...So I arrive about 9:00 and the cow is tied up to a telephone pole near a dilapidated, wooden hut. It appears calm and carefree. No concerns except that it can see some moist, new clover just out of its reach. If only the rope was a little longer, it thinks to itself while regurgitating a fine bit of grass from yesterday's grazing. Meanwhile, dirty kids play in the muddy yard. Chickens peck as chickens do, and the other animals all sense that today is not their day. They sigh and consider themselves lucky.
Lunch is planned for quite a few hours later, but the preparations begin early. In fact, the day before. Someone had to contact the village "master" as the cow is very large, and would be very difficult to handle. Not just anybody can do this. After all, it's not a sheep. Sheep are easy. They just lay there staring stupidly into space--bahhhh, bahhhh.
The master actually was due about 10 o'clock or so, but someone in the village died, so he was called off to help with a horse. On important occasions like a death, neither sheep nor cows will do. Only horses. And they're the most difficult. So strong, and they fight back desperately. At least that's what I'm told. Still the cow stands. Unknowing. Uncaring.
I'm curious of my own reaction. I've never been witness to this sort of thing. I wonder if it will bother me much. Will I have to turn away? Will I be able to eat afterwards? I really don't know. It's something I've wanted to see though. Just to see it and gauge myself. This is reality. The most basic act of life--death. This is the great, eternal struggle played out as it has for ages. Man against beast--the subtle intelligence of humans against the brute strength of nature. No sterile supermarket or a piece of Saran Wrap within hundreds, probably thousands, of miles. I laugh to myself and wonder what my friends and families are doing just at this moment. Why do I want to watch? I don't know. Maybe it's just some deep-rooted blood-lust. And the cow stands. Calmly. Turning its head from side to side, up and down. A quick flick of the tail to chase a fly. Damn they can be annoying.
Everyone is a little confused as to why I want to be here. Why have I gotten up early to witness this? It's nothing. Happens everyday. A little girl, can't be much more than 6 or 7, skips by giggling, sneaking embarrassed looks at the foreigner. His light skin. His new coat. She's completely oblivious to my uneasiness. She, on the other hand, is totally at ease. The cow too.
Finally the master comes. He isn't very tall, but broad as a house. A short, dense, brick of a man. I can see the stains of sweat and dirt on him from the struggle with the horse. He begins to chat with the family members as he resharpens his rather large knife. He knows them well as they have all grown up in this little village. Isolated from the great political and economic upheaval without. That's beyond him anyway. The concerns of someone else. He just does what he has to do to make ends meet. Actually, he doesn't like his work, but it must be done. And he's the one who has always done it, and always will. There isn't much competition for the job. It's his for as long as he can do it, or stand it.
They loosen the cow's rope and lead it to an empty, rocky piece of ground. The master ties its two front feet together with a short, strong piece of rope. We stand and face Mecca. A quick "Amen" and the master rolls up his sleeves, takes a deep, lung-filling breath of cold mountain air and grasps the cow's horns. One in each hand, firmly. The animal's thick neck fits securely under his arm. The cow senses that something has changed. Something's not right. But what? Suddenly, the master wrenches the animal's head in a complete circle. The battle has begun. The cow is staring straight into the sky and struggling with all its animal might. But the master is, after all, a master. He's ready and is able to control the beast. I stare. Mouth half-open. A feeling of pity for the animal, and faint disgust with myself for WANTING to watch.
The animal is breathing rapidly, desperately. Straining for air and release. I can hear the snorting as water and mucous shoot from the cow's nostrils along with the stench of imminent death. [This isn't just melodramatic writing. The smell really is foul and I have to take a step backward to stay clean.] The cow briefly recalls a slow walk in the meadow during springtime. The clover tastes sweetest in springtime. The master readjusts his grip. His hands were beginning to slip from his own sweat.
The cow's feet begin to stumble. Another man from behind tries to trip the cow up and force it on its side. With its front feet tied, it has a hard time keeping its balance. It stumbles again, but remains upright. The master twists harder. I expect the neck to break any minute, and almost turn away. But I don't. I watch on. Pity growing stronger within me as the animal fights for its life. The master is fighting as hard as the animal, maybe harder. It's his job. People must eat. It's just the way of things. And anyway, what else is there for him to do nowadays?
Finally the cow tires and its legs buckle. It is down on its knees in front, but still upright behind. The master leans with all his weight and might onto the animal's back to force it down. Meanwhile the other man has managed to take its hind legs from under it and it falls onto its side. Luckily, away from the men or they could be seriously hurt by the animals mass. As the master continues to twist the animal's neck mercilessly, the other one binds its hind legs tightly. One across the other. Tightly. So tightly. Once done, he repeats the process with the front legs. Now the cow is completely immobile. All it can do is lay there on the cold, hard ground in fear.
The next step is to secure the animal's head to expose its large, blood-filled arteries. They're clearly visible between the dense muscles staining against the master's strength. He has now placed a rope into the animal's mouth and against its upper jaw. The other man takes hold of it and pulls the animal's head straight back along the straight line of its spine. It's eyes are bulging, it's heart pounding. More mucous is expelled in short, staccato bursts of foul air. After such a violent struggle, a strange calm prevails. My pulse slows. My feelings of pity start to fade.
The master pauses and reaches for his knife. He stops to push up his sleeves once more. Another deep breath. A slight, ever-so slight, tinge of guilt passes quickly over him. He hardly notices it at all, and just pushes it from his mind as he plunges the knife into the smooth, hard flesh of the terrified animal. It's eyes bulge out further. It's body convulses against the sharp pain. The blood flows dark and red onto the frozen ground, which refuses to absorb it. A slowly spreading, reflective pool forms--its intense color contrasting sharply with the dull brown and gray of the earth.
I must admit that I had to turn away momentarily when I saw the upraised knife, poised to do its deadly work. I stepped back, caught between breaths. It sounded initially like a pop and then I could hear the knife go deeper with the skin and fibers being sliced by the slow, measured sawing action of the master. He knew just which artery to hit so that the cow would die quickly with minimal pain. The blood flowed free.
At this stage I actually took a step closer to get a better view. I could hear the gurgling of blood in the cow's throat and mouth as it fought to stay alive. Against all hope. It was over. Or at least would be so in a few more moments. The flow of blood continued. Occasionally the master would return his knife to the animal's neck to cut a bit deeper while the other man pulled harder and harder so the wound would open wider. The blood slowed. So did the animal's breathing. It hardly struggled at all at this point. Probably from a combination of fatigue and resignation. The worst was over for all involved. I continued to watch, but felt nothing any more. The master rested and the cow died.
(To be continued. Maybe.)
Anyone who decided to shell out a buck fifty for last Thursday's FT
may have seen a horribly butchered article about western Chinese
Islamic fundamentalists with my byline AFTER (the nerve) the FT's
Beijing bureau chief Tony Wxxxxx and thought: "what a terrible
article. Charles would never sign his name to anything like this,
unless his desk editor really fucked him!" Well campers, I am
chagrined to report that this impression is true.
Not only that, but the especially observant among you may have also
noticed that the NY Times Beijing Bureau chief Patrick Txxxx was
absent from his station for several days during the most important
story of his four years there, the death of Deng Xiaoping.
So you're probably all wondering: is there some connection betweeen
these two extremely significant events? (Charles getting fucked by
his desk editor and Txxxx dissappearing off the face of the earth)
Well, there is.
Two weeks ago, my roommate Steve, the NY Times central Asia
correspondent, got word that Patrick Txxxx would shortly be arriving
in Almaty to steal his story, which was that riots in a border town in
Xinjian had killed somewhere between 9 and 150 people. The only way
to get at Xinjian was via a Kazakh border crossing at panfilov, which
Txxxx was going to try and cross.
Since Tony Wxxxxx, Txxxx's FT counterpart, was not planning to do the
same thing, though, I decided to split car and uighur translator
expenses with Mr. Txxxx as far as the border, as I don't have a visa
Neither of us, however, had auhorization to be in a border area, so I
got to be James Bond for a few hours. The art of infiltrating
sensitive, off limits *tough guy* top secret *tough guy* military James
Bond type stuff is that you let your driver and translator do
everything for you and you wear a hat and sit in the back seat. So
Bayan, our Uighur translator, talked us through the only checkpoint on
the trip, and Edik, the driver, found a family we could stay with for
the night, because the hotel would make us register. There was, of
course, no power or heat at all in the town, which is something I have
been complaining about ad nausea in a variety of fora, including this
one, for the last month. The reason it is important to know all of
this detail is in order to appreciate what a pain in the ass it was to
get at this story and, therefore, how all the more appalling are the
subsequent events as they unfold.
In the morning we went to the Chinese border and found a friendly
kazakh border policeman named Nurik who would, for a fee, take us
across the frontier to the Chinese customs exit and find some people
coming across from the Chinese side who we could interview.
Nurik found us some terrified Uighur traders who absolutely didn't
want to talk to us, and he obligingly forced them to get in our car,
where we were predictably in the back seat wearing hats, and be
interrogated. We asked them if everything was alright in this village
of Yining. They said yes, the army has everything under control, they
didn't know how many people had been killed. Might have been quite a
Nurik, who left our interview briefly to go and shake down a truck
driver who wasn't coughing up enough of a bribe, then drove us back to
the Kazakh side.
Over lunch, we ruminated about this and how easy it is to be cynical
about death and then *irony* Patrick took out a radio and found out
that some wire service had an unconfirmed report *irony* that Deng had
a stroke. Rather than continuing into China, he decided to go back to
Almaty with me so he can catch a flight. Problem: his visa expires
today, and we'll get back too late to extend it ontime, meaning he
will by no means be able leave even tomorrow.
When we got back, he changed his mind. "If I belived every wire
service story that said that Deng was about to die, I'd never leave
Beijing." so he went back to the border, saying There's no way Deng
is dead, and into Xinjian, where he's 3,000 miles from Beijing and the
nearest airport is in a city thats sealed off, at precisely 5:00 pm,
eight hours before the Chinese official news service announces the
death of Deng Xiaoping.
The same day I go to Moscow to try and do my Russia accreditation
which of course, is totally in vain, like everything here. Meanwhile,
I file a story, which says that its really hard to figure out what
went on in that town, and the its hard to figure out what how
significant it really is.
Meantime, I tell everybody at the FT's Moscow bureau "There's no way
Deng is dead," an insight that two hours later earns me the nickname
So then my desk editor calls up and says that I should spruce up the
story a bit. So instead of saying that its really hard to figure out
what went on in that town, and its hard to figure out what how
significant it really is, I say "The massacre of scores of Uighurs in
distant western-China province of Xinjian threatens to tear apart the
most populous country on earth at the very point that it is perched
precariously between leaders following the death of Deng Xiaoping" or
something like that.
So its set to go. But somewhere along the line the Asia desk get its
hands on it and gives it to Tony Wxxxxx in Beijing, and around the
same time some bombs go off in Urumchi, and Tony has lunch with David
Levy, the Israeli foreign minister, who *sarcasm* could be considered
not the *sarcasm* most objective observer of the situation, *sarcasm*
says its obvious they're all moslem fundamentalists out there, after
all, they're moslems right? Okay, I'm paraphrasing.
So on Thursday, a piece with my name on it appeared in the FT saying
that Moslem fundamentalist terrorists are taking over western China.
I would like to go on record as saying this is not true.
Thank you all for staying with me this far its really great to get
this off my chest, and there are no sheep in Kazakhstan to comfort me.