Travel: Beyond the Great Wall

In China's wild west, far from Shanghai, a dun rampart marks the end of the Wall and civilisation as the Chinese know it. Beyond is Xinjiang province, a starkly beautiful nomad kingdom
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The Independent Culture
WHEN I first saw Wang he was waltzing in a long corridor of sun, his arm around an imaginary partner. He was an old man with skin like rice paper and slippered feet that barely touched the ground. Beneath the heavy colonial buildings, moored like liners on the waterfront, he had all the substance of a wraith.

Wang was one of those who gathered every morning on the Bund in Shanghai to limber up for the day with a spot of ballroom dancing. They came from all over the city on their bicycles to partner one another through grave foxtrots. Their shadows stretched far out into the road to flicker among the hot traffic.

Wang and I met over the finer points of the rumba, and soon became boon companions. We shared an enthusiasm for old Shanghai, the glamorous expatriate city of his youth. His father had been a comprador, a Chinese agent for one of the foreign firms which then dominated Shanghai. Family money had allowed Wang an entree into the cosmopolitan life of the city closed to most Chinese. He spoke English and French. He was a regular at the clubs and frequented dance halls in the French Concession. In 1925 he married a White Russian whom he had met at Maxim's.

On our jaunts about the city, Wang populated the streets with the ghosts of the past. In People's Park he conjured the old racecourse with its thoroughbreds, its ladies with parasols, and its touts in black pyjamas and brown trilbies. In the Huxinting tea-house he told me how opium used to be served with the sweets. In Nanjing Road he recalled the decorated rickshaws of the sing-song girls. Passing the old Astor Hotel one day he took me into the ballroom to show me the corner where he had been sitting when a bell-boy had brought him a telegram with news that his wife had run away to Australia.

We went for dinner in the Cathay Hotel where Noel Coward had written Private Lives. From our window table you could see down the length of the Bund, the classical facades of old Shanghai. In the manner of re-educated capitalists, the buildings had all been assigned new jobs. The Shanghai Club, at the far end of the Bund, found work as a seaman's hostel. The exclusive Long Bar now plays host to Malaysian sailors. In the snooker room, everything is as it was 60 years ago, except the height of the tables. When the Japanese occupied Shanghai, they cut the legs down to improve their cue action.

Waitresses in cheongsams brought us platefuls of eels. In the corner of the room, a trio were sawing away at Chinese musical instruments. The tunes were delicate and full of yearning. Beneath us, lighted boats were moored in the dark river.

"I have not eaten here for 50 years," Wang said, gazing about the room. "If you wait long enough the past has a way of returning."

The past is returning to Shanghai. Once again it is a boom town, a mecca for expatriate investment, though this time the taipans were Chinese, from Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The statistics, as always in China, are staggering: over 1,000 joint ventures, over pounds 7 billion invested in infrastructure, 10 billion square feet of new office space. In Shanghai they say a new business is started every 11 minutes. Everyone was dizzy with excitement about the market, mobile phones, and the arrival of McDonald's.

Wang feigned superior disinterest. The new money seemed crass compared to the elegant city of his youth. Writers and musicians would not flock to the enterprise zones of Pudong.

"But forget about Shanghai," he said. "I am worried about you. You are travelling in the wrong direction."

I planned to travel across China to the end of the Great Wall, and beyond into the province of Xinjiang, China's wild west, a land of deserts, mountains and unpredictable people.

On my last night he came to say goodbye, and pressed an address into my hands. "You must visit Gao," he said. The two men had met in a labour camp in Xinjiang where they had spent nearly six years during the Cultural Revolution. Gao still lived in Ili, a town beyond the Mountains of Heaven at the furthest end of China.

"He is crazy like you," Wang said. "He prefers Xinjiang." I sailed up the Yangtze on a passenger steamship. There were six distinct classes on the East is Red, Number 57, but as a concession to a classless society, first class had been abolished. In the gorges, contorted rockfaces and baroque headlands leered out of the mists like petrified legends. Caught up in this romanticism, the passengers gathered in the second-class lounge and danced the foxtrot.

From Chongqing I took a train north through the red hills of Sichuan on into the yellow earth of Shaanxi. In Xian, the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, elderly monks were wheezing up the stairways of the Big Goose Pagoda; beneath the old Ming walls couples were waltzing through the dusk to the tunes of Glenn Miller.

Some weeks later, on another train, I rattled down the long panhandle of Gansu Province which stretched north-east from the Yellow River for 1,000 miles. Gansu was China's poorest province, excluded from the economic boom generated by the Great New God: market forces. For them it meant only inflation. Out here it was all people could do to acquire The Three Runnings: watch, sewing machine, bicycle.

Beyond the window, stony stretches of desert broke through fields of sunflowers and mustard where workers in patched Mao jackets were shouldering their hoes and heading home. The distant mountains were blue with cloud shadows.

Caught between the wastes of the Gobi and the ramparts of Tibet, the Gansu corridor is China's back door. For centuries it had carried merchant caravans along the Silk Road towards Cathay and the promise of glamour, adventure and profit. For the Chinese the road has a different resonance. It was a route of exile, of banishment to the lands beyond the Great Wall. For millennia the Gansu corridor has carried disgraced mandarins, colonial officials, and condemned prisoners into the wilds of Xinjiang. In more recent years train-loads of political prisoners were carried westward to labour camps. Xinjiang is China's gulag.

In the dining car I lunched with a moon-faced couple. They were on their way to take up posts in a steel factory in Korla. They were settlers; their whole lives were in the baggage car. The man spat fish bones on to his plate and talked excitedly of government incentives and housing benefits.

While he gobbled, his wife gazed out at the villages sailing by in the sorghum, the men in undershirts cycling in dust lanes, the poplars thin as smoke. Gazing out at China she began to sob over her dumplings.

Later in the corridor the man apologised for his wife's tears. She was apprehensive, he said. Xinjiang was like another country, beyond the Wall. In the Chinese mind the Wall defined some psychological frontier between order and chaos, home and exile, within and without.

At Jiayuguan I cycled on a stony road to the Last Gate under Heaven. It marks the end of the Great Wall and the end of China. Above dun- coloured ramparts snaking across the Gobi, three Ming pavilions perched like exotic birds. To arrivals, exhausted by the dry reaches of Central Asia, these pavilions must have seemed the most welcome of sights, the gates of the Celestial Kingdom. To the departing traveller they were the last echo of China. On this place were concentrated all the anxieties of passage, of frontiers.

Xinjiang has been Chinese territory intermittently for 2,000 years without ever becoming Chinese. The indigenous population are Turkic Muslims Uighurs and Kazaks. A programme of Chinese settlement, however, is dramatically changing the province's demography. Forty years ago the Han Chinese numbered only 10 per cent of the population. Today they are almost half. The Uighurs will soon be a minority in their own land.

Until recent times travellers set off for Xinjiang with the foreboding with which they embarked for Central Africa. Enclosed on three sides by some of the world's highest mountains, it has at its heart a desolate wasteland, the Taklamakan desert, whose name bears its own warning. It is a Uighur word which means "You go in but you do not come out." The Silk Road skirted it warily, keeping to the string of oases along its rim.

In the Mountains of Heaven, north of Hami, I went to lunch with the kind of chap that the Chinese were so keen to keep out when they built the Wall. He was a Kazak, a nomad inhabiting what the Chinese call "a moving country". We sat cross-legged in a yurt, a round felt tent, among carpets and trunks, the furniture of journeys. Horses snuffled outside.

My host was a charismatic fellow who seemed to own whole counties of sheep. He asked me how many sons I had, and when I said none he wondered what I had been doing with my time. He went on to enquire about the size of my flocks. When I tried to explain the difficulties of keeping sheep in a London flat, he fell diplomatically silent. Here I was, a man without sheep or sons, who came from a place he had never heard of and who appeared to have crossed the Gobi on a whim. It began to dawn on him that he was giving lunch to an idiot.

A thousand miles further west, at the far end of the Mountains of Heaven, on the furthest borders of China, stands the town of Ili. It had a frontier feeling. Horses were tethered outside the doors of shops; drunks roamed the streets, careering into lamp-posts, falling off their bicycles. It seemed at last that I had got beyond the reach of ballroom dancing.

I took a donkey cart from the bus station to the hotel. The driver was a toothless fellow who fancied himself the Nigel Mansell of the Mountains of Heaven. We took the first turn on one wheel. In order to ensure maximum throttle on the straights, Nigel jammed a stick into the donkey's rectum, a technique which produced astonishing acceleration.

Russia casts a long shadow in these regions, and the hotel was a series of yellow and blue dachas set among birches. Inside the gate was a bust of Lenin, looking understandably anxious. The lobby was like a Chekhov set: deep brocaded sofas, worn carpets, pine boughs tapping windows.

On the second evening Gao came to call in response to a message I had sent. He was a slight, bespectacled man. In this wild place he seemed quintessentially Chinese, reserved, cautious and correct. His eyes floated beneath blue lids.

We sank into the cushions of one of the lobby sofas. The melancholy scent of dust and old velvet enveloped us; in his lap the old man's hands were knotted together like roots. Gao was grateful for news of his old friend, still alive and in good health. But once he had sight of these two essentials, he did not enquire further, as if Wang and Shanghai were now such a distant world that it was pointless to digest news of them. I asked what he did.

The hands opened and floated up above his knees, long-fingered, empty. "I was a collector." His voice was a whisper. "I collected old porcelain."

Gao was from Suzhou, a city in eastern China synonymous with culture and scholarship. His passion had been the family collection of ceramics, begun by his great-grandfather. It was a modest but respectable collection and each generation had added to it. It was an heirloom and the care and appreciation undertaken by each generation was part of a very Chinese reverence for one's ancestors.

In the fever of the Cultural Revolution, adolescent Red Guards descended on Gao in his home on one of the canals. They harangued him in shifts, night and day, and forced him to write endless self-criticisms. When he showed insufficient enthusiasm, they beat him. When they tired of beating him, they forced him to smash the porcelain, throwing it piece by piece into the canal.

His hands unfolded against his shirt front in some gesture of protection. "Youth is a terrible thing," he said.

Labelled a counter-revolutionary, Gao had come west with thousands of others. After his release from the camp he had remained in Xinjiang. He would never go home, he said. "They blame everything on the Gang of Four. But it was not the Gang of Four in my house. It was my neighbours, the children of my neighbours. I had watched them growing up. Today most of them will still live in the same street where these things happened."

For Gao this was the worst part, that this barbarism had come from the people of his own district from within, not without.

! Stanley Stewart's book 'Frontiers of Heaven, A Journey Beyond the Great Wall' has recently been published by John Murray at pounds 16.99.

TRAVEL NOTES

GETTING THERE: STA (0171- 937 9962) has flights from London to Shanghai with Cathay Pacific for pounds 799 return, and London to Beijing with Swiss Air for pounds 546 return.

TOURS: China Travel Service (0171-836 9911) offers comprehensive tours of China, including Shanghai, the Yangtze and Xian, and will also book trains for you. Steppes East (01285 810267) has tours featuring Xinjiang and parts of the Silk Route, prices starting at pounds 2,150 for 16 days.

GETTING AROUND: There are three classes of rail travel: soft sleeper, hard sleeper, hard seat. Avoid the last. The 56-hour trip from Xian to Urumqui costs pounds 76 soft sleeper, pounds 38 hard sleeper. Travel agents in China, like CITS, will book tickets at a small premium, or try your hotel. After Urumqui you must travel by bus, journey time to Ili about two days.

VISAS: China Travel Service (number above) provides a good visa service for pounds 35, or contact the Chinese Embassy direct (0171-636 2580).

INFORMATION: China National Tourist Office, 4 Glenworth Street, London NW1 (0171-935 9427).

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