Our intermittently air-conditioned desert crossing brought us to Khotan, a fast-developing town situated where the Taklamakan’s sands meet the Kunlun Mountains of Tibet. This is also the site of an ancient city-state that once dominated the southern Silk Road trade routes. Located along a pebbly riverbed, the civilization that onced prospered here owed much of its success to two things: the fanatical Chinese obsession with jade, and the fact that there was plenty to be found here. (Later, they also stole the Chinese secret of silk-making.)
Today, some things haven’t changed. Jade still seems to dominate the local economy, with endless jewelry shops, street stalls, and even lone peddlers with nothing more than a few dusty nuggets laid out on a hankerchief all trying to cash in on China’s continued fascination with the stuff. Found among the rocks and pebbles of the half-dry riverbed, in recent years the soaring price of these green (and, special to Khotan, black and white) polished stones supposedly led to the near-devastation of whatever fragile ecosystem there was to begin with out here. So what makes jade, particularly Khotanese jade, so prized? Jade was forever favored by China’s emperors and their court craftsmen as exquisite material for decorative carvings and trinkets. They preferred it to gold, which was too flashy and didn’t require as much skill to work. There is even evidence that the first thing to draw the Chinese attention to external trade wasn’t Central Asian horses, as was conventionally believed–and which were arguably a more pressing need for a sedentary society faced with horse-mounted enemies from the steppes–but rather Khotan’s jade. Today, with those 2,000 years of history and a huge number of wealthy Chinese now able to decorate their own little palaces, jade is in high demand. And along the riverbank, locals still go out, alone or in small groups, to try to spot a stone or two.
Meanwhile, the present Khotan is now an upscale Chinese downtown fringed by sprawling, older Uigher neighborhoods. As in Turpan, we discovered that getting around can be pretty tough for foreigners trying to use Chinese. We also experienced what many non-Chinese speakers complain about when travelling in China: when you don’t speak the language, it can seem like everyone’s trying to cheat you. And sometimes they are. In our case, a driver and I negotiated a return taxi trip from the Imam Asim tomb outside town for 20RMB. We drew the full route in the sand to make sure it was clear. The driver didn’t want to wait around for us, so we set a pickup time (using the local Xinjiang time) and I got his phone number just in case. We shook hands and he left.
At the pickup time, he wasn’t there. I gave him a call. “Ohhh, NOW?” He asked. “You want me to come NOW?” Yes. “NOW?” I wasn’t used to speaking Chinese with a non-native speaker, and for some reason I found it incredibly annoying that he put rising inflections on the ends of his questions (something that is not done in Mandarin). “NOOW?” Yes, dammit, please come now.
Forty-five minutes and a couple checking-in phone calls later, he pulled up. I noticed that the meter had apparently been running for some time: it read 60RMB. Figuring he was up to something, but mostly just concerned with getting us back into town, I ignored it. We’d made a deal, after all.
At our destination, we stepped out and I handed him two tens. He pointed at the meter: 73RMB. No way! He frowned: not sad, but some kind of warning, perhaps a threat. He then pointed at the meter again, like the amount was simply out of his hands, and mine. There it was: 73. Pay up.
I tried reasoning with him a little, reminding him of our joint-artistry sand drawings. He acted like they’d never happened. And he wasn’t inclined to listen to a foreigner speak to him about paying him less money in the language of those damned Chinese. At this point, though, I felt I couldn’t just walk away. A crowd of men was beginning to form. Perhaps sensing a confrontation, they were curious as to what sort of trouble I was causing.
Fortunately, this gave me an opportunity. It turns out the Uighers apparently resolve such contract disputes the same way the Chinese do: the crowd, after hearing the competing claims, gradually forms a consensus and issues the verdict. If I could win them over, I was set. If not–well, such is the tyrrany of the mob.
I actually had the fact that I was a foreigner going for me, since it would be pretty believable to everyone that the taxi driver might try to cheat me. That’s standard practice, but I was pretty sure that his reneging on our deal was outside the accepted bounds. I also had my outsider status going against me, of course, since the group would be more sensitive about not insulting the pride of the taxi driver, who might harbor grudges and would still be around long after we left the town the next day.
Identifying the guy who seemed to understand the most Mandarin, I tried to reenact the conversation I’d had with the driver, hoping to make it as clear to the crowd as it was to me that I only owed twenty. Fortunately, the guy who’d stepped up as my translator also seemed to have some sway with the rest of the group.
The driver responded to my opening argument with his own. The translator told me the driver had meant the 20RMB to be the additional fee for being on-call. The meter, which he had quite fairly started when he left town to come all the way out to get us, indicated the additional fare.
Well, what an idiot. Now I had more of a case that he’d broken our deal: so why, then, did he ask me to pay just 73RMB, which was the amount on the meter, and not 93RMB, as would have been consistent with his explanation? I asked. If we had agreed to anything with the number 20 in it, which he’d acknowledged, then there could be no basis for charging me straight off the meter. I didn’t have to mention that it was unlikely he’d simply waived the 20RMB “surcharge” he had just claimed was the result of our deal. The crowd was with me.
But the driver countered. Forget about any deal, twenty RMB was just too low. He’d had to drive all the way back into town with an empty cab, then all the way back out again. With all that gas used, how could he make any money at 20RMB? This argument was effective with the crowd. Twenty RMB was pretty low, especially for all that driving with an empty cab. This foreigner should probably pay more.
It seemed that there was little support here for honoring a contract for the contract’s sake. Switching gears, I argued that it was the driver’s own decision to drive all the way back and forth with an empty cab, that it wasn’t my fault he’d wasted all that gas, and that in doing so he’d missed the pickup time. He should have just waited the half hour we’d spent at the site. But now we seemed to be at an impasse. The crowd, in the absence of a strongly opinioned leader (the translator guy wasn’t as influential as I’d hoped), was losing interest. And I sensed that if they got bored enough with all this they’d just nod for me to pay up. In desperation, I did one more reenactment of our deal. This time I finished it with a flourish, offering my hand out to the driver. Moving my outstretched hand up and down in the air, I recreated my half of our previous handshake.
And that handshake, apparently, was the crucial detail. The crowd was probably just looking for any excuse to decide one way or the other, and at the perfect moment I’d given it to them. Suddenly I had everyone’s attention again. “You shook HANDS?” The translator asked, eyes wide. Yes. He turned to the crowd and said something, including “Amerikan.” Suddenly everyone was lively. Eyes turned to the driver. He looked down at the ground. Then they all started chuckling, and shaking each other’s hands. The scene was recreated a dozen times, amidst exclamations of “Amerikan, Amerikan!” The translator grabbed the driver’s hand, and pointed at me. “Amerikan!” It seemed that there was some cultural knowledge being explained. Something like, when you shake hands with an Amerikan, to them that’s a promise. And judging from the exaggerated palm-slapping, wrist-pumping handshakes being performed by everyone, this bit of cultural info had almost certainly come from something out of Hollywood. Here on the southwestern edge of the Taklamakan Desert, goateed men in tunics and traditional green caps were slapping hands like Will Smith.
In the end, the crowd formed at my side, staring down the driver and making it clear he would have to accept their decision. But they also told me to pay another ten RMB, or thirty in total. This saved some pride for the driver, and allowed us to part ways like we’d been best friends all along. I thanked him for his good driving. He gave me a thumbs up for being the father of Owen. And then we said goodbye, and the members of the crowd, happy with the outcome, moved out of the hot sun and back into the shade.