Part V - The Southern Silk Road, skirting and passing through the Taklamakan Desert
The sunlit peaks of the Kunlun Mountain Range floating above the horizon far off in the distance. They were snow capped and massive; a huge wall of rock between Xinjiang and Tibet.
Day eight | 11 September | Kashgar to Yengisar, to Yarkand, to Khargilik, to Khotan
We left Kashgar at 9.30 this morning after waiting 30 minutes to check out (check out is a lengthy activity to be factored into the schedule of each day). The route, skirting the southern side of the Taklamakan Desert and passing through dusty oasis towns shaded by poplars and lined with brick walls, must have been a difficult journey 2000 years ago and without much security.
The only difference I could note in each oasis town we passed was the size; otherwise from what we saw they were all very similar. Men and women flocked along the main road on their donkey carts to and from market, and cultivated grapes in veranda gardens. Poplars lined the main road - a modern iteration of the ancient southern route of the Silk Road, which today passes the same villages and towns as it did thousands of years ago. Small water canals follow the side of the road, carrying water to thirsty plots of land.
The first stop was Yengisar; essentially a one road town. The only thing we could see was an array of knife shops along the highway, for which the town is famous. The knives were actually quite nice, with inlaid handles of bone, wood, and metal and carvings of Uighur or Chinese script or dragons along the blades.
Next stop was Yarkand for lunch. We went to a Uighur teahouse and had laghman. Next stop was Khargilik, where we stopped at the bus station to get some information for my planned trip to Tibet from here later this month.
Khotan was a comparatively large Chinese city. The Chinese areas are soulless - wide streets and big buildings and absolutely nothing with charm or character; but the small pockets of Uighur residences and restaurants such as the cluster of restaurants where we stopped for dinner have much more vibrancy. The hotel, though comfortable, was dead, while the restaurant chairs and tables along the street side hummed with lively banter of men and women enjoying noodles and kebabs.
Day nine | 12 September | Khotan to Lop to Niya
This morning an exploration around Khotan City revealed it to be quite drab and a totally Sinicised city. After breakfast, included in the hotel cost, (a variety of cold veges, some pickled and some fried; not much to fill the bellies of explorers like us!), we made our way south looking for a branch of China Bank to change money and an internet cafe; surprisingly challenging tasks in this part of the world, and neither of which we found. The heart of the city seemed to comprise a large square with a huge statue of Mao (surprise surprise) greeting an old man. Some event was going on there and the place was packed with well behaved school children.
There were 2 sites in Khotan we wanted to see before leaving. The first was a site of old pre-Islamic ruins called Melikawat that used to be a major Buddhist centre and Indo-European town thriving in the heyday of the Silk Road. We passed through the outskirts of the town on our way and reached the area where the ruins supposedly lay; what we saw were hordes of people arriving on motorbike and digging in the dry river bed of White Jade River, prospecting for the famous Khotan jade - one of the main and early items traded along the Silk Road.
Zunun occupied himself digging while Luc and I went in search, in vain, of some ruins. There were some remnants of something... couldn't tell you what! But certainly not worthy of a visit. Very interesting to see the gold rush though!
The 2nd site was a silk workshop. It was evident that at some point this atlas karakhana (silk workshop) indeed did display the process of silk weaving, but at this stage it was quite forlorn and looked like it had been abandoned in haste. Old cocoons still sat in bowls, large pots of dusty dye stood idle. The only active place was the shop, where they sold silk carpets and various silk garments and ikat.
I'm currently perched very comfortably on a raised platform in front of a chaikhana in Lop. Another quiet, peaceful oasis town; we are located on the corner of two major roads but the few noises are the occasional truck horn or grumble of a tractor and the otherwise relaxing chat and noodle slurping of our fellow lunch companions. Lunch was the usual; irregular sized, home made noodles topped with fried vegetables and a few meagre pieces of fatty meat for decoration, and a kebab.
From Lop on the way to Niya, just as the sun was setting, we caught our first glimpse of the vast Taklamakan Desert; the fringe of the road became sandy and then we saw our first rolling sand dunes. And straight ahead an absolutely breath taking sight - the sunlit peaks of the Kunlun Mountain Range floating above the horizon far off in the distance. They were snow capped and massive; a huge wall of rock between Xinjiang and Tibet. Witnessing this sight one could easily imagine how the high plateau of Tibet must have pulled at the imagination of explorers in times past; and why it still has the same effect on people today.
Niya, for it's fascinating location, was quite a depressing little place. Another soulless spot. We ate at some dismal night markets before retiring for the night.
The Taklamakan Desert, also known as Taklimakan and Teklimakan, is a desert in southwest Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, northwest China. It is bounded by the Kunlun Mountains to the south, the Pamir Mountains and Tian Shan (ancient Mount Imeon) to the west and north, and the Gobi Desert to the east. The name may be an Areeb Uyghur borrowing of the Arabic tark, "to leave alone/out/behind, relinquish, abandon" + makan, "place". Another plausible explanation suggests it is derived from Turki taqlar makan, describing "the place of ruins".
The Taklamakan Desert has an area of 337,000 km2 and includes the Tarim Basin. It is crossed at its northern and at its southern edge by two branches of the Silk Road as travelers sought to avoid the arid wasteland. It is the world's second largest shifting sand desert with about 85% made up of shifting sand dunes ranking 18th in size in a ranking of the world's largest deserts.
The People's Republic of China has constructed a cross-desert highway that links the cities of Hotan (on the southern edge) and Luntai (on the northern edge). In recent years, the desert has expanded in some areas, its sands enveloping farms and villages as a result of desertification.
Because it lies in the rain shadow of the Himalayas,Taklamakan is a paradigmatic cold desert climate. Given its relative proximity with the cold to frigid air masses in Siberia, extreme lows are recorded in wintertime, sometimes well below −20 °C (−4 °F). Its extreme inland position, virtually in the very heartland of Asia and thousands of kilometres from any open body of water, accounts for the cold character of its nights even during summertime.
The Taklamakan Desert has very little water; it is hazardous to cross it. Merchant caravans on the Silk Road would stop for relief at the thriving oasis towns. It was in close proximity to many of the ancient civilizations—to the Northwest is the Amu Darya basin, to the southwest the Afghanistan mountain passes lead to Iran and India, to the east is China, and even to the north ancient towns like Almaty can be found.
The key oasis towns, watered by rainfall from the mountains, were Kashgar, Marin, Niya, Yarkand, and Khotan (Hetian) to the south, Kuqa and Turpan in the north, and Loulan and Dunhuang in the east. Now, many, such as Marin and Gaochang, are ruined cities in sparsely inhabited areas in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China.
The archaeological treasures found in its sand-buried ruins point to Tocharian, early Hellenistic, Indian, and Buddhist influences. Mummies, some 4000 years old, have been found in the region. Later, the Taklamakan was inhabited by Turkic peoples. Starting with the Tang Dynasty, the Chinese periodically extended their control to the oasis cities of the Taklamakan Desert in order to control the important silk route trade across Central Asia. Periods of Chinese rule were interspersed with rule by Turkic, Mongol and Tibetan peoples. The present population consists largely of Turkic Uyghur people.
Day ten | 13 September | Niya to Taklamakan
To a Uighur teahouse for breakfast in the bazaar - an un-atmospheric line of stalls and teahouses stretched along the main road - where we had some roasted samsas (samosas), fried veges and plain bread. After, we went shopping for supplies for our trip into the desert: raisins, grapes, apples, nectarines, bagels (a Uighur staple), cookies (very untasty), beer, water and half a kilo of cooked mutton. The mountains we saw yesterday were more visible today; still seemingly floating above the horizon.
We left Niya behind, and entered the fringe of the Taklamakan. The road was velveteen, and grassy flatlands lined it, grazed upon by sheep. This gradually petered off and soon enough we were in the thick of the desert; rolling sand dunes stretching off in all directions.
The Chinese had recently completed one of their three major national construction schemes in this area (the others being the Lhasa to Beijing railway and The Three Gorges Dam): on either side of the two lane Cross-Desert Highway stretched 10 or so black plastic pipes along the whole length of the 700 km highway. Fed by 106 well way-stations, located every 6 or 7 km along the highway, the pipes dripped water to small shrubs which were lined like a defending army against the encroaching sand. It is they alone that protect the road from disappearing, as the Taklamakan Desert is the world's "second largest shifting sand desert, with 85% made up of shifting sand dunes". Without these brave shrubs, fed by these pipes, the road would simply disappear under sand in a few days.
The desert really was a sight; dipping, rolling and climbing. An occasional high clump of sand was kept from blowing away by the roots of some plant perched on its top. It was not too hot with the strong breeze coming through the windows. I slept for part of the way, and listened to some of the Agatha Christie stories and Chinese language tutorials I'd downloaded to my Ipod.
We came upon a turnoff a little into the journey and a sign marked 17km to somewhere unknown to us; too tempted to pass it, we took the turnoff and arrived at a small village oasis where the shrine of Imam Jafar Sadiqque was located. We couldn't take photos of the shrine; a bleak, eery place. Sand dunes dotted with ancient graves, each marked with a small fence and a tangled bunch of dead branches. There were a few women inside the Qabiristan (cemetery) praying, and more people outside in the serai, sleeping and praying. We stayed a long time as Zunun had a good chinwag with the resident mullah, a stern looking young man with a striking face.
We got out of the car once in the afternoon during the journey through the desert for a walk up a mountainous dune. Following the ridge up to the top, we could see the amazing highway snaking along through the desert. After some 5 hours of driving and just before sunset, we passed through a truck stop, located near several roads running off from the highway towards oil fields - the reason why the highway was built in the first place. Large tankers and trucks passed us on their way. Soon after this truck stop, we identified our place for the night.
Luc and I climbed a nearby sand dune to catch the sunset, but just missed the giant red orb as it disappeared behind the distant horizon, off towards Kashgar. We didn't have long before dark, but took a few minutes to enjoy the space and near-serenity of this stark place. Actually, we were not so far from the road, and truck rumblings resonated through the air as they stormed past.
We collected our things from the car, then the three of us sat down to a meal of cold meat and bagels, nectarines and melon and beer. We enjoyed our meal. The light faded and it turned chilly. The gathering stars stretched out across the vast sky - clearer and brighter than I could remember having seen them before. Zunun was a little drunk and very cheery as Luc led him back to car where he would sleep, with the aid of the torch in his mobile.
In the dark, we recoinottered the area, choosing a hollow surrounded by dunes, but not too far from the road. In retrospect, we had come very poorly prepared for the few nights we spent sleeping out during this trip. We slept ON the tent rather than in it, since we had no mats, with two jumpers under us to soften the hardness and in the sleeping bags we had brought. It was a cold night, the early dawn chill getting into my bones. We rose for the desert sunrise at 6.30.