13-Apr-2004 -- The center of the eastern half of the northern hemisphere, the center of the northeastern quadrasphere, the point halfway between the equator, the north pole, the Prime meridian and International Date Line - whatever you want to call it, this point seems quite important, as far as confluence points go. I thought I'd have to just go see what's there - a monument, as there is in Wisconsin at the center of the northwestern quadrasphere? Some dedication to Mao Tse Dong? A Buddhist temple? A mosque? Was there any evidence anyone had been there before? My curiosity and the conspicuousness of the point was enough to make me go.
So I took off to Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Autonomous Republic, better known as Eastern Turkistan to the local Muslim Uigur population. The massive, Western Europe-sized Xinjiang province is controlled by China, and China has been effective in encouraging Han Chinese settlers to populate the region so that it's now more than 50% Chinese. This, they hope, would dilute the Uigur population and prevent them from starting an uprising.
Urumqi is a Chinese-style, modern, if backwards and dusty, metropolis. There are a lot of interesting Muslim outdoor markets filled with lively people and adorned with mosques - and a lot of junky, bland Chinese buildings, too.
After examining maps, my quest was clear: get to the town of Jiang Jun Miao (Jiangjunmiao) and head about 40 kilometers on the road north of there from where I could hopefully walk to the point.
In Urumqi, the first quest was finding a bus station from which to depart from. The city seems to have a different bus stations for every destination, and my destination was not a popular one. "There is no bus to Jiang Jun Miao" was what I kept hearing. So I tried Qitai, which was a closer, if bigger city. "I could probably change buses there for Jiang Jun Miao, right?" I asked them. I received unconfident nods.
I found the bus station for Qitai-bound buses hidden between shanty fruit stands and an apartment building in one of the seedier parts of town. The drive to Qitai was supposed to be about 4-6 hours and then another 4 hours to Jiang Jun Miao. I bought a bunch of snacks and got the 8AM bus, which was the earliest one (being so far west on Beijing time the sun rises just before 8AM).
Four hours later I arrived in the bigger-and-flashier-than-anticipated Qitai, anxious to get the scoop on the elusive road to Jiang Jun Miao. To my disappointment, the main bus station told me they didn't know of buses to Jiang Jun Miao, but sent me out to another 'extremity' bus station for buses heading that way.
At that 'lovely little hole in the wall' bus station the nice ladies directed me to a man whom they perhaps thought of as being well informed on the environs of the area. At least he definitely thought of himself this way.
"There's no bus to Jiang Jun Miao", he said. "There's no ROAD to JiangJun Miao, there's not even a Jiang Jun Miao", he said. He said he was very sure about this.
After many previous experiences of people in China giving out incorrect or misinformed information, I was not ready to give up there. Afterall, Jiang Jun Miao was on every map I had. Yet he said the road and the town used to exist, but had been abandoned and consumed by sand dunes.
I found out there was a bus to the Mongolian border which went almost half the distance to Jiang Jun Miao. I said I'd get off at the crossroads and hitchhike from there.
To rejuvenate myself on a day filled with few nutritious options, I decided to get a bowl full of homemade noodles with beef and vegetables. The bus station man rushed in and told me the bus to Mongolia was leaving now, there were no seats and that there was only one bus per day. I wish he hadn't waited till the last minute to give me this information. He still seemed to think I could get on it.
I rushed out, but as I stepped on the bus, I stared up at jam-packed people sitting atop bags of flour, farm equipment and who the hell knows what else. Even the Chinese and Mongols inside, who are quite used to shoving every last person into buses, said with sorrowful eyes, "there's just no room".
Hitchhiking from Qitai seemed to be even more fraught with problems. I could imagine moving in very small leaps on farm wagons, not making it to Jiang Jun Miao with no town to stay in along the way, nor any ride to return to Qitai. My only option seemed to be to wait 24 hours for the next bus to Mongolia.
I got a hotel in Qitai and took a long nap. I had lots of strange, disturbing dreams about being lost in far-off nomad lands.
I woke up and wandered in a daze around the streets of Qitai at dusk. I thought over and over about all my options. I didn't know it but fate was about to change dramatically.
Only who would have thought that two cute little ponytailed schoolgirls would be the ones to change fate? In hindsight, they created the change in events that led to the successful finding of the point. If you read on you'll find out why.
They just kept chuckling and smiling and following me down the street.
"Ni Hao!" (hello) I said to them.
"Where are you going?" they asked me, chuckling as if they knew what I was doing and thought it was funny. I said I wanted to find a bookstore. One idea I had was to find an updated road atlas of Xinjiang to find out if the road and town were still on new maps. They pointed to where I should go.
About a half an hour later they found me again at which time I told them I had no luck. "Follow us", they said. After trying two bookstores, a very nice, intelligent woman at the third inquired further about what I was doing and where I was going.
"I know someone who can help you", she said. "He will know whether there's a road or not".
We waited and waited. I talked to another rather intellectual man who, surprisingly, was interested and engaging in finding out about the quest for a latitude/longitude crossing.
At something like 9 or 10 PM the anticipated man finally walked in the door. He was kind of short and stubby with a round face and bronze, leathery skin. He went by the name Zhao Ru Rong, a mouthful of marbles to say. He was quite serious and matter-of-fact.
"There's a road there but it's not a good road. I can take you there", he said. I was overjoyed but remained guardedly optimistic. It had to be the best shot to go with him. He said he was a driver but also a tour guide, and gave me a price of 180 Yuen ($23) for a round trip drive, one leg of which he said was a 9 hour drive because of bad road conditions. He explained that I'd have to get a police permit to go out in that region, and that we'd have to deal with that the next day, and then head out the day after next.
I started to trust him. His circle of friends were kind, interesting, and intelligent and I found out his price was very good. He was a well-intentioned man who could occasionally break into a smile. This was unusual for a Chinese taxi driver.
The next day I had a good look at his car. It was a little red dilapidated taxi with pieces falling off it. The suspension seemed blown out. The seat was upright with no legroom, so I had to sit crouched. "It'll make it, no problem", he said.
He took me all around to the military headquarters, the police station and the county government office. Women seemed to hold most of the high-ranking positions not only in the official places but all over Qitai. They always seemed to deal with matters very calmly and reasonably. The final word was I didn't need a permit. We were ready to go.
We started off at 7AM while it was still pretty dark. Our communication was sparse. Ru was not the most cheerful and talkative person, but things might have been different if I could have communicated with him better. He spoke Mandarin but had a very thick accent like many of the people in the region.
We passed mud brick houses and farms before we got to a police guard tower. The guard checked Ru's papers. Soon after the guard, the road split off to Mongolia. The road we followed turned into a well-groomed dirt road. There was definitely a road!
I would almost certainly have failed in my attempt to hitchhike. There were almost no cars. I only remember seeing some donkey driven carts near the Mongolia road, and two Mongol-looking guys on Harley Davidson-like bikes going the other direction. This barren region is part of the Junggar basin, and is basically a sparsely inhabited desert with bitterly cold winters.
We crossed an area of vegetated sand dunes, and then it was basically stoney desert pavement after that. There were long, low cliffs of pink sandstone and others of black rock. Some of the landforms were quite bizarre, reminding me of the Colorado Plateau, yet the area had the same wide-open feel as the Gobi desert. The area is famous for petrified wood, another similarity with the painted desert of the Colorado Plateau. There's a petrified wood park, only 30 km from the confluence point. We saw herds of camel, horses, cattle and goats.
I was beginning to nod off when Ru shook my shoulder. "We should have gotten to Jiang Jun Miao by now, I'm not sure why we didn't see it".
"Are you sure we're on the right road?", I asked. I decided to get out my GPS. To my surprise it said we were only 5 kilometers from the confluence point! We had only traveled 4 hours - not the original 9 hours imagined. We had to turn around to get to the road's closest approach.
At 3.6 km from the point Ru decided to give a shot at some off-road driving on the desert pavement. It didn't seem to be too difficult at first, but we started heading perpendicular to the gullies. At 2.75 km we left the car and hiked. Ru had told me in advance he wanted to hike with me up to the point. The ground was fine beige sand covered with small dark slaty-looking rocks. The rocks were covered with a glaze of desert varnish. Most of the vegetation was similar to sagebrush. We saw one jack-rabbit hopping away.
As we hiked I started to let him know how significant this point was. As it sunk in, he began to grin and get excited about it.
The point was just on an undulation between gullies like the thousands of other gullies in the area. There was a small rounded black hill to the west.
There was no monument and no evidence of anyone ever having been there. There was one pair of very old tire tracks a few hundred meters away. Animal droppings nearby suggested that some animals at some time may have gnawed at the center-of-the-hemisphere bush.
Why had nobody visited such a prominent geographic location before? Could it be that no one had thought about it? Had they just never bothered to visit the location?
Leaving, we tried to figure out another mystery: that of the elusive Jiang Jun Miao. It's supposed to be right on the road - why had we never found it?
We went to walk around the petrified forest park. The whole region of the confluence seemed to inspire an awe of both space and time. The desert was wide-open as far as the eye could see and appeared as if it spanned thousands of kilometers. Time, epoch by epoch, seemed frozen in the silica of the toppled forest and the relic customs and wares of the locals. It was a little like all of human history, and pre-history, had been passed through a warp, and a trail of artifacts were left behind in an abandoned land for us to see.
In a mud-brick shack the skull-capped curators poured tea out of an old long-spout steel tea pot. On the wall was an old faded and yellowed Mao-era map of the world with latitude and longitude lines only at every 15 degrees. I showed them where we were and pointed to my GPS. They examined the map with wide eyes and smiles.
Ru had gotten the information we needed to find Jiang Jun Miao. We jumped back in the taxi.
Down the road we approached something strange we had passed on the way in. "This...", Ru pointed. There was an arrangement of a few eroding mud walls. "This is Jiang Jun Miao".
"Do you think people abandoned the city 5 or 10 years ago?" I asked.
"Maybe more than 100 years ago", said Ru.