Xinjiang, China- ThE Power Of Having no Money
Written by George Balarezo, Intrepid Global Citizen
I crossed the bridge from psychological distress to immediate relief. The hole in my stomach ached and begged for nutrition. Finally, the long-awaited Xinjiang village stood around the corner. I wolfed down my plate of home cooked ‘lakhman’ and feasted on the complementary fire stove baked bread like a starving beast. The sensation of food hitting my palate and becoming a part of me was nothing short of ecstasy. Tour cycling trips often bring you to the ends of your human limits. Hunger. Thirst. Mental fatigue. I was finally replenishing my life force.
People often ask about favorite foods when getting to know each other. My favorite meal up until that point was Korean fermented bean paste soup. Now I respond to that question much differently. Anything remotely edible upon reaching the point of desperation is my new answer.
After filling my stomach, the only thing left to do was lay down and close my eyes. My eyes zoomed from side to side scouring the landscape for a piece of greenery out of harm’s way to lay my head. A brown mustached police officer in a blue form fitting uniform ran over to me quickly and foiled my grand scheme. I was able to communicate with in Russian since he spent some time in Kyrgyzstan. Flashbacks of the adventures along the Pamir Highway two years prior infiltrated my brain and my survival Russian somehow flowed from the depths of my vocal chords. I was elated to take a break from speaking Chinese for a few moments and revive my Russian vocabulary. Using the words car, tent, hotel, bicycle, yes, no and nonverbal contextual cues I was able to decode the police officer’s puzzling speech. Essentially, I was not allowed to ride my bicycle within an 80 kilometer radius of the village and would be driven to another town immediately where I would have to stay in a hotel.
I quickly learned the ropes of rural Xinjiang travel. The most important rule being to obey the police at all times. I didn’t care. Once I heard the news, I was enthralled to ride in a car for an hour and get some shut eye. At least I would soon be able to get off my bike and enjoy the orange and purple contrasts of the setting sun. Although my first choice of accommodation is anywhere in the fresh mountain air, I would have to settle for a roof over my head that night. Flexibility is the name of the game when it comes to adventure travel and mine was about to be put to the test over the next few hours.
In a Chinese Dungeon
Upon arrival at the town, the officers unloaded me at a police station. The city was all lit up and now I stood in front of a big white compound. The men communicated via walkie talkie as I looked on for more than one hour. I examined the plain white walls, police walked by and stared for at least the time it takes someone to finish a bowl of rice. No one there knew what to do with me.
My broken Chinese was put to the test as I attempted to communicate my request to sleep anywhere on the police station floor in a dark place. The walkie talkies kept blaring in Chinese and I was the subject of everyone’s conversation. The only thing I could make out was the word “American” and realized I created a large stir among law enforcement officers. Two men escorted me through the old building complex into a cigarette smoke filled office. I couldn’t understand if they intended on using the space as a smoke torture chamber or a place to conduct work tasks. Four men puffed away on the lung cancer sticks, clouding my vision with foggy air. I found myself in a Chinese dungeon being forced to inhale secondhand smoke which now resembled grey London fog. My lungs gasped for air and my eyes burned from the poisonous fumes. I kept my patience in tact by some divine intervention as cigarette smoke filled my lungs with black tar and toxic chemicals. My lungs gasped for air and my eyes burned from the poisonous fumes. I quickly overturned the negative self talk into gratitude after reflection on the day’s events. Nevertheless, I was thankful to be alive after nearly being swept away by Xinjiang’s mighty currents.
One of the police officers humored me by asking if I had any American cigarettes. Through the translation device on his smartphone he described how his intense desire was to smoke Marlboro cigarettes based on their top of the line reputation. “Sweet, bitter yet a strong mocha flavor. My dream is to smoke American cigarettes,” radiated the computerized voice on his smartphone. He described in detail exactly how he imagined it to be to take a puff of a cigarette with such a high reputation. He flashed his yellow teeth and his cheeks became puffy and swollen. One incisor was missing to the left side of his mouth and his bottom row of teeth were slightly bent inward. We took selfies for at least fifteen minutes, which ended up being good entertainment to pass the time. He pointed to my teeth with a grin of satisfaction as he reviewed our pictures. “Your teeth are so white and straight,” muttered the robotic voice.
The Power of Having No Money
Two hours later I was released from the police station and escorted to a hotel. Apparently there was only one hotel in town that would accept Non-Chinese citizens. The stadium-sized brown structure beamed with neon red Chinese characters under the main entrance. One of the police officers and I walked into a lobby with a yellow marble floor and fire-breathing red dragon design that greeted employees and customers. A television half as large as a movie theatre screen dwarfed a black leather couch directly underneath the gigantic electronic fixture attached to the wall. Newscasters projected their voices from two knee-high speakers placed on both ends of the sofa. A crystal chandelier hovered above me as my eyes adjusted from the contrast between medium dark city night to spotlight-intense light that gave the place a swank, tacky feel.
A man greeted me in Chinese and I began negotiating with the voice activated translate function in his phone.
“250 dollars per night for the cheapest room.”
This little dilemma did absolutely nothing to phase me as I would never in my wildest dreams pay for such unnecessary extravagance. After nearly being swept away by a river current that morning, the situation seemed trivial and rather comical. I chuckled hysterically on the inside at the absurd idea of paying 250 dollars for a room. That was nearly half the cost of my round trip airfare. I spent less than that amount over the course of an entire month in Xinjiang so far. My eyes still stung from the cigarette smoke, but my mind was alert and ready to talk some sense into this guy. I had already been awake for nearly twenty two hours straight and knew I would be able to snooze for ten hours on the marble floor despite the brilliant golden lights shining on me.
The man repeated the same phrase in Chinese and the electronic voice echoed back the same proposal “250 dollars per night for the cheapest room.”
It was two in the morning and I had been awake for a punishing twenty two hours straight. My eyes were now drooping from fatigue and my patience ran thin. I certainly would have been able to snooze for ten hours on the cold, rigid marble floor despite the brilliant golden lights shining on me.
“Two dollars,” I said while pointing to the sofa in the hotel lobby while signaling that I expected to be able to use the bathroom to at least wash my face and brush my teeth. The hotel clerk nodded in defeat. I reached a deal that would have made Warren Buffet proud. Yet another victory for the global citizen.