West Again: Same Bed, Different Dreams in a School for Shepherds’ Children at the Foot of the Altun Mountains

2013-06-17 2013-06-17 003 029Travel Log, 15 June.

2AM: Even in the dark of night, walking out of the bus station in search of a hotel that’ll accept me, I’m impressed by how green it is here. The night air itself feels lush to my sand-crusted nostrils. Overhead, palms and poplars rustle in the light breeze. I’m in the oasis town of Charklik (Chinese: 若羌, pronounced “Ruoqiang”). Finally, after the last two days’ ordeal, I’m back in Xinjiang.   

7AM: Whenever I talk to a Uighur in Chinese, I have to try not to smile. In my (limited) experience, the Turkic-speaking peoples of Central Asia tend to strongly inflect the ends of most sentences, their voices rising with every question mark–and even most periods–to an almost-falsetto. To the American ear, this already makes them sound like a bunch of California valley girls with beards. But when carried over into Chinese, with its general absence of context-specific inflections, the effect sometimes sounds outright hilarious.

10AM: After a decent walk around town, I’m on another bus headed west. My informal goal in these parts is to take a look at the levels of development in the main oasis towns, connected by the single G315 highway, and in areas away from the highway, up against the Altun and Kunlun ranges to the south. Also to do some hiking. Getting anywhere, I have discovered, will be difficult. There is only one bus a day between each of the scattered main oasis towns along G315, and they all leave and arrive at the same time. So once you get to the next town, which might only be an hour or two away, you’re there for the night, waiting to board your onward bus at the same time the next morning. Right now I’m headed in the direction of Qarqan, and I’m told from there I can go down to a settlement where the Qarqan River squeezes out from the Altun. There’s a national biosphere reserve there, too, although it sounds like it’s not really equipped for visitors. Either way, something to check out.

In the meantime, I’ve attracted a following. Two guys, Han Chinese, one who’s going to Khotan “for business” and one who’s going to Kashgar to meet a friend. They were both on my bus through western Qinghai, and now this is their first time in Xinjiang. They are visibly shocked by the differences here, by the appearances of the Caucasian native peoples and the manifestly un-Chinese culture, and both say so as much. For some reason they have both separately latched on to me, letting me do all the talking to locals and bus station attendants, and deferring to all my lousy guesstimates about bus timetables and transfer points. When the bus stops for an hour mid-way to our destination, they stick close to me as we go to get some lunch of flat bread and kabobs.

1PM: Well, there’s no bus this week to Kulamulake, the spot on the map I’d picked as my destination today. I’m still looking to keep moving, although this decision is not supported by my two travel mates. We agree to split up if I find a means to keep going today. They check into the nearest hotel and let me know their room numbers, just in case I’m still here tomorrow morning. Now, time to wander for an afternoon…

6PM: I  jumped in a shared taxi to 38th Regiment ( 三十八团 ), a settlement of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps farther west along Highway G315. From there, I was told, there is transportation into the mountains. Now I’m here, and at the mention of “bus” of any sort all I get are quizzical looks. I find a room for the night for $5, and spend the evening chatting with the proprietor’s family. Immigrants from Gansu, they mostly cater to exhausted truck drivers who just can’t make it to the next main town. The regiment here has many new barracks buildings by the side of the highway, most of them still empty for now. But the number of personnel is increasing, as things get started on a massive new reservoir project that will someday turn this stretch of desert into arable cropland.

16 June

10AM: I’ve got another follower. Standing at the dirt-road turnoff where I’ve been told to stand, waiting for a rumored taxi going up to the nearest mountain settlement from here, a young Chinese man rode his bike up to me and gave me his best “Hello!” He is 22, from Gansu, a technical-college graduate and a new member of the XPCC. This is his first day off–three days, actually–since arriving at 38th Regiment back in April. He is filled with idealism, expressing to me his desire to help develop Xinjiang, to secure this region for China forever, to assist the local population through development and the creation of economic opportunities. He’s even thinking about taking the civil service exam, he says. His name is Wang Xiaoxu, which means something like ” the brilliance of the rising sun at dawn.” I tell him where I’m going, and he looks at me with puzzlement. “Why?” He asks. I shrug. “To see.” He looks down at his bicycle, then back up at me. “How many days will you go there?” Just one night, I say. Maybe two. We’ll see. Then he really surprises me: “Can I come with you?” I say sure. But first we have to see if there’s really a taxi going there.

1PM: Turns out there is a taxi. It’s driven by dark-skinned Uighur man with a short beard and a long overcoat, and he pulls up to the dirt turn-off and stops, just as promised. We discuss the journey my tag-along and I are about to take. (My tag-along remains silent.) He’s somewhat dismissive, and I try not to smile at the valley-girl inflections he puts on the end of each gruff sentence. There’s another passenger in his van, a bookish, young-looking Uighur man, with neatly-parted hair, no skullcap and no beard. He’s a teacher at the school where we’re going. The driver defers to him: can they go? The teacher looks us over and nods. The accommodations are very basic, he says. Maybe just a blanket on a cold dirt floor. But if you want to come, you can come. I look at Wang Xiaoxu to see if he’s still game. He appears to hesitate just for a moment, then flashes me a smile. We get in.

17 June

1 AM: We are seated in a room shared by three of the teachers, the eight of us taking up all the space on their simple wooden beds. One of the teachers named Saimaiti, married just two weeks ago to a woman back in Ruoqiang, is playing “Hotel California” on the guitar and singing the lyrics in Uighur. It’s freezing cold–but just when you notice this, another toast of baijiu is proposed. Here we are, at the foot of the Altun Mountains, in a mud-brick boarding school for shepherds’ children: six Uighur teachers, a Han Chinese construction engineer, an American traveller, a guitar and some baijiu. It’s been a heady evening. The teachers are all young save for one, the schoolmaster, who is actually just 33 but looks 50. They are charged with educating 120 children, aged 6-12, who come from perhaps the most extreme margin of society inside China’s borders, the sons and daughters of semi-nomadic Uighur shepherds.

It’s a mission they are at once proud and nervous about. As the schoolmaster explained, almost all of their classes are now supposed to be taught in Chinese, not Uighur. Despite working for the Chinese state, these teachers are proud participants in the modern Uighur identity, and it only takes a minute or two of conversation before talk inevitably turns to the outrages the Chinese government has committed against the Uighur people in the last fifty years. Xinjiang’s past is always a sensitive topic. All but the schoolmaster are recent graduates of Xinjiang University in Urumqi, where they say that their educations were rendered meaningless by brainwashing that dominated their curricula. Saimaiti, a history major, tells me how the histories of this area’s independent kingdoms and silk road empires is replaced in college courses with a single Chinese history, one that takes their Central Asian homeland and makes it just another part of the Chinese Middle Kingdom, starting with the Han Dynasty 2,000 years ago. I’m not surprised at this, but I can imagine Saimaiti’s breathless frustration as he sat through those classes. I ask him how he knows of any other history of this place, if all that he’s been taught in school is the Chinese version. “We pass it on to each other,” he says. I ask: And do you pass this illegal history down to your students? Yes, he says, and all the teachers nod.

Talk then turns from Xinjiang’s past to its future. Both are equally contested, with the same lop-sided result. “We are already a minority in our own homeland,” one of the teachers says. Another explains: “The future here belongs to Chinese children, not our children here at this school. The best we can do for them is to just try to make they can read and write in Chinese. This is the only way they will ever get jobs and be able to live a peaceful life.” In our small, cold room, there is suddenly an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. “Drink!” Toasts the schoolmaster, and we do.

The difference in attitudes between Saimaiti, the elementary teacher, and Wang Xiaoxu, the XPCC volunteer, are striking. Of course both are ardently committed to Xinjiang’s future–so much so that they both have given up a great amount of material comfort to come out to what, for each of them, are the ends of the earth. But there the similarities end. The ideals of Wang Xiaoxu are regional development, economic growth, stability, and national achievement. He is overwhelmingly optimistic. Meanwhile Saimaiti, the teacher, fears for the futures of the children in his charge, and uses–perhaps abuses–his position to try to prevent, for one more generation, the extinguishing of his culture and language. Behind his exterior cheerfulness is an inner resignation. They represent opposing but entirely unequal forces in this region, but now, here in this little mud-brick room, Saimaiti’s is the stronger. Throughout the night’s conversation they address each other, indirectly, through me, although Wang Xiaoxu is mostly too surprised and definitely too polite to challenge anything he is hearing. He is also as amazed as I am to be sitting here, in this room, with this company.

6AM: It’s time to wake up. We slept two-to-a-bed last night, our gracious hosts having offered the only available surface off the floor–half of a bed–for us to sleep on. This morning Wang Xiaoxu and I will accompany some of the teachers on a hike up the steep canyon where glacier snowmelt provides a constant source of water to the village and the school. The single pipe that delivers water from the stream to the school has broken, and without it there is no way for the teachers to make breakfast for the children. It’s raining, cold and blustery, and none of the teachers have more than two changes of clothes. I offer my rainjacket to one, my umbrella to another, and a spare shirt to a third. All are gratefully accepted except for the rainjacket, which to them looks flimsy and less effective than their own cotton jackets.

8AM: Way up the canyon, we found the broken section of pipe and fixed it. Turns out it was just a fitting, a jerry-rigged connection between a metal elbow piece and PVC straight piece, that had come loose when the stream became swollen with rain. A blowtorch and a piece of wood, used as a mallet, provided the necessary tools. Looking up the twisty canyon, I ask Saimaiti if he’s even been farther up into the mountains. “Just a little ways,” he says. “That’s where some of our children’s families live with their flocks. Some live even further up, maybe two days walk from here. And beyond that–Tibet.”

11AM: After observing Saimaiti’s math class and shaking hands with all the kids, it’s time to go. Wang Xiaoxu and I brought food for ourselves, but our hosts have insisted on feeding us from their own meager provisions, even causing some lamb meat to appear for dinner last night. (“The lamb in Bayingol is the best,” the schoolmaster explained. “The meat has a dark, rich flavor that you don’t get anywhere else.” And he’s right.) But the food has not sat well with Wang Xiaoxu, who is only accustomed to Chinese fare; I’m worried about imposing on our hosts any more, and feel guilty that the only gift I have to offer is that cheap umbrella. There is also the question of the weather: if it keeps raining, the only road back down will be washed out soon. We stand in a circle, the six teachers, Wang Xiaoxu and I, and all do our best to communicate heartfelt goodbyes to each other. Then Wang Xiaoxu and I get in the taxi, driven by the same gruff guy from the day before, and start the bumpy ride back down and across the desert. After a few minutes of silence, Wang Xiaoxu turns to me. “Now I will definitely take the government civil service exam,” he says. “I want to serve the people here.”

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