The wackiness started as soon as Dave and I got off the truck in front of the Great Wall. Within half an hour we were in a swish hotel room not far from the the train station being offered “beautiful girls for making love.” We’d just shelled out about $50 in Chinese yuan for train tickets to Xi’an and were looking for a place to crash, a place that wasn’t going to break the bank. We stopped in at the fancy hotel on the corner of the main drag to check prices, you know, just in case. The rooms seemed unreasonably cheap for the quality of the hotel. Something had to give, and we figured it would be us, from our wallets, but the place was worth the risk.

Enacting a little caution, we chose to have a look at one of the rooms before signing any papers. They were quite nice, a bargain at the price being asked. When we started waving our hands at the conspicuous lack of a shower, the concierge started pointed down, down, as if to indicate a lower floor. We figured there’d be some manky shared bathroom down a flight of stairs, a setup we’d seen elsewhere. Still, the room was immaculate, and we were sold. When we got off the elevator in the lobby, the concierge led us toward a set of stairs rather than back toward the reception desk. Shortly, we knew what all the pointing was about.

Under the hotel was a massive bath house, a bath house of the variety that, I have to imagine, you can only find in well-off Asian countries. There were swimming pools, saunas, showers, shaving stations… the works. After a couple of weeks of almost non-stop driving through the desert, of sleeping in quaries, of eating at roadhouses, and shitting behind sand dunes, my ears (and few of my other 2000 parts) were leaking oily dirt onto my bed sheets every night, shower or no. “The works” was just thing I needed to correct this situation – stat! I was beyond sold.

Within about ten minutes were were settling into our comfortable little room on the 4th floor. Dave had just started off our poop rotation when I heard the floor staff chattering outside our room. They knocked, first bringing us fancy silk robes. We decided (wisely) that we’d better not take them out of the plastic. Next they turned up with a smarmy looking dude in a leisure suit. He asked me if I would like a message.

“Message,” I asked?

“I bring you beautiful girls for message, for making love.”

“Oh, MASSAGE!”

We picked a bunch of naked Chinese dudes over the prostitues, spending a couple of hours down in the sauna getting clean rather than a few minutes between the sheets getting dirty. The trade off here was that we had to hang out – as in “with your wang out” – in the cavernous bath with little more to cover up than a wash cloth. The locals that were visiting the bath went starkers, and they gave us weird looks when we wrapped towels around our waists as you’d do in any Western locker room. But, despite the fact we had to see lots of man-flesh, and despite the fact that I haven’t seen a naked woman in months, the trip to the baths was both interesting (from a sociological prospective, of course) and rewarding (from a hygiene perspective). I’m pretty sure I’d be saying the opposite about the prostitutes.

Maybe the baths seemed so great simply because of the amazing lack of open water out here. We’ve been in China for almost three weeks now, moving east by strides, and we’re still in the friggin’ desert! We went southeast from Kashgar, at first skirting the massive Taklamakan Desert and then cutting right through the heart of it, popping out not too far from the capital of Xinjiang Province, Urumqi. (It turns out that, of all the world’s capitals, Urumqi is the farthest from the ocean.) We didn’t stop to hang out, instead pushing on toward Turpan, another Uighur town. We spent a couple of uneventful days there, most people opting to check out the archaeological attractions. My ex-girlfriend was into archeology, so that sort of thing is mostly ruined for me, and I failed to find any enjoyment in the collection of crumbling mud temples.

Most of the fun we had in Turpan was dumped in our laps by the town drunk-cum-Japanese-teacher. Why the drunks like us so much I don’t know, but this guy managed to corner us in the market on our first afternoon in town. (Sound familiar?) He was interested, especially, in kissing us on the cheeks and apologizing for his inability to speak English. He stank of spirits. We managed to escape from him and make it back to our hotel without incident. Then, while waiting for the group to gather for dinner, I stepped outside to find “Sensei” lurking in front of the hotel. He took me tightly by hand and didn’t let go for the better part of an hour. During this time, I led him into the hotel to meet the rest of the group, and then over to a local restaurant. It wasn’t until we sat down to eat that he let go of me, and when it did it was so he could buy beer.

At some point during Sensei’s dinner visit, I decided that I was going to have to do a “runner” – I was going to have to get out of the restaurant without him noticing. That didn’t really go off so well, but the restaurant owner intervened and I eventually got away. A few minutes later, Sensei pulled a runner of his own; he managed to cut out of the place without paying for all the beer he’d bought us. At this point, the owner was left in a bit of a pickle and went to get the guy upstairs that taught English classes. The English teacher sorted things out pretty quickly, and was thanked with promise that some Western rock climbers would show up to chat with his students later that evening.

One of the guys in the English class was named “Hat.” All of the students – a couple guys and two women – were absolute beginners. We spent the better part of two hours talking with the instructors about culture in the West. They had some odd views, particularly about poverty and wealth, but then again the only Westerners they’d met were the ones with enough financial freedom to turn up in absolute backwater China. It seemed to me that they’d been watching too much TV. They thought that we got a lot stuff for free, mostly what we know as “social services,” and had difficulty understanding that I gave 33% of my weekly pay check to the Uncle Sam for the privileged of a substandard public education (amongst many other things, of course). They complained about how hard life in China was, about the lack of jobs. China clearly being on the up, I told them that if they wanted to see hard lives they should check out India. That started them on the difficulty of getting out China; most had never even been to Kashgar.

In the end, it was an interesting conversation. I try (perhaps unsuccessfully) not to think of them as naive or wrongheaded for their bleak outlook. China isn’t emerging, it’s gone off like ten-ton bomb. It’s evident to me that the quality of life here is rapidly approaching Western standards and I have to imagine that opportunities to advance oneself financially are blooming in kind. Maybe classism or racism is involved, opportunities only being open to certain folks; I don’t know. You could certainly level that complaint at the West. Hell, before I turned up I assumed that the central government just assigned everybody a job. Call me naive, or maybe wrongheaded.

I’ll part with a little piece of travel advice. If you’re headed for Dunhuang and are thinking about going to Crescent Moon Lake for some high adrenaline para-gliding or (uhh?!) sand boarding, don’t bother! The place is an absolute rip-off. The only thing worth doing there is the camel ride. I spent an absolute fortune being the group guinea pig, trying out various activities, and getting very very little for my money. Dunhuang is, otherwise, a nice town to spend a couple of days in. It’s certainly the most “Chinese” place we’ve hit so far. The Magao Caves were, despite my claim of hating that sort of thing, amazing.

~br

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