The only thing I’ve ever wanted to do is travel. From the moment I first saw an image of Machu Picchu, I’ve committed my life to it. There have obviously been challenges to my lifelong passion: funds, as well as the fact that I’m female. But I’ve always found a way, and I can say with full confidence that choosing a life of travel was definitely right for me.
Of all the places I’ve been, Asia remains my favorite. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not like I’ve been everywhere and seen everything. I’m just saying that it’s right up there, because no matter what you’re after, Asia can give it to you. In a nutshell, it’s imbued with an intoxicating element, one that has me return to it, again and again.
I’m not traveling at the moment. I’m working as an au pair here on Victoria Island, British Columbia. It’s so beautiful here, my day-to-day life like a calm, living Monet. It’s also refreshing being back in the West after nearly five years doing the English teaching triangle between Taiwan, Japan and Korea. The fact that I can speak my native tongue freely and don’t need to resort to hand gestures or worry that I’m being scammed are treats, too.
Looking back, I must say I’ve been lucky. I’m twenty-eight now, can speak multiple languages, have qualifications in various fields, and have always landed on my feet. I packed my bags right after school to go out and see the world, and I’ve been blessed to meet amazing people and experience things I never imagined possible. That’s why I love traveling so much: the unpredictability of it all. Ah, nostalgia’s a tease, right?
But back to Asia. It’s so different to where I come from, and where I am now. I don’t think any travel guide, blog or story can do it justice. I mean, how does one do justice to the heavenly-detailed boiler room of the world? I won’t do that today. Nope, I’ve got another reason for writing this down. You see, while this might read as a story, for me it’s a catharsis. This is because something unusual happened on one of my trips, and writing its details down might relieve some of the stress I still feel to this day.
It was a sweltering Asian August and I arrived at Beijing airport at two in the afternoon. A driver from the hostel I’d stay at came to pick me up and shepherded me through the smoggy Han citadel to its center. After settling in my dorm room, I bought a beer and went to the roof to scan the view. There wasn’t one, unless you count grainy sepia-coated buildings to be a view. Anyway, it’d been my lifelong dream to travel to China, so when my beer was done I set out on the street, moving quickly through the hutong with an eye to catch a glimpse of the uncanny. Whatever it was – be it the flight, the excitement, the rush of people – I didn’t get far that afternoon, and an hour later I returned to the hostel to lie down.
I only woke up the next morning! The dorm room echoed with the sound of other travelers, most of which had signed up to see the Great Wall later. After rubbing my eyes, I noticed a nice-looking guy below my bunk bed putting on his socks and shoes. I watched him curiously before he caught me looking at him.
“You coming to the wall today?” his eyes were colored a beautiful deep-green.
“No,” I said through a yawn. “Just arrived.”
“The weather’s good,” Mr. Handsome looked out the window. “Hope it stays like this. I’m Chris, by the way.”
“Rebecca,” we shook hands.
“Rebecca,” he said as if this triggered a distant memory. “How long will you be staying in China, Rebecca?”
“Three weeks. You?”
“I’m returning to Australia from England, so… maybe five months.”
“Five months in China? That’s ambitious!”
“It’ll be a challenge! I mean, the language is just bonkers, right?”
“Hey, what’s so funny?”
“Ah, don’t worry about it.”
“But it is! My guidebook says that if you mess up your tones, you could be telling a waitress you want to sleep with her rather than ordering dumplings!”
Chris’s expression (like he’d been kicked in the privates) was hilarious. A local man then burst into the room and barked out instructions.
“I’m sorry,” an Italian lady gestured for him to slow down. “What are you saying?”
The man’s face grew redder upon repeating what he’d said.
“Please!” a Tobey Maguire look-alike interjected. “Please speak English!”
“He says the van’s here to take you to the Great Wall,” I spoke up. “He also wants to remind everyone to take your tour receipts and a hat. Oh, and he’s leaving in five minutes.”
Everyone turned to look at me.
“AH!” Chris grinned and shook a finger. “We have a spy in our camp!”
Eight days later, Chris and I caught a midnight flight from Beijing to Urumqi. I was actually in China to catch a train to Mongolia, but as my visa application had stalled due to Nadaam (Mongolian New Year), I threw in my lot and ventured out to the most far-flung place I could think of. In the interim, Chris and I had struck up an easygoing friendship, he full of fun and laughs which kept everything light and happy. As he had no set plans, he offered to accompany me, which I was grateful for. We arrived in Urumqi at god-knows-what hour, and after unraveling the taxi driver’s Turkic-spiced Mandarin, we were shuttled through its inky streets to a guesthouse that turned us away because we were foreigners. If you don’t already know, Xinjiang (China’s westernmost state) is in the midst of a civil war between its indigenous Uighur people and Han migrants. Due to this, the government strictly monitors everything, especially foreigners. Following this, we were taken to a more ‘suitable’ establishment, which meant a lurid ‘hotel’ complete with Addams Family-type reception staff. We made it through the night alive, but only after a drunk call girl spilled in through our ‘locked’ bedroom door at five a.m. to announce she was ‘ordered’ to give us a massage.
The world we woke to resembled a warzone. Chris and I left early as to negotiate the resident maze of alphabets, people and stares, and eventually found a bus that ran into downtown Urumqi. There, we asked locals what hostels existed in the vicinity. We arrived at the one consistently-mentioned three hours later. The young guy manning reception ignored us for nearly twenty minutes, his phone apparently more important than doing business. Exhausted and wondering why we’d done this to ourselves, Chris and I grabbed some local Wusu beers from the hostel fridge and downed them in our dorm room.
Following a short nap, we ventured into downtown Urumqi to investigate how we’d reach Xinjiang’s furthest-flung regions. Upon our return to the hostel with precious little information, we met Lao Jiang, a Hunanese chain smoker who planned to travel to Kanas Lake. Over numerous bottles of Wusu, he told us of the lake: how it bordered Mongolia, Russia and Kazakhstan. These names had our imaginations go into overdrive, and two days later we were on a bus from Urumqi to Buerjin, an oasis town located northwest of the Gobi Desert. Upon arriving there, we were again shuttled from our preferred residence to one where local authorities could watch over us. This (expected) irritation aside, Buerjin proved a pleasant place, and it was at its night market where Chris and I ate dogfish, a local delicacy whose deliciousness I still remember to this day.
The next morning, a bulky Kazakh named Burikhan drove Chris, Lao Jiang and I two hours north into Chinese Siberia. We got off at Jiadengyu, a last chance saloon home to plentiful birch trees, open spaces, and locals selling prodigious volumes of naan bread. We met three other travelers there. All Han Chinese yet hailing from different regions, Vito, Gao Jie and Princess were solo adventurers who’d been drawn together by a love of the unknown. After introductions and loading up on supplies, our new travel group set forth, hiking past a yurt settlement towards the foothills of the Altai Mountains. The space and freedom we experienced out there was mind-blowing, it as if we’d entered a dream realm. Two hours later, we arrived at a picturesque Russian-style settlement, its wooden houses set beside a raging river blessed with waters so blue they defied belief. We met Xiao Jiu there, a half-Han/half-Kazakh cowboy who’d guide us over the mountains to Kanas Lake. After enjoying bowls of goat milk and naan, our group transferred our supplies to Xiao Jiu’s pack horses and continued into the unknown.
It’s difficult to relay how breathtaking the land we moved through was. Its immensity was all-encompassing, like a fairy tale come alive. It being summertime, the sun beat down mercilessly, and an hour after losing sight of the river, our water supplies were dwindling. Lao Gou said not to worry, and not much later we filled up from a mountain stream. The terrain grew increasingly wild thereafter, and while negotiating it, we got to know each other. It was fascinating speaking to each travel party member, the vast geographical and ideological distances between us offering ample conversation topics. Vito was a twenty-three year old intern at a hospital in Shenzhen. Voraciously smart and witty (he could make a joke out of anything), the thing I remember most about him is that he had no want of leaving China, he of the belief that you could get no better food than that of his native land’s. Gao Jie was a Physics teacher from Nanjing who walked with a regal posture. Taciturn in manner, it didn’t take much to ascertain she possessed a simmering intelligence. As for Princess – well, she was a walking Rubik’s cube, really. On one hand she appeared girly and spoiled, the colorful clothes she wore and loud disposition she displayed at odds with the serene environment. After a long chat with her though, I realized she possessed a steeliness that her appearance didn’t give away. For example, she’d not only solo traveled to some of China’s most far-flung places (think Qinghai, Tibet and Xinjiang), but had also visited incomprehensibles the likes of South Georgia and Papua New Guinea. All in all, our travel group was a good bunch, each of us having come to this pocket of Central Asia to take on the Altai.
Shortly after midday, we stopped for something to eat. Gobbling down two face-sized naan breads under the shade of a tree then, I fully understood why they’d been in such demand back in Jiadengyu. While most of us were content to relax and catch our breath, Lao Jiang, Vito and Princess wanted to venture ahead. Xiao Jiu warned them not to, saying they were his responsibility and he couldn’t in good conscience allow them to go on. But the trio was resolute, and even wrote down Xiao Jiu’s directions as a sign of good faith. Xiao Jiu was clearly disturbed when they departed, his easygoing manner and broad smile ceding to a dark sullenness. Gao Jie, Chris and I mentioned we’d be happy to leave as to accompany them, but with our destination still being five hours away, Xiao-Jiu advised we rest up and only go later.
It was nightfall when we reached the magical village of Hemu. Having descended the ridge we’d walked along, we marched through a forest of spooky birch trees which lead on to a creaky wooden bridge. While crossing it, the sky was a dream-come-alive, it possessing a gargantuan full moon backed by distant lightning. The moonlit village appeared little more than a ramshackle set of wooden structures, one of which would be our rest spot for the night. After putting our bags down and using local goats’ water to wash our hands, Xiao Jiu delivered some distressing news: our travel friends hadn’t arrived. He was equal parts worried and furious, he having warned them this might happen. Following a ten-minute discussion as to what he’d do, Xiao Jiu saddled up and rode out into the night, his mission to locate the trio fraught with dangers that included compromised visibility and the threat of wolves.
Speaking of wolves, I had a strange dream that night. The open plains I imagined we’d see later on our trip were filled with an inky darkness as I rode my horse towards a distant fire. When close to it, I caught sight of three transparent ghosts dancing around its flames. I got off my horse and watched them, and while doing this realized they were the essences of Lao Jiang, Vito and Princess. Shortly after, four wolves entered the frame. Set in a formation of two at the front and two at the back, they carried in their mouths two poles with something tied between them. They set these to the floor and untied their catch, which caused a sick revulsion to stream through me: it was Xiao Jiu, and he was going to be sacrificed to the flames.
Upon waking the next day, neither Xiao Jiu nor the trio was there. We approached the guesthouse owner to see if she had any information, but she didn’t. An invasive feeling started taking hold, so Chris, Gao Jie and I distracted ourselves by taking a wander around the village. It resembled a throwback to ancient times, its wooden houses, corrals and livestock quite disengaged from modernity. Upon our return to the guesthouse, we saw a man on a horse together with others descend down the ridge. With what appeared to be our guide and travel companions in sight, a great relief washed over us.
Alas, this proved to be short-lived: it wasn’t Xiao Jiu and friends. An even greater desperation set in, so Chris, Gao Jie and I decide to go look for them. The guesthouse owner tried to flag us down, but we were resolute. Our plan got dashed when we reached the top of the ridge. The local cowboy stationed there told us half a dozen men were already searching for the missing party, and he couldn’t allow their efforts to be compromised. We agreed, and disconsolately returned to the guesthouse to sit around in busy silence.
Around midday, the guesthouse owner offered us some rice and naan. We accepted, yet didn’t eat any. That afternoon was a melancholic one, and once the sun set, I could only realistically imagine the worst. After dinner, the guesthouse owner lit a large candle which we sat around in the hope that our collective energy could resolve things. When we woke the next day – the window panels lightly dusted with dew – I knew we’d never hear of Xiao Jiu or the missing trio again.
We were subsequently ‘adopted’ by another cowboy who took us over the mountains. Our journey started up a steep, rocky rise before leveling onto more gentle inclines that offered visions of endless birch trees, untouchable horizons, idyllic yurts, and smatterings of white Bactrian camels. Close on sunset, we reached a plateau where – at our guide’s instruction – our horses galloped until we reached the otherworldly Black Lake. We spent that night in a local family’s yurt and rose early the next day. I profess to not seeing many more beautiful landscapes than what I saw that morning, its composition of perfect blue sky, momentous plains, and colossal mountains simply breathtaking. We saddled up our horses and continued through more never-ending steppes lorded over by Golden Eagles, these magnificent specimens gliding above us like an invitation to the sublime. In spite of being granted the opportunity to take in this divine location, I couldn’t for a minute stop thinking about what’d happened to our travel companions.
We arrived at Kanas Lake come three in the afternoon. Chris, Gao Jie and I found a ramshackle spot to stay and took in the sights over the next few days. Our epic journey into Chinese Siberia then concluded with a dour bus ride back to Jiadengyu where Xiao Jiu’s connections had no idea what had happened to our travel party. Unable to assist, Chris and I returned to Urumqi and used what resources we had to aid the search mission. Following three days of fruitless endeavor, I was forced to accept that I’d leave Xinjiang without knowing what’d happened to them. Laden with a heavy heart, I bid Chris farewell and took a forty-four hour train ride back to Beijing. Once there, I wondered around in silence for a couple days before flying back to Japan where I was living at the time.
You know, it feels good to get this out. I know our travel party had all just met, but even now, three years later, I cannot shake the shock of what happened that day. I replay the moment they left over and over, and still cannot figure out what must’ve happened. As for Chris, he did manage five months in China, and during that time met the girl he subsequently married. We still keep in touch, but it’s always just small talk. I doubt we’ll ever again breach the subject of what happened there in the Altai, that incident now lost to the haunting visions and scenes of that strangely powerful nowhere-land.