Awoke in the spartan Minfeng government guest house to the sound of loudspeakers blasting out ‘important government messages’ for the locals – a modern version, I suppose, of the Muezzin’s calls to prayer that echoed around Xinjiang for centuries.
Today is a big day for us, the crossing of the Taklamakan desert – source of the many British Museum treasures unearthed by Aurel Stein (someone gifted me a copy of Hopkirk’s fascinating ‘Foreign Devils on the Silk Route’ before I left), but also the graveyard of many a Silk Route traveler.
We left Minfeng and headed north towards the desert. We have now been in China a week and, despite cloudless skies have yet to see the sun, such is the incredible level of dust pollution.
As we find the narrow road north we’re surprised to find ourselves not in sand dunes, but rather in marshland – the snow melt of Tibet leeching out into the edge of the desert.
….however, this soon gave way to the desert proper, so Simon waded off into the dunes to take this photo of the road. There is next to no traffic – we are alone on this incredibly long, dead straight road.
Comparing the desert with the ocean is an age-old trope, but for a reason – dunes rolling like waves to unbroken horizons, sand blown over the surface like a fine mist of spray etc. etc. The motorbike ahead carves out a sharp wake as it blasts through the layer of fine sand that covers the road. It’s strangely hypnotic and even pleasurable riding – especially after the madness of Chinese city traffic. For a change one’s thoughts can safely drift and tens of miles disappear in what seem like an instant.
For hundreds of kilometers the Chinese have attempted to prevent sand dunes forming on the road by irrigating twenty meters on each side and planting tough shrubs. Every five or ten kilometers there’s a small blue building housing a well and pump and water is pumped to the shrubs via what must be thousands of kilometers of hosepipe. It has taken ten years to accomplish all this, but seems to be working. For these sections it creates for us the strange effect of riding along a green corridor and only occasionally glimpsing the infinite desert beyond.
We stopped for a simple lunch by the road. By now the temperature was hovering around 100 F, but we were all coping fine, even enjoying it…
…so when, at 2:30, we arrived at the sleazy little halfway community that has grown up to service truck drivers and bus passengers, and took one look at our hotel, we decided to push on.
So it was back to another three hundred kilometers of nothing but sand and a blinding but sunless sky. A bleached-out world.
When we finally made it to our hotel at Luntai – having crossed the 600KM of desert in one day rather than the planned two – we were shattered but content. How the hell Aurel Stein lived for years in that searing void is a testimony to the extreme power of man’s curiosity and/or ambition.
Thanks, as always, to Simon for the wonderful photos. And best to you all.