Creative non-fiction / October 2017 (Issue 37)

Eurasian Pole of Inaccessibility

by Ting J Yiu

The immigration officer takes my silence as incomprehension. He repeats the sentence, and it runs like a refrain in my head. That Hong Kong does not have a visa-free agreement with Kazakhstan. That I must return overland to China. Did I understand?

He will not be moved by my kind, airhead tourists' intent on ruining his day with their doe eyes and bullshit pleas of ignorance. He, of the old guard, brass-buttoned hard-tacked stare, acid-washed Soviet-era staunchness. Unmoved by people or circumstance, he knows we're in a tired choreography that ultimately ends in the interrogation room. Tourists claiming their rights. Him dismissing their excuses. Them demanding to speak to someone in charge. Him slamming the table. He is in charge. Them calling embassies, lawyers, tears, threats and always, in the end, them buying expensive tickets back to whatever privileged place they came from.

He swears in Russian. Or is it Kazakh? My panic erases their differentiation. He repeats himself again. Slower this time, enunciating each vowel by drawing them through his teeth. He straightens my passport, squaring it against the edge of his desk. His green-grey slate eyes do not leave mine. Nor do they blink. I have to suppress my urge to laugh. It's a terrible habit. A nervous tick. An ingrained response to positions of authority. Maybe. I feel my lips twitch anyway. It's microscopic, but I nearly betray myself because I see that he sees. His disdain is cinematic. Extravagant. It's much more than a simple frown. A vein pulses near his temple. His jaw muscles contract like the rapid heartbeat of a small animal. I stall, macerating his words, chewing it to prolong the inevitable.

Other passengers are already cleared, Chinese-Kazakhs with tourist visas obtained after humiliating interviews armed with employment records, character references, the souls of their unborn children and invitation letters from family across the border, divided by politics.

I see them through the plate glass windows, gathered by the Almaty bound overnight bus. Some smoke cigarettes, others squat, fanning themselves against heat rising from the pale desert; women adjust jewel-coloured headscarves, sweat beading their foreheads, men crush cigarettes underfoot, yanking shirtsleeves up above their elbows. Children with hair the colour of wheat and molasses ask, in Chinese first, then Kazakh, for water, sweets, attention.

We have four hours left of the journey and yet they're stuck here, in Khorgas. No man's land. Here, the tissue between cultures and identities stretches thin. They are forced to wait because of me, the stupid lao wai who hasn't done her homework, whose not really Chinese anyway. The imposter speaking fourth grade Mandarin, the fake who has black hair and eyes but can't read the signs. The one that speaks English with her companion.

Eleven hours ago we passed the Flaming Mountains, rusty sandstone peaks that tower over the edge of the Taklamakan, running parallel to the Silk Road. Eleven hours ago we drove through historical oasis towns that are now, only concrete smudges of subsistence farming and grey industry. Eleven hours ago, we were high on our last hurrah, ending a nine-month sabbatical with one final adventure before our relocation to Sweden.

We had left behind our apartment in the Tibetan quarter where the sound of old ladies click-clacking their mahjong tiles competed with monks haggling over thangkas and ten-foot high golden buddhas. Where the Chengdu People's Armed Police force stood with guns around the corner, steeling themselves against another wave of "Free Tibet" protestors, men and women who doused themselves in petrol, flicking a match before turning into flaming human candles, the other monks watching with tears running down contorted, angry faces.

I see customs officials hauling luggage from the belly of our bus, looking for contraband, weapons for the Uighur Resistance or drugs. Khorgas bisects an opiate-hashish superhighway. Ounce bags here, truckloads there, smuggled from Afghanistan, into Kazakhstan, China then South East Asia.

Maybe they won't bother, no point prolonging their tea break for a bus full of families, and anyway, I don't see any sniffer dogs. Or maybe they look at the families and then look again, carefully the second time. Sweeping their eyes over faces as if they could pick out some incriminating detail. Maybe they think, these families, they're not really Kazakh, not really Chinese are they? Halfway people with their adopted halfway habits, playing Chinese pop-songs loudly on their phones, spitting melon seeds to pass the time, using the wrong Kazakh words, replacing them with Chinese when they cannot find the right expression.

And maybe the customs officials will decide this warrants a search, and maybe it'll be hours before they get through every single item. Maybe it'll be enough time. Enough time to remind the immigration officer, gently, making sure to blink my eyes, so he knows I'm not lying, saying it so it sounds natural even though it doesn't. That our governments signed a Mutual Exemption of Visa agreement on July 26th 2012. The Kazakh embassy worker in Urumqi had assured me that it was official, beaming over the cooperation of our two countries. And then she had furrowed her brow and asked, in all innocence, but is Hong Kong still a separate country? That question again. So I don't say anything and scrape the edge of my nail against the frayed sleeve of my sweatshirt.

Today is August 13th, and I am luckiness and unluckiness embodied because I have crashed unannounced against the bureaucracy of a post-Soviet oil economy. They have yet to receive the memo, and the immigration officer staring me down has fight in his grey-green eyes and an unbending thirty-metre stare.

Panic. It replaces the little eloquence I had. A metallic taste coats my tongue at the thought of being stranded. There is no transport back to China. All traffic originates in Almaty or Urumqi, 869 kilometres between them, a lonely ribbon of road, sometimes tarmac, sometimes gravel, potholed and crumbly, cutting through land framed by the Pamir mountain ranges.

And yet I am indescribably moved. A strange attraction, like a fetish I guess, for arcane geographic knowledge. I am in the farthest reaches of China. The most western province, Xinjiang, the place of minarets and camel's milk and Ramadan, where they open Hami melons the size of a pillow at dusk, breaking fast with one yuan slices the colour of cantaloupe, only sweeter.

We are so close. So incredibly close to the thing geographers call the Eurasian Continental Pole of Inaccessibility. They have them in every continent. It marks the point farthest from the sea in any cardinal direction. And we are so close. Our proximity to it is indescribable. My need to be near it, it's completely selfish.

As a child, I lived in a place of islands. Moving through the terrain until one day, my parents took me on a plane to an island so far south it nearly fell off the edge of the page in our school atlases. On those southern islands, I slept with the salted cry of gulls and the murmur of kelp washing ashore.

Being here, in a continent of immensities, extremities, this remoteness, this distance from the sea, it's almost too hard to comprehend. It's doing something weird to my mind. It is staggering. Overwhelming. And it makes me ruminate, think too much, about my chance of birth here, on the very edge of this continent that stretches and stretches, terrain undulating from coastal rice paddies the colour artists might call "Spring Green," the green of shamrocks and parakeets, the green rolling upwards towards sorghum fields with red seed heads drooping against the hazed northern skies.

This is where they coiled deep, something they call roots, snaking into the ground, hibernating, resting, then plucked out, shifted, over fathomless seas. Now, myself magnetically, inexplicably drawn back and here it collides, poetically perverse, just as I'm about to leave this continent again for god knows how long. But then, I don't believe in god, and everything overflows, and I'm aware that this is just another stupid lao wai's privileged travel story.

What business do I have traipsing the backlands of Asia? Me, the hollow, paper cut-out person, speaking my ghost blend, mishmash language; that singsong, lilting, New Zealand way of making everything sound like a question sometimes seeping into the guttural, nasal Cantonese originating from the lower parts of the throat .

I traded in the paradise of the imagination with its mind-bending isolation for this chaotic miasma, for a fling, no, a love affair, unrequited, with an entire continent. Pushing against the will of parents, wandering backwards to their kingdom of hardship, the place they worked so hard to leave behind. I throw it in their face, embracing the Motherland, embracing unspeakable collective history, asking the ground to guide me in the hopes of finding something tangible.

To a place that jostles and pushes, where streets turn grey whenever it rains, where traffic is survival and expletives. Where the smell of Sichuan peppercorns permeates Chengdu, and men roll shirts over bellies on summer days where they "talk sky" discussing everything and nothing over endless tea; to the Newari family in Durbar Square, stirring dhal, charring chilies over an open flame; to the Aghori sadhus on the Ganges watching another cremation photographed by a legion of Canon wielding tourists; to a village on the Pearl River Delta where a shrine bears a list of strangers, each one with a surname matching mine, where they dug for purple yams in times of starvation, celebrating with pork and firecrackers in times of plenty.

Now, they all blend into one, mixed with all the others. A repetition of memories, the refrain recycling all the faces, the names, the countries, the cities, their stories and I'm not sure I can tell them apart.

It happens after rounds of phone calls, checking and rechecking, whispered discussions, papers rustled. He's no longer straightening my passport. He drops the stone-face but doesn't replace it with a smile. He waves me through with a slip of paper, flimsy, like monopoly money, signed and stamped—I must report to the Department of Internal Affairs when I reach Almaty. Do I understand? Yesyesyesofcourse. He's already turned his head, bored, to the next person in line. I rush, nearly tripping, thank him, thank him again. He doesn't look back.

I push the accordion doors of the bus open. Climb into the smell of bodies cramped inside for too long. Some of the kids have fallen asleep. There are boiled-sweet wrappers dropped in the aisle like confetti, red and blue and green. I walk through them and they crunch and crinkle under foot. I sink into my seat. It's the only empty one. I run my hand over my face. Testing. Checking for wetness. I wear a briny second skin now, evaporated granules dried into a saltpan on my cheek. Someone coughs, opens a window and blows smoke into the hot desert air.


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