Site Administration The College of William and Mary

Lost in the Gobi Desert
Hart retraces great-grandfather’s footsteps

English Professor Henry Hart recently took a research trip to China, where he retraced the footsteps of his great-grandfather in preparation for writing his first work of fiction. Following is a first-person account of his adventures in the Gobi Desert.

Related content: See W&M News story Hart's restless adventure.

Hart stands alone amidst the vastness of the Gobi Desert.
When we got lost in Inner Mongolia's Gobi Desert during the early part of the summer of 2004, everyone in the Toyota Land Cruiser got very quiet. Our normally exuberant driver, Zheng, stared straight ahead at the grayish-black gravel covering the ground for miles. He drove slowly, which was unusual for him, around eroded hummocks and shallow ravines. Our guide and translator, Frank (his Chinese name was Wenquan Li), held his compass outside the car window, studied it for a few seconds, withdrew it, then stared through the windshield. Like the sun radiating through the Land Cruiser, his compass could tell us which way we were going but not which wheel ruts to take. All we knew was that we were somewhere near the middle of the border between Mongolia and China.

Earlier in the day, we had stopped at Khara Khoto, the legendary Silk Road city conquered by Genghis Khan, visited by Marco Polo and obliterated by Chinese warlords in the 14th century. We had spent several hours climbing the sand dunes inside and outside the mud-brick walls. We hoped to reach Matzunshan, a small desert town just east of Mingshui, by evening.

My Swedish friend, Axel Odelberg, stopped arguing with Frank about the correct route and looked for an east-west road. Through a scratch in the plastic sun screen laminated to my door window I gazed at the dusty landscape. The Land Cruiser's overheated engine hummed like a swarm of bees. A breeze shushed eerily through the half-opened windows. Otherwise, there was nothing but desert silence.

Early in 2004, when Axel asked me to join him on a five-week trip across northern China from Beijing to Urumqi, I was at first enthusiastic. Axel, the biographer of my Swedish great-grandfather, Frans August Larson, wanted to complete a documentary of Larson's life that would be aired on Swedish television. He also wanted to film a documentary and do a biography of my great-grandfather's friend, the famous Swedish explorer Sven Hedin.

I had grown up hearing stories about Duke Larson from my grandmother, who lived in Connecticut's Berkshire Mountains about 30 miles from my hometown. Larson, I had learned, had been the first and only Westerner to receive the title of duke from the Living Buddha in Urga (now Ulaan Baator), Mongolia's capital. A pauper at the beginning of his life on a large farm in Tillberga, Sweden, my great-grandfather had distinguished himself in many fields as an adult. He became a missionary who distributed 25,000 Bibles in Mongolia, a diplomat who brokered a peace agreement between China and Mongolia during Mongolia's war for independence after the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, an expedition leader who helped Roy Chapman Andrews-one of the models for Indiana Jones-find the first dinosaur eggs and dinosaur fossils in the Gobi Desert, and advisor on Mongolian affairs for the Chinese president and self-declared emperor Yuan Shikai, a horse rancher who sold 23,000 horses the China's racetracks and army, an owner of an Asian trading company, a relic collector, and even a spy and advisor for Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of China's Kuomintang, or Nationalist, party.

As a boy growing up in a small, farming town in western Connecticut, I thought of Duke Larson as an exotic adventurer on the other side of the world. My grandmother, whom we called Tai Tai (“grand old woman' in Chinese), enchanted me with tales about how he had saved her and numerous missionary families during China's Boxer Rebellion. She was a toddler when he hid her, along with her mother and her younger sister, under blankets in an oxcart and drove them through a gate in the Great Wall into Inner Mongolia. He had been working as a missionary for about five years when, in early June of 1900, he heard that the anti-imperialist Boxers-so called because of their martial-arts style of boxing exercises-were about to massacre all the missionaries in Kalgan (now Zhangjiakou), a city at the end of a Mongolian caravan route on the Great Wall north of Beijing, where my grandmother had been born. Boxers blamed “foreign devils” like my great-grandparents for causing northern China's drought and famine, exacerbating economic hardships by building railroads and telegraph lines (because such modern conveniences eliminated jobs), undermining the native textile industry with European imports, infecting and killing Chinese children with Christian prayers and for various other real and imagined infamies.

After my grandmother died in 1991, I learned more about the Boxers and her escape when I read her father's journal, which she had kept among her papers. He had written the following in his somewhat awkward English: The clouds appeared on the horizon in the early spring of 1900. The murderous Boxer Rebellion came as a sudden thunderstorm; all foreigners were to be killed not in the sudden merciful death of a bullet but sliced to death by big, old rusty knives and swords … . My situation was not one of the best. My wife had just had her second baby girl, the Mission at home had not sent my money for some time, so escape seemed rather difficult. I had planned for some time, however, to take a long journey together with a British secretary of legation, so the camels were ready, as were a few good Mongols I had hired for the trip. One night when the Boxers had decided to do their kill, I and my Mongols kept guard the whole night. I had an old Winchester rifle and plenty of ammunition ready for the journey, and the Mongols each got a camel saddle, made of birch sticks about 5 feet long and 3 inches wide. I never forgot that night. The mud wall around my house was about 8 feet high, and so a couple of Boxers would hoist a third man up so he could throw his arms over the wall, but every time an arm appeared, down came the heavy saddle stick and all the strength the Mongol could add to it … “wham”!! You could hear a body hit the ground and a wild howl on the other side. Well, even that night came to an end, and next morning early, I got a cart, at a big price, to drive us 10 miles outside the city. … Riding out of Kalgan I hid my wife and two children, with some bedding, inside the covered Chinese cart. I was sitting in front outside with my Winchester across my knees, and my Mongols were riding on both sides of me.

On the morning of June 11, 1900, my great-grandfather bribed guards at the Great Wall to get 20 men to lift the heavy bar on the gate's tall, iron-plated doors. Once the gate was open, he drove his oxcart to a farm, where he convinced a friend to take his family in a different cart through the mountains to Hara Oso, a small Mongolian settlement on the plateau north of Kalgan. Here he owned a permanent yurt (a domed tent made of felt often used my Mongol nomads) that he used for missionary work and vacations. It was here that other fleeing missionaries congregated, and it was from here that he guided them for two months through the Gobi Desert and the rest of Mongolia to Siberia.

The Boxer uprising ultimately claimed the lives of more than 32,000 Chinese Christians and several hundred foreign missionaries (historian Nat Brandt called it “the greatest single tragedy in the history of Christian evangelicalism”). Fortunately, just before the uprising, my great-grandfather had organized an archaeological expedition into Mongolia for the British vice-consul of Shanghai, C.W. Campbell. Forced to postpone the trip in order to protect his legation from Boxers, Campbell agreed to loan my great-grandfather the money and animals already set aside for the expedition. My great-grandfather subsequently bought more camels and horses in Hara Oso so that, in the end, he commandeered 20 camels, 19 horses, numerous oxcarts and camelcarts, and enough food for six Americans and 17 Swedes to travel the 1,000 miles through Mongolia's steppes and deserts to Russia. One young girl died from diarrhea contracted in the Gobi Desert; other children nearly died from whooping cough. My grandmother, who was two years old at the time, and her younger sister, Margaret, who was six months old, managed to survive the grueling ordeal. They also survived four cold months in a log cabin near the Russian border town of Kiachta, while their father worked in a gold mine to earn enough money to pay for their trip to the United States. Around Christmas of 1900, they set off for St. Petersburg on the Trans-Siberian railroad. From Russia they traveled to Finland and Sweden and finally to the United States. For a brief period, they stayed in Albany, N.Y., my great-grandmother's home city. Sensing his in-laws' disapproval of his farming background and penchant for rough living in the Mongolian hinterlands, my great-grandfather returned almost immediately to Asia to work on plans for a railroad connecting Siberia and China by way of Mongolia. His family soon followed.

Determined to be a gentleman
While we drove over the Gobi's dark gravel in silence, I wondered why my great-grandfather had gown so enamored of the desolate landscapes of Inner Mongolia and Mongolia. Did he leave my great-grandmother's comfortable, middle-class home in Albany after Boxers had nearly killed his family just because his in-laws were critical of him? It was hard to understand why, as a youthful Swede, he had agreed to work for the American Christian Alliance and a British missionary society in an attempt to convert Mongolian Buddhists whose culture he seemed to admire more than his own. And why had he handed out Bibles for so many years when he knew Mongols tore them up to insulate their winter boots or stitched them into their boot soles? (Apparently the Mongols preferred green- or red-covered Bibles because they thought those colors looked better on their boots.)

As a boy growing up in a small, farming town in western Connecticut, I thought of Duke Larson as an exotic adventurer on the other side of the world. My grandmother, whom we called Tai Tai enchanted me with tales about how he had saved her and numerous missionary families during China's Boxer Rebellion. She was a toddler when he hid her, along with her mother and her younger sister, under blankets in an oxcart and drove them through a gate in the Great Wall into Inner Mongolia.

My grandmother suggested it was her father's love and knowledge of horses that had drawn him to Mongolia; so did the author Mabel Waln Smith. Recognizing his devotion to Mongolia's horse culture, Smith made him the equestrian hero of her novel Land of Swift-Running Horses. Having spent several weeks traversing Inner Mongolia's steppes and deserts, I still had a hard time understanding how in-laws, Bibles and horses could have compelled him to adopt this part of Asia as his home.

During his biographical research, Axel found clues that helped explain my great-grandfather's shift in national allegiance. It seems he was determined to leave his Swedish homeland as a young man because he felt homeless there. By the age of nine, after a childhood marred by grief and humiliation, he was an orphan. His father, the foreman in charge of the Hallby estate's numerous farmers, died when Frans was four. Without a father to provide for him and about eight of his siblings, they had to live in a single room in the local poorhouse. His mother worked to support them for five years. Worn out by the struggle of trying to take care of so many children, she suddenly died.

Death seemed to haunt the Larson family. As a boy, Frans nearly died from measles and scarlet fever. Three of his siblings died of respiratory illnesses when he was a teenager. Although in later life he was nicknamed Lucky Larson, during his childhood bad luck hounded him at every turn. Angered by neighbors who teased him about his ragged clothes, he once told his foster mother, “I will become a gentleman, I will become a gentleman, I will become a gentleman,” repeating the prophesy like a mantra as he marched by her side.

Missionary work was a way for my great-grandfather to leave his destitution behind and explore the world. When he arrived in China in his early 20s, his luck almost immediately changed. Having settled in Baotao, a city about 100 miles west of the capital of Inner Mongolia, Holihot, he befriended a local mandarin who invited him to a Mongolian prince's wedding. The friendly prince, who held court in the province of Ordos, offered him a room in his palace and even provided a tutor to teach him Mongolian (he had already learned rudimentary Chinese). The prince's wife tried to convince him to take one of her attractive attendants as a bride. Although he appreciated her concern for his love life and enjoyed residing at the palace, he wanted to go to the Mongolian capitol, Urga, and put his newly acquired social and linguistic skills to a more rigorous test. He gave the Prince of Ordos a Swedish pocket watch to thank him for his hospitality, and he headed north to the capitol.

For the future Duke Larson, Mongolia represented a chivalric ideal and the frustrated struggle for that ideal he had known all too painfully as a child. Horses were part of the reason he loved Mongolia, but as he got to know the Mongols and their history better, the people came to embody his own ambitions and trials. He admired the free-spiritedness of the nomads, their intimacy with the soil, their tough and practical nature, their skill with horses and other animals, their discipline and loyalty and their appetite for enjoyment. He also liked associating with the Mongolian nobility. He was an ambitious man who remembered what it was like to be treated as a peasant in the fields and barns around the Hallby manor house. In his journal he expressed his empathy for the Mongols: “A small people like the Mongolians, squeezed in between two of the world's biggest nations, have very little chance to survive as an independent people. Serious incidents are cropping up all the time to upset a stable way of living, especially as both the great powers have plenty of appetite to swallow the little people, bone and all. I arrived at 23 and staye3d until I was 70-time enough to see the whole meal to the last spoon of dessert, when even the bones have been scraped clean. I was fortunate enough to go right in among the people and learn their language, their mode of living, their happiness, their sorrow and, so often, their sudden death.” Although my great-grandfather was quite large-more than six feet tall and more than 200 pounds-he saw himself as one of the small people who had been forced to struggle hard against overwhelming powers-like the Mongols against the Chinese and Russians-to retain a degree of independence and prosperity.

The route through Inner Mongolia

Two monks peruse a copy of a biography of Duke Larson.
Axel, who became my close friend while he worked on the biography Hertig Larson, met me in Beijing on May 22, 2004. Since he had failed to find several of my great-grandparents' homes in northeast China and Inner Mongolia on his original research trip for the book, he hoped to find and film them on this trip. After meeting Zheng and Frank in Beijing, we drove north to Zhangjiakou, the city on the Great Wall where the Larsons had lived off and on from the 1890s to the 1930s. One of Axel's former guides led us to a once-grand stone house near the train station that had belonged to my great-grandparents. Its most recent occupants-three Chinese families-had let it fall into such disrepair that city officials had evicted them and scheduled the house to be demolished in 2005. We took pictures and then tried to find the Larsons' originial house on the Great Wall, where my grandmother had been born. We drove through the huge gate where she had escaped from Boxers as an infant, walked on the wall where she had walked as a child and climbed partway up a mountain she had climbed as a teenager, but we never found the exact site of her first home. A large steel mill had been erected where it probably had stood.

Having driven through the gate in the Great Wall, we followed the route the missionaries had taken to escape the Boxers. We traveled northwest along a dry riverbed filled with cows eating cornstalks and then wound up on a road to the parched, mountainous landscape of the Mongolian plateau. In a small village of mud huts, we asked several old people if they knew where the yurt settlement of Hara Oso had been. One man, who knew the location, got into our Land Cruiser and guided us to a mound, where we found a group of sandy graters ringed with low earthen walls that had been built in the 19th century to protect the yurts from a flooding river. As Axel filmed, a man who appeared on a motorcycle told us his parents had known my great-grandparents. He added that his parents remembered them fondly because my great-grandparents had donated money to the local villagers so they could build a road and buy medicines.

In late June we also successfully tracked down the site of a horse ranch and a Buddhist temple where my great-grandparents had occasionally lived. Axel used his global-positioning system (GPS) to find coordinates that had been scribbled on the back of one of my great-grandfather's letters to find what he thought was the horse ranch. We drove over roadless hills, fields and even plowed land, but discovered we were in the wrong place when we could not match up the hilly horizon with the horizon in an old photograph of the horse ranch. Later that day, in a village called Taboo l, an elderly many told us he had known the Larsons and could show us precisely where the ranch house had been.

For a long time after our visit to Tobo ol, Frank distrusted Axel's GPS. When we got lost in the Gobi, he kept referring to Axel's inability to find the horse ranch with his new-fangled instrument. He would say with a mocking laugh, “satellites lie,” and boast that his compass-a Chinese invention-was more reliable than the GPS device. Axel repeatedly pointed out that he had accurately located the coordinates in Larson's letter and that he had never been certain they were the coordinates for the ranch's location. Frank did not seem to understand.

Two young lamas we met at a monastery near the town of Huade guided us to the site of the Buddhist temple where my great-grandparents had lived in the 1930s. A friendly 77-year-old Mongolian woman, who lived in the vicinity and who had known my great-grandparents when she was a child, told us how they had come to own the temple. It was a ghastly tale. Sipping tea and speaking in Mongolian, which was translated into Chinese by the younger monk and into English by Frank, she said three monks-one Mongolian and two Tibetans-had once inhabited the temple. The Tibetans constantly drank and tormented the younger Mongol, so one night when they lay in a drunken stupor, he killed them and he hanged himself. The local man who had found the bodies and the dog who had been eating them went mad. When my great-grandfather moved into the temple, she said, he asked a Living Buddha from Shanxi province to perform an exorcism ritual to purge the ghosts. He and my great-grandmother, who still taught young Chinese and Mongolian girls in various missionary schools, lived there happily until the Japanese invaded China in the early 1930s.

As we drove through Inner Mongolia, Axel opened his laptop computer and showed me the facsimile of a letter from Madame Chiang Kai-shek to my great-grandfather that thanked him for his services and mentioned payment. Realizing he was working as a spy for the Chinese Nationalists, Japanese officials began to hunt for him. My great-grandfather knew they might imprison, torture and execute him (in the end, they simply bombed the temple where he lived). In 1939, he and my great-grandmother abandoned their temple, horse ranch, trading company, expedition business and missionary work and fled to the United States. When we drove to the site of the old temple, we found nothing but a debris field of shattered bricks, pottery shards and fragments of iron pots.

After the drama and success of my great-grandparents' lives in Asia, their life in the United States represented a kind of denouement. My great-grandmother continued her evangelical work in California, but she soon became senile (she often insisted on running from her house naked). My great-grandfather tried to start a mink ranch in Sweden, but it failed because of the austerities imposed by World War II. He bought a chicken farm in Alabama, where a brother lived. Shortly afterward, he sold it so he could move close to his family in California, where he ran another chicken farm. Tired of the labor-intensive business of caring for hundreds of chickens, he decided at the age of 80 that building single-family homes would be easier, so he started a small construction business, often living in a yurt on the building sites. He could not seem to shake off the nomadic lifestyle he had grown used to in Mongolia, however. He kept traveling-to Canada, Sweden, the East Coast of the United States-until he died near Los Angeles in 1957.

Navigating people and places
After Axel finished filming places in Inner Mongolia associated with my great-grandfather, we set off on a 2,000-mile trek through the Gobi Desert. Axel wanted to retrace a 1927-28 expedition that my great-grandfather had organized and helped lead for Sven Hedin. The purpose of the original expedition, which deployed about 300 camels to carry supplies and equipment, was mainly scientific. Hedin made maps while others-Europeans as well as Chinese-conducted weather experiments, explored archaeological sites or did geological research. Some of the funding came from the German Luftwaffe, which wanted to know about wind and weather conditions so it could open an airplane route from Berlin to Peking. (To my great-grandfather's dismay, Hedin later fell under the spell of the Nazis and became a close friend of Hitler.) For about six months, the expedition members crossed the Gobi just south of the border between Mongolia and China. They began in Baotou, west of Beijing, and ended in Urumqi, a predominantly Muslim city in China's northwestern Xinjiang province. We did the same, although our travel in the Land Cruiser was considerably faster than theirs was on camels.

Both Axel and I worried about crossing the Gobi Desert, which is one of the largest and most inhospitable deserts in the world. We knew we would have to navigate through barren lands that had no official roads. When we left the asphalt for the wheel ruts that covered the desert like a huge spider-web, it was obvious that Frank knew nothing about desert travel. All his experience as a guide had been confined to coastal cities. When we got lost in the Gobi, he insisted that his compass and maps would point to the right route. He was normally friendly and witty, but he got angry when Axel and I questioned his authority as the guide. He continued to repudiate Axel's GPS device. Only after getting lost and frightened several times did he concede that he didn't know what he was doing. “Losing face,” as I discovered, is considered a grave humiliation by the Chinese. When Frank lost face, he belittled himself, suggested we e-mail him about his many faults after we returned home and complained that he had never been on such a depressing and infuriating trip.

Although Zheng had been hired because of his experience as a desert driver, it was obvious that he, too, had no idea how to reach our destination. In a way, I was not surprised. From the beginning of the trip he had consistently gotten lost. When he approached a fork in the road, whether in Beijing or Zhangjiakou or in a village in Inner Mongolia, he usually stopped, consulted maps with Frank, asked directions from bystanders and then took the wrong route.

Although Zheng had been hired because of his experience as a desert driver, it was obvious that he, too, had no idea how to reach our destination. In a way, I was not surprised. From the beginning of the trip he had consistently gotten lost. When he approached a fork in the road, whether in Beijing or Zhangjiakou or in a village in Inner Mongolia, he usually stopped, consulted maps with Frank, asked directions from bystanders and then took the wrong route. We were always backtracking at high speed to correct his navigational errors.

It was very hard, however, to get angry at Zheng. Irrepressibly boyish and playful, he was also kind-hearted and extremely able when it came to ordering delicious food in restaurants. I wanted to laugh at his carefree attitudes. For the first three weeks of our trip, he never once changed his trousers or shirt. (He donned a new T-shirt, however, when he planned to meet the woman he referred to as his “Urumqi concubine.”) The Land Cruiser, as a result, sometimes smelled like a locker room. It also smelled of garlic because both he and Frank ate raw cloves to protect themselves from what they called “dirty food.”

It was more difficult to laugh about the way he drove. A bonafide cross-country race-car driver (he raced his Land Cruiser in the desert around d Urumqi and had glued huge 009 decals to both front doors), he treated the bumpy roads of northern China as his personal NASCAR track. If our heads bumped into the roof, if our shoulders slammed against the doors, if we hung onto the ceiling handles for dear life, he let out childish cries of glee. “You are doing the Toyota dance,” he exclaimed in Chinese (while Frank would translate).

Zheng reminded me of the “mad Ahab” at the wheel-Dean Moriarty-in Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Each morning he drove like someone possessed by furies. He charged an passed every car, truck, motorcycle, donkey cart or bicycle in front of him. If there were traffic, he paid little attention to it. His breakneck driving in the morning, unfortunately, exhausted him, or perhaps he suffered from a form of narcolepsy. Almost every day after lunch he began to fall asleep at the wheel; this happened the first afternoon we were in the Toyota. Heading north from Beijing, I could see his eyes in the rearview mirror shutting and blinking like an infant's. We could usually tell when he was falling asleep because he would slow to a crawl, turn up the volume of old disco or rap music on his CD player, smoke cigarette after cigarette, and then pour instant Nescafe into a water bottle, which he would shake and whose contents he would guzzle. Sometimes he slapped his face and made loud animal-like noises, or he stopped the Toyota and squatted beside it, which is the customary Chinese way to rest.

Since there were no seat belts in the back seat where Axel and I sat, Zheng's manic-depressive driving irked us. Playing chicken with oncoming trucks was frightening, especially after we had seen a half-a-dozen bad accidents. On one mountain road, we waited for an hour while a crane hoisted a smashed coal truck from a ravine. Considering that Axel and I had paid $9,000 up front for the trip (the amount an average Shanghai factory worker makes in nine years), we wanted to arrive in Urumqi without our skeletons realigned and without the aid of paramedics.

We asked Frank several times to tell Zheng to slow down, but Frank replied that the Chinese in Xinjiang province had to drive fast because of the long distances between cities. Once Zheng stopped speeding for about 30 minutes because Axel yelled at him to slow down. We had been trying to look at a map and talk in the back seat, which was impossible because we were being thrown from side to side. Usually Zheng only slowed down when he was lost or falling asleep.

I should have doubted Frank's navigational abilities when he showed me his compass in Beijing and laughingly told me his daughter had obtained it at a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Zhangjiakou. He later purchased an army compass, which he had brought on the trip, but it was useless when we had to figure out precisely where we were and which wheel ruts to follow. What saved us were Axel's maps and his GPS device, which he had bought just before flying to Beijing and which he had learned how to use in the Land Cruiser just before we entered the desert.

The GPS device, however, got us into trouble with the Chinese military police. After a night at a truck stop with no electricity (our food was cooked by candle-flame on a propane-gas tank) and no plumbing (there was a fragrant latrine out back), and after we finally arrived in the small town of Matzunshan near the southwestern border of Mongolia, the military police confronted us about our trip. They were enraged when they found out we had crossed the desert known as Shirten Holoy Gobi using the GPS device. Axel had wanted to get permission from the police to travel to a nearby expedition site, Sebistei, where Hedin, during the winter of 1927-28, had recuperated from a debilitating bout with gallstones. My great-grandfather, fearing an attack from local bandits, had gone slightly west of Sebistei until snow and freezing temperatures had started to kill his camels. He had built a shack from camel boxes and camel saddles to wait out the winter with his remaining animals.

Around 8 o'clock on our first night in Matzunshan, three well-dressed military police officials marched into our room in a restaurant. Because of the gold stars on their shoulders, I thought the first was a three-star general, the second a two-star general and the third a one-star general. They told Frank that the Chinese army tested missiles in the desert near Matzunshan. It was also where Uyghur (Chinese Muslim) terrorists traveled across the desert-presumably navigating with GPS devices-into Mongolia to buy guns and explosives (gun control is so strict in China that even hunters find it virtually impossible to buy guns). The police informed our guide that the last Westerners to drive toward Sebistei were two Germans who had not been granted permission. Chinese soldiers stationed in the area had shot up their Land Cruiser with automatic rifles. The police told us we had to drive south along the asphalt road to the expressway by 9 a.m. the next day. If we did not, we would be put into prison. If we had followed the expedition route any farther west with our GPS instrument, we could have been attacked in our Land Cruiser with both guns and missiles. Needless to say, we left town by 9 a.m.

We soon descended from the Mongolian plateau into the 110-degree heat of the Turfan Depression (the second-lowest area in the world). We stopped in several oasis towns, visited the Thousand Buddha Caves near Turfan that had been pillaged by European exploeres and vandalized by Muslims, and arrived in Urumqi 10 days ahead of schedule. Because we had paid a daily rate for our driver's and guide's services until June 24, we decided to visit Lop Nor, a strange wandering lake on the eastern side of the Takla Makan, a desert that Hedin had explored, but Frank and Zheng balked at the idea of more desert travel. Nevertheless, Zheng introduced us to some of his racing buddies at his Urumqi Toyota club who, we hoped, might be able to take us to Lop Nor. Before sitting down to talk business, they insisted on driving us around the obstacle course where they practiced cross-country racing techniques. The course included a two-story pyramid, a slightly smaller pyramid, numerous ditches and other bone-jolting obstacles.

That night a couple of the racers came to our hotel to reach a final agreement about the trip to Lop Nor. They spent two hours discussing possible routes and dangers before announcing the fee: $7,000 for a six-day visit. When Axel told them the fee was outrageous-it was more than the cost of his entire trip from Stockholm to Beijing to Urumqi and back to Beijing and Stockholm-they began to list the many dangers. A famous Chinese scientist had recently died there while carrying out research; it was close to a nuclear test site; it was difficult to get permission from the military, and so on involved in traveling to Lop Nor. Axel said he could not pay the fee, so Zheng's friends left. A day later, a friendly Urumqi travel agent told us she could get us to Lop Nor for a fraction of the price, but when we went back to pay her, she said a British tourist had just been arrested and jailed for spying there. He had taken too many photos in the area, so now Lop Nor was off-limits to foreigners.

Despite their shortcomings, Frank and Zheng had become our friends during our month together. We had spent nearly every day in the Toyota and in the same hotels and restaurants. But around June 16, eight days before they were supposed to leave, they decided they had had enough of us and of our arduous trip. Although Zheng had a wife and a daughter in Urumqi, he was much more interested in spending time in our hotel with his married “concubine.” One day we even had to pay a taxi to transport us around Urumqi because Zheng refused to leave his room. Frank decided he was going to keep the money we had paid him for the remainder of the trip and return to Zhangjiakou to begin a new guiding assignment. To Zheng and Frank, it seemed we were just foreigners. We represented the wealth they envied and we represented the imperialistic Europeans and Americans who once “carved up the melon” of China. Frank told us early in the trip that when a history teacher had told him about the way European empires had bullied and pilfered China for their benefit in the 19th century, he felt as if someone had stabbed him in the heart with a knife.

Frank announced he would give Axel a small fraction of what he owed us on the night of the farewell dinner that we had organized (we had planned to give Frank and Zheng gifts and a substantial tip of 1,000 yuan each). Axel was furious. He showed Frank the per diem agreement in his computer. Frank was furious, too, and left the hotel t0o make some phone calls. He did not return until 10 p.m., three hours after our scheduled dinner. We eventually ate together and exchanged gifts in an exercise of forced bonhomie. Frank promised to pay me a fraction of what he owed me, and I promised to pay Frank his tip of 1,000 yuan if and when I managed to get money from a bank.

By that point, Frank knew that local banks had refused to honor my Visa credit cards. I learned later that I should have called Visa and told them about going to China. I also learned that after I had received money from a bank earlier in the trip, Visa had shut down my account because of all the credit card fraud in China. Visa suspected someone else was using my credit card. I did not have much extra money, and neither did Axel.

Because we did not want to spend all of our remaining time in Urumqi, Axel and I decided to go to Kashgar near the border between Afghanistan and China, where Hedin often had traveled. We also wanted to drive south and hike in the mountains that rise to heights of 24,000 feet (Hedin had tried and failed to climb them). Luckily, two hours before our reserved flight to Kashgar, a Uyghhur guide led us to a small bank with an automated teller machine that accepted one of Axel's credit cards. Axel loaned me enough money to get to Kashgar, an interesting Muslim city that had once flourished from trade because of its location at the intersection of two routes along the Silk Road.

Unfortunately, I contracted dysentery in Kashgar and then altitude sickness when we went into the northern Himalayas. We spent our first night in a rain-soaked yurt by a cold lake at an altitude of 11,000 feet. When I tried to climb to the snow that had fallen overnight on one of the big mountains (the Matsug Ata), my body refused to go more than two miles. I returned to the small hotel, which had no toilets, sinks or showers, and shivered in my sleeping bag under two duvets for about two hours. I did not have enough calories-I could digest only Sprite and boiled water-to generate much body heat. Some antibiotics (Cipro) and a lot of airplane food on the four-day trip back to the United States helped solve my stomach problems. When I landed at Dulles on June 26, I felt exhausted, emaciated, rattled by hours of turbulent weather but extremely happy to be on terra firma again.

Traveling through Inner Mongolia and western China was certainly fascinating. I got to know a lot about several very different cultures in a big country that is undergoing momentous changes from communism to capitalism. I also got to see the part of Asia where my grandmother grew up and where my great-grandparents lived and worked, but one trip around the northern and western perimeter of China is enough for me. If I return, I am going to visit cities on the coast.

© 2015 The College of William & Mary