My Personal Khotan on the Silk Road
To many people who have never been there or who have only tasted it a little, the desert can be romantic. To most people who live next to it, it can be annoying or dangerous. But if you truly understand it, and therefore deeply love it, it is beautiful and sublime. Classical Chinese poems about the western frontier always describe the desert as vast, barren, harsh and lonely, a place where Chinese soldiers fought against “barbarians,” a place to which good guys were exiled. Only when heroism, loyalty, life and death were involved with the vastness, extreme hardships and loneliness did the poems raise the desert to the level of a tragic beauty and a manifestation of the sublime. I am sometimes disappointed to find so few poems about the desert that express something other than sad feelings or violent death. It is a pity we have not found poems written by people who lived in the desert all their lives or by caravan travelers who walked through the desert countless times.
I have traveled along the rim of the desert several times by bus, once – that first time - by truck, from Khotan to Urumqi, and then by train, from Urumqi to Xi’an to visit my grandparents. It took eight and a half days, one-way, by bus, and four days by train. I do not know if I was fortunate or not in never having traveled by riding a camel; that seems so romantic. So, I had passed through most portions of the Silk Road east of the Pamir mountain range. On these trips, perhaps because I had lived in the desert for too long, I was not really sensitive to it or inspired by it. When jolted in the bus with your stomach turning upside down for eight days, you cannot and do not enjoy the scenery. After all, there is only one scene – the endless, dull-colored sand, sand, and more sand. However, the desert’s infinite space, the blurring of the sky and earth, and the mysterious mirages that follow one after the other on the horizon, did leave strong impressions on me that remain till today.
My real understanding of the desert only occurred when I had my “re-education” years on a farm deep in the desert. Although it is as far away from metropolitan areas as it is, Khotan did not escape the “Great Cultural Revolution.” Upon high school graduation, the government sent us all deeper into the countryside to be re-educated by farm workers. The idea was to let young people learn and share the feelings of poor farm workers by living and working with them, and, at the same time, help them to improve their fieldwork and living conditions, and ultimately to realize the Communist Ideal. The idea was noble. And it was the call from Chairman Mao and Party. Although no one knew it then, we were the last ones who had to go into the countryside. The Cultural Revolution was near its end. I did not have to go because my brother went down to a farm two years earlier and was still there, and by then there was a new policy that each family could keep one child in town. However, I felt it would be shameful if I did not go. I was so naïve and idealistic. In a public speech I gave at the farewell meeting in the town I vowed that I would “take root” in the countryside and do what farm workers do for the rest of my life. I declared that from bottom of my heart. So there we were, about thirty graduates from high school and middle school, sent to a small farm west of Khotan.
The place we settled in was called Happiness Farm within Happiness Commune in Pishan County, one of the seven counties in the Khotan District. The farm was located beside a little seasonal stream twenty kilometers from the headquarters of the commune. There were about twenty or so families of Han Chinese who some years earlier had fled from the big famine in Gansu Province and managed to settle here. We were given an adobe building with one single row of rooms. Six girls shared one room, with a single adobe bed that stretched from one end of the room to the other. It was just big enough for the six of us to lay down our bedding next to each other (each space was no more than a twin size). Each of us had a wooden chest for clothes and other belongings, and two basins for washing. Water was a thirty-minute walk away in the stream.
The first room on one end of the building was the kitchen. We took turns cooking for the whole group. Because of the scarcity of water, we did not grow vegetables and therefore did not have vegetables to eat. The meals were always the same: plain corn gruel and steamed corn bread for breakfast; steamed or pan baked corn bread for lunch; and thick, salty corn porridge and corn bread for supper. No meat, no vegetables, no main dishes at all. After a few days of eating that kind of food, most of us got a seriously sour stomach and stomachache. We could not complain because the farm workers were no better off than we were. Once every a couple of months, one or two of our parents would manage to come for a visit, and bring salted veggies (something like pickles) bottled in jars. The bottled vegetables had to be very salty to preserve them. There were no paved roads and no public transportation to the farm, so it was very difficult for us to get out, and for our parents to get in. We had to budget the salty veggies so they could last until the next time some parents came.
For the first six months there, we only had wheat flour buns two or three times and boiled carrots once. Never having been in such a situation, you cannot imagine how delicious boiled carrots can be. It was the best dish I had ever had, and I could not believe it of myself who had been so particular about food and never liked cooked carrots at all. I was, indeed, reeducated in that sense. We also had a rare chance to have meat to eat. That was when the boys had caught a wild hog and slaughtered it. With such irresistibly delicious meat, nobody could ever be picky about food anymore. It was a big feast. We celebrated it joyfully.
Our daily work on the farm was to hoe up weeds, loosen the soil, carry the manure to the cornfields, and open up the new fields, etc. In the spring we plowed and planted; in the autumn we harvested ears of corn, shelled the kernels, cut the corn stalks, and so forth. To our disappointment, all work was done in the most primitive way. We used sacks to carry everything on our backs: manure, cornstalks, and anything else that needed to be moved. To plow a field, which was the hardest work, we used a kind of pickaxe (which looks like a hoe but much bigger and heavier). I could not figure out why we, as Chinese, who had been farmers for five thousand years, still used the same methods our great, great, …grandfathers had used. Some of us students did try to improve things by using a carrying stick with baskets on the two ends, and even a one-wheel cart to carry things.
Winter work on the farm was either gathering grass and shrubs from the desert to make compost, or cleaning and repairing irrigation canals. Once we went to Sangzhu, a small village at the foot of the Kunlun Mountains near the upper reaches of our water source to work on the construction of a major canal and dam. Sangzhu (Sanju) village was on a short cut to Kashmir and India, near a pass in the mountains. The trail to the pass was dangerously steep and narrow. Caravan travelers commonly lost their camels and even their own lives falling off the trail on the cliffs. In the March 1996 issue of National Geographic, there is an old photo Owen Lattimore took in 1926 showing his group on the pass. But back then none of us knew much about the place. For almost ten years, schools had been paralyzed by the Cultural Revolution so that we had not had history or geography classes. There were no regional maps either; actually, no concept of regional maps existed in our mind. You can imagine how surprised I was ten years later in the U.S. when I saw satellite photos of Pishan County shot by NASA and published in the February 1996 Scientific American, clearly showing the mountains, villages, and even the streets in town.
We had been assigned to work there for two weeks, but instead, we stayed for only two days because the farm workers really pitied us and sent us back. At the construction site, there were mountains on one side and desert on the other. There was no house or any kind of shelter for us to stay in. We built a circle with rocks for cooking. At night, we slept on the open ground. The experienced people taught us how to find a good spot out of the wind for sleeping at night. This was usually behind sand dunes where the roots of a Red Willow bush were buried. There was always wind at night; it was just a matter of whether it would be big or small. But even the least wind could be very annoying, and the wind was sometimes dangerous. We soon learned that we had to cover our faces completely with wool scarves, or sand would fill our noses, mouths, eyes and ears, and even choke us. Even covered, we still felt we were chewing sand all the time. At first it was such an exciting experience to sleep in the open desert. I thought I would look at the sky counting the stars or dreaming about romance all night. Oh! There was no way you could lie on your back with your face up. All your open orifices would fill up with sand. Reluctantly, I covered myself completely under the thick quilt, as it was very cold too. In the morning, we all laughed at each other, because we still looked like people made out of sand, no matter how well we had covered ourselves, but there was no water to wash ourselves with.
In the desert, any degree of a wind could make a sand twister. It was fun to look at the twisters dancing around. Sometimes I suspected that Wang Wei’s famous line of poetry about desert might refer to a twister, although it is usually interpreted as a signal fire:
In the vast desert, there’s a lone smoke straight up;
Above the long river, the setting sun appears so round.
Gathering shrubs for compost was another normal winter task. One cold winter day, very early in the morning, we got up, packed a little corn bread and water, and went into the desert. Our job that day was to cut, gather, and bring back shrubs for making compost. The air was chilly and fresh. The sky was dark blue and full of bright stars. I saw the entire sky like a huge upside down bowl resting on the earth. It was beautiful and awesome. I wondered if there could be any better scene in the world. Nobody talked. We were simply quieted by the overwhelming cosmic silence.
There are only a few kinds of plants that grow in the area. Among them are the Red Willow (a kind of five-stamen tamarisk), a shrub tree whose thick, deep roots we commonly dug up for firewood, and Camel Thorn (Alhagi maurorum), a shrub with needle-sized thorns which had no use except to rot for compost to fertilize soil. I always felt sorry to cut them down. In the dull desert, they were the only colorful things that could cheer you up. Red Willows have small red-purple blossoms stuck along the branches, and Camel Thorns grow tiny purple flowers the size of your smallest fingernail. But Camel Thorns were the ones we wanted for this particular job.
The shrubs grew so widely scattered that we had to spread far apart in the desert. We reminded each other to keep close enough so that we would not get lost. Quite soon, we could only hear but not see each other. At one point I helped two girls put their bound loads on their backs ready to go. When the sun rose high, I saw the last one off. She actually insisted that we two go back together. But I did not feel I had enough. So I told her to go ahead, and I went further into the desert to gather more shrubs. I did not notice how much time passed before I had gotten a big hill of thorns gathered in front of me. I pressed and tightened it with my whole body. I tramped and jumped on it so it could be bound into a bundle. I did my best to tighten and tie it. (Many years later, in the States, I could still feel one or two thorns poking out here and there from the sheep’s wool trousers I had knit myself and had on that day). But the bundle was still bigger than me, and it was so heavy that I had very hard time loading it up on my back.
From behind me, one would have been unable to see a person, only a hill of bushes moving slowly. It took several minutes before I suddenly realized that I should check the direction to make sure I was heading home. There were no roads, no trails, but only endless sand. I was afraid that I might not be able to put the bundle back on my back again by myself, so at first I hesitated whether I should drop the load and go up to a hill looking for some signs. But my instinct told me I should do it right away. So I dropped the load and climbed to the highest sand dune nearby.
When I got to the top of the hill and looked around, I was shocked. All directions looked exactly the same. There was not a single sign showing the way home. The farm with the little village was totally beyond the horizon. Instantly I collapsed, my heart beating wildly and my legs shaking. A great panic fell over me. At first my mind went blank and then I could not think rationally. I do not know how long I kneeled there before I realized I should do something. I managed to stand up and call out loudly, hoping somebody was still around. “Is there anybody here?” “Can somebody hear me?” But to my horror, no sooner had I begun to shout, than I realized that my voice was completely gone. I could not get a sound out. I had lost my strength. I pulled up myself and tried again. “Hello! Is anybody there?” This time the sounds came out of my throat but were immediately swallowed by the vast empty space. The power of the desert overwhelmed me. I looked up. It was cloudy. I could tell the sun was directly overhead; there is no way to use the sun to determine directions when it is noon. And I knew that since we came to the farm I had not paid attention to the directions anyway. I was totally lost. Desperate, I began to think about death.
Taklamakan, the name of the desert in Turkic language, simply means “a place one can go into, but will not come out of.” All the stories about the desert poured into my memory. Some told how people lost their way in the desert and were only found mummified years later. Some described how the wind moved sand dunes from one side of the road to the other overnight but kept them in the same shape, so after a storm travelers did not notice the change and therefore went the wrong direction and got lost forever. There were even reports of well-prepared explorers vanishing in the desert. Furthermore, everybody knew that cargo truck drivers always went in a group carrying more than enough water and food in case there were unexpected situations.
Now, kneeling in the sand, alone, shaking all over, I found the stories became real. But I was only nineteen, too young to die. “I cannot die like this.” I had to find a way out. The sun above me reminded me that it was noon, and I had several hours to try to find a way out before it got dark. I struggled to stand up. Still, every direction looked the same, all reached to the end of the earth. I slid down the hill, leaving the food bag behind as a sign, and looked around. Something caught my eyes. Goat droppings. And then, donkey droppings. My heart almost jumped out of my throat. I knew I might have a chance. Soon I found the animals’ tracks. I crawled on the ground to study them. But, the more tracks I found, the less confidence I had. There were too many of them, and they pointed in all directions. I did not want to give up. I decided that I would go to the direction I felt right by instinct, and if I did not see any sign of a village within one or two hours of walking, I would come back and go in the opposite direction, but staying always within range of the animals’ tracks. Having made this decision, I felt relieved a little, and went up the hilltop to eat my corn bread. The bread was already frozen, too hard to bite. I put it under my arms to warm up. I still had some water in the canteen, partially frozen. Luckily it was not summer, or I could have been fatally dehydrated already.
While eating, I began to think whether or not I should carry the big load – my whole purpose in life by this time. “Maybe it won’t be too late to drop it if the plan goes really wrong,” I persuaded myself. So again, I knelt down and leaned my back against the load, put my arms into the rope loops, straightened myself up, bent a little bit forward, crawled a few steps on my hands and knees, and then lifted the weight and stood up. Before I started to walk, I dug out a Red Willow stick from the sand hill, and dragged it on the ground while I walked in order to draw a line as a sign, in case I had to come back to the opposite direction. I actually changed directions several times. I did not know how long it took me to get out of the desert. I did not have a watch. When I suddenly saw the trees in the distance, I staggered and almost cried. I said to myself, “Don’t fall. Hold up. Don’t fall. You’ve survived.” Several years later, when I sat in the university library reading Jack London, I felt like saying to him, “Hey, buddy, I’ve been there.”
When I arrived at the village it was late afternoon. I was too exhausted to step up even the three inches off the ground to the scales, to record how heavy a load I had carried. Two guys had to pull me up. I had carried a load of about 130 pounds, 20 pounds heavier than myself. At supper that evening, one of my roommates said to me, “You stupid girl. Why are you so serious? Look at our Boss! He brought only 20 pounds. Do you want to die?” I only smiled wearily. I did not explain to anybody why I came back so late. I did not want to talk about my experience of life and death casually to those who had not had a similar experience or who would not understand such things. I needed time to myself to think and digest the meaning of it. It was like a sudden enlightenment that made me begin to think both philosophically and realistically about my life.
Before graduation, the school authorities and the Communist League had organized us to study Chairman Mao’s theories and discuss the significance of the strategy of letting students go “up the mountains and down the countryside.” At those meetings, we studied a case of “Regional Realization of Communism” – the Da Zhai Commune in Shanxi Province. There the farm workers had reached the goal of supplying enough food to the Commune members and even achieved a surplus to contribute to the government as well. They could afford to send all the children to school and were able to provide medical care to all the members of the commune. All the villagers had become better off equally. The example was exciting and tangible. In the past, Communism had looked so vague and abstract to me, but now it became concrete and something that could be accomplished. If people of Da Zhai could make it happen, we could too. So when I got to the farm, I calculated how much income I could possibly make, and then the total needed for all villagers to have sufficient food and other supplies. To my disappointment, I realized that at my best, by the end of each year I would be earning a share of 330-440 pounds of grain plus 100-200 yuan cash (about $10-20 dollars). This meant I would be able to have about one pound of grain for food and 0.40 yuan (or 4 cents) cash to spend per day. But I thought that was good enough.
Now, suddenly, I felt how ridiculous the Communist ideal was and how foolish we were to believe in such nonsense. How could I have been so naïve and so stupid and so blind? How could we change people’s life and change the world by using the most primitive production methods and by sacrificing young people’s lives in the desert? How could such minimum basic survival conditions be the Communist Ideal?! What is Communism anyway?
The Taklamakan desert transformed me. Not because I was scared by the desert, but because I experienced the overwhelming power of nature so closely and truly. If I had ever had a religious feeling, it was then, when I was overwhelmed in the desert, kneeling to pray to it to have pity on me. Even when I overcame it, it was with great awe and respect, and I saw my limits.
New Jersey July 5, 2007
The above is my persoanl narrative written for an analogy on Teaching the Silk Road by SUNY Publication.