the woman (a teenager, really) replied in kind. “Would you like some tea?”
It was still early, bitterly cold, so I agreed and we entered the square, flat-roofed building. Rock and mud walls, one glass window, bundles of gear piled up against hanging carpets, and a tall cylindrical stove roaring away in the centre of the room. No wood in this valley; they were burning dung, recycling the copious waste products of their livestock. The grassy basin was full of beehive-shaped mounds the height of a man, towers of the stuff drying out in the high, thin air.
Kazakh women are usually rather reticent. “Are you Mongol?” I asked.
“Of course,” she answered, then “you came over the mountains.” It was a statement, not a question. “Did you see any cows?”
“No, you’re the first people I’ve seen for eleven days.”
“Bu shi,” hand dismissing the answer with a gesture, “have you seen any cows?”
No people or cows, I amended, and she turned to her grandfather, flashing a grin full of gold teeth. Prime grazing spots this year! Theirs was the highest permanent structure in the valley; above that it must be first come, first served when the season kicks off.
Pulling out my Google Earth prints (the ones I hadn’t wiped my arse on and burnt, at least), I showed them where I’d come from. This place, OK; this place, snow to here (hand by my kneecap). Debt paid: information for tea, quid pro quo.
Any long distance cyclist can tell you of the negative effects of careless tourism. The depressing relay race of kids standing by the roadside with their hands out, “One pen, one pen.” The surly looks when no gift is forthcoming, the hurled stones and mocking laughter once you’re past them. This is learned behaviour, and it persists into adulthood. It’s the result of well-meaning but essentially stupid rich people handing out free goodies as they pass through an area, transients wrapped in cocoons of privilege.
It’s something I’ve become careful not to perpetuate. It’s all about trade and mutual respect – and the camera absolutely staying firmly in the rucsac. I’ve seen too many fat whiteys over the years, sticking their lenses into the apprehensive faces of ‘colourful locals.’ I’ve even done it myself in the past, a memory that makes me wince in shame. Never again. The thought turns my stomach now.
It usually runs the other way these days, payback time. Climbing out of the Turpan Depression two weeks earlier, I’d passed a series of work gangs building the new road up into the Alagou Gorge. There are now a whole bunch of them with photos of me on their cellphones, posing jauntily with my arm round one or other of their workmates. “Are you American…?” they’d all asked, eyeing the wide brim of my sunhat.
The only time I take a picture now is when I’m specifically asked to. Basheng, the young Mongol herder who’d visited my tent in the first week, made just such a request. Jumping on his horse, he tugged the bridle so it arched its neck while he flashed me a V-sign. Handing him my notebook, I told him to write his address so I could post him a copy. He looked at me askance, then wrote down his name and QQ number (QQ is the most popular Chinese instant messaging service). “Just send it here, I’ll pick it up at the internet cafe the next time I go into town on the motorbike…”
You can schedule blog posts for future publication on Tumblr. By the time you read this I’ll be long gone; just a quick overnighter in Urumqi, then back to the hills before I lose acclimatisation. I had a problem, so I popped the illusory bubble of ‘adventure’ and returned to the city to sort it out. That won’t be so easy to do in the coming weeks, but it kind of makes my point about the (ab)use of words like ‘expedition.’
It’s not just semantics. Things that would’ve been difficult or dangerous even 10-15 years ago are now much safer and easier due to modern communications and infrastructure (and yes, gear). So by what criteria could one define a journey as an ‘expedition,’ let alone an ‘adventure?’ Is there a minimum level of risk/hazard attached, or at least a threshold of unavoidable suffering? Does it require a certain level of skills, fitness and competency be acquired beforehand? How easy is it to just step away from the venture when the going gets tough - and is that even important? Is it just about how much kit and money is thrown at a trip - and are they acceptable substitutes for basic human resilience and ingenuity? Are terms like ‘expedition’ and ‘adventure’ relative or absolute?
I admit these questions bother me. I’m almost tempted to open up a comments box to see what people think…
But then again - nah, can’t be arsed.
Right, that’s me away for a bit. This is not an expedition. I’m uncomfortable with that term; there are quite enough beardy types appropriating the word to help fund their holidays already, thanks. I’m just off for a wander. It’s a continuation, an extension of what I do, and have done before. There might be an interesting tale to tell when it’s over, but don’t hold your breath for a motivational lecture tour on the back of it. Current thinking is I might take a quick break after a month (it makes logistics a lot easier). If there’s a blog update inside the next three weeks, something’s probably gone wrong. If there’s no blog update after six weeks, something’s gone BADLY wrong…