Fiction: The Road to the Weeping Spring

Award-winning Xinjiang writer Li Juan's short story about the remote Altay region's changing landscape and the Kazakh nomads who inhabit it
<p>Hemu village in Burqin county, Xinjiang.&nbsp;(Image by&nbsp;Ran Cai)</p>

Hemu village in Burqin county, Xinjiang. (Image by Ran Cai)

Editor’s note: 'Li Juan… may be as far outside of the system as Chinese writers are able to get and still publish. She lives and writes in the Altay region of Xinjiang, in western China, musing on nomadic lifestyles and the turning of the seasons. Her literary career has taken what she calls the “wild path” — “wild” being traditionally used in Chinese to refer to things outside the establishment.' – Eric Abrahamsen in "The Real Censors of China" (New York Times)

There was a time when the Osman Path was the only road to the weeping spring. Osman Batyr was the famous "King of Altay” of a century ago.

Up until then, all roads had stretched far around the edges of the vast Gobi desert. They formed a fragmented and fragile course through folding mountain ranges, connecting the faraway oasis of Altay with the grasslands and snowy mountains of the south. No one could travel across the barren centre of the desert.

Without water or grass, horses would go hungry and men thirsty; it was a place of death. Only the gazelles and wild horses that bounded across the wilderness knew where to find water, but they had no words to share their secret. The breath of water, held so far within themselves, gave their eyes great depth and clarity.

Was it then that the legend of the weeping spring arose? It started as a rumour, circulating softly among the herdsmen, the promise of a miraculous spring in the centre of the Gobi desert, hidden deep within its driest reaches.

Water seeped out of a crevice in the rocks and fell into puddles on the ground below; drop by drop, it fell day and night, throughout the seasons. There was a small patch of verdant grass and a few thickets of lush shrubs; water sparkled, trickling through the grass, and the sides of the marsh were overgrown with moss. It was a small but constant oasis in the desert.

One man claimed to have seen such a scene with his own eyes. He had lost his way and hadn’t had a drop of water for several days; his mind was already growing dim and hazy as death approached. When he stepped onto the wet grass around the weeping spring, he broke down, racked with sobs. He drank his fill of the clear, sweet spring water, and wept.

Every time a herdsman went searching for his lambs, deep in the desert, he would become convinced the weeping spring was nearby; perhaps it was just behind the unassuming sand dune that lay ahead? Calling to his flock, he would cross peak after peak, hungry and thirsty, gazing into the distance. The wilderness was boundless and empty, but he still believed in the existence of the weeping spring.

The weeping spring was the god of the land. Its water trickled down from a place of unparalleled height and distance, each drop beating the pulse of all that lived there, each drop permeating the hard reality of life, and extending into pure, beautiful legend.

But the chaos of war swept the land and left no corner undisturbed. In the end, the identity of the weeping spring — a secret passed between the herdsmen for generations — was revealed. Its exact location, faraway in the nondescript landscape of the Gobi, was marked. Osman’s savage horse set out on the shifting desert path and advanced directly toward the spring. In those years when flames of war raged and the land was filled with smoke and dust, he travelled alone to this concealed oasis many times.

He would arrive with a dagger in one hand and reins in the other to replenish his provisions and build up his strength. Then he would carry on to the north or the south, shuttling back and forth between battlefields. Did the concealed spring create the phantom that was the “Kazakh King”?

To think that there was another path, besides the official roads at the time, which allowed someone to come and go freely across the wilderness. That was the legend of Osman; that was the legend of the weeping spring.

When I was very, very little, Routes 216 and 217 had not yet been built, and there were no direct bus services between Fuyun county and Urumqi (though at the time, not many people needed to travel to Fuyun, and the people who lived there didn’t have much business elsewhere).

The only way to get to Urumqi was to hitch a ride on a truck carrying minerals or timber and be jolted around for days as it drove along a stretch of villages in the northeast, skirting far around the edge of the Gobi. I will never forget the nights that we spent on the road — shabby hotels with mud walls standing alone in the snow-white expanse of the desert, and the brilliant starry sky above.

So often I was lifted out of the truck by an adult and led off somewhere; my heart pulsed with a strange excitement, as if I knew I would make my life in this place. But my journey has not yet come to a halt.

That endless road, known as the “eastern route”, was only passable during the summer. In the winter it was blocked by snow, and the only way to Urumqi was the road that went by the weeping spring.

A stop at the weeping spring was undoubtedly a happy event for the drivers who took that road; whether they arrived early or late in the day, they always stayed for a night. They fetched water to wash with and built fires to make tea and cook food. After the spring, their journey would again be filled with days and nights of endless, desolate wilderness.

Later, a married couple turned up at the weeping spring after travelling all the way to Xinjiang from central China. They pitched a tent and opened a simple restaurant. Vegetables, grains, and cooking oil were all delivered by the drivers who passed through; for them, the small restaurant was just like heaven. It allowed them to spend one day of their long journey across the Gobi in civilisation.

Life was tough, but surely the solitude was the biggest test the couple faced. Several days would pass without the appearance of a single vehicle on the dirt road in front of their place. Every now and then, the man would go away for a time, hitching a ride with a passing car.

Then something happened, and the woman left with a young driver. The man didn’t wait for her and before long he had left as well. Peace returned to the weeping spring.

After some time had passed, there came another twist to the tale. The woman and the driver returned to the spring. A tent went up again and they dug a cellar underneath it. The restaurant was reopened. They raised a few chickens beside the spring, which provided meat and eggs for their simple tables.

The new restaurant also provided somewhere to sleep — even if it was only a large shared bed in the cellar — so the drivers no longer had to sleep in their narrow cabins.

Every so often, a great number of people would suddenly arrive, as if it had been prearranged. When that happened, even the benches in front of the tables were not enough for all the people, and some had to crouch down on the ground to eat. Places to sleep were even scarcer; the owner gave up her own bed, pushed tables together, even laid out sheets and bedding on the ground. The house was crammed full of sleeping bodies lying this way and that.

That year, a direct bus route was opened between Urumqi and Fuyun county, which ran once a week. Business was extremely good for the couple; the weeping spring had never been so busy. They decided to expand the restaurant.

During the summer, traffic was rerouted through the mountains and the weeping spring was deserted. The couple decided to use the time to build several new buildings.

They excavated the water hole beneath the spring and turned it into a deep pool, then dug a channel to the door of the restaurant.

The spring was small; they waited patiently the whole summer for its drops to fill the pool, and then they mixed the water with mud to make bricks. Once the bricks had dried, walls soon rose up. The couple drove a trailer to and from a place several hundred kilometres away to carry timber for frames and rafters. The roof was made of grass and thick clay.

After a summer of backbreaking work the house was finished, new tables were made and two new beds were added. They sat down to wait for the winter and the first vehicle to honk its horn and pull in outside. They waited for the door to burst open and the hubbub of people to ignite the weeping spring again.

They are still waiting.

The year after they finished the house, a new road was built across a different section of the Gobi. The road to the spring was abandoned.

That entire stretch of rugged and winding road, which ran alongside mountains and through the undulating terrain of the Gobi desert, the road that stretched through the seasons, through ancient passions and sorrows, through the slow passing of time and the depths of fear and dignity, was abandoned. It lies open and empty across the wilderness, filled with endless hunger and thirst. The ruts of long ago remain imprinted on its surface like a dream, more desolate even than lands never travelled by man.

The new road cut straight through the heart of the Gobi like the blade of a knife. Travelling the route takes only one or two days, soaring up above the wilderness without stopping for a moment. The core of the earth has shifted smoothly and subtly on its inscrutable and blameless axis to the abyss on the other side.

Has the story of the weeping spring come to an end? Do the droplets of water that fall slowly and quietly in the distance have any more meaning to give? Will there never again be cause for a road to pass it by? Will there never again be cause to exchange a hard journey and a life of struggle for the small amount of moisture that it provides? Do we take it all for granted, everything that we can have now?

Two people have stayed at that small patch of oasis. They still make mud bricks day and night by the side of the spring, and while they wait for the bricks to dry, they look up at the sky with the smiles of youth. As long as they stay there, endlessly in wait, the beautiful dream is not disturbed.

When I travelled through this wild land I was drawn unconsciously to the old road to the weeping spring. The impression of the road was so vivid in the wilderness that I could clearly hear the woman speaking bravely to her lover when the two of them had nowhere to go and nowhere to shelter. “Let’s go to the weeping spring,” I heard her say, crying as she spoke.


Translated by Lucy Johnston

A version of this story was originally published in the Winter 2011 issue of Pathlight magazine