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Freezing near Afghanistan with Michener's Poland

James Michener never made it to Afghanistan.  He never wrote about the Silk Road.  In 1984, one of his novels, Poland, lined the shelves of the leading US bookstores, but it was just outside Afghanistan, on a clear and cold night, that Michener may have found his most appreciative reader.   Poland perhaps saved my life.

My Chinese teachers in Beijing warned me about traveling West during the winter.  They spoke of night temperatures that would reach minus 30 degrees.   My rudimentary guidebook mentioned endless sun and daytime temps on some winter days in the 50s.  After four days on a train and nearly five days on dilapidated buses, I learned that my teachers were right- winter on the Taklamakan dessert is life-threateningly cold.  (Taklamakan means "one goes in but does not come out"- this should have been warning enough!)

While my European friends in Beijing chose to travel south to Hong Kong and Hainan Island during our five week Chinese New Year vacation, I was captured by the stories of the Silk Road and would not change my plans, even after my last companion opted for Thailand after learning about the possible discomforts.  I was hoping to traverse the length of the Silk Road that lies within China- a journey that would take me from Beijing to Xian and on across the Gobi dessert to the end of the train-line at Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Province.  This part of the journey would take four-six days, to be followed by a four day bus ride through the northern oasis towns of the Taklamakan to the fabled city of Kashgar.   From Kashgar, one could only move forward through mountain passes, west to Soviet Asia, southwest to Afghanistan, south to Pakistan and India, and southeast to Tibet.  Kashgar is one of the most isolated towns in the world, rendered slightly less exotic by the Chinese changes during the previous 35 years of rule.   I was hoping that one of the mountain passes would be open to allow me to make it down to the subcontinent- South Asia. 

The train portion of the journey went as planned.  Due to the lack of sleepers on the train, I was stuck in the pew-like seats appropriately called "Hard Seats" for the first 36 hours.  After our stop in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu Province and the opening to the long Gansu Corridor running between the Gobi dessert and the Tibetan Plateau, I deferentially and successfully begged the train manager to bump me up to a vacated hard sleeper, a horizontal plank stacked three to a wall.  I basked in the 'comfort' and fought off the cold already slithering through the cars with the provided wool blanket.  I disembarked in Turpan, the lowest spot in China at over 200 feet below sea level, and traveled the last six hours by bus to Urumqi.   

Urumqi lies at the northern edge of the Taklamakan nestled below the Tian Shan Mountains that separate China from Kazakhstan.  The Chinese and Soviets had severed the train lines at the border to the west and Urumqi was a far west as any passenger could go by train in China.   Buses left Urumqi daily for the four day journey to Kashgar.  The buses were old, dirty and full of rusted floor boards, shattered windows and coughing, spitting, arguing and, in general, uncomfortable and miserable, passengers.  

I arrived for the 6:00 a.m. bus the first morning only to find a fire burning under the front engine.  In fact, that area of Urumqi was alight with fires burning beneath the vehicles.  With the temperature at minus 15, this was the only way for the drivers to heat the oil enough to start the engines and became a regular site each morning.   With little heat in the oasis truckstops, many of us hurried each morning to the fires to gather what little warmth we could for the ride. 

The four days were a test of endurance.  The cold enveloped all the passengers, and we soon were leaning against each other to try to borrow some heat.  The bus was full of Uighurs, a Muslim people of Turkish origin.  Some were able to communicate with me in Chinese, although the majority spoke very little.  Coughing and spitting, instead, seemed to be the conversations of choice.   Due to the cold and the fact that China was under one timezone (Kashgar is located some three thousand miles to the west of Beijing), the sun did not rise until 11:00.   We thus spent the first five hours of each day's travel concealed in an icecube.  The bus had no heat and the windows did not defrost until the early afternoon sun melted away the remnants of the night.  I arrived in Kashgar cold and exhausted but still hoping to continue the journey.

After two days in Kashgar, I headed south on a Chinese truck.  The driver was carrying frozen cabbage to a small village just east of the Afghanistan border.   He pointed to the mountains ahead of us as we left Kashgar, and with his arms scanned the horizon- 100 miles, 200 miles and we could be in Pakistan, Tibet, Afghanistan and Soviet Central Asia.  The strategic importance of this area was clear but the isolation provided by the towering walls of mountains on three sides explained why this area remained fairly independent throughout centuries of struggles between the Chinese, the local Muslim populations, India, Russia and the United Kingdom.  The term- The Great Game- was coined to describe the intrigue that surrounded these struggles during the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Eight hours out of Kashgar, we were turned back by other drivers.  A snow storm had the made the undulating road unpassable.   My Kazak driver spat out the window, a ball of sleet before it hit the ground, as the line of trucks stalled.  The truck cabins smoked as the drivers sat and soothed their concerns with the harsh Chinese tobacco.  Some drivers grew impatient and pushed on into the deeper snows.  At our current elevation, perhaps six inches of snow covered the ground.    My driver asked me to leave his vehicle as he decided to follow some of the trucks.  He had no desire to get stuck with an American who could only speak Chinese.   I dropped out into the snow and started walking in the direction of Kashgar.

The number of vehicles returning to Kashgar decreased and few were making it over the pass and heading my direction.  I trudged along waving to the occasional driver heading west.   I decided not to risk heading further into the mountains as the highest passes were on the other side of the Chinese border.   I did not want to get stuck at a border station with some draconian Chinese bureaucrats.  

Unable to find an immediate ride to Kashgar, I sought shelter in a roadside repair shop.  The mud house was covered with tied limbs and plastic bags.  The sun was setting, and I was able to convince the owner to let me sleep in one of his covered side rooms.  The room had a small pot-belly stove alongside a rusted cot with a long, crippled pipe climbing just above the bed.  The inceasingly hospitable Chinese owner reluctantly accepted $5 for use of coal for the evening and passed on some boiled cabbage and rice.  His home, he explained, was 400 meters to the rear of the building where his wife and children now waited.  I lay down on the cot completely covered with all my clothes and jacket and a small rug-like blanket.   I adjusted the small oil lamp and turned to my only book- "Poland." 

An English-language book becomes one's best friend on a long exotic journey.  I had carried three long novels, already finishing the first two, and had started "Poland" while in Kashgar.   I still faced the prospect of nearly 10 days of travel back to Beijing with no reading material once I finished this book.  I thus carefully allocated time to savor the cerebral escape from the cold and discomforts. 

In the middle of night, I awoke to find my lantern out and a very dull glow coming from the stove.   I realized that the coals had long since faded and I had no way of relighting the stove.  The cold was numbing, perhaps minus 20-25 degrees, and I was constantly enveloped in a halo of fog that was my own breath.  Darkness completely cloaked the interior.   I tried to feel for the pile of coals on the ground but kept bumping into machinery pieces.   I was clearly disoriented  and, unfortunately, given the winds outside the shelter, any cries for help would be lost. 

Feeling my way back to the cot, I reached out and accidently touched my book.  I then realized that perhaps by dipping some of the pages of the novel in the remaining ashes of the stove I may be able to achieve the light needed to find the coal.   I had read over 50 pages of the book and knew that I could remove the first part of the novel without losing my place.   I slowly and painfully ripped out the first dozen pages and tried in vain to get them started in the embers.   I reached into the book again and tore out another segment of twenty or so pages.   I placed half of these into the coals and was surprised to find them brighten and catch.   Quickly I cupped the fire and searched for the remaining coals.   As the pages burned closer to my gloves, I dropped them on the floor and caught site of the coals sitting slightly behind the stove.  I placed a few on the embers and anxiously awaited the heat.  Nothing happened.

With the flaming pages now smoldering on the dirt floor,  I realized that lighting the coal was going to be much more challenging.  Once again I tore into my Michener and pulled out what I hoped was pages 40-49.  These once again dipped into the stove and came out aglow.  I needed to get a larger fire going but was still unwilling to give up all 500 plus pages of my only escape.  I reached into the backpack and pulled out a pair of old socks and underwear.  These quickly caught fire and started to radiate more than just light- I finally felt some warmth.  I placed the coal pieces on my little bonfire and quickly was engulfed in smoke.   I needed to keep the fire going and once again grabbed "Poland".   By the fire glow, I saw that I had already removed the first 55 pages of the novel, I quickly tried to read the next five pages, attempting to reenter the storyline, and removed them to kindle the fire.  Five more pages were quickly read and once again surrendered to the fire.  I now remembered that I had the little paper denominations of Chinese money.  Some of these were worth less than a nickle so I unloaded my pocket of these notes and placed them on the fire, buying more time to continue my reading.   I shivered through the next 30-60 minutes in this way until finally a glow arose from the coal.    My hands were so numb that I scooped up the burning bricks and placed them back in the stove.   Nearly 30 minutes later, I smiled as the temperature surrounding the stove climbed above freezing.

The next morning, the owner knocked on the door and entered to find me buried beneath my clothes with the stove once again out.  He hurriedly reached for the coal and pulled out matches sitting right next to the pile of coal.  I laughed to myself and thought how much more adventurous and romantic my style of lighting the flame had been.  Although I did not reach Afghanistan, I did learn much about Poland and the hardships of life in one of the world's most isolated regions.