China # 12 – Heading towards Xi’an, City of the Terracotta Warriors – September 2014

July 20, 2018
A "Phantom City" across the Yellow River.

A “Phantom City” across the Yellow River.

Leaving Xiahe and the Labrang Tibetan Monastery, the scenery varied from terraced fields to more of those massive apartment buildings that appeared to be unoccupied. Road signs were a continuous amusement. Outside of Pingliang we were reminded that if there was any flat place bigger than half a basketball court, someone had planted something. By luck we managed to exit the toll road and found our way into a small rural village where we pulled off into a wide spot alongside the road for night. Quiet but raining, so poor Green opted to sleep in the cab again.

Odd Chinese Habit

Locals came out to inspect our vehicle and immediately wanted to clamber into the camper while we were eating dinner. Quickly, we pulled up the electric step. By now even Green was tired of explaining that this was our private home and we were not comfortable having so many visitors inside the camper. We were still amazed that this was apparently perfectly normal to do. One old woman was very upset “about our rudeness” and for quite some time, lamented loudly before retreating into the pouring rain. 

Bin County Cave Temple

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As we mentioned in our last Blog, we had not marked the Bin County Cave Temple on our maps, but when you have a guide as knowledgeable as Green, you listen to her advice. (Maybe she just wanted to see it!?) It turned out that the Bin County Cave Temple was an important stop on the Silk Road we were following. Started in the 5th century and completed in the 7th to the 10th centuries, it is located in the town of Chengguan, near Chang’an, the capital of Tang Dynasty, and contains the largest clay sculptured Buddhist figure in the area. Buddhism was introduced into China from India, possibly along the Silk Road.

The big clay sculptured Buddhist figure is the largest in the region.

The big clay sculptured Buddhist figure is the largest in the region.

In total there were 116 caves constructed on the sandstone cliffs that rose above the Jing River Valley. The caves were divided into five groups: Great Buddha Cave, Thousand-Buddha Cave, Arhat Cave, Monk’s Quarter Cave and Zhangba Buddha Cave, with a total of 466 niches and over 1,980 statues. Many of the caves were reached only by precarious foot holds carved in the sheer cliff. No, we did not see those!

Honestly, we were getting a little “Buddhaed-Out. We did find a reasonable hotel for Green, which she deserved, and there was good parking of us. It was Green’s turn to cook, she loved our kitchen, and that poor chicken we bought a few days ago met its final end. Green believed that eating the head would make you smart, so we gladly obliged her and the feet were apparently a delicacy in China as well. Our next destination was the much anticipated city of Xi’an, home of the famous Terracotta Warriors and the official end of The Silk Road.

 

 

China # 11 – Xiahe’s Labrang Tibetan Buddhist Monastery – Gansu Province – September 2014

July 13, 2018

After our exciting drive, following muddy switchbacks down the mountain in the dark to Xiahe, we were just happy that Green knew a pleasant hotel, the Tara Guesthouse, she had stayed at before and it had a quiet courtyard for us to park and camp. In the morning, we were a 5-minute walk to the entrance of the Labrang Monastery.

Labrang Tibetan Buddhist Monastery

While founded in 1709 and expanded greatly in the following centuries, much of the Labrang monastery was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution but then rebuilt from the 1980’s onward.

While founded in 1709 and expanded greatly in the following centuries, much of the Labrang monastery was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution but then rebuilt from the 1980’s onward.

Monks live off donations.

Monks live off donations.

Founded in 1709, Labrang is one of Tibetan Buddhism’s most important monasteries outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region. The formal name is Genden Shédrup Dargyé Trashi Gyésu khyilwé Ling or in Tibetan དགེ་ལྡན་བཤད་སྒྲུབ་དར་རྒྱས་བཀྲ་ཤིས་གྱས་སུ་འཁྱིལ་བའི་གླིང༌།. As a popular choice for many Tibetan monks to study at this influential Buddhist monastic university, the monastery has attracted monks from all over the Tibetan plateau. Labrang Monastery is also an important gathering place for many annual religious festivals. Believers on a pilgrimage visit in an effort for rewards in the next life (they believe in reincarnation) and to pray for their health, which could explain why we saw many older Tibetans walking with canes.

Yellow Hat Sect or Gelug School

The Yellow Hat Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, also called the Gelug School, has its own history and background. His Holiness, The Dalai Lama, belongs to this school. The yellow hats refer to the elaborate crescent-shaped hats worn by monks during ceremonies.

This monk definitely knew about modern technology.

This monk definitely knew about modern technology.

Children enter the monastery at a very young age.

Children enter the monastery at a very young age.

Our guide, Green, had studied Tibetan Buddhism and was a wealth of information, but for us, it is an extremely complicated religion. I could imagine it would seem equally baffling if a Tibetan Buddhist visited the Vatican in Rome. We could only appreciate the architecture and the general feeling of the Monastery, with its beautifully carved entrances, pagodas, temples and the amazing art work inside the temples. In a way, we felt we were actually in Tibet.

While we would have liked to linger longer in this peaceful town, being on a strict timetable, we soon had to continue towards our next destination. We headed toward the Bin County Cave Temple. It was not on our “Must see in China” list, but Green insisted we had stop there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

China # 10 – A Backroad to Xiahe, Gansu Province – September 2014

July 6, 2018

After our fresh noodle dinner we spent a quiet night in the hotel parking lot. In the morning we met Green in her room and did some email before heading towards our next stop, Xiahe in the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu Province. It is famous for its Labrang monastery, the largest edifice of the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism and home to the largest number of monks outside the Tibet Autonomous Region.

Yellow River and Phantom Cities

What an intriguing face.

What an intriguing face.

There was a long way around on a major highway, but our GPSs suggested a shorter more interesting route which still lay within the Chinese government allowed travel itinerary variance (or so we assumed). Relatively flat in the beginning, we could see some of the “phantom cities” covered by 60 Minutes on television. Huge multi-story apartment buildings sprouting immense cranes on top but no one around to live in them. In the small towns we could see what appeared to be perfectly good buildings being demolished, maybe to make room for another “phantom” apartment building? We stopped to buy some fresh chicken and cheese, and having seen yaks in the fields, Gary was hoping for some delicious yak butter like the type we enjoyed in Tuva (Russia) along the Mongolian border. As usual, people were fascinated by our truck and Green kept them from climbing in. They were all very friendly, but just didn’t realize that The Turtle V was our private home. 

Salar Moslem and Tibetan Buddhist Villages

Old Tibetan Women were mending a bell pull rope at their village temple.

Old Tibetan Women were mending a bell pull rope at their village temple.

After crossing the Yellow River, we came to a small village where people were busy thrashing and winnowing two types of grains we could not identify. We stopped to take some photos and convinced Green that we really needed to walk around in a couple of villages and see how rural Chinese lived. It was a great experience. Salar Moslem (who speak a Turkic language) and Tibetan Buddhist live in separate villages. Homes were very simple, at least from the outside. Several walls were used for drying hand-patted cow dung that must be used for fuel. One group of older Tibetan women was busy mending a pull rope for a beautiful giant bell in their temple. They all had a smile for us.

We passed a large hall lined with dozens of prayer wheels that people would spin as they walked by. Tibetan prayer wheels (called Mani wheels by the Tibetans) are devices for spreading spiritual blessings and well-being. Rolls of thin paper, imprinted with many, many copies of the mantra (prayer) “Om Mani Padme Hum”, printed in an ancient Indian script or in Tibetan script, are wound around an axle in a protective container and spun around and around. Typically, larger decorative versions of the syllables of the mantra are also carved on the outside cover of the wheel. Tibetan Buddhists believe that saying this mantra, out loud or silently to oneself, invokes the powerful benevolent attention and blessings of Chenrezig, the embodiment of compassion. Green had led tours in Tibet, and being a serious Buddhist, was happy to explain all of this to us.

Rural Roads are much more interesting than Super Highways

The whole process of threshing and winnowing is very labor intensive.

The whole process of threshing and winnowing is very labor intensive.

This was a part of China we really wanted to see, but most of the time we had been trapped on the super highways like rats in a tunnel. Climbing into the mountains, we were entertained by the road signs. Images of Buddhas had been painted on rock faces. Lots of Tibetan prayer flags told us we were getting close to the 3,643 m pass, (11,952 ft). Herds of sheep grazed in the tundra-like valley with many white yurts just visible in the background. The “short-cut” suggested by both our Garmin GPSs was very much under construction, like dirt, gravel and mud. We had just aired the tires down when we came to a total stop. An overloaded truck carrying a mountain of bricks was bogged and a line of cars was stopped behind it. We could smell the clutch of the stuck truck burning up, wheels spinning in the mud.

An overloaded truck gets stuck in the mud

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We pulled out an overloaded truck full of bricks that got stuck in the mud.

Of course we could help with all our chains, tow straps and winch, but before we dug all that out and got it all muddy, the first thing we asked was, “Do you have a tow strap”. If they had one, and they did, then next step was for them to hook it on to their vehicle, wherever they choose. The next and easiest step was to attach it to one of our tow loops. They figured this out and to the relief of them and the line of cars waiting behind them, we drug them out of the bog. Their bumper came off in the process but they were happy.

With this delay it was dark as we made it down a long series of switchbacks to the town of Xiahe and pulled into the parking lot of a cute hotel Green had stayed at once before. It was her turn to cook, and she meticulously prepared a delicious meal introducing us to lotus root. It was nice to have a kitchen big enough for two people to work in at the same time, and I got to relax after our interesting drive over the mountains. In the morning we could walk into the Labrang monastery.

 

China # 9 – Heading to Xining, Qinghai Province – September 2014

June 22, 2018

Getting a late start from the end of the Great Wall of China, we were back on the monotonous highway. Looking for a place to camp, we saw a side road and followed it to a field with hundreds of bags of just-harvested onions, but no one around. We guessed that trucks would be coming in the morning to start loading but it was big and flat, and it had not started to rain yet. We were home. Not our favorite camp, but a memorable (smelly) one. Yes, we snatched a couple of onions laying loose on the ground.

Biking around China for Peace

In the next town we saw a car wash and asked if we could get some water. The only faucet was inside

A parting shot with the Chinese biker promoting Peace.

A parting shot with the Chinese biker promoting Peace.

the garage so it was bucket-time again. Turning off on Hwy 227, the scenery got more interesting as we headed into the Quilian Mountain Range. It seemed strange to come upon a large parking area right next to the road, and even stranger to see a huge billboard advertising motorhomes. We had not seen a single travel trailer or motorhome since entering China. It was a perfect place to stop for lunch. That’s when this friendly and adventurous looking guy peddled up on his overloaded mountain bike. Through our resident translator, Green, we learned that he was riding across all of China to promote peace. He carried a long cloth scroll on which he asked everyone he was happy to meet to write something. Of course we did. He was a real “Overlander”.

Playing Chicken on National Highways

Climbing over a 3,685 m pass, (12,089 ft), we passed through a couple of small towns. Traffic was hilarious or insane. The game is: “Yes I see you. Yes, I know I am in the wrong lane, but I know you are expecting me to come anyway.” It was a relief to arrive at the Olive Branch hotel in Xining. There was good off-street parking for us and a great noodle restaurant just down the street. There was also a KFC outlet, but handmade fresh noodles will win out every time. I was actually getting the hang of chop sticks.

China # 8 – Jiayguan -The Western End of the Great Wall – September 2014

June 15, 2018

It was late when we wound our way through the dark streets of Jiayuguan (Gansu Province) to find the official end of The Great Wall of China. A really full moon, the biggest and roundest of the year called Harvest Moon, lit the way as we arrived at an empty parking lot with a sign to the Great Wall entrance, a perfect place for Green to set up her tent. A little store was just about to close but we managed to grab a couple of cold beers. In the morning, a few vegetable and fruit vendors had set out their offerings.

The Great Wall of China

No matter how many photos you have seen, standing on the Great Wall of China is an original experience.

No matter how many photos you have seen, standing on the Great Wall of China is an original experience.

The Great Wall was an elaborate military defense system, including forts, platforms and watchtowers. Started in the 7th century, it eventually stretched 21,196 kilometers, (13,170 miles), across 15 modernnprovinces of today’s China. It has lasted over 2,000 years and is considered one of the greatest cultural and architectural miracles in the history of world civilization. Building materials varied according to topography and what was available. Wood, brick, stone and sometimes just willow twigs were inserted into layers of coarse clay. Natural cliffs were incorporated. Of course, one of the principal functions of the Wall was to protect the Western border of the Chinese Empire and the caravans traveling along the Silk Road.

The view was getting better with every step. Just cut through the smog!

The view was getting better with every step. Just cut through the smog!

As we started up the Wall to the top, we were counting steps. I think I lost count after about 500. From the watchtowers it would be easy to see invaders many miles away especially in ancient times without smog. At the very end of this restored section, actually a rock ridge, peak-bagger Monika climbed to the top. Lovers sealed their vows with a small padlock on the chain handrail and presumably threw the keys into the canyon below. There was thankfully an easier way down, following a long winding flagstone path.

Military fortress at Jiayu Pass

Leaving the West Gate entrance, the caravans headed for the treacherous Gobi and Taklamakan Deserts.

Leaving the West Gate entrance, the caravans headed for the treacherous Gobi and Taklamakan Deserts.

The large fortress protecting Jiayu Pass was built near Jiayuguan, a small town that became a prosperous center for the production of silk. At the large parking lot at the entrance of these historic grounds we quickly learned to always bring our passports as the folks at ticket counters and later security guards inspected them. First we visited the informative museum before walking up more stairs to the actual fortress. It encompasses 40’100 square yards (33,529 m2) and had a complex defensive system with an inner city with two gates, a central area with many buildings including pretty temples with fierce looking monster guardians, an outer city with two more gates, and finally a moat. Along the walls were watchtowers, turrets and cannons.

Last Outpost before the treacherous Gobi and Taklamakan Deserts

We would see the Great Wall of China two more times before our wheels touched the Yellow Sea of the Pacific Ocean.

Caravans coming from all four directions stopped here to trade. The General’s Fortress (as it is sometimes called) was the last outpost of the Chinese Empire for anyone heading west along the treacherous Gobi and Taklamakan deserts of the Silk Road. What trepidations they must have had leaving this haven! And what a relief others must have felt arriving safely after months of hardship and worries. Just having driven through those two treacherous deserts in a modern expedition truck with air conditioning we were in awe as we walked through the thick tunnel wall to see nothing but waterless wasteland. Camels were waiting for (tourist) cargo. One could only imagine the sounds and smells of the masses of men and animals in the mist of bartering and exchange of goods, news and ideas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

China # 7 – Gashun Gobi Desert to Dunhuang’s famous Mogao Caves – September 2014

June 8, 2018

Leaving the oasis of Turpan, we were back on the seemingly endless and quite boring toll highway along the northern edge of the Taklamakan desert. It felt like driving across Nevada. By late afternoon I was falling asleep. Then we saw it, an actual break in the fences and guardrails into the black rock desert of the southern Gashun Gobi Desert. An area, 1,295,000 km2, (500,000 mi²), it is the fifth-largest desert in the world, stretching over 1,600 km (1,000 mi) from southwest to northeast and 800 km (500 mi) from north to south. Once an ancient inland sea, water now is almost nonexistent. Most of the topsoil has been blown away by the prevailing northwestern winds, leaving rocky mountains and stony plains devoid of vegetation.

Gashun Gobi Desert

This part of the treacherous Gashun Gobi Desert was one of our most memorable camps in China. Photo by Zhang Zhi Qiong aka Green

Seeing this break in the fence, we switched from highway to “off road” and drove about half a mile onto a flat plain of clean black gravel. We could see the curvature of the earth. Wild camping doesn’t get any better than this. It was magical. Green set up her cozy MSR tent and we prepared a great dinner. No sound of any kind and no light except for the stars and nearly a full Harvest moon. Green broke out some very special “moon cakes” to celebrate the beginning of the Chinese Moon Festival.

With an early start in the morning—we really could have stayed longer—we headed back on the endless highway and made a quick fuel stop. There were no “four star tourist toilets”, so we were introduced to the normal road stop commodes, always a bit shocking; basically filthy pits and holes in a cement floor if travelers made it that far. Even Green was a little disgusted.

Dunhuang, Gansu Province

By evening we had maneuvered into the pretty oasis city of Dunhuang, for centuries an important commercial center along the Silk Road and today, famous for its night market. After getting Green settled in a hotel where we could park for the night, we headed for the market which had a great food court. The market itself, geared mostly to Chinese tourists, was fun to wander through and we couldn’t resist buying a tiny souvenir.

Mogao Caves – Caves of the Thousand Buddhas

The main temple of the Mogao caves was beautifully restored and a great photo op.

The main temple of the Mogao caves was beautifully restored and a great photo op.

In the morning, we slipped out of the city to visited the famous Mogao Caves, also known as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas. Carved into the cliffs above the Dachuan River, they comprise the largest, most richly endowed, and longest used treasure house of Buddhist art in the world. They were first constructed in 366 AD and represent the greatest achievement of Buddhist art from the 4th to the 14th century. Situated at a strategic point along the Silk Route, at the crossroads of trade as well as religious, cultural and intellectual influences, the 492 cells and cave sanctuaries in Mogao are famous for their statues and wall paintings, spanning 1,000 years of Buddhist art. They have become one of the three most famous ancient Buddhist sculptural sites of China.

Taoist Abbot Wang Yuanlu discovered the Library Cave at the Mogao Caves Buddhist Center. Photo 1900 (open source)

Taoist Abbot Wang Yuanlu discovered the Library Cave at the Mogao Caves Buddhist Center.
Photo 1900 (open source)

In 1900, the Taoist Abbot Wang Yuyanlu discovered a sealed cave (11th century) with up to 50,000 manuscripts in several ancient languages, now known as the Library Cave. The contents of the library were subsequently dispersed around the world and the largest collections are now found in Beijing, London, Paris and Berlin, and the International Dunhuang Project. It is one of the greatest treasure troves of ancient documents ever found. While early 20th century European explorers acquired many manuscripts, wall murals and other treasures for researchers, collectors and museums much to the chagrin of today’s China government but thanks to them, these precious historical documents were also saved as at that time, China showed no interest. Luckily, Mogao escaped any damage during the Cultural Revolution.

Not being Buddhist ourselves, we could only marvel at the caves and sculptures and the massive effort it has taken to restore them. Now we were looking forward to our next stop, the western end of The Great Wall of China.

China # 6 – Turpan – Heading east along the Northern Taklamakan Desert – September 2014

June 1, 2018

After a short drive from the Gaochang ruins we arrived in the pleasant city of Turpan. Turpan is China’s “Death Valley”. Part of the Turpan basin is 154m, (505 feet), below sea level, making it the second lowest depression on earth, just after the Dead Sea. It is the hottest spot in China. In July and August, temperatures soar above 40°C and even 50°C, (120°F), forcing the local population to sleep on their roofs.

We arrived in the heat of a summer afternoon to visit the Turpan Museum, a wonderful collection of over 7,000 exhibits including cultural relics with examples of pottery, bronze copper and textiles dating back to the Silk Road civilizations of the Greek-Roman, Ancient China, Persian-Arabian, and the Nomadic peoples of the Eurasian Steppe.

To give cooling shade during the intense summers, many streets in the nearby villages are covered with grapevine trellises. Despite the heat, the ground water and fertile soil of the Turpan depression has made this a veritable oasis in the desert. An amazing sophisticated irrigation system known as the Karez brings irrigation water from the surrounding mountain ranges from the annual melting of the snow. The Karez System consists of wells, underground channels, ground canals, and small reservoirs, which use the natural slope of the terrain to sustain the water flow and guide the water right to the plants while minimizing evaporation. California could learn something here. Just under 1,000 canals with a total length of about 5,000 km (3,100 mi), the system is considered one of the three great ancient projects in China along with the Great Wall and the Grand Canal.

These unique buildings are where grapes and other fruit are dried, out of the direct sunlight.

These unique buildings are where grapes and other fruit are dried, out of the direct sunlight.

Farming in the Turpan Basin is particularly famous for its fruit production, especially grapes. Because of the dry and hot conditions, the fruits grown in the depression have very high concentrations of sugar. They are traditionally processed by drying in open drying barns. The cultivated fruit include mulberry, peach, apricot, apple, pomegranate, pears, fig, and more than 100 varieties of grapes.

Green, (our trusted guide), was good at keeping us away from tourist traps, but the Grape Valley Amusement Park and the annual Grape Festival in a nearby village sounded interesting. Indeed, we arrived just in time to watch a talented group of musicians and folk dancers. Monika was invited to join them while I was busy taking photos. There were small shops selling souvenirs and special musical instruments. We really had to laugh at all the signs, especially those about the bathrooms. You must read them! (see photos).

This friendly farmer suggested we should buy a particular raisin because they were particularly healthy for "old" folks. Hm.

This friendly farmer suggested we should buy a particular raisin because they were particularly healthy for “old” folks. Hm.

Walking back to our truck, which was probably parked illegally, we were admiring the beautiful art on the doors of homes when a man approached us and insisted we come in for tea. We accepted and he humbly explained to our guide that he, (obviously Muslim because of the area), just wanted to tell us and show us he and his family were not terrorists. He gave us an interesting tour of his home, including his vineyard, his stable of goats, and his irrigation channel that was most likely part of the Karez System. We met his mother and his wife and were treated to some appreciated tea and fruit. It was a refreshing experience and we thanked him many times.

Back on the main promenade there were many stands selling the fresh and dried fruits of the area, including piles of sweet raisins and grapes. The first place we stopped, the owner, a gregarious guy, also invited us in to see how the grapes are hung and naturally air dried, a very interesting process. He explained that one kind of particularly big and wonderful tasting raisins would be most beneficial to us and when questioned why, he smiled and said that variety was good for “old” folks. Hm. We were good customers and stocked up on several raisin varieties for the rest of the trip and gifts, knowing that we would never see any better.

 

China # 5 – Along the Taklamakan Desert’s Northern Silk Road – September 2014

May 25, 2018

OK, so we can almost cross the Taklamakan Desert off our China Bucket List; amazing but thanks to the paved oil exploration road, not so bad. Given that without the road it would have lived up to its reputation, “The Sea of Death”.

We had to make a “few” miles every day because we still had lots to see in the next 21 days – 4,000 miles. Unfortunately, our route demanded that we stay on main highways, but in Korla we veered off on an interesting secondary road. It was certainly a slower pace and we had to constantly be aware of pedestrians and other drivers, both of whom operate with blinders on.

The Fat Man Noodle Restaurant

Green insisted that we stop at the Fat Man Noodle restaurant. Great idea! Green knew her Chinese food. Apparently, many towns are famous for something.

This is the proud owner of the Fat Man Restaurant in Kumux, southwest of Turpan.

This is the proud owner of the Fat Man Restaurant in Kumux, southwest of Turpan.

Taking a loop into the desert, we visited an old Uyghur village and the Jiache Ruins before continuing on to the larger ancient oasis of Goachang. This was a busy trading center and stopping point for merchant traders traveling on the Silk Road starting in the 1st century BC. It was destroyed in wars during the 14th century, but many ruins of this impressive and large city including the old palace can still be seen today. The standing walls and structures, now over 2,000 years old, were quite amazing. Bricks were apparently not used back then. The building technique was handfuls or buckets of mud one layer at a time and patted in place or formed into huge blocks. There are 77 known caves nearby that still have murals and tombs where nobles, officials, and others were interred.

Trouble in the Rear

Arriving in nearby Turpan early evening, there was no place to set up Green’s tent, so we found a cute hotel with a big parking area where we could relax and she could sleep and clean up. It was here that we discovered a major problem. The camper had been listing to the passenger side even though the Hellwig airbags were holding their 40 pounds of air pressure. Closer inspection showed that the shroud of the camper body was actually coming down and touching the airbag. The temporary solution was to take my Ingersoll-Rand air-powered reciprocal saw and grinder powered by our twin ExtremeAir Velocity compressors which feed our Viair 2.5-gallon aluminum reserve air tank to 125 psi. and trim the inner camper shroud off so that it no longer touched the airbag on bumps. Having the right tools for emergency repairs on a long overland trip can save the day. This was not the ultimate solution and we would not find out the real problem for several weeks.

 

China # 4 – Crossing the Taklamakan Desert – September 2014

May 18, 2018

Three hundred and thirty seven thousand square kilometers, (130,000 sq. mi), The Taklamakan is one of the largest sandy deserts in the world and one of the most dangerous. Nicknamed “The Sea of Death”, one translation in Chinese is, “If you go in, you won’t come out.”

Flanked by the high Tien Shan Mountains to the north, the Kunlun Mountains to the south, the Pamirs to the west and the daunting Gobi Desert on the east severely restricted access to a region that was already extremely hazardous to traverse. With a length of 1,000 kilometers, (620 miles), and a width of 400 kilometers (250 miles), it was a major obstacle for caravans along the Silk Road. Lisa, our trip planner at Navo-Tour, was surprised that we insisted on crossing it.

Taklamakan Desert, the Sea of Death

Its larger sand-dune chains range from 100 to 500 feet (30 to 150 meters) in height, while its pyramidal dunes rise 650 to 1,000 feet (200 to 300 meters). Needless to say, no one in their right mind would attempt to cross this waterless desert with a string of camels. Caravans had to go around it. In the 1950s, oil was discovered in the north and even greater deposits were found in the 1980s along the southern rim, which is where we turned north off  the “Southern Silk Route” (Hwy 315). Our plan was to drive across the center to Luntai where we could pick up the “Northern Silk Route”. Our map showed a secondary oil exploration road that would traverse the desert at one of its widest points. Even with altitudes ranging from 3,900 to 4,900 feet above sea level, daytime temperatures can still exceed 100°F, and unless you are a lizard there is not a lot of shade.

As we headed across, the landscape was flat and barren. A stream disappeared into the ground. Drifting sand was a major problem. Artificial sand breaks were built out of reeds stuck into the sand and an extensive drip irrigation system kept a row of tamarisk and nitre bushes alive along the edge of the blacktop. The occasional hummock in the sand dunes formed around a struggling tree or scrub. Soon there was only endless sand, but it was spectacular in its diverse shapes and colors. Strange outcroppings of clay or sand stone surfaced occasionally, possibly formed during the Cenozoic age about 655 million years ago. We saw no wildlife of any kind, only the funny tracks of lizards, snakes and mice. Depending on the texture of the sand and the direction of the wind, the surface was constantly changing.

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Gary trekked up a sand dune in the middle of our Taklamakan desert crossing.

The original idea was to spend a night in the middle of the desert, but the soft fine almost powdery sand was no place to set up Green’s tent. To our surprise, we came to the small settlement of Tachong midway with a gas station and a bunch of run-down hotels “servicing” the nearby oil exploration sites employees. No place for Green to stay safely. We asked permission to camp for the night on the edge of the gas station pad and we all relaxed in the cool of the evening. I was reminded of a famous saying by Carl Franz, author of People’s Guide to Mexico, “Wherever you go, there you are!”

In the morning we got an early start, which for us means maybe 9:00. As we got closer to Luntai vegetation increased and a grove of suffering sand blown Euphrates Poplar made a good lunch stop. We soon came to our first military checkpoint and Green convinced them that she really was a guide. She had to dig out her official papers.

Our wonderful guide, Green, was happy to have crossed the infamous Taklamakan Desert. She had never been here before.

Our wonderful guide, Green, was happy to have crossed the infamous Taklamakan Desert. She had never been here before.

Tensions between Han Chinese authorities, (the majority of the population), and the Hui minority people, (Muslim), natives to the Taklamakan, have existed for centuries. Han Chinese migration into the region, coupled with Islamic fundamentalist agitation elsewhere in Asia and minority unrest across the border in the Central Asian Republics, has fostered more open hostility by local peoples against the (Han) Chinese.

Just after we joined the “Northern Silk Road”, (Hwy 314), we spotted a deserted workers’ camp and truck stop. It was a perfect place to spend the night. There was even an irrigation ditch that gave us a chance to replenish our water supply, one bucket at a time. Monika and Green did a quick laundry and we studied our route to Turpan and the Gaochang Gucheng ruins. Gaochang Gucheng had been a busy trading center in the 1st century BC and it was an important stopping point for merchant caravans traveling on the Silk Road.

 

 

China # 3 – Along the Taklamakan Desert’s Southern Silk Road – September 2014

May 11, 2018

A little sad that we had missed the knife factories in Yengisar, but it wasn’t really on our major must-see list. We were following the southern edge of the infamous Taklamakan Desert. In at least one of the Chinese languages, Taklamakan means, “If you go in, you won’t come out”. Hummm?

We always knew what jade was but never imagined that there were so many colors and huge examples.

We always knew what jade was but never imagined that there were so many colors and huge examples.

After spending an hour and a half driving around Yecheng in the dark and being stopped by a SWAT team, we finally found the Electric Hotel that allowed foreigners, (many did not), and a safe enclosed parking lot. We were advised not to venture outside the hotel grounds at night for our safety.

Hotan, a famous jade town

An early start in the morning brought us to the historic oasis town of Hotan (Hetian), strategically located at the junction of the southern (and most ancient) branch of the Silk Road joining the West with one of the main routes from India and Tibet to Central Asia and China. It was an ideal meeting place where not only goods, but also technologies, philosophies, and religions were exchanged from one culture to another.

Gary was in seventh heaven tasting all kinds of street food.

Gary was in seventh heaven tasting all kinds of street food.

Where there is water there is life. Surrounded by the Karakash River and the White Jade River flowing from the distant foothills of the Himalayas, the Hotan area prospered and survived on the edge of the vast Taklamakan Desert. Hotan artists and craftsman are known for their prized carpets and carvings, and for the “mutton fat” jade still being collected from the White Jade River. Of course we never get tired of exploring new markets, but after our recent visits to some of the biggest in Asia, like Kashgar, a stop at the famous jade market was not on our agenda. OK, Green loved jade so it was easy for her to convince us. We did stop at the food market to see what edible treasures we could find, but the Jade Market was definitely amazing. We were the only Westerners in town. Noted in our Lonely Planet China guide book, as the “Sunday Jade Market”, it is a very busy place every day of the week. While serious jade buyers scrutinized the overwhelming selection, food vendors were as interesting, with barbecue grills full of juicy lamb Shish Kebabs or Shashlik and rolling buffets of tempting dishes to go.

These guys were walking the market selling sunflower seeds, a popular snack.

These guys were walking the market selling sunflower seeds, a popular snack.

Jaded” out, figuratively speaking, we headed west just in time to find a nice gravel pit for the night, a quiet place for Green to set up her comfy MSR tent for the first time with a double layer of  Therm-a-Rest sleeping pads. She thought it was cool that it was “green”. Monika cooked up a delicious lamb stew and we slept well——except someone back home had put a bug in Green’s ear that there were wolves in the desert, so she ended up sleeping in a bed we made for her in the truck’s cab, try as we did to convince her that there was not a wolf for a hundred miles cuz there was nothing for them to eat. Turns out she had never slept in a tent alone, only with other people. No wolves came that night. She got braver and later, we all could laugh about it.