And so it ends, my last adventure in China, this two-week road trip across Qinghai and Xinjiang. I’m now on a red-eye flight from Urumqi to Hangzhou, a direct connection that apparently exists because of the number of Uighurs involved in the bustling trade between Zhejiang Provinces’s family-owned factories and merchants from the Middle East. That’s the business of the two men sitting on either side of me, anyway. They’re both headed for Yiwu, the small commodities mega-market town where I once grabbed lunch in a restaurant that was run by an Uzbek, staffed by Afghans, and patronized by Chechens. For the man from Karamay sitting to my left, this is his first trip out of Xinjiang. He’s headed out to Yiwu to meet his brother, who has worked their for years and who, having just bought a car, has asked his brother to drive it back home for him. I am envious of the road trip he is about to have, one that will span pretty much the whole width of the People’s Republic of China, although I know that for him it will be a joyless endurance test of tolls, bad food, and little sleep. He has asked me to stick with him for a bit when we get to Hangzhou, to help get him on his way and for a fair price.
The man on my right is returning from a deal-making trip to Kyrgyzstan. He’s in some kind of textile-trading business with his wife’s brother. En route back to Yiwu, he stopped over in Kashgar to see his wife, whom he visits just a few times a year. She gave him an enormous box of Uighur-style flat breads, each made by hand and numbering well into the hundreds, for him to deliver to her homesick brother. I met him while going through airport security, where a group of officials were chuckling over how ridiculously large this box was that he was trying to take as carry-on. Since all I had in hand was a tiny day pack with a book in it, I offered to carry half his breads on board as my own, provided he could find two smaller containers with which to split them up. That turned out to be easy: at a nearby shop inside the airport, two bored saleswoman were happy to dig out some large trash bags for us. People aren’t always so willing to help out strangers, but in China, everyone seems to understand the importance taking massive amounts of some food product to far-away loved ones.
As is usual with the Uighurs I’ve met, the three of us talk about politics, history, Xinjiang’s future, and all the funny little things that Chinese people (stereotypically) do that amuse, bewilder, and annoy us. We are from completely different worlds, they and I, but it’s funny how a third party can unite two others. Our conversation is alternately hilarious and depressing, much like all my experiences in the last two years with the country that lies, in darkness, 30,000 feet below us.