China-Pakistan Border Region
The streets of Tashkurgan were windy and narrow. It was a borderland; just to the south was the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
The town was located in a valley and built upon a slope. At the bottom of the hill was a green floodplain. On all sides were high mountains. Darkness occurred prematurely because the mountains blotted out the dusk light.
Interrupting the outlying suburbs northeast of the town was a crumbling stone fort. I climbed it and found two girls. They were looking outward, toward the disappearing sun. Both were wearing pink, transparent veils that would flap noisily in the wind. I stood behind them, admiring the scene. The setting sun had given the mountains an intricate detail, the shadows accentuating each edge. It was very cold.
I scrambled down the treacherous side of the fort and enter a hilly neighborhood. The houses were crumbling upon one another. The people were Tadjik. The women wore red dresses, tall red pillbox caps, clunky jewelry and no shoes.
After first menarche, young women draw a black line in between their eyebrows, joining them together, making them beautiful. They were poor people.
At the edge of the village was a vast green steppe.
In the distance, small clusters of white yurts dotted the landscape. Everything was big: big clouds, big sky, big mountains, big pastures. Being there inspired within me intense feelings of creativity.
There were animals there. In the near distance, large flocks of yaks, wild horses, goats and sheep roamed about freely. The ground was muddy and soft. As I walked I counted the different numbers of animals whose tracks have sunken into the porous ground.
I made my way back to the street.
There were few cars because people either walked or rode on tractors. Mobs of children ran in the streets. The doors of every home were open and as I walked, I looked briefly inside the houses and saw small fragments of a hard rural life; people chopping wood, slaughtering animals, building things, sawing. I saw old women holding small babies while mothers breastfeed other children.
In the street were two girls. I asked them in Uyger their age. One was 12, the other 16. They were sisters.
The 16-year-old motioned for me to wait.
She ran into her house and returned with a badminton set. She wanted to play badminton with me in the street.
We played for several minutes until she struck the birdie too hard, sending it onto the low slung roof of a wooden chicken coop.
She climbed onto a wheelbarrow, grabbed the ledge of the roof and, kicking her legs wildly, caught a foothold and climbed up. She disappeared briefly then peeked her head over the ledge and smiled a toothy grin, holding up the tattered birdie and wiggling it. She had a large nose and dark, striking features. When she smiled, her mouth appeared almost too big for her face. She was wearing a red dress with thick stockings underneath. No shoes. Her feet were dirty. On her ears where earrings that looked like coins; they looked heavy and exotic.
I decided that if I had the chance, I would have sex with this girl. I wondered what it would be like, and then walked away.
Foreigners in Tashkurgan stayed at the Traffic Hotel. A bed for a night here costs the equivalent of 10 cents US.
The hotel was located on the grounds of the bus station. The building was yellow and ugly. One Han Chinese worked there, the rest were teenage Tadjik girls. He was the boss.
His name was Yang and he had come from Kashgar, sent to this outpost on account of his English skills. He liked it. “In Kashi it is very hot. Hot in summer. Here is cool,” he explained, pointing toward the wall of mountains that loomed above the small town. “Cool in summer,” he said, sucking on a cigarette.
I liked Yang’s mellowness, the ease in which the way his voice came out of his mouth. We were sitting on wicker chairs next to the front door of Traffic Hotel. The town was dark, but beyond the mountains it was still twilight.
Two more Han Chinese approached us. “They have been here 6 days,” Yang told me, translating.
“They also want to go to Pakistan, but it is forbidden for Chinese to ride Pakistani jeep. They must go in bus. But no bus,” he giggled. “No bus, maybe next week. Road in Pakistan is bad.”
Two jeeps arrived full of backpackers coming from Pakistan. One jeep was packed with Chinese, the other with Westerners. The backpackers saw me and invited me into the restaurant for a beer.
There was a veterinarian from New Zealand and a married couple from Belgium. They told me stories.
“In Besham those children, they threw stones at us…” Joseph, a Belgian explained to me.
Helen, his wife nodded, adding, “Yes it was..Something like Mohammad’s birthday and the Mosques were shouting on the loud speakers..be more religious..or something like this..and everyone was going crazy, shouting and breaking things.”
“The police came to our room and were putting more locks on our room,” Joseph told me, laughing. “We say, ‘what you are doing,’ they say, ‘putting extra lock.'” He imitated someone drilling into a wall.
The New Zealander stayed quiet. He was eating chicken on the bone and a small pile of bones were piled on his plate.
Helen continued, “we were in a van and they ask us if we are Moslem and we say no and they stop and pray three times. It was really crazy. Aggressive praying. Ok, one time, is ok, but three times…” Helen looked at her husband, “and we were becoming very uncomfortable..”
Joseph interrupted, “and the children are throwing stones, inbetween Gilgit. And I got so angry at this,” Joseph tells me closing his eyes in frustration, “because, these are big stones,” he measures out a hole with his fingers, “and this can make you fucked.”
“It sounds like hell on earth,” I said.
The next day, at the Chinese border I found two men standing next to a mountain of luggage.
“Sost?” I asked. Sost was the first town along the Pakistani side of the Karokoram highway.
“Sost!” they shouted back, giving me a thumbs up. One of the men was a Uyger, the other a Han Chinese, an odd combination.
They looked stupid, like two rednecks trying to travel. I didn’t want to get stuck with them. I knew they would drag me down.
A bespeckled Pakistani approached me. I liked him because he looked smart. He spoke with an Oxford accent and wore a brown Shalwaar Kameez. His name was Malik.
Two Pakistanis trotted, by rolling tyres across the parking lot.
Malik was the owner of a business that imported things back and forth from China. He told me his fleet of blood-red landcruisers would be making the return trip soon. If I wished, I could ride with one of them, for a fee.
I watched the Pakistani tyre rollers receive a tiny sum of cash in hand for their work. I had 3,000 dollars in cash in my pocket and a 2,000 dollar camera. Things are unfair.
Soon I was rolling across the flat plains that link China, Pakistan and Tajikistan. The road was flat and curvy, made of gravel.
My driver was a silent Pakistani man, short and fat. His name was Sharif. We spoke few words during the trip. His voice was small and gravely. He constantly offered me lemon crackers and small boxes of sugary fruit juice. We drank and ate these snacks together, throwing the empty boxes out the window when we finished.
Every few kilometers we passed by small, lopsided square mud brick houses that look as if they had been baked in an oven. The homes were low and wide and often built upon the sloping foundations of the towering mountains above. Along the road walk young women and small girls herding animals. I waved at them and they waved back, instinctively, reflexively. I look back to see them wave for a long time until they disappeared into the horizon. The light was intense.
The road grew rougher.
Earth would present small challenges, deep streams, steep foothills, nearly vertical inclines. Sharif would shift gears and whatever obstacle was in our way was easily surpassed. I liked the raw power of the landcuiser. It made me feel safe.
The landscape was mind-bending. It had started to hail and the sky was nearly black over us. The mountains glowed brightly, as if from an internal light. We were driving fast but the landscape moved along slowly. I looked at the mountain closest to me. It was covered in black spots. I blinked and the spots moved, like a living organism had covered the mountain side. I realized the spots were shaggy-haired mountain goats feeding on the high altitude grass.
We stopped and I got out to take a photo. Sharif was simultaneously tolerant and amused at this.
I took a few shots and was disappointed. Landscape photography nearly always bores me. The camera can never match the scope and perspective of the eye. It is too stagnant and too small of a look.
I had once met an Australian girl in Turkey who had come from Jordan. She had taken four rolls of film from Petra. Every photograph looked like rocks.
I decided I will only take photos of people.
We climbed higher into the mountains. The snow was bright and blinding.
There was a checkpoint near the summit of the Khunjerab Pass. We stopped. Sharif honked the horn. Two boy soldiers with machine guns came out of a large white building that looked like a palace. They were Chinese.
The two of them marched to the car and rigidly saluted us. They demanded my passport and disappeared back into the building.
Sharif turned off the engine. It was quiet. The only noise came from the icy wind. It was powerful, rocking the car back and forth.
The boy soldiers returned. One climbed into the back seat of the landcruiser, leaning forward and putting his hands up to the heater.
“China visa. No good,” he said to me. He wasn’t looking me in the eye. He wanted a bribe, some money maybe, perhaps some food.
I knew he was lying to me. I didn’t blame him; if I were him I would do the same thing. This was a border heavy with backpacker traffic and the soldiers must see people like me everyday. Footloose, smirking kids with college educations, girlfriends, return tickets home. Options.
Luxuries like these elude the imagination of even the most urbane among rural Chinese.
These soldiers were slack-jawed kids from the provinces sent away to waste their time on an obscure borderland. Had their families been rich or powerful, they would be in Shanghai or Beijing in a cushy administrative job. These are the anonymous in Chinese society; kids who do grunt work for the army. It is an awful, dehumanizing life.
This was the frontier in between two third-world places. Borderlands are bad places with bad people; barren lands populated by people who are parasitic upon their environment, people who have no choice, people who are stuck in between two societies in a region neither nation cares about but will do anything to retain. Borders are where drugs and guns are smuggled, where prostitutes sell their bodies to truck drivers, where industrial factories are located. Nobody cares about a borderland but will gladly go to war and kill and die to protect its integrity.
“Visa good,” I said, roughly snatching my passport out of his dirty hands, startling him. I was losing my patience. “Look,” I point to the expiration date. 20 days away.
He shrugged and I climbed out of the landcruiser. He was getting nothing from me. He got out of the car, saluted again and sulked back into the palace. I pissed in the snow and we continued onward.
Moments later, I fell asleep and had a powerful erotic dream.
Sharif nudged me awake. “Here Pakistan, there China.” The landcruiser was stopped with the engine running.
“What?” I asked. I was annoyed at him for waking me.
“This is border,” he explained. “Pakistan there, China here.” Sharif pointed towards the ground.
I was thankful to be rid of China.
“You want photo?” Sharif asked.
I said no then changed my mind. I saw a sign, “Welcome to Pakistan, Gilgit.”
I walked up to the sign, put my arm onto it. Sharif snapped a photo with my camera. I looked at it and remembered a photo I had seen once of the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama. He was standing on the border post of Afghanistan. He had a look on his face, cocky and young, conqueror on top of the world. I look at the photo and realized had the same look on my face.
A fancy Land Rover drove by and British people got out and take same photograph I just did. They were wearing khaki pants with dozens of pockets, photo vests and hiking boots.
“What’s up?” I said.
They ignored me.
There is something about people who drive luxury off road vehicles in places where everyone is poor. There is snobbery involved. There is a culture to this class of people: BBC World Service, British colonies, NGO organizations, colonial African administrators. This is a strata of people cruise around on the backs of the worlds poor. Tinted windows, air conditioning. Everytime I saw these high rollers, I hated them more.
To get to Pakistan we had to descend into a deep valley. Where the geography in China was subtle with far away mountains and flat green valleys, the Pakistani side was fearsome. Jagged rocks hung dangerously over the narrow road and huge boulders blocked the way.
This was a landslide area and the carnage of road accidents littered the valley. Overturned semi trucks, cars smashed beyond repair. The blood had since dried and the bodies have been removed but shattered glass lay scattered upon the jagged rocks like spilled diamonds.
We stopped for gas. The station was a solitary place. There was a footpath lined with tiny white rocks that led toward a hut. Sharif and I went inside. The attendant lived there. The symbols of habitation littered the tiny space; alarm clock, bed, clothes, different pairs of shoes. There were no books.
Twenty minutes after the car was gassed up we arrived in Sost.
Sharif pulled into a parking lot. “Ok, Pakistan immigration here. Go inside, show passport.”
I walked in and found a single office with a dozen men with semi-automatic guns sitting around, smoking, drinking tea. I shook hands with the man at the desk. He had blue eyes and a long, wiry black beard that looked like pubic hair. His name badge said W. Mehdi.
“Passport.” He said, writing something down.
I gave it to him. Frontiers are strange places; these people could do whatever they wanted to me. Refuse me entry, arrest me as a spy, shoot me. You are powerless at a border.
On the wall was a series of notebooks. Some of the labels are in English; dead bodies, fake documents, manifesto regarding departing foreigners, and one large notebook simply titled terrorists.
I would have given a lot to have an hour in that archive.
He stamped my passport with green ink. I was told to go down the road, to customs.
Sharif left me. He wanted to go because his family was waiting. We shook hands and he drove away, kicking up dust in the red landcruiser.