xinjiang autonomous region – My daughter Noey and I were tired, hungry, and lost, travelling with an inadequate map and a “guide” who spoke no English, had never been in the area before, and was notably displeased with our agenda. We were riding mountain bikes along a rutted dirt track that rambled across the broad steppe in Xinjiang, a region in northwest China formerly known as the East Turkestan Republic. Before that, it was traditionally the home of Turkic herders and horse warriors who had been both enemies and allies of Genghis Khan.
We pedalled into a small valley with worn pasture, too many sheep, and dun-coloured yurts that matched the parched hills. After coasting down, we met a Kazakh woman who was carrying water in pails swinging from a stick that was balanced across her shoulders. She shyly but graciously invited us to dinner, in accordance with the Central Asian nomad’s custom that anyone who has already raised their yurt must offer shelter to weary travellers. The men returned from their herds and we all sat cross-legged on colourful carpets to eat mutton and noodles, cooked over a cow-dung fire on an open hearth.
The next morning, we rode across rolling grassland, grazed to stubble, under a sky too broad to hold thoughts inside. By late afternoon, we pedalled past irrigated fields and then rolled into a city with glistening modern buildings and wide avenues, where well-dressed businesspeople hurried along spacious, curving sidewalks past tidy gardens of white, red, and yellow flowers.
The following day, Noey and I found a small college perched on a third floor above a fashionable boutique. We located an English teacher, a pretty young woman dressed in tight jeans and high-heeled sandals that revealed glittering purple toenail polish.
I knew that the People’s Liberation Army (pla) had wrested this land from the indigenous Kazakh and Uighur people, just as they had conquered Tibet, and that they had imported agriculture and urbanization into a land traditionally inhabited by nomads. But we had been travelling without language, so the tragedy remained strangely sterile, as if humans weren’t involved.
After formalities, I asked, “What is the relationship between the Han Chinese and the Kazakh people here in north-west Xinjiang?”
“Yes.” She smiled.
“Did you understand my question?”
“Yes.” Another coquettish smile.
I reworded my inquiry, using simple syntax.
“Oh. We are all very happy.”
We chatted congenially in this manner until Noey and I thanked the woman and retired to go shopping. When we stepped off the escalator in a large department store, two Filipino women approached and suggested mysteriously that we might want to talk with a local resident – someone I will call Wuming Shi – who spoke excellent English.
As we sipped tea in a posh hotel, Wuming Shi explained that he couldn’t answer my questions in a public place, and invited us to his house. That evening, we discussed Hemingway, the Bible, and Joseph Conrad, but Wuming Shi deflected all inquiries about politics, social interactions, or history. Three days later, defeated in our quest for information, Noey and I decided to continue our bike ride across the steppe.
Wuming Shi asked if he could join us. He was a retired bank clerk, fifty-four years old and frail looking, with a thin face, chipped front teeth, large eyeglasses, and a warm smile. He had been married twice and had three children, but had never camped out, been on a long-distance bike ride, or exercised in any meaningful way. Noey and I were worried that he would become a liability on the arduous ride ahead, but there was a quiet peacefulness and confidence in his demeanour that belied our concerns.
He asked his mother for permission to join us, and she angrily replied, “How are you ever going to find a suitable wife if you are out riding with these two Americans?”
Ignoring her, Wuming Shi showed up at our hotel the next morning on his twenty-dollar Chinese bicycle, with cotton bedding tied askew behind the back seat. On the long climb out of town, he pedalled beside me as I struggled to catch my breath. When we reached the summit, I asked him how he could ride so strongly, on a junker bike and with no physical conditioning.
Wuming Shi smiled. “I have suffered more than you have. I am strong in my basically.”
Ten days later, we were studying my map and Wuming Shi pointed his finger at a region marked with the label, “Many irrigation ditches.”
“My father dug those ditches with a shovel.”
Then he began to cry. After a few moments he continued, “You are a writer. Sometimes you ask too many questions. Remember, this is China. There are many stories about the Han Chinese, the Kazakhs, and the Uighurs. Some of these stories may be true, while some may not. It is very hard to know. But I will tell you the story of my father. I know this is true.
“My father was born in 1930. When the Revolution started, he joined Chiang Kai-shek’s army, but his unit was defeated by the Communists. They sent him to school and he joined the pla, who fought against the independence movement in East Turkestan. After the victory, the soldiers were ordered to colonize the conquered land, which later became the region known as Xinjiang. There were no Chinese women, so the government dispatched agents to central China to find wives for the soldier-settlers. The Chinese built farms and cities, because the Kazakh people were nomads.
“My father dug irrigation trenches and raised fruit trees. He and my mother were happy, and we always had enough to eat. But my father was of Yi nationality, not Han Chinese, so when the Cultural Revolution commenced in 1966, neighbours accused my father of speaking against the government.”
Wuming Shi continued quickly, in cropped sentences, without description or elaboration.
“Under torture, my father confessed to crimes against the government. He was imprisoned and held in chains. Then he escaped and hid in a haystack. Still in chains, he returned home to see my mother. Just to look at her face. Of course, he was captured, tortured, and imprisoned again.
Wuming Shi sobbed uncontrollably. “My father was never a bad man. The men who accused him just wanted to make him look dirty so they would look clean.”
He took a raggedy breath and continued: “When my father was in prison, we were always hungry, and in the winter, frost coated the inside of our house. After the Cultural Revolution my father came home. But he was never the same man again.”
Wuming Shi composed himself and smiled. His face, which had been pale at the beginning of the journey, was now tanned, offset by a purple bruise above his left eye, where he had crashed on a rocky downhill. “I have never told this to anyone before. I tell it to you because we are bicycling together. We are friends.”
Then he pointed his finger at me and admonished, “You have travelled in China for a month and you have seen some things. You have heard this story. Maybe you think that now you understand China. You will write that you understand China. But you don’t know anything. You don’t understand anything about China.”