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Seventy-Two Transformations

‘Since hearing the Way,’ Sun Wukong replied, ‘I have mastered the seventy-two earthly transformations. My somersault cloud has outstanding magical powers. I know how to conceal myself and vanish. I can make spells and end them. I can reach the sky and find my way into the earth. I can travel under the sun or moon without leaving a shadow or go through metal or stone freely. I can’t be drowned by water or burned by fire. There’s nowhere I cannot go.’

— Wu Cheng-en, Journey to the West (trans. WJF Jenner).

I’m living in Beijing when the Year of the Monkey begins. Cartoon monkeys grin from every door and prance across every shop window. Bus stops carry billboards for the new Hong Kong blockbuster, The Monkey King 2, released on the first day of the lunar new year. My Chinese teacher uses Journey to the West to illustrate a point, giving me the hopeful look she gives me every time some literary reference arises in class. Then Paper Republic, my go-to for Chinese writing in translation, posts a link to an engaging piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books by Sinologist WJF Jenner, whose translation is widely considered the more readable of the two complete versions in English. There are books that you encounter by accident, books that friends thrust into your hands, and then there are books that clamour from all directions. I surrender and buy an epub, not wanting to haul the 3000-page, multi-volume saga around in paperback, but I don’t open it for weeks. It’s a big commitment.

Journey to the West (西游记, Xi You Ji) is one of the Four Classics of Chinese literature, along with fourteenth-century Water Margin and Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and the eighteenth-century Dream of the Red Chamber. Western histories of the novel rarely refer to these parallel works, of which Journey is certainly the best known outside China. Apart from countless operas and stage plays, it’s been made into dozens of films, TV series, comics and games across Asia, and has heavily influenced manga/anime (cf. Dragon Ball). To Australians of my generation, its most familiar incarnation was Monkey, a Japanese TV series that was dubbed by the BBC and screened on the ABC to a cult following in the 1980s and 1990s.

Journey describes the travels of the priest Xuanzang (Tripitaka in Monkey) from the Tang capital Chang’an to Thunder Monastery in India to fetch Buddhist scriptures. Accompanying him on his journey are Sun Wukong (Monkey), the reformed demons Zhu Bajie (Pigsy) and Sha Wujie (Sandy), and a horse who’s really a dragon. It’s based on the historical journey of Xuanzang, a priest who went to India in the Tang Dynasty for scriptures and wrote his own book about it (Great Tang Records on the Western Regions, or 大唐西域記) in 646. But Journey isn’t a history. It’s a fantasy in the most literary sense, a collection of popular folk tales, magical battles, tricks and misadventures on the road – a grand picaresque, a medieval pop-culture journey of the soul, a quest.

My partner and I made Beijing our home for two years, and by mid-2016 — almost halfway through Monkey’s year— it’s time for us to return, a little regretfully, to Australia. But before we head south, we go west. We want to visit Xinjiang, travel some of the old Silk Road, see the deserts and mountains of a romantically remote part of China for ourselves. The plan is to fly to Urumqi, take the train via Turpan to Kashgar, then head over the mountains into Osh in Kyrgyzstan and fly back to Beijing from Bishkek. There’s never going to be a more appropriate time to embark on reading Journey.  

We set off early in the morning to an already crowded airport. Because of a booking error, H and I are put on separate planes to Urumqi. It’s a minor inconvenience, I tell myself. I have plenty to read.

Before Chaos was divided, Heaven and Earth were one; All was a shapeless blur, and no men had appeared…., begins the Jenner translation, before launching into several pages of Buddhist cosmology. But what I hear in my head is: In the worlds before Monkey, primal chaos reigned. There’s a synthesizer trill and the theme song plays: Born from an egg on a mountaintop, the punkiest monkey that ever popped… I remember rushing through my homework in time to make the ABC screening of Monkey around 5:30, just before Doctor Who. The Daleks still scared me a little, but my brothers and I were united by Monkey.

The humour was slapstick, the sound effects were disco-fabulous, and the fight scenes were easy to replicate in the backyard with a broom handle if you practiced. The dialogue was often outrageous: not only was it dubbed in terrible “Oriental”-accented English, but it contained some very British double entendres and G-rated swears. (Did Monkey really call a demon a poofter? Yes, in Season 1, Episode 2). To add to the show’s mysterious power, the actor playing Tripitaka was rumoured to be both female and dead (true on both counts: Masako Natsume died of leukaemia at the age of 27, in 1985). I didn’t know what genderqueer was yet – it wouldn’t be in the dictionary for another thirty years – but I knew that monk had something special going on.

An announcement drags me out of my nostalgia, like a tense, spoken-word version of those synthesizer transitions. The plane is shaking. We’re being instructed to buckle our safety belts; some passengers are already in the brace position. It’s the worst landing I can remember, made worse by my dim comprehension of what’s happening. Only when we’re disembarking do I see that it’s a sand storm that has caused all the fuss. H is due to land a couple of hours after me; I hope it will clear by then. I go through the gates, take a seat in the only cafe, and try to lose myself in reading.

I assumed that the Monkey I grew up with was heavily bastardised for its audience, an irreverent Japanese take on a story that really belonged to the Chinese, who were, by all accounts, a serious people. Five minutes in China soon disabused me of that preconception. Still, surely classic works of literature, especially foreign ones, were supposed to be a bit humourless? The list of classics I grew up with rarely included fantasy, especially not of the kind populated by dragons, demons and superheroes.

Perhaps Wu Cheng-en made a similar assumption, because Journey to the West was published anonymously in 1592; his attribution as its author came some 300 years later. By most accounts a failed bureaucrat, only a few other poems survive from his life’s work. No-one can know what made this middle-class Ming Dynasty man from Jiangsu set down a comic, cosmic proliferation of adventure stories, a mash-up of ribald yarns and religious wisdom, of magic and morality, told in a colloquial Chinese when all around him were clamouring to re-enact the perfect classical mode. It must have felt like an act of rebellion. Because Journey is, I’m embarrassed to discover, hilarious.

The book does begin in a serious mood, with a short dissertation on Buddhist cosmology followed quickly by the emergence of Monkey, famously born from a stone. In Jenner’s translation, Monkey is sharp witted, ambitious, and fearless, an indestructible action hero with magical strength and very human flaws. He’s lazy, arrogant, socially inappropriate, and disrespects hierarchy. Like any good fantasy novel protagonist, he spends some time at the Buddhist version of wizard school, where he learns magic. Sensibly, he refuses any lesson that isn’t a fast track to immortality. What teacher could resist his combination of cheek, laziness and talent? What failed bureaucrat, what subject of a managerial empire, wouldn’t love a monkey who demanded to be recognised as an equal of gods? After showing off some of his 72 transformations to classmates, he gets in trouble with his teacher, echoing familiar scenes from Earthsea to Disney via Hogwarts so well that I can almost forget it predates them by at least four centuries.

Heaven has to deal with this upstart somehow, and one strategy is to assimilate the threat. As a trickster archetype, his mischief-making is most prominent early in the book, while he’s still running around like a young punk in Heaven. Given the job of Protector of the Horses, Sun Wukong is shocked to realise he’s nothing but a stablehand, and runs away. Recruited to look after Laozi’s peach garden by way of a second chance, he eats the bulk of the magical fruits just before a holy banquet, then chases them down with Laozi’s elixir of immortality. Cheating death and, by extension, time are a specialty of his – but his greatest characteristic is his complete disregard for authority.

When I look up, the horizon has vanished in a blur of sand. Heat can be felt through the glass, a throb beneath the struggling airconditioning. In the carpark outside, people cover their faces with scarves. A lone tree flails. The flight board taunts me with ‘landing’. After an age, it goes ominously blank. A voice on the PA regrets to inform me of something I can’t hear clearly. One by one, every flight on the board disappears. They have all been redirected to other airports, hours away. The small arrivals hall is crowded with frustrated families, colleagues, drivers. By way of reassurance, the cafe workers tell me this happens regularly. The sand storms in Xinjiang have been known to derail trains.

Monkey just has to use his somersault cloud to get from place to place, zipping between China, Heaven, and the Paradise of Flowers and Fruit (his kingdom, where his monkey subjects live). As a child I was convinced that if I got the gesture right — two fingers together, shake in front of the mouth, then point — I could summon that cloud and get myself out of the suburbs. Maybe this gesture was the beginning of a ritual of escape that has patterned my adult life. Travel has always been partly about going away: a means of proving to myself that I’m not fixed in place. In that sense, it does much the same thing that books do. There’s nowhere I cannot go.

I have all day to think about this while I wait helplessly in the airport. Late in the afternoon, when a scheduled landing time appears at last, the cafe workers grin at my relief. By now we’re in this together. I’ve been plugged into their power and wifi all day, convinced the cook to make something vegetarian, and been called upon to translate for another customer. At last, H steps out of the arrivals gate like she’s finishing a marathon, and we make our way out into the blistering heat to find a taxi.

We round on the city via elevated roads that have grown through it like vines. Urumqi is developing in the haphazard and dazzlingly rapid way of many regional Chinese capitals. Futuristic malls selling phones and other gadgets spring up between blocks of cracked Communist concrete. Down hazy lanes, a five-way roundabout is plugged with new import shops and old, boarded-up KTV bars. Our hotel looks abandoned until we see someone emerge from the tinted glass doors. There’s an unattended metal detector switched off in the lobby; a riot cop’s shield leans against a chair behind it. The young women at the desk can find no trace of our booking. By turns officious and giggly, they rummage through drawers for printouts, come up shrugging. But they take our money eventually.

At last, the Buddha challenges Monkey to a bet. If he can escape his palm, he will make the Jade Emperor abdicate the throne and install Monkey in his place. (In Journey, Heaven is run by an imperial state, a strict hierarchy that maintains order just like on Earth; just like on Earth, this provides a rich source for anarchic satire.) If he loses he’ll have to go back to earth and live as a devil for a few more lifetimes. I remember this scene. In the TV show, Monkey gets to what he thinks is the edge of the world and graffitis his name on the five pillars he finds there before pissing on them, unaware that he’s really leaving his mark on the Buddha’s fingers. I don’t believe this scene will be quite so graphic in the book, which after all is a Classic Work of Literature. But there it is:

He pulled out a hair, breathed on it with his magic breath, and shouted ‘Change.’ It turned into a writing brush dipped in ink, and with it he wrote THE GREAT SAGE EQUALING HEAVEN WAS HERE in big letters on the middle pillar. When that was done he put the hair back on, and, not standing on his dignity, made a pool of monkey piss at the foot of the pillar. Then he turned his somersault round and went back to where he had started from.

Monkey is unique in its combination of beauty with absurdity, of profundity with nonsense,’ writes Arthur Waley in the introduction to his heavily abridged 1942 translation. Waley is responsible for my first encounters with many Chinese classics, so I’ve forgiven him for leaving out the poems in his version. It’s his abridged Monkey that brought these stories to English readers; it’s still his black-spined Penguin Classic that you’re likely to find in a bookshop. But while his selection of stories are faithfully and energetically told, Waley’s tone can be dated. His prose has all its buttons fastened: in his version of the above scene, Monkey ‘relieved nature’.

Jenner read Waley’s Monkey as a sick child, and was hooked, but says he didn’t refer to it in his own translation. ‘My aim in doing Journey to the West was to make it as much fun in English as it is in the original,’ he wrote in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Begun in 1964 and almost destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, readers are fortunate that Jenner took his own copy of the manuscript back to the UK with him. His translation was finally published in three volumes from 1982 to 1986, by which time the more scholarly translation by Anthony Yu had already appeared. Despite these behind-the-scenes battles, Jenner’s Journey is both faithful and great fun.

Finally, the gods give up on taming this punk macaque, and stash him under a mountain for five hundred years to teach him a lesson. There he stays until Guanyin has found a priest to go West to fetch the scriptures. There’s a bit of heavenly negotiation as she tracks down Xuanzang, and then a lot of the Tang priest’s origin story to get through. Reincarnation of Golden Cicada; washes up at monastery in basket as a baby; saves his long-lost family, and so on. It’s Chapter 14 before this monk, who after this point goes by the quest-name Sanzang, encounters Monkey in his stone prison, and the perfect narrative orbit of superhero and conscience can really get going.

Near Urumqi there’s a tourist attraction called Tianchi, Heavenly Lake, nestled in the Tianshan range. It takes us a while to figure out how to get there, but eventually we find the bus stop at the gate of People’s Park. We’re too late for the bus, but a driver will take us. As we head out of the city, he pours me a capful of the fermented horse milk he keeps stashed between the front seats of his car, and I’m surprised to taste a drink I think of as Mongolian. I shouldn’t be. There’s a long history of movement between Mongolia and Central Asia. For a lot of complex historical and often violent reasons, Xinjiang is home not only to Uighur people but also to Kazakh and Kyrgyz ethnic minorities, traditionally nomadic, now officially settled in a few closely monitored zones.

It isn’t simple to get to Tianchi, even once we’re there. From the ticket gate, we’re herded onto a bus that will take us up the mountain to the lake. When it sets off, a woman from the Kazakh ethnic minority gets up and explains her culture to us – language, diet, kinship and housing – in rapid-fire Mandarin over the shitty PA. I don’t catch much except a headache. After half an hour the bus stops beside the road and we all have to get off. Lavishly decorated camels stand tethered beside the gate to a display village, where a series of yurts await. We all file through while Kazakh people arrange themselves into photo opportunities. It’s either a well-intentioned effort to put some money into local pockets, or an awful sideshow. H and I rush through this presentation apologising, weave out through the inevitable gift shop and climb onto the next bus, where another ethnic-minority guide begins another speech, faster and louder than the first.

Tripitaka: ‘Are you immortal?’
Monkey: ‘Oh, you know. A little bit.’

Monkey, Episode 1

Guanyin has stopped by the mountain in advance to convert Monkey to Buddhism and to bestow on him the name Sun Wukong, which means ‘awakened to power’; when the Tang priest removes the seal over Monkey’s head, he bursts from his mountain prison, ensuring the monk is well out of the way first. But he’s still not convinced this journey is a good idea. Guanyin has given Sanzang a magic ring that he throws over Monkey’s head, activated by reciting a sutra. The symbolism is clear: a selfish and impulsive nature can be controlled with the discipline of prayer.

The mountains are spectacular, and my own headache prevents me from reading much. Journey is divided into episodes, so even though it’s very long it’s perfect to read in short snatches while traveling. Despite the name changes, it’s very easy to keep track of what’s going on, aided by the characters’ pantomime habit of regularly summarising events so far to other players.

The theatrical narrative technology is no accident. Many of these episodes would have been told or performed on stage for hundreds of years by the time Wu Cheng’en set them down, and the book has the feel of something intended to be read aloud. Episodes of prose and dialogue are punctuated by short poems; when I read them, I can hear the BBC voiceover that played a similar role for television. The poems in Journey are utterly necessary. They add atmosphere, but they also play a specific narrative role, more illustration than storytelling. A poem can show us a fight montage, skip over a boring few days’ hike, or give us a wide shot of a landscape. While voiceover narration irritates me on screen – I find it both intrusive and lazy – the poems in Journey feel natural, whatever that means. Like musical interludes, they give the tales space, and remind me that the episodic structure of fantasy novels, comic books, and television belongs to more than one oral tradition.

On a similar note, the chapter endings are scattered with what I can’t help thinking of as clickbait: “If you don’t know what happened on the journey ahead, listen to the explanation in the next installment.” Once the journey West has commenced, all these techniques find a rhythm that makes this hefty classic tome quite an addictive read.

When we are finally allowed off the bus to walk the last small slope towards the lake (this being China, there’s also a golf cart option), we weave through families taking photos, posing with some and getting out of the way of others. Despite the lake’s fame we’re the only foreigners here, and reactions are mixed. Eventually the people thin out and we find ourselves on a steel platform hugging the cliff, red lanterns and golden flags dangling above us, heading to a temple nestled in a fold of the hill. The lanterns creak as we pass beneath them. The lake itself is mesmerising, even with a few tour boats roaring across its surface. On the far side, snowy mountains peer across the dream-still water. It’s summer, but the high-altitude air is cool and clear. Every so often we hear the temple bell ringing out, approaching and retreating on the wind like a bird of prey.

This temple is dedicated to the Queen Mother of the West, the Jade Emperor’s mother, an important figure in the overpopulated and bureaucratic Taoist heaven, though she remains offstage in Journey to the West. When we climb the stairs,  we see the source of the ringing: a group of men sit in the pagoda that houses the huge bell, and when we wander over they encourage us to have a turn of hitting it with the big wooden post hanging on chains beside it. Harder, they urge, then proceed to ask us rapid-fire questions we can’t hear because the ringing fills our heads. This experience, the untranslatable yelling and the resonance together, feels typical both of China and of traveling. The universe is taking the piss, and it’s also trying to tune me to its key. We wave at the men, walk up to the shrine and light the incense we are given. I don’t pray, but it doesn’t seem to matter what I believe. After the chaos at the airport, I suppose I do want some kind of blessing for our journey.

Pig and Friar Sand (Pigsy and Sandy in the TV show) are also converted in advance by the Bodhisattva Guanyin, who acts as fairy godmother and dungeon master, throwing obstacles in the travellers’ path, then showing up to dispense wisdom and assistance. She’s omniscient and usually patient, though she does get exasperated with Monkey’s fooling. More than once, she shows up in disguise to test the travellers’ moral courage and loyalty. She also provides some of the group’s magical armory, including three special hairs that Monkey can use to get out of a fix. Beloved across China and East Asia, Guanyin is sometimes described as the Goddess of Mercy. She is the poster Bodhisattva for vegetarianism. She has mostly been depicted as female since the Song dynasty but can also show up as male. Perhaps Tripitaka’s casting in Monkey was a nod to this transgender quality, which may have come from a mixing of Buddhist, Taoist, and pagan beliefs.

The huge, golden statue of the Queen Mother of the West in this temple resembles a fierce middle-aged woman – the archetypal boss auntie. She is calm, but there’s a look in her eye that says she will not be fucked with, like Penny Wong in an Estimates hearing. I wonder about her connection to the Bodhisattva, whose popular female form in China might have developed from some older goddess. Raised Irish Catholic, I am comforted by pagan matriarchs. When things are chaotic, it’s reassuring to think of a figure like this, someone, somewhere, who knows exactly what is going on and thinks you’re trivial.

Journey may have a Buddhist purpose, but it takes place in a landscape built by folk mythology. The morals of many of its episodes seem to be the peaceful coexistence of Buddhist and Taoist faiths, where their practices align. On entering a Taoist temple, Pig says ‘Although we wear different clothes we cultivate our conduct the same way’. In the book, diverse religious practices cohabit peacefully, but sometimes uneasily. While the religious context has changed dramatically, this question of coexistence remains urgent.

Cosmopolitan Beijing does a convincing performance of social harmony, especially among the upper-middle-class beneficiaries of growth for whom the dictatorship is largely benevolent. Xinjiang-style kebab (chuanr) is the dominant food trend in a city where food trends are everything, but I have regularly witnessed police harassing Uighur tradespeople, and anecdotally, airport, train and subway security have a tendency to profile Muslim passengers. In news stories both Chinese and foreign, Xinjiang is usually represented as a place of terrorist attacks and ethnic instability. Uighur journalists and bloggers are regularly detained. At the same time, there’s a parallel fetishisation of ethnic-minority lifestyles, especially where they enhance the authenticity of the colonising culture (see the hugely successful 2015 film Wolf Totem). To an Australian, this is a depressingly familiar pattern.

That night we walk to the grand bazaar. Uighur people are a minority here in the Han-settled capital, and becoming more so as the city grows, but the area around the bazaar has been their home for centuries. We walk past the money-changers outside the mosque, taking a shortcut down a lane lined with kebab and naan vendors. Grubby-faced children trampoline on a stained mattress, their expressions sombre and wary. I keep taking my phone out to check both Google and Baidu maps (the former only works with a VPN, and it keeps dropping out), neither of which matches the reality in front of me. I depend too much on this expensive little machine.

Inevitably, my phone is stolen from my bag by a clever pickpocket. I’m surprised, then embarrassed by my surprise, then ashamed of my dim-witted naïveté. We’d dismissed all the warnings about this neighbourhood as racist. Is this whole trip going to be a disaster? Do we deserve any better? We abandon the bazaar, mocked by some second-hand phone dealers on the way out. The shiny new electronics stores now seem parasitic, and I resent them more than the thief, even as I go into one and hand over my card. I decide the pickpocket is a parent, perhaps of the children bouncing on their mattress. To him, I look like the rich white idiot I sort of am. There’s nowhere I cannot go.

Although Sun Wukong can fly anywhere on his cloud, the Tang priest must make the journey to fetch the scriptures the slow way, on foot and on horseback. Difficulties must be met on level ground, rivers crossed by ferry, belly filled only with charity. At every step, he relies on the help of others, especially his three companions. Frustratingly trusting, Sanzang has a tendency to mistake every demon for a human in distress. His goodness creates for the reader some of the best comic moments, charged with dramatic irony, where we invariably side with the smarter and more cynical Sun Wukong.

‘No sooner have you killed one person than you kill another. It’s an outrage.’
‘She was an evil spirit,’ Monkey replied.
‘Nonsense, you ape,’ said the Tang Priest, ‘as if there could be so many monsters!’

In his introduction, Waley describes his Tang priest as ‘the ordinary man, blundering through the difficulties of life’; Jenner has him as ‘ever-anxious, goody-goody, dim but self-important’. The traditional analysis of the four travellers presents them as archetypes, the journey to enlightenment helping them to overcome their flaws. But were their characters so simple, these stories would not be so interesting. Journey could also be read as a warning to travellers to exercise caution. At every turn the Tang priest is abducted, robbed, imprisoned, sexually assaulted, and at one point even impregnated by river water. A variety of monsters and demons very much want to eat him. Once digested, his purity will make them immortal.

To travel is to be at the mercy of material limitations: technology, schedules, sand storms and circumstances. More importantly, it is to rely on the hospitality of strangers. This isn’t a going away, because travel isn’t an escape from one’s context but an act of faith in the universal human community. An act of trust. To ask to be a guest is to be reminded of the privilege of freedom of movement in a world where going away is a desperate dream for many, a dream that can begin in and end in hell. Australians like to assume that we are welcome everywhere. This is a weird expectation for a people who never asked permission to live on the land we stole, a people who allow our hypocrisy to take shape as the camps on Manus Island and Nauru.

The fast train connecting Turpan to Urumqi feels as soft and swift as Monkey’s cloud, especially after a crushing hour queuing for tickets. The high speed rail line has been open for eighteen months, part of an astonishing expansion over the last decade. The city quickly gives way to an arid, rocky landscape with glimpses of coal mines and solar farms. Turpan, its fertile valleys famous for their grapes, lies at one edge of the Taklamakan Desert, the second largest shifting-sand desert in the world. Around the modern town sit the ruins of older oasis cities, half turned to dust. The real Xuanzang stopped here at Gaochang, his last stop in the farthest reaches of Tang dynasty China before he entered foreign lands.

Xuanzang’s journey maps easily to modern Silk Road cities and towns. From Turpan he travelled west to Aksu and Tashkent before moving south into India. But Journey to the West is a fiction; its West is the imaginary landscape of the pre-modern Chinese imagination, a place of impassable mountains and rivers, extreme temperatures, and strange customs. Its world is that of the sailing maps that hang in the Urumqi museum, their seas replete with fantastical monsters. Maps, like stories, are a product of the limited knowledge of their time. So while the Tang capital Chang’an is very real – in modern Xi’an, you can visit the Wild Goose Pagoda that was built to house Xuanzang’s scriptures, and stop off at the Starbucks in its neighbouring shopping mall – the travellers in Journey soon pass out of the known world and into the more interesting territory of the invented.

‘It is autumn now, so why is it getting hotter again?’ Sanzang asked…
‘The seasons must be out of joint,’ said Friar Sand.

The real and the imaginary West cross paths at a place called Flaming Mountain, huoyanshan, the hottest place in China. The mountain’s a hundred kilometres long, but the photo opportunity is fifty metres of roadside rest stop just outside Turpan. Driving through the concrete entrance with its Journey to the West mural, it’s clear the place is proud of the association. After buying a ticket, we walk through a tunnel with friezes of scenes from the book carved in stone on the wall, like the stations of the cross in a Catholic church. Through a few lacklustre gift shops and up some stairs, we emerge beside a giant thermometer. It’s not that hot today – the sandstorm brought a cool change behind it – but the vast treeless expanse is impressive. Up on the ground, you can pay extra for a camel ride to the base of the mountain. We walk there and back. It’s further than it looks, but worth the approach to get a sense of the scale. Great cracks have eroded in the mountain; in certain lights, these give the appearance of flames. Returning to the thermometer, we pass a marked pit where, were it staffed, we could have bought an egg and fried it directly on the hot ground. This offer strikes me as oddly Central Australian.

Descending the stairs, I spot Zhu Bajie (Pig) standing by the door in a mask, leaning on his rake. Other tourists are walking by pretending not to see him, probably in order to avoid paying whatever he’s charging for a photo. By this time familiar with his lustful, attention-seeking character, I too avoid eye contact. In Journey, Pig is often referred to as ‘the idiot,’ and occasionally ‘the splendid idiot’. It’s just like him to show up here hoping to be recognised.

We have Gaochang almost to ourselves. A weathered testament to the wealth and scale of ancient Silk Road cities and the endurance of bricks and mortar, it’s an almost mystical experience of ruin. It takes over an hour to walk the circuit of the site, accompanied only by flies and swallows. At one end, we enter the remains of a temple. The circular room where Xuanzang would have taught – the one the king of this place, Qu Wentai, had built for him in 628 – is still standing, though part of the domed roof has fallen in, leaving a round blue eye in place of a ceiling. Xuanzang stayed here for a month before embarking on the hardest part of his journey.

We share the rest of the temple with a busload of slow-moving European baby boomers. Outside, a couple of Uighur men are sitting by the wall in traditional costume, playing a version of Bella Ciao on the tembor (a kind of lute). It was common for missionaries to accompany traders on Silk Road journeys, and the history of Xinjiang has cultures sweeping east and west across vast distances, picking up each other’s stories and faiths, leaving cultural residue behind. I suppose stories and songs still hitch rides along this well-trodden path with the tourists who take photographs and anecdotes and souvenirs and leave a few coins, a few bits of rubbish, a few whinging TripAdvisor reviews in our wake.

The history of this landscape is more traumatic than my fantasy of cross-cultural pollination and peaceful trade suggests. It’s also history of war and displacement and invasion and destruction. Once part of Tang Dynasty China, this region was taken by Uighurs in the ninth century, who were then displaced by Genghis Khan; repeated Mongolian incursions wore Gaochang out until it was abandoned in the fourteenth century. Cultures don’t just spread themselves, they are actively promoted and suppressed. When we visit the nearby Thousand Buddha Caves at Bezeklik, we find that the eyes of the remaining Buddhas have been gouged out, probably vandalised during long territorial disputes between Buddhists and Muslims. But most of the best Buddhas aren’t even here. They aren’t anywhere. Stolen by German explorer-archaeologists in the early 1900s, they were taken to Berlin and affixed to the wall of a museum that was later destroyed by Allied bombing. These many absences make Bezeklik feel haunted by violations, a monument to enduring global practices of desecration.

In the gift shop at Bezeklik you can buy Buddhist statues and plastic lotus flowers, headscarves and Haji hats. You can also buy Journey to the West figurines that I think are plastic when I pick them up. I have to have it explained to me three times before I understand they’re made out of camel hoof. One of the more patient salespeople holds a lighter to the base of Sun Wukong to show us his resistance to heat.

We take the slow train, twenty-six hours in a hard sleeper south-west across the desert to Kashgar. Although they’re not as convenient as the gaotie, I love the enclosed world of these trains, the chance they offer to read and contemplate at length. Each open compartment sleeps six, but the beds are clean and comfortable. The landscape out the window is stony desert, with rocky mounds that remind me of the treeless gibber plains of northern South Australia, except with excellent mobile reception. The teenagers down one end of the train play hand-clap games and FaceTime their parents. The older crowd compete to monopolise the hot water supply.

Xuanzang did not have permission to leave China. He left Gaochang under cover of night, with horses and twenty-five men donated by the devout Qu Wentai. In Journey, Sanzang carries a passport, but it’s really just a note from the Tang emperor, and it’s constantly being confiscated. Another lesson: all earthly authority is shaky. Local kings are likely to be imposters, demons and dragons who have usurped worldly thrones.

A huge Mao statue looms over Kashgar’s People’s Square, a mark of a watching empire. The square is empty when we arrive, too hot and exposed for the people, who are sensibly taking afternoon naps under trees in a nearby park. The remains of the original old town perch on one side of the city, an inhabited version of the ruins at Gaochang. The new old town has been rebuilt, less beautiful, less labyrinthine, filled with shops selling artisanal wares: copper, carpets, turned wood, musical instruments. There are police with guns on most corners, metal detectors at the entrance to every market. There’s an international trade fair the week after we’re there, and perhaps that’s contributed to tightened security, but the city feels occupied. There are mosques, but we never hear the call to prayer.

I make the mistake of answering honestly the first couple of times someone asks me what I think of Kashgar. I say it doesn’t feel like China. ‘The culture’s not the same,’ I clumsily assert. In return I get blank looks and shaken heads and ‘of course it’s China.’ I’ve been here long enough to know when I’m receiving polite discipline about what can and can’t be said. Borders require constant policing.

The Tang dynasty is remembered as a utopian period of Buddhism, vegetarianism, and high art and culture, but it was also a time of Chinese expansion into Central Asia. The Anxi (Peace in the West) Protectorate, established in 640, saw Chinese garrisons established along the major Silk Road cities. At its greatest extent, this Protectorate stretched into Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, across the Fergana valley, until it was defeated by Tibetan forces in the eighth century An Lushan rebellions. At the time the Uighur khanate stretched across Mongolia. This region didn’t come back under Chinese control until the Qing dynasty, and Russian, Turkic and Chinese forces continued to dispute the territory for strategic gains until the PRC declared the province the Autonomous Region of Xinjiang in 1955: Xin meaning new, and jiang meaning border, or frontier.

Because he can transform himself, Monkey always escapes captivity. He often shrinks to a tiny insect in order to escape a prison, or sometimes to enter one and fight his way out. No door or box is closed to him, no chest can hold him. At one point he is trapped by a demon king inside a magic gourd that is supposed to turn him to pus. He tricks his way out by shouting ‘Heavens, my knuckles have turned to pus’ and waiting for the demons to take the lid off and see for themselves.

We have to get a permit to enter the border region between China and Pakistan, a wild five-hour drive up the precipitous Karakoram Highway, presently under reconstruction. Our hotel is full of mountain climbers heading for nearby Muztagh Ata, but we stop at Lake Karakol to eat watermelon and drink the scenery. The village there is Kyrgyz, one of fifty-six recognised ethnic minorities in China. Around Kashgar, the designation of Uighur Autonomous Zone means that every half hour or so, we have to pull into a police checkpoint. At every checkpoint the routine is the same: a teenager with a gun leans in, looks us over, has a few words with our guide, then makes us get out of the car. We all traipse into a building and show our passports to some more teenagers in uniform. Then we drive for another half an hour, and go through it all again.

The fantasy in those magic words: there’s nowhere I cannot go. The unfairness in them. Between swapping education theory with H, the polyglot high school teacher moonlighting as our driver – it pays better – says he wants to live in a world without any borders. It’s easy to see why.

We stop to see the beautiful Uighur knives, a thousand-year traditional craft under threat now from antiterror legislation that prevents Uighur people from carrying them. We stop to see the mosque and tombs at Yarkand, and nobody mentions the ‘riots’ that happened in this county two years ago. Left unspoken, the details have quickly become hazy. The official death toll, according to the Chinese government, is 96. Others have claimed that as many as 2000 people were massacred, but they tend to be detained fast. Uighur bloggers such as Ilham Tohti languish in prison or are prevented from leaving China. In the bazaar, women with bowls of homemade yoghurt descend on potential customers like seagulls. We buy fresh watermelon, freshly butchered lamb.

On the way to our camel ride in the desert, we stop at the camel man’s house for tea that is only hot water. His village is verdant with vegetables and the only other traffic consists of chickens and donkeys and goats. The Taklamakan is just down the street, dunes visible through trees, its abrupt border maintained by ancient irrigation technology. When we get there, this border appears as self-parody: the official entrance to the Taklamakan is a pink cement castle that is either unfinished or abandoned. When we peer through its grubby glass doors we can see the dunes and a few very rickety looking scaffold towers melting into the sand beyond. It’s locked, so we walk around it.

Xuanzang crossed the Bedal pass into Kyrgyzstan, where a third of his party froze to death on the mountain. We go via Irkeshtam, a route that still takes all day by several shared taxis from Kashgar to Osh. When our car is full we drive out into an ochre landscape dotted with more vast solar farms. It’s just after dawn and the roads are wide and new and empty. H watches the driver, wakes him when his eyes drop closed. Halfway there, we stop at a roadhouse and the young man squeezed in the back with us swaps places with a female passenger in another car.

Borders are strange imaginings, made no more real by the act of crossing them. A mountain or a sea or the name of an island might make these lines look natural, but they are all fictions. The border between China and Kyrgyzstan isn’t a line but a landscape, a non-country easily a hundred kilometres deep. We get a lift to one Chinese checkpoint, then walk to another. Truck drivers wave at us. We are the only tourists, again, but everyone here is a foreigner. It makes things simple. We have found the rhythm of our role as passengers, and wait politely for instructions from the several levels of uniformed authority figures who we hope will let us leave.

A group of Kyrgyz women are transporting what looks like a year’s worth of goods for trading back to their home near Osh. One has no passport, just photocopied papers, but they are all boss aunties who will not be messed with. To get across the non-country, we have to share a ride with someone, and the men who seem to have the final say about this end up squeezing us into the minivan with the aunts, right in the back, bags of chickpeas under our feet, our suddenly-quite-small backpacks poised behind our heads, while they load their livelihoods into this and several other vehicles. History tells us the Silk Road came to an end in the seventeenth century, but it is still here.

The real border, the border-between-borders, is like a punchline out of a Far Side cartoon: a shed built over the road with a closed roller-door that blocks the single lane. Perhaps we’re still in China, because it’s closed for lunch for an indeterminately long period. Everyone piles out of the minivan. An elderly woman in a headscarf watches us from across the street, perched on an iron bedframe. Two children, one in a bright blue ball gown, drift across the street and into a ruined building. The crone waves us over to share her cardboard-covered platform for a while. Later we have tea and stale naan with the aunts in a tiny room. There’s no Chinese spoken now, let alone English; just Kyrgyz and Russian and mime. We should go to Uzbekistan, it’s very beautiful. I feel like I could go on traveling west forever.

There’s another border, and another checkpoint, and another shared taxi before we arrive in Osh, a city that has been here for at least three thousand years; its small historic mountain once marked the halfway point on the ancient Silk Road. We’re about halfway between Beijing and Istanbul, or between the ancient trading destinations of Chang’an and the ports of the Levant. From here, traders would travel either west through Persia or skirt the Himalayas south to India. To us, this is off the beaten path, but it’s also a well-trodden route, one that connects us to the past, to each other, to the long politics of the world we know.

When the travellers arrive at last in India, they are relieved to find the familiar. Watching an embroidered ball being thrown at a wedding, Sanzang observes to Monkey: ‘People, clothes, buildings, language and speech here are all the same as in our Great Tang.’ It’s a revealing moment, both reassuring – at the height of the Tang dynasty, these customs symbolise the loftiest ideals of civilisation – and sad, like the foreigners looking for the Starbucks at Wild Goose Pagoda. But which of these places is more authentic? I am a product of empires, of colonisations, and of the long peaceful exchanges of cultures that also make history and place. I am overjoyed to find a Turkish bakery in Osh that sells good baklava. Monkey’s folk power comes from transformation. He’s an insect, a watermelon, a false king, an army of himself. He makes whatever change he has to make to adapt to the circumstances around him. He’s unfixed, and so he’s indestructible.

On reaching its destination, Journey shakes a hair from its head, blows on it, and shouts ‘Change’; the text makes one of its sudden leaps between nonsense and profundity. Climbing into a boat to cross a final river, Sanzang sees his own corpse float by.

‘Don’t be frightened, Master,’ said Monkey. ‘That’s you’
‘It’s you, it’s you,’ said Pig. Friar Sand clapped his hands as he said, ‘It’s you, it’s you!’
The boatman gave a call, then also put in, too, ‘It’s you! Congratulations! Congratulations!’ The three of them all joined in these congratulations as the ferryman punted the boat quickly and steadily over the immortal Cloud-touching Crossing.

The Tang priest won’t be needing his body anymore; he’s achieved his life’s quest and attained enlightenment. At this moment, the world of the book threatens to close on a single meaning. But then it leaps right back into satirical mode. The scripture-keepers are reluctant to part with their books without a gift in exchange; even gods are subject to the laws of guanxi. But the pilgrims have brought nothing with them, so the first set of books they receive are blank.

Sanzang’s flight home is just a few hours via magic wind. He returns with scriptures, having travelled fourteen years and survived eighty ordeals. The Bodhisattva, particular about numbers, decides to hand them another obstacle on the way home to make it nine times nine. The scriptures are nearly drowned in a river, rendering them conveniently incomplete again.

On our way home, we are held up in Urumqi airport again, but H manages to charm us onto another flight. Beijing has never seemed so welcoming, and nor have its mass transit, its queues and swipe cards and overstaffed security, felt more functional. It won’t be my home for much longer, but for now the city swallows me up in its contingencies, its endless tradition and endless novelty. For an outsider, reality here always seems slippery; I suppose the Buddhists would argue it’s like that everywhere.

In a scene that I can’t help visualising as a version of the awards ceremony from Star Wars: A New Hope, the four travellers are finally allocated their places in Heaven. Xuanzang and Monkey find enlightenment and become Buddhas. Pig is given the role of cleaning up the shrines, which he objects to until he’s told he can eat the leftover offerings. Poor, underdeveloped Friar Sand becomes an Arhat. The horse-dragon gets to be a heavenly dragon again, and Monkey has his headache band removed at last.

I’ll never articulate what Journey to the West means, certainly not for Chinese readers, but I do feel confident making the assertion that it’s the best epic Buddhist fantasy novel ever written. Journey has survived this long by transforming, as folk tales do; the text and its comedy remain startlingly present. An infinite novel whose characters will continue to reincarnate, its quest is a cycle that can begin again at any moment. A journey is both a circle and a line. Fantasy is often a way of thinking hopefully about human community. On the journey West, many dragons have been subdued, demons converted; there’s order now in Heaven and on Earth. The kind of order where goodness prevails, where even a traveller will find her place, where going away always ends in returning.

Out with visitors on one of my last days in Beijing, I emerge from a crowded tourist lane near the drum tower and nearly barrel into him. The Great Sage, Equal of Heaven, has stepped down from his somersault cloud to make mischief in the streets of Gulou tonight. ‘Hey, Sun Wukong,’ I say, ‘Zenme yang?’ Automatically, I’ve greeted Monkey in a familiar mode. It’s technically a faux pas, but the young man in the costume doesn’t correct me. Instead, he reaches out a paw to pat me on the shoulder and smiles through his mask, through his many masks, with a warmth that has crossed mountains and deserts, ages and cultures, borders and languages to find its way here.