The Ultimate Journey


The moon, a yellow wafer, hung in the dusty air when we left the hotel early the next morning. The headlamps of the Xia-li taxis driving to the station threw vaporous shafts into the gloomy dawn. Zhongmei, whose train wasn't until late in the afternoon, came to see us off. She got on the train with us and helped us settle into our compartment. Nobody took notice of me. There were no denunciations of America or pledges to work harder to make China stronger, just a crowd of recently awakened people shuffling sleepily to their next destination.

The time for the train's departure came, and Zhongmei and I said goodbye in the drafty space above the car coupling. Then she steppe down to the platform and walked away with that unself-consciously jaunty stride of hers, her hair swaying like an irregular pendulum behind her back. "Be careful" were her parting words. In a few days, Brave King and I would also go our separate ways, he back to Beijing in the company of his American tour group, I over the Torugart Pass to the Kyrgyz Republic.

Suddenly, like a candle in a dark room, an intense longing to cling lovingly to my hearth lit up in my heart. I watched Zhongmei disappear down the platform and into the gloomy hall of the station building, and the contradictions of my nature wrote themselves large in my head. But I think I can report that the balance, finally, was shifting. Perhaps when this trip was over I could stay at home and be wistful about travel, rather than travel and be wistful about home. It is said about Peter Fleming, the author of the classic News from Tartary, in which he recounted his 1935 trip of almost a year, mostly on foot and on horseback, from Peking to New Delhi across Chinese Turkestan and over the Pamir Mountains, that once he got home, he lived happily ever after in a house in Surrey and never left again. But when he traveled, he did it with a disregard for discomfort that I take as a model to emulate. He celebrated his twenty-eighth birthday while trekking across Xinjiang with Kini Maillart, and on that day he describes a tough walk, heavy sleet, and a meal of antelope, rice, and curry that he claims sardonically to have been sumptuous. "And we both thanked heaven that we were not celebrating somebody's birthday at the Savoy," he writes.

I understood that. To be on the mountain was uncomfortable, but it was also to be free, unencumbered, without obligations; it was death-defying, exciting, life on the Nietzschean edge. I have a friend who was in what was called the pacification program in Vietnam during the 1960s. After the war, he lived in Tokyo, then Hong Kong, then Bangkok, then Hong Kong again, but couldn't bring himself to go back to California. There were many like him in Asia in those days, hacks and photographers and former spooks who hung around the Foreign Correspondents Club and reminisced about "Nam." I thought of them as the you-can't-go-home-again brigade, and the spiritual malaise that they suffered as the horror of home. "Once you've flown over a burning village in a helicopter and taken enemy fire from the ground," my friend told me, "you can never go back." The horror of home. It is the dread that home, so romanticized in poetry, so idealized in the imagination, is humdrum, safe, boring, a denial of the more romantic possibilities of life. But my friend did go home eventually, and he married and had children. Peter Fleming too. He must have decided that the Savoy wasn't so bad after all.

I have lived in my undramatic way on the edge between loneliness on one side and the horror of home on the other. Many years before my journey on the Road of Great Events, I left Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I was a graduate student in Chinese history at Harvard, and where I had a girlfriend of the sort you brought home to meet Mom and Dad and, if you weren't like me, you married. But I was like me, and I therefore left her to go to Paris, where my goal was to become a French-speaking man of the world. I lived by myself in a little room in the Fifteenth Arrondissement, where eventually I got a letter from my girlfriend telling me she wasn't putting up with me and my uncertainty any more. It was goodbye, and who could blame her? I put her letter in a box and after my year was up and my man-of-the-worldism sufficiently advanced, I started to travel. I went overland (and over sea) to India, via Italy, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Here and there, of course, I met fellow travelers, including some memorable ones. In Bombay I wrote my first ever published article and thus inaugurated my career in journalism. In Kerala in the south of India I met a young woman whose parents managed a tea plantation in the Western Ghaut Mountains and I spent a happy week with her and them. One day some snake charmers came and found two cobras under the porch, and even though upon inspection by my friend's savvy father the cobras turned out to be defanged, meaning that the charmers had planted them before they found them, it was thrilling nonetheless. I traded a shirt for the gourd that one of the snake charmers had made into the flute with which he charmed the snakes. I wrote an article about that too -- my second published piece. My career was blossoming.

But mostly I was by myself, gamely pushing ahead. Why? Because I wanted to see the world and I wanted to do so untrammeled and unconnected so that whatever might happen could happen. I've done that at other times too. When I went to open up the Time bureau in Beijing, there was a woman in the picture then too, but I never asked her to go to China with me. That failure was more reflex than thought, but the reflex was to see somebody else as circumscribing the adventure, drawing a circle in barbed wire around it. As a result, I missed my girlfriend and was lonely a lot of the time in China. There were a lot of dispiriting Sundays there, but I never asked her to join me. Well before that, on my post-student adventure from France to India, I saw young couples traveling together. I was envious of them and at the same time I knew that I could have traveled in the same way if I had chosen to do so. But I repudiated permanent company, or, more accurately, I was propelled away from it by some force I didn't understand. Permanent company was too much 1ike staying home, and home to me was commitments, and commitments were things that quite literally gave me a sensation of choking, like a gob of something greasy and gristly that I had somehow to swallow.

My manner of living had its rewards, many of them, and I'm not sorry I didn't do things differently, but it also brought me a kind of grief. I wanted to be free, but I wasn't exactly a happy vagabond either. There was one moment in particular. It was in a cheap hotel room in Singapore, where there was a rat in the corner and immense water bugs hanging upside down from the ceiling beams. I had arrived there one night from Bangkok on my way to Indonesia, and suddenly and unexpectedly I simply broke down. I wept. I felt the loneliness and what seemed to me my inability to bring it to an end wrap themselves around me like boa constrictors and squeeze the spirit out of me. I have rarely felt that bad since. But the loneliness returned again and again, self-imposed, brought on by my compulsion to keep all of my options open. I was for many years unable to do or to be otherwise.

I thought about this as the day dawned in Kucha and the train began its slow exit from the station. Zhongmei had gone, and I hoped she was already back at the hotel for a bit more sleep. I thought about how she had been waiting for me in Xian, standing outside the airport exit pressed against the security rope by the crowd behind her and waiting to see me. She was fairly optimistic that I would make it through passport control and that I would appear there with my luggage. But she was well aware of the possibility that I could be taken into custody, put in some hotel room for the night, and sent to Hong Kong on the first flight in the morning. And then she would have come all the way to Xian for nothing. She came anyway. She had equipped herself with a letter from some official she knew in Beijing that she hoped might help her get in to see me wherever the vigilant border guards would have taken me to spend the night. I walked down the train corridor to my compartment fully aware of how lucky I was to have her.

I won't say that I had an epiphany right there and then. For a long time, I had been thinking about making a life with Zhongmei, and when I did so the horror of home turned into something very different. Something was changing, and perhaps that moment on the train in Kucha standing between the soft-sleeper car and the dining car was when the knowledge of the change first came to me in clear and unambiguous form. The change was that nothing was pushing me to be a solitary figure anymore, that I didn't have to be what the Chinese call a gan-gwer, a bare stick, an old boy, a lonely bachelor. Now I had Zhongmei and I didn't want to lose her. Sitting in the compartment, Brave King sitting opposite me, and watching the early-morning scenery of the Xinjiang Uigur Autonomous Region go by, I realized that once this trip was over, I would try my best no longer to take my voyages alone.

* * *

The train arrived in Aksu a little after noon, and we spilled out into bright, steaming sun. Workmen were busy building a new railroad station, so the normal chaos of a Central Asian train arrival was intensified by the disorder of a construction site. Cars, trucks, taxis, buses, and donkey and horse carts were all jammed together trying to merge into the single lane that left the station precincts. A traffic cop stood in the middle of it all and made futile gestures with his arms. Drivers blasted away on their horns with lusty good humor.

Hsuang Tsang stopped briefly in Aksu and then went directly west, crossing the Pamir Mountains at a point, known these days as the Bedel Pass, which the Chinese government has closed to traffic. I would therefore have to go on to Kashgar, where the monk went only on his return journey, and from Kashgar I would go north over the Torugart Pass into the Kyrgyz Republic, rejoining Hsuan Tsang's route in the northern part of Kyrgyzstan. I knew that a special permit from the Ministry of Public Security was required to go to the Torugart Pass, and I was duly equipped with one, obtained with the help of a Chinese friend -- and what the friend had called a "facilitation fee," a very large one -- even before I had arrived in China. There was no passenger train from Aksu to Kashgar, only a freight train, so we would have to go by public bus.

"What is it, about four hundred kilometers to Kashgar?" Brave King asked our taxi driver.

"Are you kidding? You've got close to five hundred kilometers." The driver had to shout so loud over the cacophony of horns and jackhammers that it hurt my ears.

"I think it's four hundred," Brave King said.

"You can think what you want, but it's five hundred."

"Where's the bus?" Brave King screamed.

"It's right there," the driver screamed back, pointing to a few dilapidated vehicles on the side of the road.

"Well, it's five hundred," Brave King said to me confidentially. "That's hard. Once I from Ili to Urumqi by bus. Seat very hard. Road very jump. Trip many hours. After I arrive, I am very painful."

Finally we made it out to the main street. Aksu, which I had imagined to be a crumbling Turkestani backwater redolent of ancient Central Asia, turned out to be a big, gleaming town bristling with new construction It didn't have much charm, but it was bright, especially by comparison with dark and battered Kucha. It had a desert cleanliness to it and the newly remodeled Friendship Hotel had a welcome smell to it, like a new car. Still, I was restless in Aksu, anxious to get moving toward Kashgar, to get out of Xinjiang before some alert policeman questioned me and discovered that I was a journalist traveling in an area where journalists were banned. My mood was not improved when Brave King and I took a taxi to the town center in search of a late lunch. We found a place called Kuai-Tsan, "Fast Food," which was like one of those Panda restaurants you see at American airports. We ordered at the counter. Food was placed into a plastic dish. I sat down and immediately made the unpleasant discovery that someone had spilled tea or Coke or something into the molded plastic seat, where it had made an inch-deep puddle. My backside was soaked. I quickly ate my lunch and got up.

"How bad is it?" I asked Brave King. I was thinking of the impression my sodden bottom would make on the Aksu-ites, how silly I looked.

Brave King took a look. "It's bad," he said helpfully. "It's very bad."

I got a taxi back to the hotel and ran into the Chicago adventurers standing in the lobby in a bad mood. They were supposed to have left on their cross-the-trackless-desert expedition early in the morning. I began to explain my disaster, but they were too preoccupied with their own to listen.

"I'm ready, the jeeps are ready, but there's nothin' in them," Dan said. He spoke like George C. Scott in the movie Patton, using the first person singular pronoun to refer to the entire army. "They were supposed to have gotten supplies yesterday but they didn't for some goddamn reason and I don't know what the hell is goin' on."

"Does it matter that much if you leave a day later?" I asked.

"It does matter," Dan said. "I gotta go today so I can make it to Kashgar in time for the Sunday market, and after that I've got four days to do the Karakorum. I got a flight outta Pakistan on Thursday, and if I'm late for that I'm up shit creek."

A Chinese helper stood nearby. He turned out to be the police escort Dan had spoken about when we met in Kucha.

"Why don't you see if you can get your Uigurs down there right now, so's I can get this show on the road," Dan said to the policeman.

The three of them walked briskly out the door and I turned to my room to deal with my soaking pants.

Brave King and I went to the bus station, which turned out not to be where the taxi driver said it was but inside an impressive, orderly building elsewhere in town. The woman ticket-seller never took her eyes off her newspaper as Brave King asked her questions about times and prices. But we did learn that the bus for Kashgar would leave at one the next afternoon and take ten hours and that the price for Brave King would be forty-seven yuan (about five dollars) and exactly twice that amount for me.

"Why is the price more for foreigners?" Brave King asked the ticket seller.

She glanced up at him for just a second and then returned to her newspaper.

The next day when we came back, we bought tickets from a different ticket-seller and paid only forty-seven yuan for each, which we experienced as a small victory for the principle of fairness. Our bus was a soft sleeper, which meant that it had two levels of couchettes, though they would have been an additional eighty yuan for the two of us. You can, in other words, recline for the entire journey to Kashgar if you want to. We didn't want to. We took seats perched just above the doorwell. Then a ticket-taker came on board, and, pointing to me as if I were a piece of excess baggage, she told Brave King that my ticket was ninety-four yuan, not forty-seven. The ticket-taker had a look on her face of remote, bored indifference, the standard configuration of the remote, bored, indifferent Chinese functionary. There is something banally chilling about it. She was a person who followed orders and then went home to relax. In any case, we were denied our victory, but we were on our way to Kashgar, the westernmost city in China, the most non-Chinese place in the current Chinese empire, the gateway to all of the major mountain crossings along the Road of Great Events, the city of intrigue where Britain and Russia once spied on each other's consulates, where a Muslim dancer-cutthroat named Yakub Beg threatened the empire, where Genghis Khan and Tamerlane made conquests on their way to China itself. You get the point. Kashgar is redolent with the aroma of historical romance. A few weeks before, when I thought I might be stopped by immigration officials in Xian, the very word "Kashgar" sang to me of impossible romance, and now I had a mere ten-hour bus ride before arriving there. I was excited.

While we sat on the bus in front of the food stall a curious Uigur from a bus going in the other direction got on and tried to make conversation. He said something in Uigur and looked at me expectantly. I hazarded a reply.

"America," I said.

"America!" he repeated. He gave a thumbs-up and repeated, "America!" He said something else in Uigur and waited for my reply.

"Kashgar," I said.

"Kashgar!" Another thumbs-up.

I pointed at my watch and said with rising intonation, "Kashgar?" The man counted the hours and pointed to 1 a.m. -- two hours later than scheduled. Then he turned to Brave King sitting next to me and said in Chinese, "Japan?"

"No, I'm Chinese," Brave King sighed. It had happened again. Anyway, he and the Uigur began to converse in Chinese, which the Uigur spoke with a heavy accent. In general, I didn't want to arouse curiosity about myself, and I particularly didn't want to do so just after the United States had bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Americans who speak Chinese are almost invariably journalists, academics, diplomats, or spies. They are rarely New York real estate investors. So, while I remained quiet, Brave King and the Uigur chatted, first about the Uigur's occupation -- he was a trader in goat skins -- then about how many children they had -- Brave King none, the Uigur, who was forty-six years old, six. He had started having children when he was twenty, he said, and his wife was sixteen. He had two grandchildren. He beamed.

"You have to start early or your juice is no good anymore," he said. Then he asked Brave King how old I was. While I meditated silently on my bottled water, Brave King and the Uigur settled on about fifty for me, pretty close. I was hoping he wouldn't ask me how many children I had. Another six to zero would have been too lopsided a score.

"What is he?" the man asked.

"He's a businessman," Brave King replied, truthfully as far as he knew.

"He's a bomber!" said the man with the pockmarked face and the Makita saw. "He bombs Chinese embassies!"

I pretended not to understand, but the atmosphere suddenly seemed chilly. The man was smiling, but his stare was hard.

"He makes bombs to drop on China," he said, still smiling, maintaining a face of studied innocuousness. Just a joke. No offense. Still pretending not to understand, I asked Brave King for a translation, and when he gave me one I waved my hands in denial, smiling also, and realizing at the same time how silly my gesture was. I was actually bothering to assure a man on a bus in Xinjiang that I didn't manufacture bombs for the American air force. I was eager for the friendly Uigur to leave, which he did in haste when his bus was about to pull away.

There was a weightiness to this bus ride, I felt, a kind of eventful monotony. The drivers -- a Chinese alternated every two hours or so with a Uigur -- worked hard, shifting, swerving to avoid rocks, slowing down when the road abruptly disappeared and the bus crunched onto gravel and stone and then bumped with the sound of shearing metal onto the road again. By ten it had gotten very dark and the headlights of oncoming vehicles looming up from great distances ahead seemed to come almost from the horizon. You saw the light, but then it took a long time for the vehicle originating it to reach us. The oncoming lights strangely obliterated the foreignness of my situation. Riding a cantankerous bus across the glaring Takla Makan Desert from Aksu to Kashgar brought no memories with it, but it did bring something familiar, a sense of life redux translated to someplace else.

We have all driven on some country road at night speeding through a tunne1 of darkness and feeling the anxiety of those headlamps appearing ahead of us and pointing menacingly in our direction. For some strange reason I remember the nocturnal school buses of my youth, driving home from basketball games held in the opposing team's gym, the bus churning noisily through the winding roads of southeastern Connecticut, going home from small towns the names of which were important in my school years but are almost forgotten now. The bus would be quiet on the way home, the countryside dark except for those alarming moments when the road was suddenly lit by a passing car, high beams on a little bit too long, blinding you for just a second. In China on the road to Kashgar, the custom seemed to be to travel on low beams and then switch to high about fifty feet away from the oncoming vehicle, or to flash them on and off before roaring by.

I wasn't good at basketball. It was the great agony of my youth, the reason I didn't get the girls, I thought. Chess and literary ability were not sexual attractions at my high school. I tried hard and I was tolerated on the team, but I mostly played in practice, not much in competition when the cheerleaders, who were also on the bus, shouted the other players, names and the crowd cheered their exploits. And so the bus ride home held no satisfaction for me, rather a sense of unease, of failure, of dislocation, the powerful, secret conviction that I ought to be someplace else, and those knives of light that moved like searchbeams in the Connecticut night found out my nonbelonging. This is perhaps the hidden affliction of all travelers, the reason that the writers among them conceal their discomfort, their suffering, their dysfunctional bowels, their loneliness, the long stretches of tedium they experience en route. They don't belong, and so they have to pretend always to be having fun, enjoying where they are. I wondered if the monk's colossal journey, undertaken to find the Law, wasn't in some part motivated by the nonbelonging of a man of no power at a time when savage power was shifting from one hand into another. That is what I was thinking now on the Road of Great Events thirty-five years after my meager career as a basketball player came to its quiet end, as our bus passed a roadside cluster of brick shacks in a placed called Su-gun. A question occurred to me: Would I be here at all if I had been better at basketball -- if one of the pretty Irish girls who led the cheers belonged to me, would it ever have occurred to me to come to China?

At about eleven o'clock, the Chinese driver -- who was resting, having turned the wheel over to the Uigur, who drove more slowly, more carefully -- told us we had about one hundred kilometers to go, about two hours. I thought about Zhongmei, who was by now on a train going through the night in the opposite direction to Turfan, where she was supposed to arrive in the morning. Then she had to pick up new tickets at the railroad office above the bus station, wait all day, and board another train for Liuyuan, arriving at 4 a.m. Then she had to find a bus or a taxi for the two-hour trip to Dunhuang, where she was to meet a group from the Ministry of Culture that would have special access to caves normally closed to visitors. I worried about her arriving in seedy Liuyuan at 4 a.m. Brave King told her not to take a taxi but to get a public bus. "A woman at that hour with a taxi driver," was all he said.

Zhongmei has a long history with Chinese trains, especially from when she was a student in Beijing. The dance academy used to close twice a year and the students would be obliged to go home. But all of the other girls 1ived in Beijing itself or in other big cities that were easy to get to. Zhongmei had to go two nights and three days (or was it three nights and two days?) to Baoyuan in northernmost Heilongjiang Province. She went hard-seat but she never got a seat. She slept on the floor under a seat. Even now in soft-sleeper class on Chinese trains the toilets are no bargain, but in those days the toilets in hard-seat class were crowded with passengers who couldn't find seats in the cars, so there was no going to the bathroom in any case. She had to change trains in Harbin late at night, and that required a wait of several hours, but passengers were not allowed to wait in the station itself. Zhongmei remembers roaming streets that were so cold she began to lose the feeling in her feet. Once she tried to go into a hotel to sit in the lobby, but she was chased away. She was twelve years old. While the normal mood in the school was festive as vacation approached, she was filled with dread at the prospect of another train ride and the frigid nocturnal wait.

After graduating, she performed for five years with Beijing's leading company, and she was its star. She knew everybody. She was invited to banquets by senior Communist Party bureaucrats. She traveled and performed abroad. She appeared on television in the annual Chinese New Year's special, the closest the country has to an Academy Awards program, watched by hundreds of millions. She knew movie directors and movie stars. Visiting businessmen from Hong Kong and Thailand courted her and promised her a life of riches and ease if she would marry them, or be their mistress. In 1991, when her five years of mandatory service to her company in China were over, she came to the United States. She struggled to start her own dance company. She's still struggling. She's another nonbelonger, another traveler. I see us on the map of the Xinjiang Uigur Autonomous Region, two points of light moving away from each other, like asteroids in the void. We have moved away from each other before. I know that I don't want to move away from her anymore. The juice is getting too old.

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Excerpted from The Ultimate Journey by Richard Bernstein. Copyright © 2001 by Richard Bernstein. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.