This regional summary is a weird one. To be completely honest, this region (or rather, this transition between regions) had more distractions and interruptions to our walk than it had actual walking, so bare with me. In a way, it mirrors that our journey itself was in a sort of transition period of its own. In total, we walked fourteen days during this 60-day stay afforded by our most recent visa stamp. It’s easy for me to say that this section was the beginning of many new things for our walk and for our group dynamics, too. The region really began to thin out between cities; the land offering less and less reason to settle. The people we encountered varied more and more in their ethnicity. The cultures around us began to mix. The food slowly changed. The language barrier took a notable shift. Our pace slowed drastically. Our group started storming. We left the expedition more than once. It was a dizzying time that shook our foundation and left many problems unsolved. So without further ado, here goes something…
This was our second border run of the trip and the first one we did separately. This may have been foreshadowing that our personal needs were starting to outweigh the intentions we started with—to have group cohesion in all things. I did my border run as fast as possible by going to Shenzhen for only a few hours (in the dead of night no less) before taking a few trains, planes, and automobiles to get back to Jiayuguan. Paul went to Yangshuo to be with Vivian for a few days before coming back. Timb, being burnt out on China, found a cheap flight to Georgia and just hung out for a change of scenery. We all had a need to recharge, and it needed to be done individually. I came back first and relished the alone time for a few days, hanging out with the family who ran the Herdsman Hostel we were staying at, while I waited for Timb and Paul. Before we hit the road, we did an initiative Paul and Timb called “Hot Seat, Love Seat.” The aim was to give constructive feedback (hot seat), and positive feedback (love seat) to each other. Well, I came into it unaware of the depth of what was about to go down, ended up getting my feelings hurt, and resented my expedition partners for a good long while before I could properly handle the information they gave me. Instead of revealing and relieving tensions in the group it created them. This was how we started the northern Gansu section of our walk.
During our first day back on the road, we quickly began talking about either seeing Dunhuang via train or walking farther to include it but didn’t know which was best. I argued that it was a dishonesty to our mission to say we’re walking the silk road but actually taking trains to places that aren’t on the most direct route. I had hoped we’d follow some routes even if they weren’t the most direct—ya know, to do it like all those forgotten traders and travelers. Timb counter-argued that we’d still be walking the silk road, but also including significant cities that weren’t on our route so we could eliminate large zig-zags. This dispute dissolved with no solution.
This section of northern Gansu had so many similarities between us and our expedition it makes me ask which one was affecting the other. The landscape thinned. The rolling hills and valleys of the Hexi Corridor reduced to flat, dry grasslands slashed with little streams. Our group cohesion thinned—particularly me losing my connection to Paul and Timb since I was still feeling dejected. The connection we were fostering regressed to little trickles of understanding that flowed between us. The towns and cities abruptly started and stopped, there were no outskirts or farmland to ease the shift from city to country; we weren’t in the city, then we were, then we weren’t again. Our conversation similarly started and stopped as we tread-milled our way through the same issues, ending with one of us folding or both of us just leaving the issue to walk in silence. Things became drier. The feel of the trip became tenser. At one point, we had a realization that a lot of strife was being created because of our different communication styles. Timb preferred precise language and being literal. Both Timb and Paul preferred directness and lots of feedback, whereas I have always preferred less precise language to feel the conversation and read body language to really get a more complete picture rather than requiring exactness in the words being used—everyone is different. We were no doubt in a rough patch, but it wasn’t always so dire. We still had some laughs and enjoyable conversations, but they were less frequent and the alone time while walking with earbuds in increased. Our evening meetings happened less frequently. In contrast, as the distance between us grew the distance we covered reduced.
Walking from Jiayuguan to Yumen took us five days with a pick-up and a hiccup. The pick-up happened four days out of Jiayuguan when we walked into a truck stop and asked for a room. The cops said we were not allowed to stay and if we died camping outside in the cold we’d be an even bigger inconvenience, so they drove us, and our trailers, forward to Yumen. From Yumen we decided to taxi back to the truck stop and walk back to Yumen (48 km away) ultra-light style. No trailers and no sleep systems meant doing it in a single go was pretty much necessary. We walked a marathon through a beautiful winter wonderland that day with fantastic weather. We walked into the night to get back and all was well, until the next morning, when the hiccup happened. I awoke with intense pain in my right knee and my left knee a bit more painful than usual. Attempting to walk, I found my right knee could bare weight but was very painful to move, particularly back to the straight position. In retrospect, this injury was a blessing and a curse. Definitely a curse to me for obvious reasons but also to Paul and Timb as they had to wait around while I healed. The timing couldn’t have been worse; never would have been the appropriate time for an injury, but right before we headed into the Gobi was not. It was a blessing because it helped put things into perspective. It kindled our compassion toward one another and let the small things that had been building up kind of ebb for the time being.
The dispute Timb and I had about how to include Dunhuang solved itself when we bought train tickets and planned to stay there for the Chinese Spring Festival rather than staying in Yumen. This lull was a strange time. I rested in the hotel room, not really going out much more than for meals and short walks. Paul hung out with me rather than wanting to go see the touristy sights—he and I visited Dunhuang in 2015 when scouting for this walk and had already seen them. Seeing them a second time seemed like a waste of money, but left Timb hanging to go it alone. Still very distant from each other, we sought to satisfy our personal needs first. Seeing an opportunity to be with Vivian, Paul seized it and went back to Yangshuo at the beginning of the festival. I stayed in the Dunhuang with Timb still only going out for meals and short walks here and there together, which was good for us but still left Timb to explore the city and the sights on his own.
The Dunhuang lull was strange mainly, I think, because of the unknown amount of time we needed to wait for me to heal enough to not re-injure my knee when we started walking again. I think we were all feeling this helplessness, but looking back I think there were different levels to what was going on. Superficially, waiting an unknown amount of time for my knee made us feel helpless. A little deeper, I think, was our passive-aggressive group storm that followed us around like the cloud of dust on the dirty kid from the Peanuts cartoon. Deepest of all, I think, was the nerves we all had about how this desert crossing was going to go since we still hadn’t found a comforting plan that made us eager to get going. All these things floating around and the clock just ticking away, Timb and I decided to make the most of it.
Timb and I got in contact with our taxi driver friend we met back in Jiayuguan named Wang Jianjun (王建君) who wasted no time inviting us to a family dinner at his mother’s home in Dunhuang. Jianjun’s wife and sister prepared hotpot while Timb and I sat on the couch with Jianjun, his mother, his son, his nephew, and his niece. After a moment of awkwardness and not knowing what to talk about, we started talking with the kids about video games. We got through all the usual small talk questions and started using phone translators on all sides to further the conversation. It turned out that the quietest and shyest of the group, Jianjun’s niece, had the best English, which we found out much later in the evening as she started providing the words that both parties were looking for. Dinner was very tasty and very fun as we all started to open up a bit and relax, as people do when gathered around good food. Afterward, Timb and I went for a walk with the three kids and ended up at the arcade where we played Mortal Combat, a few racing games, and even shot basketballs at the moving hoops, too. It was a super fun time.
Another time in Dunhuang, Timb and I were walking down the street when two dudes on longboards cruised by. They wore face masks that looked like Bain, chest protectors that reminded me of Batman, and big backpacking packs that made Timb and I very interested in what the heck they were up to. They were two Kazakh dudes, named Hairat and Aydos, who grew up in Urumqi, and were on a longboard expedition from their university in Chengdu back home. We ended up getting food, at a delicious restaurant, that Timb and I returned to no less than four times while we were Dunhuang, and drank well into the morning at our hotel room. Between a mix of Chinese, English, and Kazakh that they were stoked to use with Timb, we talked all about Xinjiang, their Kazakh heritage, Chengdu, their tour guide business, their longboard journey, and they even sang Kazakh songs. They told us they’d be waiting for us in Urumqi to party with their family. We got especially excited when they told us they’d butcher a sheep for the party. Spontaneous connections happen to us all the time on this walk, some are stronger than others, but all are cool to be a part of.
After the Spring Festival subsided, Timb and I met Paul back in Yumen where our trailers were stashed. The hotel staff was patiently waiting and very relieved we actually came back. Beyond getting ready to start walking again, we had been planning a Facebook Live fundraiser event for a while that we scheduled for this particular day. This event was being planned with help from Conner and Katherine who put together a little interview video we all did back in Jiayuguan. They also helped us by hyping the event to several different communities we are all a part of, as well as all over our social media. On the day, the three of us talked for two hours about all kinds of things, answered questions, told stories, and genuinely had a good time connecting with people in real-time. Afterward, we called Conner and Katherine in a group call. They told us they thought it was cool, but a little outrageous that we barely mentioned it was a fundraising event to help get us through Turkmenistan and Iran, which was the whole point. We agreed it was a pretty crappy way of repaying our teammates efforts to support us. So not only were we finding conflict among our immediate team but within our extended team, too, now.
Katherine and Conner have been helping us from afar during this whole journey, going back almost a year before we started walking. These two have been hugely beneficial to helping us bring most aspects of this journey to fruition. If you have read or seen anything about this journey on whichever platform, chances are it’s been beautified by Katherine and probably Conner, too. They brought to our attention that the three of us haven’t been communicating very well with our greater team as a whole. And from the walking end, we felt a bit shameful for lacking on such rudimentary communication reciprocation. Even being “caught with our hand in the cookie jar” making posts and updates on our social media but not responding to, or even acknowledging, the group chats that we all use to move the behind-the-scenes stuff forward. Shameful but true, and also another blessing in disguise. Sharing this blame helped, once again, to put things into perspective and own up to a few things in our greater team as well as in our immediate team.
With all this in mind, and still only five days of walking progress since Jiayuguan, we got a fire under our buns and left Yumen right after that team meeting. We walked another five days through a mix of grasslands and what appeared to be marshlands. The weather was still wintery and dry. However, the snow was replaced by blankets of dust that drifted over us from the back of every truck. Arriving in Guazhou was strange as it was one of the last major stops in Gansu. The space between the cities was growing and the cities themselves were shrinking. In Guazhou, we finally confronted the immediate problem that needed to be solved. How were we going to make the crossing from here to Hami safely? Our layover day in Guazhou snow-balled into a three-day discussion. How much water can our trailers carry? How many kilometers per day did we need to walk? What was the local knowledge about the crossing? Was my knee going to be able to do it? What was our emergency plan if not? What if we go slower and can’t make it to Hami in time for our 60-day limit in China? Can we afford the fine for being late on our next border run? No. Plan B? Should we reset our stamp first, and try again without the time crunch? Can we find work to make money while we wait out the remainder of this 60-day stay? Would more time-off be beneficial to heal or was the injury permanent? We eventually came to our far-too-late-in-the-game decision.
We packed up our stuff and walked from Guazhou to Liuyuan for the next four days. In this time, we had no doubt in our minds that somewhere near Guazhou we had entered the Gobi. There were no real signs of anything. Just the road and the paralleling power line, a series of slender poles holding a single wire. In the distance, the haze was ever-present. We thought it must be dust and not pollution since this area was vastly empty with virtually no factories due to the lack of resources out here. However, the dirt and dust were carried on the one resource that filled this place in abundance, the wind. We saw endless wind turbines fading to the horizon in any direction we took the time to squint at long enough. Also in the distance were an improbable number of much larger power lines than the humble one that followed our road. The only thing we could figure was that each new quadrant of wind turbines that went up was connected to the grid by its own power line or the power being generated here was a high enough wattage to require separate lines.
On day two of this mini crossing, we came across a compound of a few workers. Their compound appeared to be for automotive repair or a junkyard, maybe a bit of both. They had a car wash, too, but they said they—two men and two women—were sheep herders. The women kept to themselves. The two men—one larger and squatty, the other tall and skinny—were difficult to understand and thus we nicknamed them Abbott and Costello. Costello was the squatty boss and not all that welcoming or interested in visitors. Abbott, on the other hand, was very friendly asking if we wanted to go to dinner in Liuyuan and come back to stay the night at their place, he also smelled pretty strongly of alcohol. We said we would be fine to sleep outside, but they insisted we take Abbott’s room and chased a goat out of the room next door for Timb. Then Abbott changed out of his work clothes and cleaned up pretty nice before we went into town for dinner. At dinner, we knew it was custom for the host to pay but we really wanted to show our appreciation for the evening and the hospitality of the room and everything. Abbott adamantly refused us paying the bill until Costello finally chimed-in, and accepted our offer. On the way home, they stopped at the gas station and apologized that they didn’t have any money on them to pay and asked if we could get the gas. Thinking we were to be repaid, we covered the bill. The following morning, back at their compound, we were asked about the usual photo op and obliged. When we asked about the gas bill from the night before, they just apologized. Unbelievably, as we were about to leave, Abbott came over looking shy. He talked quietly and we asked him to repeat himself since we didn’t understand what he had said. He pulled me to the side and again spoke quietly but was closer to me this time. He told me his boss—Costello—wanted to make sure we hadn’t forgotten to pay for our room. We couldn’t believe it! I went to Costello and gave him the hundred RMB he wanted for the room and we hit the road a bit perplexed.
Arriving in Liuyuan early on the fourth day out of Guazhou, we were approached by an oil company worker who was surprisingly well-spoken in English. He asked if we needed help with the hotel and when we replied in Chinese saying we could handle it, he smiled in surprise. We asked if he was staying at the same hotel. He said yes and asked if we wanted to drink with him and his buddies later that night. We said sure, of course, and went our separate ways. We spent the day getting ready to implement the plan we made back in Guazhou. We asked the hotel manager if she would hold our trailers for about three weeks while we went to Dunhuang for sightseeing. She said for 200RMB, no problem. Well, that was easier to explain than our actual plan. We were headed back to Yangshuo to work a few trips with Insight Adventures—which we previously arranged with the help of Vivian Luo, our trip director and general lifeline in case of issues requiring some Chinese finesse. After that, we would border run to Hong Kong and then come back to continue the Gobi section with new stamps in our passports, more completely healed injuries, and a bit more cash in our pockets. With a home arranged for our trailers, we booked tickets, then organized gear, then finished our writings. We were ready for another pause in the walk.
That night, English-speaking worker-man (his name was Beckham) surprised us by knocking on our door at almost midnight and asked if we were still down to drink a bit. As we had just finished the beer we bought earlier in the day, we agreed he had perfect timing. We went to a few different places before ending up at the same place we had lunch. We drank two or three beers each over the course of, at least, an hour and a half. We had a few questions for him, but mostly we listened. He told us he wanted to talk with us mainly because he couldn’t talk with his co-workers about his personal life nor really open up to them. We all agreed sometimes it’s easier to open up to a stranger than a co-worker. It was an interesting conversation about his marriage on the rocks, his ambitions—that he felt were slipping away, possibly affecting his marriage—, pressure from his wife’s parents, and also general things like government and different schooling ideas. He asked us about our journey, the lifestyles he saw us leading, and was curious about how to do something like “just traveling.” What a night… what a night. We all turned in quite sober (he had to work the next day, we had to wake up early to catch our bus back to Dunhuang). The experience appeared to be unburdening, like a confession to someone who will walk out of your life and never be seen or heard from again. Sometimes it’s nice just to talk. Sometimes it’s nice just to be heard.
Returning to Yangshuo to work for Insight Adventures gave us a few days to hang out, to see friends, get to know new staff, and just relax and veg. Despite China always changing and nothing ever being how you saw it last, Yangshuo has a feel about it that it will always be a small town, it will always be Yangshuo. It was great seeing all our friends from the Insight family, catching up, and meeting the new members. Remember way back when I said our last border run was done separate from one another, well, now it came back to bite us. I had to do a border run before the trips started otherwise I would have been two or three days overdue. So I went to Hong Kong and then flew to meet the rest of the team in Ningbo. Our first trip with Insight was a silver level International Award hiking trip in the Ninghai Trail System (just south of Shanghai). This trip was the kind of thing that resonated with Paul, Timb, and myself and got us hooked on outdoor education in the first place. The roots we set down in outdoor education became so many facets of all three of our lives, but the one we all hold in common is the silk walk. This Insight trip was three days, two nights, with students carrying all the gear they needed. They navigated the route and worked as a team to troubleshoot. They had no phones nor electronics, except for cameras. They dealt with bugs. Cooked their own food. Made decisions as a group. Helped those who were slow. Celebrated their victories. Shared the grief when things got low. At least, that’s the idea. Whether it’s these kids or the three of us doing all those things, that’s the idea, right? We are all working to be the best versions of ourselves, and we use experiences as a tool to better ourselves. Not everyone enjoys every outing they take, but many new experiences happen every time one goes out. That’s why some keep going. Overall, it’s always a pleasure, as an instructor, to be a part of those foundational experiences for students, even if they dislike you a bit for letting them make so many mistakes. Our second trip with Insight was in the outskirts of Shanghai at a theme park type place with very young students (7-9 years old), super cute, but not nearly as enjoyable. Afterward, the three of us went our separate ways from the rest of the Insight team.
Learning our lesson from the last border run, we all did this one together before returning to the walk. Directly from the Shanghai trip, our flight to Shenzhen landed at midnight. Two hours later, our taxi arrived at the 24-hour port of entry between China and Hong Kong. At 3:00 am, we took turns crossing the border through the delirium of sleep deprivation. We took another taxi to catch our train from Shenzhen to Guangzhou. We barely made our train and were on our way back to Yangshuo.
Yangshuo was little more than a laundry stop for me, while Timb and Paul soaked up as much time as they could with the people from the Insight community before we went back to Liuyuan to get our trailers and face the crossing that had been intimidating us for so long. But before we went, Insight threw a beach party at a place called Secret Beach (shhh.. it’s a secret). There were people barbecuing, plenty of drinks, beach games, swimming, people getting thrown into the river, and lots of laughs as we enjoyed our last chance to socialize for a while with so many cool people. When I was thrown into the river, I ended up cutting my foot pretty badly. My second to smallest toe (What is that toe called anyway? Ring-toe? Least-dexterous toe? The piggy that went to market?) on my right foot got some tendons severed—I only know this because, now that it is healed, I can’t bend it nearly as much as the rest; when I scrunch my toes all of them curl down while that one just kinda… sticks out above the rest. Well, I wrapped it up and walked home where I rested for two days or so while Timb and Paul gathered their laundry and said their goodbyes. From Yangshuo, we made our way through the multi-leg journey just to get back to Liuyuan. The hotel staff was almost as happy to see us as we were to see our trailers right where we left them.
This section of our walk was the most difficult part of the journey thus far on several levels, and we still have unsolved issues that we’re bringing with us into the Gobi crossing. I hope for so many things to improve, but I know that unless we take the time to deal with the issues growing amongst us nothing will change, and that’s unacceptable, or, at least, it will be.
Written by Patrick Exe