Taklamakan Desert

Once more the internet has conspired against me uploading all, or even my preferred, photos. Some more are available to view on my Instagram (below).

Deserts are good for thinking. Rather like Steppe. What I think about is hard to pinpoint. Sometimes its a meditative blank, sometimes erratic daydreams verging on delerium, sometimes the most profound and life changing thoughts which, like dreams, I forget the moment I recognise that I’m thinking them. I also think about what’s around me. At one point I thought I’d ground myself in the present, within the experience that is the landscape liminality of the Southern Silk Road (sandwiched between the mountains to the south and desert-proper to the north), by pondering:

What does the desert look like?

Sandy. A fine silty sand. A light brown fine silty oft-airbourne sand. An old beige cloth, rippling up in places, with stains, damp patches and mouldy growths where rivers, irrigation and tree plantations mark it, and an occasional human-louse infestation, which doesn’t much bother it. Big. And sandy again. Sometimes it looks like dry eyes, grit, and an off-beige-grey. We call that a sandstorm. It is often grey even when not storming – so much sand is kicking about.

What does the desert smell like?

Like nothing much really. Sand doesn’t have much odor. Van exhaust.

What does the desert sound like?

Windy. Or silent. Or like passing cars and trucks. Animal life is minimal in the Taklamakan.

What does the desert feel like?

Like a fine silty sand. Or hard-packed grittier sand and spikey scrubby growths. The fine sand is quite luxuriously soft. It gets in everywhere.

What does the desert taste like?

A dry gritty mouth for the most part. My teeth are likely well exfoliated.

But I digress.

I last posted from Kashgar. Kashgar is the best preserved Uyghur city left within the Xinjiang Province (the Chinese have a prerogative for the demolition of historic neighbourhoods and the imposition of Han culture and language within traditionally Uyghur regions). Uyghur culture is akin to that of the Central Asian countries, a Steppe culture, and uses a Turkic language. This means I often speak a bastardised and inaccurate mix of limited Turkish and Chinese. It works.

Interestingly much of the culture, in terms of dress and architecture, appears better preserved in China than in those countries formerly under the dictates of the Soviet Union. Traditional women’s outfits are luridly vibrant, and cosmetic stylings favour the application of a thick white foundation, a with painted features. Architecture makes use of carved timber pillars and ornate friezes. More modern buildings opt for characterful geometrically-patterned plaster panels.

Unrest is uncomfortably apparent. A formidable and oppressive police presence within Kashgar, and most other cities within the province, hammers down any attempt at protest or separatist movement. Historically the area, pivotal to the former Silk trade (and for even longer the trade of jade), has been under the power of numerous and varying states and kingdoms, from Tibetan, Han, and Islamic empires. The oppression extends to limiting the availability of passports to Uyghur populations, frequent police checkpoints (where non-Han Chinese are routinely scanned for weaponry, explosives or prohibited items), and the governmental control of fuel sales and the sale of any other flammable good (including pure alcohol we needed for running a camp stove). Petrol stations resemble fortifications, with armed guards, razor-wire, and ram-proof fencing. Permits are required for access. Likewise it seems to be a requirement for all shops and restaurants to have riot shields and weaponry to hand. Weaponry is often as crude and welded spears, with nails hammered point out below the point, to create a guard, and increase the apparent functionality of the device. Police drill shopkeepers regularly – an enforced militia service it seems.

People are nice and welcoming however, becoming increasingly so as we moved on towards the east of the county, away from the more contentious regions surrounding Kashgar.

Through to Hotan the Swedes (Kim and Karin) and I rode a magnificent tail-wind, culminating in an entertaining, though problematic sandstorm the night before reaching the city. My tent is not sandstorm proof; more sand appeared to have joined me inside than out come morning. I wouldn’t recommend moving metal objects (bikes) in a sandstorm – some serious static gets generated by all that whirling silica. Dinner was problematic too.

Hotan is an unremarkable modern Chinese city, though historically it formed the heart of the Jade industry and trade in China – with the stones formerly littering the nearby river beds. The city also has a small archaeology museum – with some disturbingly well preserved 2000 year old Han-dynasty mummies, and equally well preserved wood and leather artefacts. A bitter message at the entrance to the museum notes that much of the region’s archaeology now lies in Western museums, having been pilfered during the early 20th century. We had a rest day in Hotan – staying in the cheapest available accommodation… A Hilton. Hotels and hostels need permission to host foreign guests in China, so choice is limited. We shared a room for ¥100 each per night.

From Hotan we continued on through a fairly repetitive landscape of quasi-desert, typically modern Chinese towns (often with older Uyghur homes clustered towards there outskirts and set back behind painted mudbrick walls), and tree plantations. The plantations, of poplar, coupled with extensive irrigation, help to hold back the desert, and to claim land for agriculture. Presumably the trees reduce soil movement and increase water retention, while sheltering crops of walnuts, melons, and corn from the worst of the desert winds. At times the rippling sand-dunes which characterise the interior of the desert reach to the roadside – though more often they are seen in the distance; the road following the course of natural wetlands and oases. As we proceed scattered sections of Savannah-like grassland dotted with wonderfully mishapen and gnarled forms of wild Turanga polar provide respite for the eyes and mind, and some great camp spots. The wood is useful too, as by this point we are out of alcohol to burn for fuel, and so cook on campfires. Once we burnt dried camel poo for fuel. It worked well.

For nearly four days while riding the three of us were sick – stinking colds for Kim and I, and a stomach bug for Karin. Coupled with headwinds swirling in from the east progress slowed somewhat. On the plus side, David, a Northern Irish mechanical engineer commonly known amongst the many Pamir Highway cyclists as ‘Solo Stan’ (referring to his Instagram name), caught us up and joined the group.

Together we continued to Ruoqiang, where we had a rest day, and where I am presently sat. From here we will continue east, up through the mountains and on, through the cold, to Xining.



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