A Uyghur girl with a shaved head, and a yellow striped dress swung from the rails at the bus station as we waited in line. She looked at me as I inched forward with a friend in the Peace Corps, backpacks digging into our shoulders. Woman argued in Uyghur with the ticket window. In their language that sometimes sounds like purring, sometimes like a drumroll, always smooth.
“We’ll have 2 tickets to Kashgar,” my friend said when at last we’d battled to the window. We got our tickets and made our ways to the bus. A night bus, which meant that inside were three rows of bunk beds (“pods” as my friend called them). Just wide enough to lie down, and then likely sleep on your side, with a pillow and a blanket. We climbed into our pods and lay down because there was no room to comfortably sit up and stay that way. Muslim women struggled to climb into the top bunks with their long skirts, and shot me sheepish grins as I smiled. I’ve found that a smile does a lot when you don’t understand someone and think they’re angry at you. 9/10 times, they’ll smile back.
The man checking that our shoes were off and in plastic bags looked a lot like a guy with an impressive mustache I knew from a college band. I decided to name him Stan. Uyghur Stan. The bus started up, taking us through mountains that looked like the bloody knuckle kind, like scraped charcoal. We went up, up, into the flint mountains, and then settled in for a long ride. Over 24 hours. A woman in a blue veil switched beds with her husband in a white cap, since her position was right in front of the TV. A good decision, too, as the TV flickered on with Uyghur music videos as soon as he rested his head against the screen. There’s a show lampooning Imperial China. More music videos. I got the strong impression that I had settled into Arabian Nights more than western China.
When we stepped out of the bus, heat slapped us like when you step in front of a car’s exhaust pipe. Luckily, the bus was air-conditioned, so we could relax with the loud lilting music of Uyghur wedding music in the background. Outside, I had no doubt that the mountains were as hot as a frying pan. I settled into “Fortress Besieged,” the Chinese novel I found in a hostel.
Hours later, as the dark crept in, someone (Maybe Uyghur Stan) was flipping through the TV. I saw “Shawshank Redemption” come up, but it’s bypassed for something bloodier—“Gladiator.” Suddenly, when hearing the opening music, I thought of how far the US really was from all of this.
Uyghur Stan led us off the bus in the night, where there’s a BBQ spit surrounded by the snake lights. The air felt like silk then, and I could believe that I was in another world. The front of trucks illuminated like ghosts by passing headlights, a discarded cigarette box gilded from streetlights. When I got back on the bus, I rearranged the pillows and blanket, and settled in for what I hoped would be a good night’s rest. We were woken up once for a stop at a CNG to pee next to entangled barbed wire amidst the veiled women. Surprisingly I slept well, dreaming that I came back to America to become a freelance gravedigger. Uyghur Stan looked a little disheveled from driving a portion of the night while the other driver slept, but we awakened slowly, crunching nuts and snacks for the morning.
Once we got at the outskirts of Kashgar, we went through a police check. The guard held my passport with a scrunched up face, twisting it around. “Amreeka?” he asked. I nodded. He let me through.
We arrived in a dingy bus station in Kashgar, and that was that. I gathered my backpack, my bag full of random things gathered along the way, and my purse to get off. I waved at Uyghur Stan and he sort of laughed and waved back. And then we were gone, into Kashgar, into the land of silk and sun.