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Taklamakan “You go in, but you don’t come out!”

This story starts in Turpan in Xinjiang, the Uyghur Autonomous Region of China, and I’m shopping for food as we are camping in the desert for the next three nights and my group is on cook duty. The small ‘supermarket’ has some canned meat and fish – ‘mystery’ meat is always a winner. There are only two cans though… not enough for fourteen hungry westerners!

I attempted to ask if there were anymore out the back – my Chinese is poor and the Uyghur woman infront of me didn’t speak English. Then the woman tells me to wait, I think, and a guy disappears out of the shop.

A little later he returns on a motorbike with a few more cans from somewhere – the people here are so helpful it is hard to believe sometimes.

On the market we bought some vegetables and a crowd gathered as we bought some meat from an open air butchers – lamb I think. I paid a last visit to the dried fruit lady that I’d befriended the day before and she insisted that I try virtually everything on her stall.

Buying rice was fun… travel companion, Caroline, and I eventually stumbled upon another small market where they were all Han Chinese rather than Uyghur. A woman helped translate, and we ended up with a big bag of rice.

We had to cover about 500km today as we began to cross the Taklamakan Desert..

It is said by some that ‘Taklamakan’ means something like “Go in and you’ll never come out” (though more likely “abandoned place”), and it is both beautiful and dangerous…

The desert is in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China and is huge. It is bounded by the Kunlun Mountains to the south, and Pamir Mountains and Tian Shan to the west and north. The name probably means ‘abandoned place’, but it is popularly believed to mean “go in and you’ll never come out”.

Unbelievably, it rained all of the first day… despite the rain, the Tian Shan mountains looked beautiful. Thankfully it let up by the time we found a suitable camping spot somewhere near Luntai. It was a good night with a beautiful sunset, beer and fire crackers, and later a full moon with a strange arc of cloud around it. Our lamb curry wasn’t bad either… nicely complimented by a shisha and a beer or two!

Woke up to find a damp desert at 6.30am Beijing-time (4.30am local time) and set up for breakfast. Andy slept on his own out in the dunes. On the road again… the Tian Shan mountain range looked stunning in the morning light.

The going was hard today as huge areas of tarmac had been removed ready for repairs. We made a couple of stops before lunch and I bought everyone bread.

We passed the remnants of a forest that had been swallowed up by the desert and stopped for lunch and to gather fire wood.

The dead trees were amazing, the wood had bleached in the sun and the branches formed eerie shapes against the white sand and clear blue sky – strangely beautiful. The dunes were now becoming more numerous as we went south – the Taklamakan dunes are awesome!

All along the sides of the highway there is evidence of the attempts by the Chinese to protect the road from the desert. They have a real battle on their hands as the desert is reclaiming what they irrigate all the time. There are hundreds of miles of irrigation pipes with pumping stations every few miles. A lonely life if you are the man who has to live in one of them – though at least one had a wife as we discovered her sweeping the sand outside one of the pumping stations.

We didn’t camp until 7.30pm today. Our first attempt to leave the road resulted in the truck getting sand bogged and we all had to muck in to dig it out.

By now we were a day behind because we had been diverted when we first joined the cross-desert highway due to road works. We stopped in a small town called ‘Minfeng’ to pick up more supplies for an extra night in the desert. This was a Uyghur town and very interesting walking around the shops and market taking in the sights and sounds. I also saw some intriguing women with distinctive knotted hair – I think they were Tajik. I tried out a few Uyghur phrases to the amusement of the locals and was talked into trying some yoghurt by some women selling it on the curb-side – uurrrgh!

Found a great place to camp – though we had to force the barrier out of the way to get the truck through. We’d found water and there were people coming down in their cars and enjoying the water and playing music. It was interesting to see the women literally let their hair down and bathing with clothes on (as they are Muslim) – unlike the Poles in our group with their bikinis!

The Taklamakan adventure was over – Hotan hear we come!

Here are more photographs from the Taklamakan Desert in Xinjiang, China:

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