Monday, April 20, 2009

Ryan Pyle Blog: A Road Less Traveled


I often don't write in detail about assignments that I work on, but in this particular case I'll have to break all the rules and open up to you about a recent ridiculous trip while working on my book in Xinjiang, China's mainly Muslim northwestern frontier region.

My project is basically on the region of Xinjiang and the idea is to bring in to light it's incredible history and cultural diversity. In an effort to move away from low hanging fruit in easily accessible oasis towns like Kashgar, Khotan, Aksu, Kuche, Korle, Yining and Urumqi; this trip I opted to push it a bit and go deep in to the Tian Shan Mountain range. With very mixed results. My story is below:

I had been in the region for about four days shooting already, with mixed results as bad weather hampered efforts, when I decided to try driving from one small village in Northwestern Xinjiang to a large city in Southwestern Xinjiang, straight through the Tian Shan mountain range. It took my fixer and I a few hours to find a driver with the gonads to take us; the weather was bad (-10C and snow flurries) and the two 4500m passes might be blocked by snow and ice. We decided to chance it and our driver was motivated by the chance at earning a fee when other drivers were sitting idle.

After looking over the sport utility vehicle I decided that it was fit to take us, I know absolutely nothing about cars, on this 350km journey along a road that barely existed, through the remote Mongolian villages on high plateau of the Tian Shan range.

Upon getting picked up at 8am the next morning (6am Xinjiang time) we set off on our journey in good spirits with tea and fresh nan bread to keep us warm on what was an unseasonably chilly, raining, snow flurried day. That was the first warning we missed.

Not 20km in to our journey I was rummaging through my bag when I looked up and noticed, about 3 seconds too late, that my driver was attempted to drive across a rather angry looking river. Now it's an often occurrence in this part of the world that roads get washed out and SUV's just push right through low/slow rivers. It is something I've become used to over the years, sometimes water seeps in their the doors but usually the interior of the car stays dry and most four wheel drive SUV's can make it across rivers with water below the middle of the car door. On this particular occasion when I looked up and noticed that this river crossing was not a smart move, we were already stuck in the middle of a fast flowing river, after an entire night of rain. My driver noticing there was a problem quickly whipped off his shoes, took off his pants and climbed through his window out on to the hood of the SUV in nothing but his blue underwear, it was a sight for sore eyes. With a wrench in hand he was trying to turn the knob on the wheels, that were now well submerged below icy water, that turned on the four wheel drive option.

Hold it there. Yes, we attempted a horrific river crossing without having the four wheel drive operational.

Once the four wheel drive was "switched on" he hoped back in to the car, shivering from 2C river water, but by now the engine was submerged and the engine was flooded and the battery was dead. We were stuck. I was shocked. Normally on river crossing we stop on the shore, assess the situation, map out the best place to cross and then go for it. This driver, while my attention was elsewhere, just decided to try and barrel through a blistering river without any assessment or consultation. A shocker I know.

So, wondering what I could possibly do to help improve our dire situation I asked our driver what next? Could I help? He shot back with a no, and jumped out of the window virtually naked and waded through waist high ice water to the shore were he flagged down a passing jeep to tow us out. To make a long and painful story short, that didn't work and nether did several of the other options that were tired.

What was I doing during all this? Well I was bailing ice water out of the car as the floors were filling up. We had to cut the tops off our water bottles to make bailers. I also packed up all my camera equipment in preparation for a great escape, and I tried to stay calm. This was by no means a life and death situation, but I didn't want to loose any camera equipment, or film or succumb to frozen testicles; which I have a limited tolerance for. I have done a lot of hiking in China/Tibet and crossing glacial rivers is always a dreaded experience for me, my kryptonite perhaps.

My guide and I, while the driver had disappeared desperately looking for something to pull us out of the river, decided that we had the bailing fairly under control and the water, both inside and outside the car, was no longer rising. So we sat. Made jokes and continued to bail. We laughed about how if we were English explorers in the 1800s we consider this a perfect time for tea; and shared stories about other difficult times we had been in.

All in all we were in a dead, frozen SUV for three hours. Much of the time not knowing exactly what was going on to assist in our rescue. On several occasions we decided to strip and make a dash for it just to end the waiting game, but opted not to risk it in the end because the tide and water level where fairly stable. I basically made the decision that if we weren't taking on water, there was no reason to panic so we just sat there.

Sitting in a car, with a dead battery, in an icy river is actually an incredibly cold experience. I was amazed as how after about 30 minutes I felt like I was sitting in a refrigerator. As I bailed water I realized that the water was near freezing and the outside air temperature was -10C. How long could we last like this? Our answer would come soon enough.

Shortly after we resorted to peeing in juice bottles, and betting on who was doing to have to shit out the window first, a massive bull dozer appeared in the horizon. We were saved. The great thing about China is that you're never more than 5km for a construction site, no matter where in the country you might be. So our driver had paid US$60 to have the bull dozer come over, and pull us out with a steel cable. After just about three hours in the drink, we were saved. What a way to start a journey.

I consider myself to be a fairly tough minded individual, and in fact I am very much in favor of self preservation, but I was a little shaken by our experience in the river; mainly because we had dangerous roads ahead and I had serious questions of our drivers competence, and health, after he spent several long stretches wadding in the frozen river. I was assuming that we would unload our car, switch to another less water logged SUV and head back to town; a day behind schedule. Perhaps have a shower and a hot meal and rethink our route. But my driver wasn't having any of it.

Within ten minutes he had the SUV, that just spent three hours in the icy water, humming away and although he was visably shivering and shacken by the experience he insisted that the show must go on. And so it did.

After our ordeal in the river it took another three hours to arrive in the nasty one street town of Bayan Bulak. For those of you thinking this is a Mongolian oasis please be warned, it's a tourist trap and one of the rusted buildings and bad food variety. With one massive pass behind us, almost an hour of hair raising switch backs, the weather turned evil and shortly we found ourselves driving across the high plateau in the central Tian Shan range in virtual white out conditions. We were clocking a mere 20km per hour.

The next 170km from the town of Bayan Bulak to a remote lake, that I have always wanted to visit, in the mountains took me along the most dangerous road I've ever been on, coupled with the most dangerous weather conditions I've ever seen. White outs, six inches of fresh powder and steep cliff drops on the entire route. Hair raising is not a strong enough term, death defying is perhaps more suitable. And don't forget this was after I'd already spent 3hrs in an icy river. My nerves were shattered, by body exhausted and my moral low. But still we pushed on.

With night beginning to fall we reached the remote lake region where I was able to shoot for a while at dusk. We had planned to sleep there for the night but the blustery winter conditions in mid-April left the guest house operators suggesting we push on for fear of freezing temperatures throughout the night. So with night falling we mounted our trusty SUV, my driver was looking more chipper, he had somehow beaten hypothermia using a combination of car heaters, a Chinese military jacket and a pair of North Face socks I had given him.

There were about 120km between the lake region and the town of Kuche, an oasis town in Xinjiang. Weather there was warm and they had a decent hotel. But our driver indicated that it would take about three hours to make the 140km trip, and that the roads would get worse, but there were no more high passes. Night had fallen and with a glimmer of hope in my drivers eye he suggested we try to make Kuche for a proper nights sleep. I wearily agreed, too exhausted to fight.

For years in China I've tried to avoid, at all costs, driving at night. If my driver is not lacking knowledge of basic safety then surely the trucks and cars that pass us are. Basically it's a crap shoot and the odds are you'll get in an accident. I was in a bad accident in 2005 in a remote region of Anhui province. We were driving at dusk while trying to make it back to the capital city of Hefei; the driver was going too fast and a bicycle swerved out in front of us in a farming district. We zigged and zagged and flew off the road in to a brick house. Luckly no one was hurt and the house was sturdy, the car was a write off. My then writing partner, Howard W. French, suffered a fractured wrist as he braced himself for impact. I ducked and ended up bouncing around in the back seat on impact, I escaped uninjured. Needless to say we were shaken and massive amounts of whisky were needed that night to calm the nerves from a real near miss.

With that story playing over and over again in my mind we headed out in to darkness. Even 40km per hour felt way to fast on dark mountain roads on a route that would have yeilded some stunning views had it not been pitch black. Impossible to sleep I stared out the window in a daze as my body bounced and swayed with the bumps in the road. My back, having been sore most of the day with the rough roads, was now completely numb. I was beyond exhaustion and I had no idea how my driver could continue to concertrate and deliver us to our destination. Very tough man indeed.

Staring out the window as the world passes by you is a strange thing, and even stranger in China where you are liable to pass just about anything out of the ordinary en route. On one pass, two road construction workers were squatting (going to the bathroom) in full view of the road, and our headlights, while seemingly carrying on a rather heated conversation; and at 30km per hour you end up seeing a bit too much detail. As the blackness of the night deepened we had a few near misses of just random people walking along the road, neither road workers nor local tribesman, walking through the complete darkness - and freezing weather. There was a strangeness in the air that night for sure. We had encountered so much that day that I was essentially ready for anything. But I wasn't ready for what happened next.

My breaking point came with about 50km to go to Kuche. After enduring a three hour river drama, bad roads and worse weather, we were about an hour outside of Kuche when we reached a police barricade. Our driver pulled over and received information that we would have to spend the night in our cars as there was a severe sand storm in the valley below and it wasn't safe for car/truck travel. Naturally I wanted to get out of the car and plead with the police officers, I was a mere 50km away from a hot shower and a bit of rest, but alas I had to hide in the back seat of the car with my hat and scarf on; because the road we took through the mountains is closed to foreign travelers we had to be careful of attracting too much attention. Sitting in the back seat I felt as though all the air had been let out of me, as though I was left limp and rendered completely ineffective to everything around me. I was physically and mentally shattered. How was my driver still going strong? Why are us western folks so comparatively weak? I was amazed at his strength, even though I didn't completely agree with all of his decision making; the river crossing standing out as a particular error in judgement.

Just spitting distance from Kuche we were haulted in our most epic journey. Instead of sleeping in our cars, we'd already been in the car 16hrs that day, I opted to put us all up in a little truck stop hotel about 5km back up the mountain. When we organized the rooms and finally put down that night around 1am. Our rooms smelled horrifically and was of the variety that had smashed bugs all over the walls from previous guests who had tired of the mosquitos and other nasties living in the rooms. My pillow and bed sheet smelled of at least 4 distinctly different people, I have a sensitive nose - a real liability in China - leading me to the fact that washing is done just seasonally, if at all.

Nevertheless at one in the morning I could have slept on a bed of nails. We had been on the road since 8am. We spent three hours stuck in an icy river, and the rest of the day drifting from near death experience to near death experience on the worst road I've ever been on. Now when I say that it's important to remember that I've been traveling in China almost exclusively since 2001. I've traveled through Tibet, all of Central Asia and Iran and I've never come across a day of traveling like this; hence my motivation to share it with you in this blog.

Week in and week out things don't always end up like this and in fact every now and then work become a little repetitive or routine like; which is why having a personal project to pursue helps shake things up a bit. Well, I have been shaken, not stirred. And I managed to live to tell the tale.

The next morning we woke up and made the rest of the journey down the valley to the oasis town of Kuche, where I then hoped on a flight to Urumqi, where I am writing this from now. In two hours I fly back home to Shanghai, where my other life picks up again. I reckon I'm living dual lives and I have several personalties going all at the same time. Trying to keep it all together. Never an easy task. I'm headed back to the region in August. More reports coming soon.

Ryan Pyle

1 comment:

  1. Man that sounded insane! I can't wait to see the photos from this project! We should meet up if you have any free time.




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Ryan Pyle