The worn black road shoots like an arrow across the wide-open desert until it thuds into a low escarpment of rocks, which rises from the lunar landscape of the Gobi's yellow scrubland. The craggy boulders form a ravine that soon encloses the road as it bends for the first time in a hundred miles, then dumps the traveler in a small town that had not been visible from the highway. The ravine gives the town its name, Xingxingxia, which in English means Starry Gorge.
Starry Gorge is a two-horse town, with just a few hundred residents. It caters to the truckers, the long-distance buses, and the occasional crazy traveler who chooses to cross the Gobi Desert by road. The town owes its existence to a small freshwater well, the only one for miles around, which has sustained man and beast for centuries on their journeys along this merciless section of the ancient Silk Road. Xingxingxia (pronounced Shing-shing-shyah) marks the traveler's entry into what used to be called Turkestan but is now the Chinese region of Xinjiang. The gorge to the east and a large tollgate to the west provide the bookends for this shabby jumble of truck stops, residences, and one large gas station that poke out of the scorched desert earth and up into the clear blue Central Asian sky. The hostile sun is high, almost melting the tarmac, and I'm standing beside the road, trying to hitch a ride.
This is not just any old road. This is China's Mother Road, and its name is Route 312. I've been journeying by bus, truck, and taxi all the way from the road's beginning in Shanghai, nearly two thousand miles east of here. At the ancient city of Xi'an, it picked up the route of the Old Silk Road, which in ancient times ran through the Gobi Desert, through Starry Gorge, to Central Asia, and westward to Persia and Europe. I'm about two-thirds of the way along my three-thousand-mile journey, with a thousand miles left to ride to the road's end, at the Chinese border with Kazakhstan.
I am unshaven and burned by the fierce desert sun, weary but exhilarated, after six weeks traveling, and weary but still exhilarated after six years of living in China as a journalist. This is my final journey across the country before I leave and move to Europe.
A group of truck drivers has gathered to chat at the gas station. I wander over to see if any of them will give me a ride west. Word has reached them that, just ahead on Route 312, a patrol car from the small Starry Gorge police station is sitting, waiting. They are all overloaded and will be fined if they are stopped. We stand and make small talk for ten minutes. Most of them are cautious about giving a ride to a Westerner. Finally, word comes through that the police car has gone, and the group disperses, each driver to his own truck. I'm left standing until one of them looks back at me and, with a short jerk of his head, motions me toward his truck. I follow, and jump into the cab. He fires up the engine, rolls the big blue beast onto the road and out into the hungry, golden Gobi.
"Where have you come from?" I ask him.
"And where are you heading?"
"What's that huge thing on the back of your truck?"
"It's an industrial filter, going to a company in Urumqi. And last week I was driving from Urumqi to Shanghai, with a truck full of melons."
It's a symbolic exchange. Fresh produce flows east for the consumers of China's coastal cities. Industrial equipment flows west to help with the construction of the less developed regions inland.
Urumqi (pronounced Oo-room-chee) is the capital of Xinjiang, the heart of Central Asia, and the city farthest from an ocean in the world.
The driver's name is Liu Qiang (pronounced Leo Chang). He travels back and forth along Route 312 from Xinjiang to Shanghai all through the year, driving alternately day and night with his buddy, Wang, who is asleep on the narrow bunk behind our seats. All the trucks have two drivers, so that they can travel twenty-four hours a day, stopping only when they need to use the rest stops along the three-thousand-mile road.
"How's life as a trucker these days?" I ask him. "Can you make money?"
"Tai nan le. It's difficult," he laments, lighting up the first of many cigarettes and tossing his lighter onto the dashboard. "We have to overload our trucks to make any money, but the police lie in wait and fine us."
He chain-smokes as he drives and talks with a rat-a-tat staccato.
"I get paid eighteen thousand yuan [about $2,200] to take a load from Urumqi to Shanghai or back again. I have to pay out about fifteen thousand yuan in tolls, costs, and fines to the policemen. So from a one-week trip, I earn about three thousand yuan [roughly $380]."
"That's not a bad income," I say. Many Chinese do not earn that in a month.
"Yes, but there's wear and tear on my truck, and wear and tear on me. And I'm getting paid less as competition increases. Plus the fact that police fines are going up."
I cannot think of a better traveling companion. Liu is that wonderful mix of modesty and bravado that characterizes many Chinese men. He's built like a boxer, short and muscular, and despite just a junior high school education, he is a one-man philosophy department, with an opinion on everything. One minute he is lamenting the moral decline of China, the next he is telling me about the roadside brothels he visits along the way. He is a coiled spring of energy, with laughter and fury exploding in equal measures. Laughter just at life itself, in all its modern Chinese craziness. Fury mostly at corrupt Communist Party officials and policemen. Like so many modern Chinese people, he is torn between a deep love of his country and a deep anger at the people who govern it.
We travel for hours across the relentless Gobi, talking intensely at first but then with long periods of silence, during which he just drives, and I just sit, and Wang just snores in the bunk behind. The raw beauty of the desert—the implacable desert whose vicious sandstorms used to consume whole caravans of camels and their precious cargoes, the unquenchable desert that used to resist all but the most hardy travelers—rolls past outside.
Though still wild, it is slowly being conquered by an army of blue Chinese-made East Wind trucks. As roads such as Route 312 grow busier, and distant cities such as Urumqi are brought closer to the main centers of population farther east, the desert seems a little less dangerous now. An occasional truck whooshes past in the opposite direction, shaking us with its slipstream. Passenger buses rush past too, and occasional cars, but not many.
Liu Qiang talks of the development he sees every day, the transformation of a country changed by the loosening of government controls, by the influx of foreign money, and most of all by the movement of people untethered from their Communist past. But mobility and greater freedom have changed people's characters, he says, and not always for the better.
"In the past, everyone was poor," says Liu, "but everyone was honest. Now, everyone is more free, but there is luan, there is chaos. Money has made everyone go bad." He uses the Chinese phrase, a hundred times more illustrative than its canine English equivalent. "Ren chi ren," he says. "It's man eat man now."
* * *
Liu Qiang the truck driver drags on another cigarette. "China is weak," he says with a grimace, reflecting a widely held view among Chinese people, at odds with the country's emerging image in the West. "We need decades and decades before we can be called a strong country, before we can compete with America."
"But China is already a completely different country from what it was ten years ago," I say.
"That's true," says Liu. "Never mind ten years ago, compared with five years ago, it's a different country. But we are still a long way behind."
Liu's buddy, Wang, has now woken up and is sitting behind us on his bunk. It will soon be his turn to take over the driving, and Liu will take a nap. They are dropping me at the exit that leads into the oasis town of Hami.
I ask Liu if he thinks China can make the transition from a one-party state to a democracy.
"No, I don't think China can ever become a democracy," he says without hesitation. "Look at Chinese history. There have always been changes in government, but it's just the history of one emperor being replaced by another. The system never changes, just the people at the top. That is how China is."
"So what's going to happen?" I ask him.
"I don't know," he says, shrugging his shoulders and raising his voice above the wind that rushes in through the open windows of the truck. "We Old Hundred Names, we don't know about these kinds of things. But I do know that China will never become like your country."
Soon after that, we reach the exit for Hami. I shake hands with the two drivers, thank them for the ride, and jump down onto the faded, dirty black tarmac. I stand beside the road looking for another vehicle to give me a ride into Hami, with Liu Qiang's words still ringing in my ears. And I watch as he revs his big blue East Wind truck and accelerates slowly away across the desert.
Excerpted from China Road: A Journey Into the Future of a Rising Power (c) 2007 by Rob Gifford. Published by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.