A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar

 

 

For Ben

Here the birds’ journey ends, our journey, the journey of words,

and after us there will be a horizon for the new birds.

We are the ones who forge the sky’s copper, the sky that will carve roads

after us and make amends with our names above the distant cloud slopes.

Soon we will descend the widow’s descent in the memory fields

and raise our tent to the final winds: blow, for the poem to live, and blow

on the poem’s road. After us, the plants will grow and grow over roads only we have walked and our obstinate steps inaugurated.

And we will etch on the final rocks, ‘Long live life, long live life,’

and fall into ourselves. And after us there’ll be a horizon for the new birds.

 

‘Here the Birds’ Journey Ends’, Mahmoud Darwish

 

 

 

A bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter.

 

Ecclesiastes 10:20

Contents

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Acknowledgements

A Note on the Author

A Few Things to Remember:
Study the country you are to travel and the road-surface, understand your map, know your route, its general direction, etc. Always observe the road you cover; keep a small note-book, and jot down everything of interest.

Maria E. Ward,
Bicycling for Ladies
, 1896

1.
A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar – Notes

Kashgar, Eastern Turkestan. May 1st, 1923

I unhappily report that even
Bicycling for Ladies
WITH HINTS AS TO THE ART OF WHEELING – ADVICE TO BEGINNERSs – DRESS – CARE OF THE BICYCLE – MECHANICS – TRAINING – EXERCISES, ETC., ETC. cannot assist me in this current predicament: we find ourselves in a situation.

I may as well begin with the bones.

They were scalded, sun-bleached, like tiny flutes and I called out to the carter to stop. It was early evening; anxious to reach our destination we had travelled, in the English fashion, through the hottest part of the day. They were bird bones, piled in front of a tamarisk tree and I suppose my fate could be read from the pattern they made in the dust, if I only knew how to see it.

This was when I heard the cry. An unholy noise, coming from behind a gathering of dead poplar trunks whose presence did nothing to alleviate the desolate nature of this particular desert plain. I climbed down, looking behind me for Millicent and my sister, Elizabeth, but could see neither. Millicent prefers horseback to carts, it is easier for her to stop at will to smoke a Hatamen cigarette.

For five hours our path had descended through a dusty basin, its lowest part dotted with tamarisk trees emerging from mounds of blown soil and sand that had accumulated around their roots; and then, these dead poplars.

Twisted stems of grey-barked saksaul clustered between the trunks, and behind this bracken was a girl on her knees, hunched forward and making an extraordinary noise, much like a bray. In no hurry, the carter joined me and together we stood watching her, he chewing on his splinter of wood – insolent and sly like all of his type – saying nothing. She looked up at us then. She was about ten or eleven years old with a belly as ripe as a Hami melon. The carter simply stared and before I could speak she fell forward, her face on to the ground, mouth open as if to eat the dust and continued her unnerving groans. Behind me I heard the crack of Millicent’s horse’s hooves on the loose-stoned pathway.

‘She’s about to give birth,’ I said, guessing.

Millicent, our appointed leader, representative of the Missionary Order of the Steadfast Face – our benefactress – took an age to extract herself from the saddle. Hours of travelling had evidently stiffened her. Insects vibrated around us, drawn out by the slackening heat. I watched Millicent. Nothing could be a more incongruous sight in the desert than she, gracelessly dismounting, with her dominant nose cutting the air, and a large ruby ring on her hand at odds with the rest of her mannish dress.

‘So young, just a child.’

Millicent bent down and whispered to the girl in Turki. Whatever she said provoked a shout and then came terrible sobs.

‘It’s happening. We’ll need forceps I think.’

Millicent instructed the carter to bring forward the supply cart and began fumbling through our possessions, looking for the medical kit. As she did I saw that a group of women, men and children – a large family perhaps – were coming along the track towards us, pointing and nudging each other with astonishment at us foreign devils with hair like pig straw, standing as real as anything on their path. Millicent looked up at them, then used her preacher voice:

‘Stay back and give us room, please.’

Clearly shocked at her accurate words, repeated in both Chinese and Turki, they arranged themselves as if positioning for a photograph, only hushing when the girl in the dust leaned forward on hands and knees and screamed loud enough to kill trees.

‘Eva, support her, quickly.’

The crying child, whose swollen stomach was an abomination, looked to me like a dribbling wildcat and I did not want to touch her. None the less, kneeling in the dust in front of her, I pulled her head on to my knees and attempted to stroke her. I heard Millicent ask an elderly woman for help but the hag shrank away, as if contact with us would contaminate her. The wretched girl’s face buried against my legs, I felt a wetness from her mouth, possibly she tried to bite but then abruptly she heaved away, back on to the ground. Millicent wrestled with her, turning her over on to her back. The girl let out pitiful cries.

‘Hold the head,’ Millicent said. I tried to hold her still as Millicent opened her knees and pushed them down with her elbows. The material around her groin came off easily.

My sister still had not arrived. She too prefers to travel by horseback so that she can go at whim into the desert to ‘photograph sand’. She believes that she can capture sight of Him in the grains and dunes.
The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow
. . . These and other words she sings in the peculiar high voice she has acquired since being fully possessed with the forces of religion. I looked round for her, but it was futile.

I can still hear those screams now, a hideous anguished noise, as Millicent pushed her finger into flesh, creating a space for the forceps until a combination of blood and some other liquid came out, streaking her wrist.

‘We should not do this,’ I said. ‘Let’s move her into the town instead, there must be someone more experienced than us.’

‘No time. All merciful Christ look upon us and preserve us,’ Millicent did not look at me, ‘thy servants, from fear and evil spirits, which hope to destroy the work of Thy hands.’

Forceps pushed in and a scream that was white-pitched murder.

‘Lord, alleviate the hardships of our pregnancy,’ Millicent said, tugging, pulling as she incanted, ‘and grant us the strength and fortitude to give birth and enable this with Thine all-powerful help.’

‘We should not do this,’ I repeated. The girl’s hair was damp and her eyes were panic-filled, like a horse in a thunderstorm. Millicent tipped her own head back so that her eye-glasses retreated along her nose. Then, with a quick movement, as if pulling up an anchor, a blue-red creature came slithering out along with a great swill of watery substance and was caught, like a fish, in Millicent’s hands. Blood from the young mother quickly formed a red crescent in the dust. Millicent put her knife to the umbilical cord.

Lizzie came then, Leica camera in hand, wearing our uniform of black satin trousers covered with a dark-blue silk skirt and a black Chinese cotton over-coat. Her skirt hem was blotted with the pink dust that engulfs everything here. She stood, staring at the scene before her like a lost girl at the edge of a fairground.

‘Lizzie, get water.’

Millicent’s knife separated for ever the baby from its mother who shuddered, her head lolling back as the fish-baby loudly demanded to be let into heaven. The crescent continued to grow.

‘She’s losing too much blood,’ Millicent said. The girl’s face had turned to the side; she no longer struggled.

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