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Three Ugly Americans Go to Shipton’s Arch

6 October 2010 Stories and Appreciations 27,690 views 2 CommentsPrint This Post Print This Post Email This Post Email This Post

Americans get a bad rap as tourists, though I have largely found the grievances against us to be exaggerated. Sure, we can be loud and pushy at times but on the whole, most Americans who travel in Asia are courteous, intelligent, and quieter than you may think. It’s always been Europeans who I’ve seen exhibit the worst kind of behavior.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a traveler with a Continental accent berate the waiter in a two dollar restaurant for a late dish, or heap abuse upon the poor girl on the other side of the one star hotel desk in a dispute over the bill. I recall the time in Vietnam when an emaciated, chain-smoking Frenchman nearly threw the plate at his waitress:

“I have waited ONE HOUR for zis SHIT food!”

The reality, however, is that none of us are totally immune from acting badly while traveling. Money concerns, combined with road fatigue, culture shock, and a general sense that the whole population of a particular nation is out to rip you off, can turn even the most docile Dr. Jekyll into a frothing-at-the-mouth Mr. Hyde.

I was traveling in China with Sammy and Angry Steve, two close friends and fellow Korea-based expats. We were in the old town of Kashgar in China’s far western Xianxiang Province, home to the Muslim Uighur people. We had just arrived back into town after a fantastic two-day jaunt up in The Pamirs – a branch of the Himalaya where Pakistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and China all meet – and sat down for dinner and beers at John’s café, which was located in the compound of the old British Consulate, which now acted as one of the town’s only tourist hotels.

We were joined by Simon, an impossibly tall and bony Englishman who we had met a couple nights earlier. He went on and on about a day trip he had just taken to Shipton’s Arch, a rock formation a couple of hours outside of town. Shipton’s Arch, or Tushuk Tash (‘Pierced Rock’ in Uighur), is the tallest natural arch in the world, standing at over 1200 feet, and located in a very remote part of the desert.

“I was just out there today,” Simon said in his lilting Yorkshire accent. “I had the whole place to meself. No one goes there. I would highly recommend checking it out.”


We hired a jeep and set out early the next day on the two hour drive to the trailhead. After a little more than an hour on the paved road, we turned off onto a dried-up riverbed, where the driver switched into 4WD. We slowly worked our way up the rocky bed until we came to the stone and mud hut of a goat herding family, where we were waved down by a teenage boy. Our driver, who was a Chinese guy in a pink polo shirt, rolled down the window, and proceeded to have a conversation with the kid in Uighur. When they were finished, the driver told me that there was a 20 yuan-a-person “entrance fee.”

I immediately balked. It seemed everywhere we went on this trip had some sort of hidden “entrance fee.” Plus, we were paying John’s Café a lot of money for the jeep and the driver, so the thought of us coughing up extra made all of us bristle. We also had been traveling for three weeks and were sick of everyone trying to get in our pockets. The walking dollar sign gig gets old after a while, and this was to be the day that our tolerance ran out.

So, like the Amy Winehouse song, I told the driver “No, No, No.”

We proceeded on for about ten minutes more, and then stopped at the trailhead. We got out of the jeep and began the hike up to the arch. From behind I heard the sound of a motorcycle coming up the canyon. Soon the rider came into view, quickly closing on us. It was the kid from the goat herder’s hut. He was coming to collect his fee.

He pulled up behind us on his motorcycle, got off, and began to sprint, in an attempt to overtake us. We picked up the pace, but we saw no need to get into a running contest with this kid. He eventually passed us, and it was only then when I saw why he was in such a hurry. About 100 meters in front of us, the canyon narrowed and steepened dramatically. A wooden ladder lay against the face of the rock. Climbing this ladder was the only way you could continue up towards the arch.

By the time we got to the Uighur teen, he was clutching the ladder like it was a briefcase full of diamonds. He then requested 20 yuan from each of us, which is about three bucks American. It was a standoff and he had us by the balls.

We could have gone easily. We could have just given up the 20 Yuan, which is the cost of one crappy Korean beer, and been on our way, but we weren’t having it. This was the day we would stand our ground. It was Angry Steve’s birthday. We would draw a line in the sand and fight.

At first I tried bargaining. After a few weeks in China I had gotten a pretty good hold on the numbers, so I had confidence when it came to negotiating a price. He just shook his head and stood firm. The kid wouldn’t budge. This only served to stoke our indignation, so we then we demand ID. When no official card was forthcoming, we threatened him with the police. We stammered and sputtered and foamed at the mouth. I tried to grab the ladder from him. I shook my finger in his face, and called him an “extorting little f***er.” The three of us cornered the poor kid and let loose a torrent of stored up angst.The boy, however, would not be intimidated. He just stared back in defiance and contempt.

After huffing and puffing and thumping our chests, we finally relented and gave this kid his nine bucks, though I did feel the need to dramatically spit on the ground when I handed him the cash, which is likely an unpardonable offense in Uighur culture.

What is it about righteousness that can be so all-consuming? All three of us were convinced that we were in the right and that this kid — this goat herder — was trying to rip us off, that he saw an opportunity to squeeze some foreigners for money and jumped at it. At no time did it occur to us that EVERYONE who comes to the arch must pay this little tax to the locals who live on and work the land. And 20 yuan certainly pales in comparison to the 200 yuan or more that we had to pay at sites run by hordes of uniformed, unsmiling Chinese.

After paying up, we continued up the trail — scurrying up five or six more ladders — rattled by our anger and loss of face. We plotted revenge against the kid. Crapping on his motorcycle was discussed. But our anger quickly gave way to the serenity of the surroundings.

We climbed up a canyon of red and ochre, of stone worn into gnarled, psychedelic shapes by centuries of desert wind, only to come across a hole at the canyon’s end.

As we approached the hole, we realized that we were actually on the top of a mountain. On the other side of the hole was a chasm, a sheer drop of over one thousand feet.

Shipton’s Arch. It was absolutely amazing.

The arch only reveals its true size once you are up on it. It looks dramatic from a distance, but you have no idea of its scale until you are right there. It is enormous. It rips the breath right out of your lungs. And, like English Simon the day before, we had it all to ourselves. The three of us were blown away, but our euphoria was dampened with the realization of the terrible people we had just been thirty minutes’ before. Shame on us.

Shipton’s Arch is in a very inaccessible part of the desert, and this is why the Chinese have yet to destroy it. They have yet to build a road and a parking lot with souvenir stands and a cable car cranking out terrible pop music and advertisements. They have yet to pave a concrete stairway up to the top, with a fenced-off viewing platform and karaoke room. They have yet to open the sieve and direct fleets of tour buses there on a daily basis. They have yet to ruin the place.

They have yet.

Let the Uighur goat herders maintain their stewardship. And please, unlike us, don’t give them any hassle when they ask for your three bucks.

Consider the alternative.

Chris Tharp

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  1. Great story, Chris.

  2. Thanks Josh! I wrote this one a while back as part of a much larger China travel piece but I think it works fine on its own.

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