I spent 8 hours lugging big boxes of shampoo and yogurt through the most exhausting border inspections I have ever seen. I had inadvertantly joined a modern-day merchant caravan: Uiygars, Pakistanis, Uzebeks and a Russian plying their trade over the exact same mountain passes as their ancestors.
This is the Silk Road: the ancient spiderwebbed network of commerse linking the empires of East and West. Along it flowed the ideas, religions and technologies which shaped opposite ends of the planet. Most trade was conducted the same way as my shampoo merchants: loose family networks of highly skilled travelers and linguists pushing goods back and forth on their own home routes.
But there has always been a different class of Silk Road traffic, too. Pilgrims, monks, diplomats and simple wanderers: Long distance travlers, often hopping from one caravan to the next, journeying into the wild unknown. And for them – for Marco Polo and the other eastbound adventurers who braved the hostile Persian empire, scorched in Central Asian deserts, fought with Mongol hordes and froze utop some of the world’s highest mountain passes – for them, the Silk Road held one final horror. Kashgaria. The Tarim Basin. And the Taklamakan Desert.
Other than an unforgettably breathtaking journey over the Pamir Mountains into China, I haven’t been hitchhiking much lately. This is partly because in Kygyzstan and Kazakhstan hitchhiking is a normalized part of the transportation network- with the caveat that the rider is expected to pay. So why not just take the cheap Soviet marshutka network? But the real reason I haven’t been doing it much is because, for me, hitchhiking has become something like jumping into cold water on a hot day: It always feels great, but making the first move can be… intimidating. Especially when I’m facing down the Taklamakan.
It’s the biggest, most brutal and ruthless desert you’ve probably never heard of. An endless sea of barren sand dunes without a drop of life. Pictures taken here could just as well be the heart of the Sahara, and it’s easily spotted from outer space. These sands have been bleaching the bones of travelers for a long time.
All journeys must start somewhere, though. So I chose a route – I would start by following the southern branch of the Silk Road out of Kashgar (actually, I was pressed for time so I took a night bus and started in Hotan) – took a long walk outside town gathering my nerve – and finally awkwardly pointed at an open-bed 3-wheeled moto-contraption that made eye contact as it passed. The first transport was away!
Within two days I was laughing out loud remembering the joys of this kind of travel. The strange and unpredictable circumstances of the road had me checking up on remote desert cell-phone towers, digging for jade in the Hotan River and getting filthy unloading a truckload of grain at a weird fucked-up Han Chinese dog farm that smelled like snake pee. I’m reminded powerfully of the fact that: I’m not actually that good at traveling. Or rather – when I’m in a position to pay to ride exactly where I want and sleep in a guesthouse, I really have no idea what to do with myself. I don’t carry a guidebook. I rarely have a clue what the “sights” are. I’m not particularly good at starting interactions with strangers. In fact, without hitchhiking and finding places to camp I’m just lost and floating. I need hitchhiking and sleeping rough because it forces me into the awesomely strange connections with people and land that mean so much.
Which is great, because this southern fork of the Silk Road is an astoundingly cool place to connect with. The people here are anything but what you might expect when you hear “China”. These are the fiercely Muslim Uiygar people (easily the most religious community I’ve ever encountered). Here in Kashgaria, prayer times are serious business. With big beaming hearts of gold, greetings and signs are in Arabic and the touch of Turkish I managed to learn comes in more handy than all my English. The place has the air of an occupied state. I myself was interrogated by Chinese soldiers at bayonet point (“Why are you talking to Uiygars?” “Why do you have Islamic prayer beads in your pocket?” “Why are you carrying a copy of the Koran?”), and a week after I left suicide bombs ripped through the region’s capital. But the true gem of travel here is the food: juicy mutton kebabs meet hand-pulled noodles over steaming plates of spicy fried vegetables and rice. It’s Turkish-Chinese fusion and the meals (none of which I’ve been allowed to pay for) have been some of the best in my life.
The road itself weaves in and out of desert and oasis settlements, hugging the edge of the impenetrable Kunlun Mountains (rising from seal level to three miles high in a blink of the map). And to the north lies the endless wasteland of the Taklamakan Desert.
Thanks to the marvels of Chinese engineering (which can put a man in space and build anything but a toilet) the modern Silk Road journeyer can do something the ancients would never have dared and cross the Taklamakan from the south fork outside Niya through 400 miles of nothing but dunes to the north fork near Luntai. The road itself is amazing. It would be impossible for pavement alone to tame these sands: the builders also have to pipe irrigation lines all the way through to support a 40-foot bugger of scruffy sage brush on either side just to keep the whole road from blowing away or being swallowed. Even so, the whole thing requires constant maintenance.
And as luck would have it, just as I was leaving the last oasis settlement where it would be possible to catch paid transit, I caught a Han Chinese trucker headed all the way up this insane road. I couldn’t believe my luck! I was about to ride straight across one of the world’s wildest places! But just as I settled back to enjoy the ride, a violent explosion rocked the cab. At first I thought we hit a land mine. It turns out that’s just what it feels like when the tire of a fully loaded semi blows up under your butt. There was no spare, so this ride proved not-to-be. I found myself unceremoniously deposited quite in the middle of nowhere.
By the next day I had finally positioned myself beyond the last frontier of inhabitation. On the split to oblivion. The gentle Muslim trucker who dropped me here gave the internationally recognized “You’re crazy!” sign, but I estimated that this was the kind of place that any decent person would have to pick me up. I also assumed (correctly) that anyone driving this stretch would be crossing all the way, unless they were making a sand dune delivery. I was right! It took about an hour, but the very first truck swung in and waved me in. We left behind the hardy Bactrian Camels clinging to the fringes and headed deep, deep into the sands.
I’m not sure exactly how long I was with the two-man trucker team of Mohammed and Muhammed, but together we stopped for 4 out of 5 daily prayers. However long it was, it will be imprinted on my memory forever.
Even having seen it, it’s hard for me to wrap my mind around the scale of the Taklamakan. An endless sea of sand dunes. Sometimes pointy, sometimes elegantly curved. It is a swelling, rolling landscape of mega-dunes obscured and covered by house-sized dunes, themselves covered by little baby dunes and trenched rivers of dunelettes. Everything, everything, is a mesmerizing painting of two colors: sand in sun and sand in shade. The patterns shift, distort and trick the eye as the sun climbs and falls. But always the lines are crisp and defined. Mid day blinds before lacing slivers of definition. Early afternoon leaves no question why so many civilizations have built pyramids: they are simply man’s attempt to capture the hypnotizing mathematical perfection of sand and sun. Late afternoon the baby dunes have their say, cascading zebra stripes down blank canvass warped in space. And night eats everything. Finally, after what felt like days, I rolled out of the truck as it hit the north fork of the old Silk Road and slept in the dark dunes.
It had been a long time since I had showered or relaxed. Or done anything other than hitchhike, for that matter. So the next day when I was picked up by a jolly, husky-voiced Han driver who invited me to eat shashlik, I was happy to accept. And when the invitation turned to “Karaoke beer!” . . . the desert dust would be washed away in the Chinese oasis of Korla. . .
It was a strangely Chinese experience. Starting mid-afternoon, when we rocked up at a weird karaoke parlor where we were given our own little sealed room. Big screen TV, puke-proof karaoke box, bucket of beer – my kind of party. We proceeded to get shit-faced and kick out the Hong Kong JAMS. I tried to sing Micheal Jackson, but that option turned out to just be a short, strangely edited documentary about MJ’s relationship with Mechally Colcen which had us all scratching our heads. Luckily some more friends showed up, though, and one of them managed to wrestle the Titanic song out of the machine which we duetted beautifully. It was absolutely forbidden for me to pay for anything, so instead I threw peanut shells and burning cigarettes everywhere and screamed my new Chinese vocabulary. Party! Somewhere along the line we ended up at a dance club and I ended up on stage, dancing around with some sort of heavily choreographed Chinese boy band and drinking fake-whiskey by the bottle. That night my friend bought us both a hotel room, and while I took a glorious hot shower he ducked out for instant noodles which we ate sloppily and passed out in our clean double beds.
I awoke feeling like I had tried to eat the entire desert. And possibly succeeded. By the looks of him, my friend felt no better. We both tried to put on happy faces, but I was in no condition to hitchhike. He dropped me at the station where I collapsed on a bus bound for Turpan: “Chinese Death Valley.” 600 meters below sea level, it’s the hottest place in China.
Turpan is so an ancient, ancient desert oasis. Throughout history great centers of civilization have been built here, braving the heat in the face of available water (because it’s so low). But unfortunately the water table periodically shifts, creating instant ghost cities which became buried, preserved, and often completely lost in the desert. From the bus I saw some of Turpan’s famous winds – hurling big rocks through the air like paper airplanes. I shivered thinking what the winds might do to my tent.
I didn’t make it much further that day – just out to a desolate crossroads in the middle of no where. The desert here isn’t duney – it might not even be the Taklamakan – it might be the Gobi at this point – I’m not sure what its called but it’s big, flat, rocky, sandy, and without a speck of vegetation.
At about 3 AM the wind started. I was woken up by the sound of my tent gently flapping around. I went out to piss – the night seemed all in order – stars in their correct places and no clouds to be seen. But ten minutes later things were starting to get fierce. I sighed – I’ve long seen wind to be the Achilles heal of my otherwise amazing tent. Having broken a tent pole in a gale in Norway and another in sudden storm on the Black Sea, I’ve had a long time to strategize a plan for my next encounter with strong winds. I got out of my sleeping bag and enacted my plan – tying a network of puppeteer-ropes to the inside of the poles with myself as an anchor in the middle.
And not a moment too soon: I didn’t even have time to put on a shirt of pants before the full force of the storm hit like a hurricane. Cold air rushed through the tent (hot by day, cold by night – such is the discomfort of a desert). All my stakes ripped out violently and the loose curtains of tent roared like a helicopter. All my things – my water bottle, pants, sleeping pad, backpack started flying around the tent smacking my in the face. The cords dug into my hands and burned, but all I could do was sit crucified-style holding on for dear life.
I’m not one to plug a certain product or brand, but I will tell you right now that my little Northface tent is without a doubt the most well built thing I’ve ever owned. Here’s a thing – this is a true thing that happened: After an hour or so of shivering, straining to hold on and getting smacked in the face, my tent flew. Me, all my gear, and my tent were lifted clear into the air and flew. Had one seam ripped or one hole tore, the whole thing would have been shredded in furious bits. But it didn’t – everything held, and the sail of my rainfly lifted me and everything else spinning wildly riding the winds of a sand storm howling off the Gobi Desert.
Some time around dawn the wind died down enough for me to get outside, drop the tent poles and the rain fly, somehow grab it and pull it with all my might as it tried to run away, and stuff everything back into the collapsed tent (the non-rainfly part of my tent is all just mesh mosquito netting). I crawled in, zipped the door so everything I owned couldn’t roll away, and curled shivering into my sleeping bag.
Then the sand started. Even wrapped in the tarp of my rainfly, and still I watched in horror as sand blew steadily through the seams of my sleeping bag. Where ever sand got in my body, it turned to mud. I coughed up mud and cried mud – mud dribbled out of my nose and I felt like I was drowning in mud. Curled in a fetal position guarding my neck (remembering the rocks I saw bouncing along from the bus) I wondered – could wind kill me? There was nothing around – nothing to crash into me – but could the fury of wind itself kill me? I felt I was about to figure out…
By mid-day I realized something had to be done. First step was to pee – which proved disasterous. Of course I know better than to pee into such wind, but apparently storms have a mind of their own. The pee turned to a fine mist the instant it left my body, which somehow against all logic spun right around me, which immediately turned to pee-mud coating my entire front side.
The next step was to wriggle out of the tangled fish-net of my tent and pack everything up. This took over two hours, and in the process I went blind in one eye (not that I could see much anyways, with all the sand).
I finally got my pack on and started crawling – on hands and knees – for the gas station down the road. I arrived in time to see the metal siding peel off of one building and a big sign rip clear out of the ground. The Chinese staff hunkered down in a concrete bunker were confused but friendly to see a foreign pee-mud monster crawl in from the desert.
The storm blew for 48 hours.
It flipped over semis, snapping and uprooting telephone poles (think about how much drag a telephone pole has).
I don’t know what magic was with me that day, but not one seam on my tent tore.
I spent the next two nights absolutely filthy sleeping in the bunk of a semi as it crept through the wreckage of sand swallowing the road. Short on time, I then hopped on a passenger train and night bus to finally meet Ed in Xining. All-in-all it took 9 days straight traveling to move myself 2,000 miles across the Taklamakan and Gobi deserts.
9 days of grueling travel to culminate 9 months and nearly 10,000 miles traveling the Silk Road. But here, at the very end – at the very western gates of the Great Wall – my own story turns south.
South to the Himilayas,Tibet, and the headwaters of the Mekong River.