Nineteen: Journey Begins


Saturday through Midnight, Day 14, Guangzhou to Haiphong Vietnam


Sartaq was sitting in the third row of the van with the revolver hard against Lili’s head in the second row. She was held, arms pinned by one of his confederates, legs by another.

But when the van careened around the corner at the bottom of the park to the right and into traffic, the driver had suddenly jerked the wheel even further to the right to avoid an oncoming truck. That second swerve added to the first and Sartaq was thrown to the left, pulling his hand and the gun away from Lili’s head. Then, when the van straightened and rocked back to the left, he’d gone to the right and the revolver at the end of his arm clubbed Lili just above the ear.

She yelped in pain and glared over the seatback.

His finger still on the cocked trigger, Sartaq’s eyes flared as he realized it was only blind luck that had kept the revolver from firing in the impact.

He could’ve killed her, by stupid accident, right there, he realized.

Sartaq pointed the gun up to the ceiling and used both hands to carefully un-cock and let the hammer down.

He rested it on the seat back in front of him, still pointing at Lili’s head but with his finger out and against the side of the revolver instead of resting on the trigger.

The boiling fury he’d just seen in her eyes shocked Sartaq. As children, he’d made her mad many times but never this much. He suddenly felt uneasy about his kidnap plan, concocted on the street moments ago when Lili had moved between him and the American preventing his shot. With several onlookers watching but unable to kill the American, he thought he could ensure the man’s silence by holding, and threatening Lili instead. If he loved her as Lili said she loved him, threatening one would ensure the silence of the other.

He hadn’t expected Lili’s selfless rage when he’d thrown her into the van and two of his confederates had been needed to confine her scrambling arms and kicking legs to keep her from escaping.

Now that she was still, Sartaq realized that clubbing her head during the van’s swerving had been a fortuitous accident.

Sartaq nodded to her captors and they warily released her arms and legs.

Lili pushed herself upright. She worked her shoulders and neck for a moment before, her hair still askew and clothing twisted from the struggle, she turned completely around in the seat and stared into Sartaq’s eyes, her jaw set and muscles rippling in each cheek.

Sartaq felt like she was inside his head and unravelling his soul.

His face felt warm and he closed his eyes.

He leaned to the left so when he opened his eyes, he’d be looking past her and out the front window.

“How far is the toll road?” He barked, careful not to glance toward her waiting look.

“Another two or three miles,” the driver said. “We’ll pick up speed then.”

Sartaq risked a glance.

She was still staring at him but her head was tilted slightly and her lips closed in a pout.

Her eyes, now relaxed and searching his back and forth, held his gaze until the navigator in the front right seat rustled the paper road map in his lap and called back, “Six hours to Nanning, four more to the crossing you marked, then two to Haiphong, Depending on traffic of course.”

When they reached the toll road, Lili dropped her stare and turned to face front, the back of her hair still disarranged from the struggle.

Sartaq fought the urge to reach up and smooth it.

On the toll road as they left the city, traffic finally opened up but the driver stayed to the right with the slower vehicles.

“Go faster,” Sartaq prodded.

The driver and navigator exchanged glances.

“We might get stopped for speeding.”

“Then get behind someone going fast.”

His anger at the driver reminded him he needed to stay in control.

He threatened Lili, “If we’re stopped, be good or you’re dead.”

“And,” he added for good measure, “I’ll kill your American then. But if you cooperate, he will remain silent in order to get you back.”

Lili didn’t seem to react but Sartaq noticed the driver and navigator exchange dubious glances.

Just then, a white Mercedes rocketed past and the driver accelerated into the left lane to follow. When their speeds matched, the driver announced, “A hundred and thirty five kilometers per hour.”

Sartaq nodded and, Lili still sitting quietly, he put the revolver in his pocket and both hands in his lap.

They continued West on the tollway through southern China.

Six hours later, a stop in Nanning was forced by empty gas tank and full bladders. Sartaq escorted Lili, his hand grasping the revolver in his pocket, to the row of squat toilets behind the gas station where he turned his head to the side. When she’d finished, he walked her back to the van and discretely passed the revolver to the navigator who kept Lili covered while he went around the station again.

Returning, the other four had gone in for snacks. Sartaq took the revolver back, climbed in the side door and past Lili who kept her eyes downcast.

The others returned with bags of salty chips, sugary sweets wrapped in colored plastic and bottles of flavored water. They had ignored the fresh fruit and local baked products and steaming, boiling dishes. Sartaq smiled at their predictable student choices but everyone, Sartaq and Lili included, ate and drank as they resumed going West on the tollway.

Two dozen miles before the border, they exited the toll road where the navigator indicated and turned South on a secondary. The road meandered south at first but then curved slightly back to the East where they paralleled the border for a dozen miles.

Entering a small village, the border crossing was finally ahead.

A lone guard, his jacket partially unbuttoned, stood in front of the closed gate where he was shaded from the late afternoon sun. Beside him, a chest-height post housed a blinking red light.

As they slowed to a stop, Sartaq instructed, “Smile and say, ‘It’s nice to see you again, Michael.’ Be sure to say, ‘Michael.’ He will say, ‘How is your family in Shanghai?’ When he says Shanghai, hand him this.” Sartaq passed an envelope forward.

“Code phrases?” Lili asked, the first she’d spoken since Guangzhou.

“Quiet,” Sartaq hissed, briefly showing the revolver and then pressing it hard through the seatback so she could feel it.

“How much?” She asked, unperturbed and turning her head slightly toward him.

“2500 Yuan,” Sartaq whispered back. “Now be quiet!”

The code words were exchanged and the envelope passed but they had to wait as the guard removed the thick sheaf of bills, counted them out into stacks of 100 Yuan, and then meticulously counted, twice, to be sure there were twenty-five such piles. He then stacked up the bills, put the money back into the envelope and tucked that into his jacket which he then proceeded to button up completely.

In the back of the van, Sartaq was barely able to control his impatience and everyone heard his sudden exhale of relief when the guard finally pushed a button and the gate swung up.

They entered Vietnam.

Unfolding a different map as the driver swerved to avoid a large pot hole in the roadway, the navigator said loudly over his shoulder, “I’ll need the address in Haiphong soon.”

But the roads were worse then expected and the estimated two hour drive turned into four before they reached the outskirts.

“We have supplies to get,” Sartaq commanded. “Find places that will have packaged food, camping and building supplies.”

But rather than watching out the window as Sartaq expected, the navigator started punching buttons on his cell phone. His head down watching the screen, he announced, “There’s something called ‘Big C Supermarket.’ It says they’ve got 70 shops including all the types you mentioned. And they’re open tonight.”

Flicking the screen up, he smiled and added, “And there’s a KFC!”

Everyone grinned including Lili.

In the parking lot, Sartaq handed out three shopping lists.

“Get everything on your list. Everything. Use your credit cards.”

Lili, her voice soft as they waited alone in the dark van, broke the silence.

“Why are you doing this, Taq?”

Sartaq shifted in his seat before giving his stock answer, “My country needs it.”

“But you murdered them!” Lili erupted. “Kids from Wuhan, Guangzhou and dozens of other cities and villages all over China were in that library. They were just college kids, they were Chinese, just like you and me. And you murdered them!”

Sartaq pursed his lips as he shifted his mind into the standard pitch he always used when recruiting newcomers, “I am not Chinese. I am …”

“Of course you are,” Lili objected, her voice rising and gaining speed. “Your mother and father are Chinese. You and I grew up in Wuhan. We played on Luojia Hill, swam in East Lake, snuck into the museum together. We listened to the musicians there playing the old Chinese instruments and saw them dressed in the ancient Chinese costumes. Of course, you are Chinese.”

“No!” Sartaq stopped her. “I am Uyghur. My father and his ancestors are not Han. They are from East Turkestan. They are Uyghur. I am Uyghur.”

But the memories of the mountain and the lake Lili had resurrected threw him off his usual explanation.

She was family. She knew him. And he knew her.

A different side of him opened, one filled with pain that he’d never revealed.

“Lili, I was born on a farm near Kashgar in Xinjiang Province. My father was Khan, Khan Batu. He was killed in action with our Army resisting the Communists. I was just an infant and I have no memory of him but he’s still my father. I have his blood. I have his heritage. I am Khan, not Zhang like you.

“After he was killed, Mother took me and moved back to her Han family in Wuhan. After how the Khan’s treated me, I suspect they were just as rejecting of her since she’s Han, not Uyghur.

“Back in Wuhan as you know, she married your father. Your father. He is Han Chinese like her so, yes, you are Chinese.

“But I am not. I am Uyghur. That’s not Chinese. My real name, my real name, is Khan Sartaq.”

In the dark, Sartaq reached up and turned on the dome light.

Leaning forward, his face in the light, he touched Lili’s shoulder.

“Look at me,” he implored.

“Do I look Han? No, I don’t. My skin is darker, my head is rounder, even the set and color of my eyes is different. I look Uyghur because that’s what I am. There are other Uyghur in Wuhan. You’ve seen them. They look like me and I look like them. I belong to them. I am them.”

Sartaq was pleased to see her attentive, possibly even sympathetic, face.

He told her about the missing year when he’d run away to Xinjiang, about being cursed and called “piroytki” and the brutal beating by his grandfather, Khan Jochi. But then how Major Qassim had taken him in, educated him about his people and their country, his father’s sacrifice and how, even though his mother was Han, he was still Uyghur and from an ancient family going all the way back to Khan Genghis and his grandson, Khan Kublai.

Patiently persuaded and gently guided by the Major, Sartaq woke up one morning suddenly sure of his calling. There was a purpose to his birth, his heritage, his personal history.

He told Lili that, from that moment forward, there was never any doubt that he was to fight, in his own quiet and methodical way, by bringing new recruits to their cause. And he’d always held on to the secret hope that, one day, some glory would come his way.

The library was the first step. It was unfortunate the American had seen what he’d been forced to do in the forest to motivate his followers but the result, the destruction of the library, was proof that the next step in Singapore could also be successful.

A sharp rap on the van’s sliding door interrupted his explanation.

All his followers were back with four shopping carts jammed with boxes and bottles.

Keeping the revolver in his pocket aimed at Lili, Sartaq sat beside her and directed the goods into the space previously occupied by the now removed third and rearmost bench seat.

The navigator checked items off the lists as they were loaded.

  • Two (2) cases of dried ramen, single serving packets
  • 10 Kg dry beans
  • 20 Kg dried fish
  • Case of Mars bars
  • Six (6) large plastic bottles of water, 20 liters each
  • A cooking pot, small camp stove, six (6) canisters of LP fuel, and two LP-fueled lanterns
  • One stack of plastic drinking cups and two dozen plastic dishes
  • Two cases, 100 each, wood chopsticks
  • Four (4) empty 20 liter paint containers with lids
  • Four (4) cases, six rolls each, toilet paper
  • Eight, red wool blankets

Fully loaded, Sartaq directed everyone back into the van’s front and middle seats. The last student, unable to squeeze in anywhere else, sat partially bent over atop one of the plastic paint containers stacked in the very back.

Eating fried chicken, french fries and biscuits from KFC, they drove to the Doan Xa port facility arriving close to midnight.

The guard at the storage yard, again addressed as Michael and bribed with 1500 RMB in another prepared envelope, walked the gate open on its hinges and motioned them in.

The van slowly followed the guard as he walked to the open doors of a 12 meter shipping container sitting amongst dozens of others.

Stopping with the van’s headlights pointing into the container, Sartaq saw it was mostly empty as had been planned.

In the center were two wood pallets of tightly shrink-wrapped, white cardboard boxes. The pallets on which they sat were fastened with Z-shaped metal clamps screwed down into the plywood floor. Four ropes were tied around the pallets, each lashed close to the floor and to a different corner of the container.

Holding Lili at gun point, Sartaq directed the transfer of supplies into the shipping container. Food, water and cooking supplies were stacked in the narrow empty space to the left of the pallets. Sleeping, lighting and cooking gear went to the near side while the empty paint containers and lids along with the cases of toilet paper were carried over the lashing ropes to the far end behind the pallets.

The van empty, Sartaq instructed the driver to take it three miles away, park and then walk back.

As the van left, Sartaq designated the sleeping spaces inside the container as he handed out seven of the eight blankets.

“Here,” he said, handing Lili the extra, “take this one, too.”

He told everyone to sit down on their blanket and wait.

The five students hesitated and looked at each other but when one of them shrugged, they all complied. Lili had to turn her knees together in the tight skirt but she sat down also.

Nearly an hour later when the driver walked back through the gate and up to their shipping container, Sartaq pointed to the back and said, “Bathroom break for the night.”

Lili shook her head when Sartaq looked at her.

Four of the five students then went to the back and, before returning, complied with Sartaq’s order to “just put the lid on loosely,” on the first of the four plastic cans.

Everything prepared, Sartaq nodded to the guard who then pushed each of the shipping containers two heavy steel doors closed. As they seated against the waterproof seals, there was a dull shudder and a final thud.

Inside the shipping container was complete darkness.

Sartaq counted the sound of each of the container’s four steel latch bars as they creaked and were captured and rotated into the dogs at the top and bottom of each door, the handles turned and then locked down into place. He heard a scratching sound at the door that he assumed was the small steel cable with its registration fob being fed through holes in the handle and squished closed, imprinted in that process with a serial number that alleged the contents of the shipping container had already been inspected, and sealed, by Customs.

The guard’s footsteps then passed down the length of the trailer to the back. There was the heavy click of a circuit breaker and an electric motor near the back of the container started whirring.

After a few moments, Sartaq smelled fresh air.

Sartaq whispered, “No talking. No noise. No light. Go to sleep. We’re going to be here a while.”

Beneath his own blanket next to Lili, Sartaq could hear her breathing. He wondered if she still had her eyes open and, if so, whether they would be angry or sad.


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