I’d never planned to fly in China. Flying here was for the seasoned masochist, or those with a goal of a nervous breakdown. But there I was, stuffed knees to chest, within the ridiculously scant space of a Chinese airliner.
Reeling at the depth of my most recent misfortune, my flight began when a passenger approached and clocked me in the head with his briefcase.
Just after he stepped on my foot, he took the seat next to mine. Almost immediately, without so much as a word exchanged between us, I was certain of three things about the man: that he loved garlic, didn’t use deodorant and possessed an almost inexhaustible ability to produce gas.
After lift off, I was engulfed by the feature film (a Chinese documentary about the mating habits of Grouper-fish), before I caught my new friend as he began to drift to sleep, as if by the snap of a hypnotist, his neck unhinged over my armrest. Just as his head nearly settled upon my chest, a young boy in the seat behind me began screeching. This alternated with kung-fu kicks to the back of my seat. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, a toddler dropped a doody on a seat across the aisle. When the attendant was called for cleanup, she gagged mid-mop, and ran to the bathroom to vomit.
That’s when I felt something wet drip on my arm … then again. When I looked up, it was like a scene from a Hitchcock film.
There, racing through the cracks in my overhead compartment – was blood. Neat little lines of hemoglobin slowly raining down on me. I ripped from my seat belt and jumped to the aisle, ready to scream like a little girl. The attendant barked at me to find another seat.
And these were the least of my problems.
As I moved to a new seat, I collapsed, head in hands. I wondered how, in seven short days, this trip had gone so wrong. And for the millionth time, I replayed that moment. The moment I’d realized someone had stolen my passport, $2,600 in cash and, most depressingly, my chance at riding to Tibet with my co-rider and new friend, Christoph Fladung.
It all begun a week earlier on the western edge of China’s Xinjiang Province.
Directed off the road by a pair of Kyrgyz border officials, we pulled to the center of a dilapidated town – a derelict village whose population lived entirely within the rusted-out hulls of trucks, railroad cars and shipping containers.
Human waste gathered in muddy pools next to stinking heaps of garbage that fretting dogs picked. When we reached the center, a sizeable crowd began to gather. Dirty and listless, they closed in with curious stares. “Is there someone here I could talk to about purchasing property?” I asked sarcastically.
“Let’s go,” Christoph followed, “I’m not really in the social mood right now.”
Two days later, we reached the Uyghur city of Kashgar.
The Uyghurs, or ethnic separatists, as the Chinese government refers to them, originated from a Turkic-Uzbek ancestry. Arriving from Mongolia, they’d ushered in Islam, then swept out the Tang Dynasty around the 9th Century.
When the Manchu Army invaded the area in 1865, China had recaptured an oil-rich chunk of desert, a hunk of real estate roughly the size of Alaska.
Since that time, the government has flooded the area with Han Chinese, purposefully diluting the Uyghur population from 90 percent to less than 50 percent.
But the Uyghurs are resilient. Their culture booms within Kashgar’s Sunday market – it is less a market than an explosion of Uyghur merchants gathered 50,000 strong.
Wandering first through the animal market, we were instantly overtaken by the dirt, dung and debris – all of which flung from the surrounding livestock.
Many of these same animals met their fate in nearby food stalls – a massive conglomerate of tarp-covered cookeries that billowed with a blueish-white smoke.
That afternoon, deep within the market, we perused an endless array of fruits, vegetables, fabrics, crafts, carpets, metalwork and knives, until we finally found ourselves within a large spice market. Once there, medicine men and maniacs boasted freakish potions, and their unique abilities to heal. A partial list of these concoctions included: dried snakes, lizards, frogs, starfish, and live scorpions – their purposed sting a part of some sadistic healing regiment.
We finally tumbled from the market, our brains rattling like marbles in a jar. Dizzy from the height of it all, I made my way to a hotel phone to share the experience with a friend.
That’s when it happened.
I’d simply placed my money belt down on the counter and walked away. By the time I realized what I’d done, it was gone. My passport, documents and three months worth of budget. Gone.
My mind raced back to the words of a best friend, a compliment before I left. He said, “Rick, if there is one person that is not afraid of change, that would have to be you.”
As I stood for a moment in realization of the change that had occurred, I struggled hard to believe his words.
Then came a hell week.
Seven days later, I had taken four flights, covering more than 8,000 miles. I had frequented two police stations, eight banks, five government offices, and had filled out countless forms. I was harassed by police, swindled by cab drivers, taken by merchants, laughed at by children and cursed at by an elderly woman.
When I was done, I returned to Kashgar from the east coast cities of Hong Kong and Guanzhou. I finally reached the light of my dingy hotel room, and came upon my bike, sitting dusty, locked and lonely. As I opened the lock, I thought of Christoph.
He had bent over backward trying to help me before he’d left, but pushed for time by his visa, he finally realized it was time to move on. Waiting for me might have meant jeopardizing one of his life’s dreams: cycling from Germany to the base of Mt. Everest.
That night, as I crawled into bed, I wondered about my dream. I was halfway through this roller-coaster bicycle journey around the world. I wondered what other obstacles I would come across, and to what heights I would once again soar.
As I did, I recalled something I said to Christoph just before saying good-bye.
I said, “I have no idea how long it will take me to return, Christoph, but if it’s humanly possible … I will see you on that hill.”
July 28 – Aug. 10, 2006
Kashgar, Urumqi, Guanzhou, Hong-Kong and Urumqi
Mileage log: 10,550-10,650
Elevation: 0-3,200 feet