According to the old Chinese empire, the beginning of nowhere is beyond the fortress walls in Jiayuguan, Gansu Province. In the desert, with nothing but sand, harsh rocks, and the tightly pressed mountain walls of the Hexi Corridor on both sides, the fortress waits for something to come out of nowhere-lands.
Nowhere is a perilous land full of rocky plateaus clicking together from a distance, ruthless sand and unforgiving heat beating down like boxing gloves, one two, one two. The wraiths and caravans rumbling along this road come from a faraway land, a land labeled as a lack-thereof or more succinctly, a question mark.
On this edge of Nowhere, I stood on the fortress walls, trying to embody the warriors waiting for something to materialize like a mirage and try to decimate the dream of the empire. The clench of their fingers against stone. The listless beg of sleep as their post as First Defense for the West felt less like glory and more like excommunication. They were the guardians of Somewhere, keeping phantom dreams of barbarians and demons at bay.
Today, Nowhere is marked by kids riding camels, families happily shooting tennis balls out of cannons, and couples wheeling through the men dressed up in thin tin armor marching along in formation with fake spears. The fortress still has a drum that you can pay to smack. Construction crisscrosses all over the walls.
Loudspeakers hawk fake jade and overpriced sausages. The trashcans are designed to look like treasure chests.
This is the nowhere, I kept thinking. I am standing on the edge of what used to be absolutely nothing, save footprints of Silk Road travelers long ago. That ought to mean something.
I tried very hard to press my imagination beyond what modern travelers (myself included) have warped the past into. But Nowhere is just about as barren as a beach on Labor Day.
So I got on my train to Dunhuang, another stop along the Silk Road. The wind from the train pressed lightly against my arm. The desert yawned all around, faint black rips of mountains in the distance.
And it struck me how funny the whole fortress situation is, actually. The nowhere-lands, full of what dark dreams may flit from eyelid to eyelid, suddenly interrupted by a structure informing you that you have now arrived at Somewhere. The guards prodding you to see if you’re going to try and kill them. You still in slack shock from having toiled in sand and scraping wind to find metal men and their metal lives telling you that You Have Entered the World.
What is the world of Somewhere, anyway? To me, the dust-mote walls and fortified entryways are just as Nowhere as the places outside. The only difference is that Somewhere decided to label the solitude.
And in Nowhere, looking far into the stars cutting sharp into the black expanse of empty space, with the cool dribble of night-sand on skin, we’re nothing but advancing footsteps into whatever the demons out there have planned.