The Witch Nichang– Chapter 78
While I was drinking the medicine… um, tea, the three of us stood there and talked about what happened during the time I was out. Old Tie did most of the talking because he was quite pleased with himself for making a wise decision. That was why he was a little more talkative.
“You know, it’s because they were familiar with this area and could speak the local dialect that I decided to hire them!”
When the old man got to the exciting part, he clapped his hands together with a pop as if he had sealed a deal, “This place is too remote. If you don’t speak the local dialect, it’s difficult to get anything done. Even if someone is willing to help you, they will only go so far. They wouldn’t have let us stay in their houses like they did now.”
Because he was proud of himself, Old Tie was rambling a little, but it was still understandable. This place wasn’t just anywhere in the desert; it was the Lop Nur that the guides kept talking about over the past few days, a lake located between the Gobi Desert and the Great Desert. In a sense, it was like a wonderland on earth.
Once we left Bai Long Dui, we weren’t that far away from this place, and I had been unconscious. They were worried about me although my pulse was normal, so after discussing among themselves, they decided to travel overnight. After traveling almost all night, they finally arrived here before dawn. Thanks to our guides’ familiarity with the locals, we received their friendly help and were able to get a good rest.
When the old man was almost done with his exciting story, I was almost done with my tea.
Since I had never heard of such a place, I had always been curious about this legendary place. Now that I was standing at the door, and the view was just outside, I couldn’t wait to see it. I tilted my head back and downed the last gulp of the strong tea, then said hurriedly, “Let’s go and have a look!” Without even putting down the bowl, I swiftly maneuvered around the towering figure of the old man and stepped out of the door.
When I stepped out of the door, the first thing that came into view was a dazzling yolk-yellow sun. By that time, twilight had set in. The setting sun was on the horizon, reflecting off the shimmering ripples of the water.
To say the water was rippling would be inaccurate, for the water was very calm, so calm that it looked more like a mirror reflecting the clear sky. The ripples were caused by a large flock of wild ducks playing on the water. Further away, there were other waterfowl circling over the water from time to time, letting out crisp chirps. Looking into the distance, the sky and the water merged into one, like the horizon of the sea.
The guides said that this was Big Lake or Peacock Sea. I thought at first that the former name was closer to reality, but who knew the latter was a more vivid description of it.
I gazed at the view in front of me for a while before turning my head to look around. The house sat by the water, about ten steps away from the shallow waters. Around it were a few similar buildings. All of them were simple low shacks mostly made out of mud bricks and branches, surrounded by a fence made of thin branches.
The sand dunes around these shacks were covered with red willows and reeds, with numerous tall poplar trees of varying shapes, like a barrier that protected this place and isolated it from the desolation beyond into two different worlds.
“How is it? Surprised? Haha.” There were footsteps rustling behind me, and the person in the house came out with me. Old Tie guffawed and said, “Even I was surprised when I first saw it. Who would have thought that there could be such a gem in the barren Gobi Desert! This must be what a hidden paradise looks like!”
“What did those two guides call this place?” I asked without looking back, gazing at the view in front of me. Then the old man replied, “Uh, I think it’s called Lop… Lop Nur? The local dialect is difficult to pronounce, and I don’t know what it means. Why do you ask?”
Lop Nur… Lop… Nur…
I silently repeated it a couple of times, and suddenly, something dawned on me. It all became clear to me. It was hard to describe the feeling. I pressed my lips together and chuckled softly to myself.
“What? Do you know this place too?” Lian’er walked up from behind, turned her head to the side, and looked at me.
“No, I don’t know this place.” Smiling, I shook my head and said, “The place I know is a dried-up salt lake, the Sea of Death with no one within a thousand miles. It’s called Lop Nor, not Lop Nur.”
This place had plenty of clean water and dry firewood for boiling water. It was great news for people who had been traveling through the desert for days, especially for women. When I woke up, Lian’er had obviously just taken a bath. I didn’t know what she had thought of. Seeing that I was feeling better, she abruptly changed the subject and hurried me.
“Who cares if it’s called Lop or whatnot. You go wash up first,” she said as she took the tea bowl from me and pushed me towards another shack. “There’s still hot water so hurry up! Food should be ready when you’re done.”
As she pushed me forward, it occurred to me that when I woke up… I turned around to ask her as I let her push me forward, “By the way, Lian’er, was it you who changed my clothes while I was asleep?”
She wouldn’t just let someone else do it for me. I was pretty sure of that.
The response I got was a grunt. It seemed like Lian’er couldn’t even be bothered to give me a direct answer. She replied, “The Hu clothes have been covered in sand and dust for several days. I couldn’t stand it even if you could. How could I sleep with someone who’s dirty?” With that, she pushed me into the shack.
Although what she said was true, as a lady, it felt a bit uncomfortable to hear someone saying that you were dirty, especially when that someone was… Just as I was about to say something, the door creaked shut in front of me. I knew that Lian’er didn’t mean what she said. I sighed and smiled, then turned around to look at the house.
Inside, it was still a small room, with simple wooden frames and a simple barrel filled with clear water with a simple ladle floating on top. In a scorching hot place, the heat dissipated slowly, so the water was still warm. The temperature was pleasant. It was just that… the walls were riddled with gaps. I couldn’t help but frown at it. Just then, a voice came from outside, “Hurry up! I’ll wait for you outside.”
Her tone was impatient, but it was her unique way of expression. Smiling, I wanted to ask who had been on the lookout for her but thought better of it.
If I asked, she would probably give me an haughty answer like “How could I have not noticed if someone was sneaking around.” I could imagine her saying that.
When a person had something to be proud of, being proud of it was a straightforward way to express it, although this kind of frankness often went against the social norms, was disliked by most people, and some even condemned it as evil.
But I didn’t know when it started. Everything Lian’er said and did was right and… adorable, at least in my eyes.
The sun was setting while I was taking a bath. After a relaxing hot bath, the moon and stars were already hanging high in the sky. When I walked outside, a cool breeze was blowing. In the distance, several piles of poplar tree branches were lit into bonfires by the water. A group of people were sitting around the fire, talking and laughing. The wind carried wafts of fragrant smell over, stirring my appetite.
“You took so long.” Lian’er was leaning lazily against a poplar tree, her hand idly fiddling with a yellowish twig. She hadn’t said anything earlier to hurry me, but now that she saw me, she felt the need to complain. Then she walked over to me and said with a smile, “Come on, let’s go eat.” Without another word, she took my hand and headed towards the bonfire.
As we approached the bonfire, the noise grew louder and the smell stronger. Skewers of fatty fish were crackling over the fire. About ten plainly dressed men, women, and children sat around the fire chatting away with the old man and the two guides. From their high cheekbones, deep eyes, and their slightly curly hair, it was obvious that they were people of a different ethnicity. They were no doubt the local natives.
Fortunately, Lian’er had gotten used to seeing them travel all this way, even more so for me. As soon as they saw us, they waved and called out to us enthusiastically. Although we couldn’t quite communicate with words, their smiles and body language were expressive.
So we joined in, enjoying the food and drinks together. The fish were caught from the lake, crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. They were fresh and tasty. We drank some of the good wine that we had brought as a gift. For these locals who rarely went out, it was a nice gift. They were more than happy to share their joy and the good stuff with their guests.
After days of arduous traveling, we were finally able to have a freshly made hot meal. Everyone was happy. The guides were getting along with the locals, and even Lian’er had a lazy and contented smile on her face. Old Tie challenged the others to a drink, enjoying himself to the fullest.
The moon was soft, and the wind was gentle as we chatted over drinks.
Our stomachs were full of food and drink, but we still hadn’t had enough. Those who could sing or dance had put down their plates, picked up their musical instruments, and began singing and dancing around the bonfire. The ethnic groups of the western regions had a unique style of art, from musical instruments to dances. It had a special charm. As the strings were strummed, and the drums trembled, cheerful rhythms flowed out like water. Others joined in with singing and dancing as the performance reached its climax. They were natural-born singers and dancers. The atmosphere was filled with excitement and joy.
As the atmosphere reached its peak, a girl of about ten suddenly came out of the crowd and pattered over here. She must have figured out who the easy target was because she timidly glanced at Lian’er before grabbing my arm and pulling me toward the center. Then with a joyful expression, she blabbered some words.
She was loud, but no matter how loud she was, I couldn’t understand a thing she said. While I was confused, with a smile on my face, a guide who was chatting animatedly with the locals chimed in. He laughed and shouted, “The girl wants you to sing a song or dance. Dear guest, everyone is having fun now. Do you really want to turn her down now? She will think that the guest is not happy.”
The crowd erupted into a chorus of cheers at his call, even Old Tie had joined in the cheering. I was caught in the middle of the clamor. I knew that they wouldn’t let me go if I didn’t perform something and I also felt that I shouldn’t shy away from this. As I was thinking, the music that the instruments were playing triggered a memory. I cleared my throat and began to sing a well-known Xinjiang folk song:
What does Alamuhan look like? Neither fat nor thin.
What does Alamuhan look like? Neither fat nor thin.
Her brows curved like crescent moons,
Her waist like weeping willows,
Her lips speak of love untold,
And her eyes can send shivers down your spine.
Where does Alamuhan live? Three hundred and sixty miles west of Turpan.
Where does Alamuhan live? Three hundred and sixty miles west of Turpan.
I only vaguely remembered the lyrics and melody, but luckily the melody was simple and the lyrics were repetitive. I could improvise any parts that I couldn’t remember. It wasn’t too difficult. The point was that this song matched well with the instruments. Although I sang in Chinese, which the locals didn’t understand, the response was still great when I finished. It even stirred up a louder round of cheers than before.
I couldn’t handle this kind of overwhelmingly direct enthusiasm from the crowd, but as a guest, I had to smile and nod along, my eyes instinctively looking for someone, only to be surprised to find that she was no longer in her original spot.
With no time left for pleasantries, I politely declined the guide’s invitation for another song and squeezed my way through the crowd to get to Old Tie. He was holding a wine bowl, stumbling his way back from where Lian’er had been.
“Old man, where’s Lian’er? Where did she go? Did you see her?” I grabbed his arm and asked loudly, the sound of the music now becoming a bit of a nuisance.
Fortunately, although his face was red from drinking, his eyes were still clear. When he heard my question, he let out a hearty laugh and said, “You are asking about Jadey? Haha, she was here just now. I wanted to challenge her to a drink, but she refused to drink no matter what. When I pushed her too far, she just turned and left. Such a stubborn child. Ha! But I like it!”
I didn’t have time for the old man who was already slurring his words. It didn’t seem like he had anything important to say, so I headed in the direction he had mentioned. Lian’er could be a little unpredictable. From what he said, it sounded like she wasn’t in a good mood. I didn’t know exactly what the old man had said to her, or if he had done something to upset her.
Although this was an oasis, once we left the poplar forest, we would be in the Gobi Desert. That worried me.
Not far ahead was a large expanse of sand dunes. The only difference between here and the sand dunes outside of the forest was that this place was covered with red willows and other low shrubs that I couldn’t recognize. It seemed vibrant and full of life.
Lian’er stood among the sand dunes, looking up at the moon or perhaps the stars. The hue of white was obvious in the dark. I had seen her from a distance, which was reassuring. I walked over and stood beside her, asking, “What’s wrong? What are you doing being so far away from everyone?”
Even when Lian’er was angry, she wouldn’t take her anger out on anyone. She turned to look at me and replied with a frown, “It’s too noisy. It was fun at first, but it gets annoying after a while. Godfather even asked me to have a drink with him. I don’t like it, so it’s better for me to leave.”
“If so, I’ll stay with you,” I nodded and took her hand. “Let them have their fun. We can go to bed early. We might be on the road again tomorrow. We should rest. Let’s go.”
With that, I grabbed her and turned around to leave, but to my surprise, she didn’t move a step.
“Are you okay? How can you still feel like sleeping after such a long sleep?” A familiar voice asked beside me. I turned around and saw Lian’er looking at me seriously. Because of the moonlight, her eyelashes cast a faint shadow under her eyelids.
My heart warmed, and I chuckled, “This time, it’s to make up for the lack of sleep I had a few days ago. Besides, even if I can’t sleep, I can keep you company.”
“Hm, that’s true…” Her bright eyes flickered for a moment, and then she nodded. “You can talk to me or hum a song. Your songs may sound strange but you sing well.”
As she spoke, her expression remained serious and calm, her lips curving slightly upward out of habit. Then, seemingly curious, she threw out a question, “By the way, how did you know the person named Alamuhan?”