Xinjiang travelogue

Source: [14:19 July 12 2009]

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By Daniel Allen

Region of Renown

Chinese Turkestan – a long-time inspiration for die-hard travelers that brings to mind towering dunes, exotic bazaars and camel caravans laden with silk and spice. As my train crawled away from the drab confines of Beijing West station, headed for the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi, it wasnt easy to get excited by such romantic imagery. Nonetheless, compared with humdrum urban life in the Chinese capital, I knew that the next two weeks on Chinas wild western frontier were going to be a fascinating blend of the strange and scenic.
I first read about Xinjiang and Central Asia (formerly Turkestan) in Sir Aurel Stein's enthralling book On Ancient Central-Asian Tracks. Stein, a Hungarian archaeologist-cum-explorer in the service of the British at the turn of the twentieth century, was the Indiana Jones of his day. Performing amazing feats of endurance and surviving the subterfuge of the "Great Game", he discovered lost cities and hidden treasure across the region (most of which ended up, to the later chagrin of the Chinese, in London 's BritishMuseum). His three Xinjiang expeditions of 1900, 1906 and 1913, in which he and his party covered forty thousand kilometers on foot or pony-back, were instrumental in the re-discovery of the Silk Route.
Back in the relative luxury of my soft sleeper compartment, entertained by DVDs, MP3s and a couple of hefty tomes, I couldn 't help being a little blasé about Stein 's various hardships (a couple of fingers and toes lost to frostbite, for example). I was envious of his opportunity to travel in such an unsullied environment, ripe for adventure and the perfect backdrop for demonstrations of that stiff-upper-lip attitude that so characterized British imperialism at the time. As the trolley carrying warm beer and pig 's trotters passed my door for the fourth time, I resolved myself to the fact that the next 50-odd hours on board would give me plenty of time to display a stiff upper lip if I so chose.

Breathtaking Beginning

After a fitful night's sleep and several long card-playing sessions in the restaurant car, the train pulled in to the city of Wuwei in late afternoon hazy sunshine. After the dusty, barren plains of the previous day, the lushness of the surrounding countryside and intensive hillside terracing were a welcome contrast. Wuwei marks the beginning of the Hexi Corridor, a strategic and fertile strip of land running along the base of the Qilian Mountains, separating the expansive and unforgiving Gobi and Taklamakan Deserts. By far the easiest route into and out of eastern Xinjiang, the fortunes of the Silk Route were closely linked to control of the Hexi Corridor, and sections of Great Wall were constructed around it in an attempt to protect passing caravans from hostile tribes and bandits.
The train was now climbing noticeably, and by early evening the landscape had once again changed dramatically. We were strangers in a rock-strewn lunar landscape, stretching for miles to the hilly horizon, with only the occasional ink-blot stain of a coal heap or vivid yellow mustard field to break the monotony. As the last few rays of the dying sun softened the grey and brown hues of this inhospitable land, I couldn't help wondering what Marco Polo had thought as he arrived here after an arduous trek across the dunes of the Taklamakan, on his way to Beijing in 1266. As night fell we passed the grimy outskirts of Zhangye, once a major Silk Route oasis where Polo was reputed to have stayed as a guest for a year, no doubt recouping his strength for a final push towards his goal.
Pulling back the heavy compartment curtains the following morning, my eyes momentarily balked at the glare of sun on sand. Not yet 9 o'clock, the low dunes and coarse scrub were already shimmering in the furnace-like heat. Despite the cooling effect of the train's air-conditioning, it was easy to see how Xinjiang's deserts presented a huge obstacle for those traversing the Silk Route. Besides the obvious lack of water and extreme temperatures, fierce sandstorms could suddenly engulf travelers, turning day into night. The desert was also said to be haunted by ghosts, waiting to lure the weary to their death by calling for help in the dark of night. The name "Taklamakan" literally means "those who enter, fail to return" in the Turkic Uyghur language, and despite the technological advances of the last thousand-odd years, this oven-like ocean of sand still didn't appear particularly inviting.

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