He who has ever left his cozy home,
He's seen the things he couldn't ever dream of,
But back at home he's said to be a liar,
If he has told about what he's seen.
Ludovico Ariosto. Orlando Furioso, 7, 1.
In June 1993, I unexpectedly received $350, a considerable amount of money in post-Perestroika Russia. Without giving it much thought, I decided to spend the rest of the summer in Xinjiang, to try to visit Tibet and, if possible, other parts of China. At that time, Lonely Planet's and other guidebooks were totally unheard of and unavailable in Russia. It was virtually impossible to obtain any information about travel conditions or the cost of life in China. I found a 1970 Moscow-printed 1:5,000,000 map, and a list of 50 Chinese words, all in wrong transcription. I was almost trembling with fear when I got on a bus to Urumqui in Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan. Later, I discovered that China was a cheap and easy place to move around, so the abovementioned sum of money was enough to spend 100 days there, and to visit all provinces except Ningxia.
Below is an almost unedited text of my field diary, from which I omitted some purely scientific stuff and most details that can be found in guidebooks. I also deleted all personal names and records of conversations with local people, because all of them inevitably included political matters, and I didn't want anybody to get into trouble.
I encountered certain problems in China, but as a Russian-born I was used to most of them. I found the country to be basically safe, with major threats being pickpockets in lowland areas, and car accidents in the mountains. Even after I'd lost all money and all documents, I still managed to move on.
Just as in Russia, a "hole in a fence" in China is always a better way than a "front gate". The power of papers over human life is as immense as in the former Soviet Union. I expected something like this, so I got myself a document which I'll call Datzybao hereafter. A Chinese student in Moscow wrote me a recommendation letter, which said I was a Great Russian Writer and a Famous Friend of The Chinese People. The letter was decorated with a dozen official seals in various colors, all of them in Russian. The largest red seal was from a lifeguard station on Moscow River. It was signed with "The Arch-Chairman" and "The Superior Director" hieroglyphs, but no names. This letter allowed me to get free bus and train rides, to get into some restricted areas, to avoid paying special foreigner prices, and so on.
Because of the funds shortage, I had to get food and money by methods hardly ever used by Westerners in Asia. If this book was about Europe or America, I'd never dare tell about them. But in the East, no profession is as beloved and respected as that of a Wandering Saint. I ask my Chinese readers for forgiveness if they find these methods only marginally appropriate morally. I'm also deeply grateful to all local people for their friendship and hospitality. I learned to love their country and to hate their ruling regime as much as they did.
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