“nach Westen gehen?”

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I already had a perfect title for the day when I started walking this morning:

Gobi desert

I was going to call this one “into the great unknown”, because that’s what it really was: finally a walk into the real unknown.

Let me explain: you might have noticed that 5 of the 6 major destinations on this trip so far (Xi’an, Pingliang, Lanzhou, Jiayuguan, and Dunhuang) were actually places that I had been to before in the summer of 2006. This has been a great comfort at times, because it helped make things just a bit more predictable for me – no matter what, I always knew that there was something familiar ahead.

But from here on, 90km east of the territory of Xinjiang, everything will be completely new to me – nothing familiar, all the way to Turkey.

Oh my god, it’s really into the great unknown, I’m so excited…

…the reason I ended up calling this one “nach Westen gehen?” is because of as dude I met though.


A truck driver in his mid-thirties, from the Uyghur minority 维吾尔族, who was about to hitch a ride to Hami 哈密, when he saw me walk past the toll station at Liuyuan and decided to walk with me for a day. Yep, just like that. I couldn’t believe it either. No water, no food, no preparation of any kind. He just waved at me and came walking along, in his working clothes, in his thin leather shoes.

I was actually a bit spooked at first. There I am in the middle of nowhere, and suddenly there is this stranger walking next to me, and he keeps asking me questions: “do you guys in Germany know of us Uyghurs? How much money do you spend each day on your trip? How do you say ‘go west’ in German?”


When I taught him to say “nach Westen gehen” (go west in German), he kept humming it to himself whenever he was not asking me questions. That’s another weird thing about this guy: he likes to hum. Sometimes it sounds like what could be prayer chants or psalms, but at other times it sounds more like someone who is used to talking to himself. Once I asked him: “What are you saying there?” and I got a short but surprising answer: “I’m calculating your money.”

WTF?? “My money?? Just why on Earth would you be calculating my money?”

A smile: “It’s nothing, I’m just curious how much you’ll be spending until you get home in two years!”

So there we were, out in the middle of nowhere…

trucks on the road

…other people before us had left their graffiti on the boulders next to the road…


…and we just kept on walking for hours at a time, two complete strangers – one of which was calculating the other one’s expenses.

“You know what? I’m going to go to Russia one day” he would say, “or maybe I’ll open my own mine, that’s the only thing a guy can really do around here. My family has already made an investment in a small copper mine, but no luck so far, and I have no idea about all the chemistry that’s involved. Anyways being a truck driver sucks! We get paid too little and don’t even have the time to spend it! Hey, how do you say ‘copper’ in German?”

Ah, a new thing to hum: “Kupfer” (copper).

desert road

…well what do you know, after a while I actually got kinda used to being around that strange man. I don’t know why, but I just wasn’t spooked anymore. Maybe it was the other truck drivers who would stop over for a chat sometimes. They seemed like a bunch of nice people, and my friend apparently knew all of them. One dude gave me a big watermelon and laughed at him for trying to walk the distance in his poor leather shoes.

Then eventually, he had to go.

We sat down somewhere overlooking the land, waiting for a truck that would take him home to Hami, and I told him about my plans, about some of my worries, and about how I was nurturing the hope that I would have a story to tell some day:

weird rocks

Just before he left, he came up with a way to help me. He dug in his pocket, pulled out two tens and put them in my hand. Much to my surprise.

WTF?? “Put that away, please! I don’t want it!”

“But you don’t have it easy yourself, and you’re going to have to buy a lot of water on the way!” he looked devastated as I insisted on refusing his money.

“Please!” there had to be a way to settle this: “get me one of your Uyghur nang-breads when I’m in Hami, okay?”

It took a while to get him to accept, and he didn’t look so happy about it, but when a truck stopped to take him along, there was much smiling and waving hands anyways.

I made camp next to a transmitting tower that day:

transmitter tower

It was still early, and pitching the tent seemed to go a bit easier than the times before.

I had a minor stomachache, like the ones you get from being very hungry for a long time. Figures, I thought, since I had eaten only very little all day, because Rahman had refused to share anything other than my water, and I had felt bad being the only one eating. So, as a cure for that hungry stomach of mine, I basically inhaled a can of beans right after I had the tent set up.

That’s when the pains really started.

I managed to wash my feet, store my pictures on the hard drive and mess with the GPS for a little while, then I couldn’t do anything anymore because the pains in my stomach were becoming too overwhelming. I curled up in my sleeping bag and closed my eyes for what seemed like a very long time. The pains kept coming in waves. It was already dark when I got the idea to leave the tent and go outside to take a shit. Then I curled up in my sleeping bag again, closed my eyes again. The waves kept coming. I crawled back outside, got a camping stool and a bottle of water, leaned over the stool and shoved a finger down my throat.

There was nothing.

Just a gagging sound in the wilderness.

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