The Road to
of life is not so much in holding a good hand as playing a poor
By Vance Ikezoye -
It is Tuesday morning, and I am alone with an empty bus.
We both happen to be in Kashgar, an old Silk Road town in far western
China. I had come thousands of miles to visit a market located here. Not
just any market, mind you – as far as old markets go, the Kashgar Sunday
Market is the Super Bowl. For over a thousand years, traders from the surrounding
countries of Central Asia have assembled for a frantic day of buying and
selling. With goods ranging from hand-made mousetraps and two-humped camels
to the latest Sony electronics, I witnessed merchants speaking commerce
in dozens of different languages.
On the other six days of the week, Kashgar is just a little town in a
big desert. I had plans to trek to K2 in Pakistan. To get there, I expected
to take my bus over the Karakoram Highway. Built with the help of the Chinese,
the KKH, as it is known, crosses some of the highest and most demanding
terrain in the world. The literal high point of the trip is Khunjerab Pass,
at an elevation of 15,528 feet. The bus trip from Kashgar to the town of
Sost in Pakistan takes two days, covers a distance of 317 miles, and costs
about 30 US dollars.
My bus is scheduled to leave this morning. To make sure I don’t miss
my ride, I arrive early. With nothing else to do, I sit on my backpack,
next to my empty bus, waiting for a sign that I am in the right place.
I relax as others begin to arrive with their possessions.
One serious-looking man singles me out, walks up, and demands my passport
and ticket. No uniform. No badge. But he acts like he’s in charge, so I
hand over my documents. He browses them and then orders me to put my backpack
on the roof. He tells me there is a one-bag rule. I can bring only one bag
inside the bus with me and everything else must go on the roof.
Kashgar deal making, by
While traveling, we are frequently faced with decisions like this. In
opposition to our lives back home, on the road we sometimes have to decide
when it is prudent to break the ”rules.” On the one hand, I have an official
giving me an order. On the other hand, I imagine my backpack, with all of
my belongings, flying off and rolling down some cliff. I hesitate, check
my locks, and then grudgingly hand my bag up to the boys on the roof of
the bus. I climb down and find my now-smiling official waiting with his
hand out. He says I must pay one US dollar for each bag on the roof.
A crowd of 30 passengers has assembled around the bus, waiting for the
door to open. Each passenger has boxes and bags of stuff piled all around
them. With my new understanding of the rules, I climb on top of the bus
to retrieve my bag. I scramble down and get back into the crowd.
At last, the door of the bus opens, and like a dam breaking, the crowd
surges forward. It is a pushing match, but as I meld with the mob, I am
sucked into the bus.
Once inside, the passengers scramble for seats. People are tossing blankets,
bags of food, pots, pans, and empty suitcases through the windows. The stuff
is piled haphazardly onto seats near the back of the bus. The few backpackers
on board head to the rear and attempt to organize the mess to recover places
The passengers comprise a diverse mix - Han Chinese, Pakistani men with
baseball caps, Chinese Tajik traders, covered Muslim women, and six backpackers.
I take a seat next to an old Chinese Tajik man. Our eyes meet and we appraise
each other. No words are needed - simultaneously, we both break out with
The bus begins to move. I feel that familiar sense of anticipation –
I’m on the road again. I look forward to Pakistan and new adventures awaiting
We stop at a roadside restaurant for lunch. Using my broken Mandarin,
I ask the bus driver what time the bus will leave. He replies, “After we
eat.” Of course, I mutter to myself.
The backpackers sit down at one large table with some of the other passengers.
Each group carries on conversations in their own language, as if the other
groups didn’t exist. After our short lunch, we all pile back into the bus.
We leave the flat terrain and begin the climb into the mountains. We are
officially on the KKH. The air begins to cool. The bus winds through incredibly
steep canyons as we follow a ”road” that would challenge a Humvee. The bus
groans in first gear as it bumps along through dry creek beds.
Karakoram Highway View, by Vance Ikezoye
I gaze at the scenery that is so different from the muted deserts of
the past month. The road follows a raging river with the color and consistency
of chocolate milk. Jagged peaks rise straight up into a cloudless blue sky.
I am mesmerized and find myself sticking my head out of the window like
Late in the afternoon, we stop at Kara Kol Lake, high in the mountains,
and three of the backpackers get off the bus. The place is green, the lake
a deep blue, but a persistent cold wind blows. There is an overpowering
sense of isolation. Their bags are dumped out the window. They wave goodbye
as if being sent to prison. I am relieved that I am not getting off here.
The sun has long since set when we arrive at a small town called Tashkurgan.
It’s the Central Asian version of Fort Apache – a lonely outpost, hundreds
of miles from the closest Chinese city. The bus stops at a hotel that the
Lonely Planet guidebook describes as filthy. The passengers all go in -
They obviously haven’t read the poor reviews. The two remaining backpackers
and I decide to look for something better.
The town seems deserted. We walk down the ”main” street and pass a few
locals sitting outside on chairs. They stare at us with intensity, but without
revealing their emotions.
We arrive at the Pamir Hotel, which is described by the guidebook as
the nicest place in town. The Chinese staff is gathered around a small black-and-white
TV, watching a World Cup soccer match. We quickly negotiate a room at a
reasonable price - the staff wants to get back to the match after all. The
three of us share a relatively nice dorm room with a working television
set. We congratulate ourselves.
Then, we discover the bathrooms. The toilet flushes intermittently. The
floor is wet and the bathroom looks like it hasn’t been cleaned in a decade.
I have to hold my breath. After I wash up, I notice that the back of my
shirt is soaked. Some unidentified liquid has been dripping from the ceiling.
Unfortunately, the source of this mystery is another bathroom on the floor
directly above. I fear this unknown liquid but realize the only way to solve
this mystery is to smell my shirt. I decide that this knowledge is not worth
The next morning, we skip the bathroom, and head back to the bus. We
go through another minor panic since no one else is waiting. Luckily, the
bus is still there. Last night, risking more embarrassment, I asked the
driver when the bus would leave. He told me the bus would leave at 10AM
Beijing time. It is 9:30 AM. We sit and wait.
The rest of the passengers suddenly materialize as if beamed down from
the Starship Enterprise. We participate in the ritual push to get onto the
bus, and I head to the back. I find my Tajik seatmate has saved my place.
He greets me with a warm smile and offers me the window seat.
The bus begins to move. We go about a half-mile and stop. It is the Chinese
customs checkpoint. Everyone and all of our belongings must get off the
bus. The boxes on the roof need to be taken down.
We file into the customs building. The Westerners are quickly shuffled
through. I look back at the rest of the passengers and their piles of goods.
The Chinese customs officials look very stern. I am grateful that for once
I’m not the focus of their attention. The officials dissect every box and
I am standing in front of the last Chinese official. He is examining
my passport. Despite my travel experience, I get nervous going through customs.
I tell myself to relax. The official speaks in Mandarin. I say my most used
Chinese phrase, “Wo bu dong” - I don’t understand. He reveals a slight grin
and asks me the same question speaking much slower this time. Now I understand.
He has asked about my ethnic background. I answer in Mandarin that I am
Japanese-American. He nods, stamps my passport, hands it back, and says
goodbye. Relieved, I say thank you.