3PM: I am riding in the cab of an overloaded semi truck, headed for Chira. In the back are loosely tied stacks of solar panels, which sway against their straps every time the steering wheel turns. My driver and his co-pilot are two middle-aged Chinese men from Gansu. They’ve never been out to Xinjiang before, and they emphasize this point by frequently exclaiming at how big and empty it is out here. The co-pilot is the more vocal of the two, and when we first met he demanded a lengthy discussion on how much better off Xinjiang would be now if the Tang Dynasty, a thousand years ago, hadn’t collapsed. But he’s asleep now, and the driver and I enjoy the passing miles and unchanging vastness in silence.
I’d bidden farewell to Wang Xiaoxu at the same crossroads our adventure together had began, but after accompanying him to a double meal of soup noodles and then dumplings. The 2o hours he’d spent living off simple Uighur food in Aoyiyayilake had given him intense cravings for the simple comforts of his own culture, and one massive bowl of soup noodles just hadn’t been enough. He expressed deep regret at our parting, and secretly wished, I could tell, that I would fail to find an onward ride today. Unfortunately for him, I did. The truckers I’d joined were part of a caravan of three trucks, all of which had stopped at 38th Regiment to gas up. They were excited to talk to an American on their long ride, and I admit I was pretty excited to knock out the day’s miles in the height and comfort of a big rig.
5PM: Busted. After a smooth two hours on the road, we’d come to a weigh station outside the oasis town of Niya. The co-pilot, roused by the driver, had jumped out of the cab with 100 yuan in his hand and run up to the Uighur policeman directing traffic. From our distance I saw the policeman shake his head and start beckoning the truck forward. When he got up to the policeman, he took one look at me in the cab and motioned me down. “You are foreigner?” He asked, his voice rising to a shrill pitch at the end of the question. I nodded and showed him my passport. “American?” His voice was all falsetto. “Yes,” I said. He switched to English: “Amerika very good.” I expressed thanks, and returned the compliment: “Xinjiang very good!” Then he was back to business, back to Chinese. “You cannot ride with them. But I will find you a ride. Where are you going?”
Now, ten minutes later, I’m in the back of a Mercedes, relaxing in my leather seat, listening to P. Diddy and System of a Down over the stereo, and watching the snow-capped Kunlun range appear and disappear in the distance with the changing clouds. Up front are two young men wearing leather jackets and aviators and chain-smoking from a pack of Camels. Jade traders from Khotan, one of the bigger cities in the Southern Tarim, and famous for its jade and the well-connected locals who have made fortunes off of it. The guys up front are maybe 20, 21 years old, and they’re doing a steady 90mph on a return trip from Urumqi that started this morning. They don’t talk much, and besides asking me if we have jade in America and how much my Suunto watch cost, we hardly communicate. Every so often we pass through another little oasis town, and they slow to a respectful 50mph while honking at the donkey carts and bearded old men in sheepskin hats to get out of the way. Through my tinted window, I look to see the farmers’ reactions, but they don’t evince any. Instead they just continue about their business, riding their donkey carts to the live market or back to their mud-brick homes, paying no mind to the highway and its shiny black Mercedes.