“It is called the Desert of Death,” my cheery Uighur guide informs us as our van jostles its way down a dirt road more rut than straight, “It is very beautiful!”
He has to shout over the rattling of our van and the incessant honking of the cars around us. Turn signals? We don’t need no stinking turn signals! Ditto hazard lights. The humble car horn covers all bases in Xinjiang.
The road here is lined with green trees and the occasional hovel. It’s hard to believe we’re heading towards the second largest shifting sand desert in the world and one of the greatest dangers that early travelers on the Silk Road had to face. Even in modern, industrialized China – sand storms can sometimes strand buses crossing the desert for days at a time.
Our driver’s horn blasts with more urgency than is usual and we veer sharply to the side. Kara and I, sans seatbelts as is customary in Asia, thump together against the side of the van as our driver frantically spins the wheel to avoid dropping us into an irrigation ditch. The cause of our peril, a man on a motorized tricycle, hit a corner too suddenly and swerved across into our path. It’s our driver’s quick thinking that saves us from having to peel old Chinese man off of the front of our van before our day can continue.
Hearts racing and feeling just a little stupid for foregoing seatbelts, we soon rattle to a standstill beside a large open air building that is basically a pagoda on steroids. Benches with blankets and pillows scattered across them invite us into the shade. It’s over 35 degrees out, but somehow the simple structure does a good job of reducing the temperature to a more manageable level.
Our guide goes over to negotiate with the man in charge of camels and Kara and I nibble on un-ripened peaches that some construction workers share with us. They’re bright green and sour as hell, but they manage to hit the spot.
Exploring the Taklimakan
We had arrived in Xinjiang full of hope that we might spend a night underneath the stars in the desert, but our tour company had advised us this is no longer legal We’ve had conflicting reports on this though, as some companies we spoke to definitely offered to take us out for a night in the stark desert wastes.
While camping out wasn’t an option for us, we were given an opportunity to step out onto the baking sand and do a little exploring while we waited for camels to be wrangled.
Our exploration took us past signs of progress having been halted and then consumed by the sand – twisted bits of metal and wood sagging underneath the weight of the dunes. We set our eyes on a distant observation tower and make our way slowly across the sand.
The tower is falling apart. It creaks and groans in the blessedly welcome breeze that quickly cools sweat on our bare skin. I’m wishing I’d brought along a hat or some sunscreen while Kara tries valiantly to hide her face with a scarf like the local women do.
“Want to go up?” she asked, eying the structure dubiously.
“I’m sure they wouldn’t send us out here if it was dangerous”. I utter some famous last words.
I offer to go up first. I outweigh Kara by a good 30-40kg and I figure it makes no sense to risk two lives. The nails that hold the stairs together are showing in multiple places and the rotten and warped wood definitely makes its unhappiness felt as I ascend. The whole structure shudders and shakes in the wind.
I do make it to the top though, and make a point of placing my weight on the less ragged looking spots. Soon Kara has joined me and, remembering her fear of heights, proceeds to look like she is having the worst day of her life.
Despite our lofty height, the view isn’t much better up here. The dunes stretch on forever in three directions and the fourth direction, where we came from, is a construction site and a dusty road leading back to the highway.
The stairs look even less friendly on our descent, but we both return to the hot soil unscathed (physically, anyway) and make our way back to camp to guzzle some water before our camel trek.
Camel Riding the Taklimakan
I’m relatively certain I’ve ridden a camel at some point in my youth. Having lived in Menindee and Tibooburra in the Australian Outback, it seems likely my folks would have put me atop one of the ‘ships of the desert’ at some point. Kara’s own camel experience came much more recently in Egypt, but she was kind enough to tag along for the ride.
Our camels were brought out and the baleful moaning coming from mine didn’t fill me with hope. It sounded as if Chewbacca was being raped. And things didn’t get much better when I put my 95kg+ frame twixt its humps and its guide yanked it to its feet. It groaned a few times, slumped back to the ground, and refused to budge.
Kara’s camel, meanwhile, proved less of a challenge than actually getting onto it. The owner, a fat man inexplicably in a brown suit, grabbed her around the waist and hefted her bodily onto the camel.
“I’m pretty sure he copped a feel,” she announced breathlessly as my camel was lead back to the stables and a replacement found. My new camel is smaller than its predecessor, but it makes no complaints as I mount up. I forego the seated start and instead clamber (gracefully, I might add) atop and we’re on our way.
It’s not much of an adventure, really. We draw progressively larger circles around the rickety tower we’d climbed earlier. Kara’s camel stops regularly to eat while mine pauses to shit every now and then. It’s like they’re a camel centipede…
Soon my ass is sore and my skin is red and the novelty has begun to wore off. How on earth did people do this for thousands of miles as they carted silk and spices from China to the Middle East?
We return to the van having enjoyed our visit but feeling just a little bit underwhelmed. At most we were two or three hundred meters into the desert and the greener boundaries that separate civilisation from the harsh desert was never out of sight. I can’t help but feel like there was so much more we should have seen and done. There are nomadic people to meet, isolated oasis towns to explore, and beautiful sights to see – yet we barely scratched the surface.
Hindsight is a beautiful thing and if my travels ever take me to Xinjiang again, I’ll be devoting a lot more time to the trek across the notorious ‘Desert of Death’.