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February 17, 1999
I awoke gasping for breath, puffing white dragons that danced and dissolved in the frigid blue half-light. Soon the dragons surrounded me; I was soaring above a warm Mediterranean; I was visiting with relatives long since passed away. I felt a prick of panic at this hodgepodge of impossible perceptions and called for help, but did I really make a sound? I don't know.
I had followed the Silk Road to the end of China, to Tashkurgan (altitude 12,136 feet), an ethnically Tadzhik settlement of stone dwellings, sheep, and a few thousand souls huddled in a rising windy valley beneath the moon-crater ridges of the Pamir Mountains. Tashkurgan was supposed to be no more than an overnight stop for me on the way to Pakistan, but for two days I had lain in my unheated hotel room, vomiting and stricken with fever. What made me so ill I couldn't say, but altitude sickness worsened my affliction. Curled up under a half-dozen blankets, I began wondering if I would ever find the strength to leave.
When the dragons began their dance, however, I decided to force myself out of bed to go see a doctor before I lost my senses entirely. I dressed and teetered out onto the street, where I came upon Akiro, a Japanese traveler I had met earlier, and his Chinese interpreter. Alarmed by my dehydrated, bloodless visage, they took me by the arms and led me across the way, past tumbledown stone houses and around whirling twisters of dust, to the hospital.
The hospital was a cement assemblage infused with all the aesthetic glory one would expect from the architectural traditions of the Chinese Communist Party. Cavernous and, at first glance, deserted, it looked less like a place of healing than an echoing way station for the other world, an institution that existed solely to return life to the dust from which it had come. On entering I recoiled, but Akiro gently prodded me. "Please, you are sick," he said. "You must get help."
The interpreter took off down the halls and banged on doors, calling out for a doctor. Shaky on my feet, I ended up wandering into a ward in search of a chair. Patients swathed in ancient blankets lay like mummies on steel-framed catafalques. In one corner a Tadzhik woman wearing a red headdress stood in silent vigil; in another a man with piercing chestnut eyes sat with his head in his hands. There were no nurses, IVs, bottles of medicine, or trays of food -- nothing, in short, to indicate that the inmates had any more chance of arising from their sickbeds than Tutankhamen from his tomb.
The interpreter returned.
"Please, your doctor awaits you."
A dusty-haired Tadzhik in a dirty smock, looking rather put upon, stood in the hall and motioned me into his office. Akiro and the interpreter followed me in, and two nurses took up the rear, glancing bashfully away when I acknowledged them. With the entrance of a curious janitor and his upended mop the concilium was complete.
With all eyes on me, I launched into an explanation of my symptoms, here and there embellishing my monologue with pantomime. Akiro related my words in Japanese to the interpreter, who put them into Chinese for the doctor, who, fidgeting with his pen, looked away and muttered in Tadzhik to his staff. Interrupting my lament, the doctor rose from his seat.
"Want an injection?"
I suggested a diagnosis might be preferable first. He shrugged and handed me an oversized thermometer. When I placed the pencil-sized thing under my tongue everyone erupted in protest. It was not an oral thermometer, they shouted. I suddenly felt much, much sicker. As it turned out, the thermometer went under my arm.
"Fifteen minutes for the thermometer," the interpreter said. We all glanced at our watches.
Fifteen minutes. Giggles from the nurses, gurgles from my stomach, table-drumming by the doctor, the occasional moan from the ward, resounding throughout the concrete corridors as if from some far-flung Hadean vale.
The doctor finally snatched the thermometer out of my armpit and consulted it. Saying nothing, he led me out of the office and down the hall, with the assembly in tow -- to the ward. He pointed to an empty bed between the mummies.
At that, a miraculous wave of well-being flushed through my veins. My eyes brightened, my gut healed, my posture straightened. Surely I was well enough, I said, miming and beaming my good health at the doctor, to be treated with medicine outside the confines of the hospital.
The doctor raised his eyebrows and shrugged, then wrote out a prescription in Chinese. It was a beautiful prescription, with characters running lengthwise down the form, and was as crinkly to the touch as rice paper. He shook my hand and exited with the nurses falling in behind, like an emperor and his concubines.
A desk near the entrance served as the pharmacy. There, a stout fellow in a driver's cap, who might have passed for a Tadzhik Joe Pesci, set about dicing tablets with a knife and dashing them into paper envelopes. Four different medicines. No one could explain to me what they were, except that two were traditional remedies.
"Ever taken Chinese medicine before?" Akiro asked.
"Your first time will be very interesting."
I smiled weakly.
Two days later, after a round-the-clock regimen of pills and drafts of mineral water, I awoke to delight in the frigid freshness of my room, the velvet hue of the morning light. The pills, whatever they were, had worked. Dust twisters rambled up the rising valley -- beckoning me, I imagined, to follow them to the place where the earth met the sky. And now I would.
Jeffrey Tayler is a freelance writer and traveler based in Moscow. He has recently written on Greece, Moscow, Siberia, Transylvania, and Zaire for The Atlantic Monthly. He contributes regularly to Atlantic Abroad.
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