It was the middle of the night. The minibus’ engine screamed in first gear as we crawled up one of Tian Shan Mountains, in the far west of China, approaching the Kazahstan border. With my hands against the window, all I could make out was a rickety barrier separating us from the dark depths below. I knew we were in trouble when the driver started swearing in Kazakh. I don’t speak Kazakh, I didn’t have to. Fear is universal.
Michael had been fast asleep on my shoulder since we had passed Sayram Lake, a few hours earlier, and I couldn’t help but wonder if I was tempting fate…
According to Chinese legend, there was once a young couple who lived in this part of Xinjiang, the western province of China, many centuries ago. They were deeply in love but a mountain witch, driven mad by jealousy and loneliness, captured the boy and locked him away in her dungeon, in the highest peaks of the Tian Shan Mountains. One day, the boy took his chance to escape. The witch pursued him to the edge of an abyss and laughed for he had nowhere to go. The boy had two choices: marry the mountain witch or jump to his death. When the girl heard of her boyfriend’s fate, she was so devastated she flung herself, shrieking and screaming, into the abyss. The painful tears of the lovers, so the legend goes, flooded the abyss and formed Sayram Lake.
The minibus reached a crest between two hairpin turns and so we were no longer on a slope. A clunk echoed from the bowls of our vehicle and I could hear the driver stamping on the pedals. For a few sickening moments, the minibus slid across the road towards the barrier which separated us from the precipice. Two ladies started shrieking and screaming, a sharper contrast to the preceding silence I cannot imagine. The driver was trying his best to turn the steering wheel this way and that, whilst still pumping the breaks, but he could do nothing to arrest the skidding bus on the ice. For a split second, I was compelled to make an escape but, the truth is, I froze, unable to even release my breath lest it grant our vehicle any extra momentum. We hit the barrier and started sliding back towards the mountainside. We were like a bowling ball, zigzagging slowly down the lane with the bumpers down. We bounced twice more between the barriers until the minibus finally lost momentum and we stopped.
I breathed again. The whole episode had only lasted 60 seconds, every one of which I’ll never forget. With the two women still whimpering, a couple of the men wrapped up warm and braved the elements to inspect the problem (and to chase off any mountain witches, I suspect). I stayed inside, Michael still asleep on my shoulder. He hadn’t stirred once. He’ll never know how close we came to the abyss.
I didn’t sleep for the rest of the night. The Dzungarian Gate, a mountain pass between China and Kazakhstan, was living up to its legendary reputation.
We had crossed the border and stopped at a service station. It was the first light of morning and I was bursting for a wee. Edging my numb arm from under Michael, I left the minibus, stretched my legs and scratched my stomach. As I looked around drearily for the toilets, I had to brace myself against the cold wind and I pulled my scarf tighter around my neck.
Infamous for its fierce and constant winds for centuries, Greek mythology will tell you that one of the caves here is the source of the Cold North Wind and, Boreas, the bringer of winter. Herodotus, the ancient world’s historian, adds that this is the home of the Hyperboreans, a race of giants rumoured to be 10 feet tall. He also told tales of direful griffins, half-lion half-eagle creatures, who are tasked with guarding the gold in mountain caves.
“Ah-ha,” I said, spying the door of the toilets.
“Tenge,” I heard someone burp besides me. I looked down to see a little old lady with her hand out.
“Tenge,” she repeated, annoyed at my hesitation.
“I haven’t got any tenge, I’ve only been in the country for 10 minutes. Be gone direful griffin!!”
“Will you accept yuan?” I pleaded, getting out some Chinese notes.
The little old lady would not let me pass. Defeated, I moped back to the bus to see if I could swap some money with someone.
Before I could reenter the bus, however, a couple of Kazakh men, both with the physiques of wrestlers, were having strong words.
“Hyperboreans…” I whispered to myself.
The words grew more heated and they squared up to each other, close enough to kiss. One of the men took a step back and then launched into what can only be described as an audacious flying head-butt. It looked like a special move on Street Fighter. Although the head-butt didn’t connect, it initiated a scuffle within touching distance of me. I looked around. I was the only one near them. I looked up at the windows of my bus to see that everyone’s faces were glued to the glass.
“Stop [cough] now,” I said, wagging a finger. It didn’t work and the men continued to wrestle. More people gathered now, some to view the spectacle, others to shout discouragement.
“Come on lads, pack it in,” I said, tugging on one of the guys’ sleeves. I must have looked like a daughter asking for some sweeties. I then felt a man come up from behind me, slip his forearms under my armpits and drag me away. I was somewhat surprised but also relieved. Maybe I was slightly embarrassed, too, as someone had deemed my presence anywhere near a fight to be inappropriate (true though it is). I watched on as the fight escalated and a few other giants joined in, including the one who had dragged me away and soon it became a four-on-one fight against the head-butter.
The head-butter tried to pick up a small snow spade next to the toilet and the griffin was forced to scarper away from her post. I saw my chance and darted into the unguarded toilet.
Welcome to Kazakhstan, I thought to myself, as I heard the bang of someone’s body against the door.
I just couldn’t resist giving the toilet toll griffin a little wink and a smile as I got back into the minibus. I think I even may have thrown in a tap of my empty bladder and an audible gasp of satisfaction for good measure. She scowled back at me, no doubt cursing my toilet-toll dodging bones.
Michael started to stir. His eyes opened.
“Wow what a great sleep!” he said, stretching. “Did I miss anything?”
“A mountain witch tried to lure us into the abyss, then I was in a fight with a couple of Hyperboreans. Oh, I also managed to break into a griffin’s cave to have a wee.”
“Oh right. I’m starving what’s for breakfast”