The Road by Rickshaw: China’s Taklamakan Desert

Through China by rickshaw
Through China by rickshaw

Here in the Taklamakan Desert – a place known for wide-open spaces and violent sand storms – life is not taken for granted. The region lies in China’s northwestern-most province of Xinjiang, which is on the Pakistan border, not far from Tibet. Xinjiang was an independent country called East Turkistan until it was annexed by China after the World War II.

This desolate “Sea of Death”, where the rolling yellow dunes look like giant waves of a petrified ocean extending into the horizon, is considered to be one of the most hostile wastelands in the world.

And it’s this desert that has drawn my interest. My plan is to travel 544 km, under my own power, along the famous Silk Road from the oasis town of Aksu to the town of Kashgar. It’s sure to be an adventure.

Beginning the Journey

All of my China adventures start and end in Hong Kong, where I keep an apartment just for this purpose. The Taklamakan Desert and Xinjiang, in general, is so remote that it is nearly impossible to reach. The first Westerner to even see this desert was Swedish Geographer Sven Hedin in 1928.

But when I contact travel agents in Hong Kong, even they have no idea how to get to the Taklamakan Desert. The best I can do is fly to Xian, in Northern China, home of the Museum of Qin Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses. These life-size figures from the Qin Dynastry 211-206 BC were the most significant archeological excavations of the 20th century.

From Xian, I end up taking a 36-hour, standing room only train ride to Urumuchi, the capitol of Xinjiang.

Comfortable dress is the same the world over. This woman could just as easily by my Aunt Congetina back in Sicily.

The Uygur, a Turkic people who are followers of Islam, make up more than 50 percent of the population here. Many Uygur men wear skullcaps and a knife in a sheath on their belt. Women wear headscarves, and some are completely veiled. The sights, the sounds and the smells of the street in the Uygur capitol are reminiscent of anything but China. This could just as easily be a bazaar at Marrakech, circa 1600.

Xinjiang is immense, and distances run into the thousands of kilometers. Most of the province is covered by uninhabited desert, and Urumuchi is a medium size city at best. The next largest city is Aksu, which is where I decide to start my journey. It’s really not much of a choice, for after Aksu, all of the cities are little more than oasis towns, left over from the days of the Silk Road caravans.

Yet in Urumuchi, it’s almost impossible to buy a ticket to Aksu. The train station is chaotic. Almost no one speaks Chinese, except the railroad employees, and they won’t be bothered to sell a train ticket. They seem too busy ignoring the Uygur workers who are trying to get home. In the end, I pay a bribe, and am rewarded with a sleeper car for the 28-hour ride to Aksu.

In Aksu, I have to choose my mode of transportation, and the choice is an easy one. “What kind of rickshaw do you want?” the salesman asks.

I give him the one criterion I insist upon: “Give me a red one.” I also have a choice between large and small. Since at this point I’m still not sure if I am just playing an elaborate practical joke, I buy the smallest rickshaw they have, to save money. This way, if I get two miles out of town and quit, I won’t be out so much cash.

The problem with the small sized rickshaw, however, is that it fits me like a clown car in the circus. Those who watch me take it for a spin must think it hilarious to see a 200-pound Caucasian with a New York Yankees cap trying to ride a tiny, three-wheeled bicycle with a Barbie doll camper (the cargo department) in the back.

My trusty rickshaw got me through the desert. I learned to sleep in drainage tunnels along the highway to escape the sun.

Still, I like the feel of it. Having decided on my mode of transport, I load up my new vehicle with food, water and my gear. The whole hotel staff where I have been staying comes out to see me off, and to get a look at my crazy vehicle. They are laughing and smiling, but still suggest: “Wouldn’t you be more comfortable riding the bus?” I shake my head, and off I go.

I make it about three blocks before I realize that I don’t know how to get to Kashgar. So, I ride back and ask for directions. A truck driver draws out a map on the back of a cocktail napkin, and off I go again.

In Xinjiang, communication is always difficult, even though I am fluent in Mandarin. The Uygur people speak a Turkic language, related to Turkish or the language of Turkmenistan. Many of them either won’t or can’t speak Chinese. Worse, with my dark complexion, dark hair and three days of beard, they all assume I am Uygur, and can’t understand why I am speaking Chinese to them.

The people here almost never see foreigners. In the Uygur mind, there are only two kinds of people, Chinese and Uygur. The thought that any other race exists seems alien to them. Every step of the way, I keep wondering just how non-Chinese speaking foreigners would get along here. It would definitely be a challenge.

Other than the communication problem, I find the Uygur people extremely hospitable, if not a little curious. The road is well paved and in good condition. Once I get away from Aksu, there is little traffic except for People’s Liberation Army convoys.

Occasionally, other Uygur come riding by on three-wheeled bicycles like mine, or driving horse-drawn carriages. During my whole trip I only see one other cyclist. He has ridden his bicycle all the way from Switzerland, and has already been on the road 13 months, planning to cycle through Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand before going home.

Whenever I stopped in an oasis to buy water and eat a hot meal of mutton and Uygur bread, people came out to meet me.

In almost every village I stop in, the whole town comes out to get a look at me on my bike. They ask me to take photos of them. In one town, the entire village lines up and I take a picture of every single man, woman and child individually. They ask me to mail them copies of the photos. I say that I will, if they will give me their address. Unfortunately, they don’t know their addresses, so I peddle on.

The reason I chose the San Lung Che, or three-wheeled bicycle, was because it has a convenient cargo compartment in the back where I keep my provisions. Since most villages are less than a day’s ride apart, I manage to buy water and a hot meal almost every day. Villages are small, usually consisting of two or three restaurants, a shop or two and a truck repair garage.

Usually the Uygur eat bread and goat meat or goat meat soup. I only carry a little food, enough dried sausages and bread to last three or four days, but I always carry a full crate of water. On average, I drink nine liters of water a day. Each time I come to a village, I drink my fill, and then refill my water supply on my bike.

The main danger in desert riding is that water is very heavy and slows your progress. The longer it takes you to get from point A to point B, the more water you will need to carry. But, then your load will be heavier, and it will take longer. The point is you have to be careful, but not crazy.

Depending upon the season, there is the chance of sand storms here, and there is always the chance of injury or illness. Either of these eventualities could cause delay, depleting your water supply. It’s something I have to watch out for.

Continuing Along the Path

I’ve left Aksu far behind me, and have made good progress. But there are many times during the ride when I have to get out of the sun. But in the desert, there is no shade at all. There isn’t even anything that casts a shadow. One time, needing a break, I find a power pole with a brick base. The base is one meter wide by one and a half meter high. If I lie on the ground and curl up in a fetal position, the shadow just about covers my body. I stay like this till sundown. The sun doesn’t set until about 11 p.m. this time of year. Dusk lasts for several hours, and I am eaten alive by mosquitoes before spending a fitful night.

Another day, a construction crew invites me to their camp to eat lunch and take a nap. I’ve learned to sleep in drainage tunnels under the highway or under the railroad. It’s not a bad place to catch a nap.

The most memorable day of my journey is the sixth day. There is a 20-mile-an-hour head wind, which lasts for five hours and pelts me with sand. The wind doesn’t come in gusts. Instead, it is one long, continuous force of hot air, blowing mercilessly in my face and eyes, like walking into a hair dryer. It is so strong I have to walk most of the way, dragging my rickshaw. Unfortunately the big bike acts as a sail. When my grip weakens, the bike actually blows away from me. This is the only day that I run out of water. I am panting from exhaustion, which means my mouth is open, and the hot, wind-born sand is drying out my tongue. I imagine this is what hell feels like.

Uyghur workers invited me to sleep in their camp. That night, they played their stringed instrument, the duodar, and we danced.

After the sand storm, Uygur workers invite me for dinner and to stay the night at their camp. They play a duodar (a stringed instrument) and a drum. While they sing, we dance and whirl out in the desert under a huge sky where the stars burn as bright as a reading light. It is like magic, and definitely the happiest moment of the trip.

I finally reach Atuchi, one of the larger oasis, located less than 50 kilometers from Kashgar. There is a tremendous amount of military transport going through this region, as well as trade and long distance trucking from Pakistan. The same oasis that provided Marco Polo with rest and food a thousand years ago is servicing the truckers who pass through the region today.

Atuchi is ugly, but it has a hotel, a public bath and a few restaurants. There is even an Internet cafe where you can listen to Taiwanese Pop music being sung in Turkic languages. It is here at the café where I catch up on my diary.

The Journey’s End

The final stretch from Atuchi to Kashgar seems interminable. My bike begins rattling apart. First the carriage jumps off of the rear axle. Then the handlebars come loose and begin rotating like a radar antenna. This last day is also the day of the most intense sun I have seen during the whole trip. I actually hear the cytoplasm in my brain boiling.

Far off to the right, across an expanse of about one km of barren desert, I think I can see a huge, cool lake glistening in the sun. I want nothing more than to run over and jump in. I assume that I’m hallucinating, so I try to ignore it, but no matter how long I ride, this lake keeps beckoning me. But what if this is just a mirage? What if my mind is playing tricks?

The Uygur people are extremely hospitable. One of the gifts in travel is getting to see a different way of life.

In the end, I take some advice from Marco Polo. In his travel diaries, Marco Polo warned that all along the Silk Road the traveler would hear voices and spirits beckoning him to abandon the path and walk into the desert. He would then lose his way and die of thirst. Rejecting the promise of swimming in cool waters, probably full of ice cream, I twist my wayward handlebars back into position and continue to Kashgar.

No one gives me a parade or a medal when I reach Kashgar. The trip is finally over. However, the journey continues. It’s not about achievements or rewards, I’ve found. Instead, it’s about having an interesting life along the way.

The journey is the real destination.