It is said that Taklamakan means "you go in and never come out." Whether this is true or not I will leave linguists and anthropologists to decide, but the fact remains that the Taklamakan desert, in the heart of Xinjiang, China's westernmost province, bears a fearsome reputation that has come down through generations of travelers. It was not always thus - many centuries ago, rivers fed from the snows of the towering mountains along the Tibetan border extended far into arid Tarim basin, enabling the creation of great cities that formed a network of waypoints along the Silk Road. Gradually the climate changed, however, and the desert expanded inexorably southward. One by one the cities were abandoned, leaving only windswept ruins in the midst of an ever-shifting sea of sand. The northern branch of the Silk Road ran along the north edge of the desert, and the southern Silk Road along its southern border, but travel through the desert itself was avoided at all costs. Like so many other ancient customs and patterns of life, in recent decades the might of the modern Chinese government has broken through this age-old limitation and forged a modern highway straight through the heart of the desert. Initially intended to facilitate petroleum extraction and as a means for transporting soldiers and military equipment in case of a rebellion among the traditionally independent-minded Uighurs of the southern oasis towns, the road is now open for public traffic. Several buses each day ply the north-south route, connecting Urumqi, Kuqa, and the other cities of northern Xinjiang with Hotan and Yarkand in the south. Other than expensive, infrequent, and unreliable flights, this is the only convenient way to reach the southern cities, so was along this road that my husband and I decided to travel on our recent trip to Xinjiang. After a four-hour flight from Beijing and then a bus and taxi from the airport, we arrived at Urumqi's southern bus station at about 8:30 in the evening, only to be told that the last bus of the day departed at 6:30. We were about to leave when a Uighur man approached us and, upon hearing our destination, directed us to a bus that left about an hour later. So much for schedules. It was a sleeper bus, meaning that instead of seats, it had three rows of double-tiered bunks, each furnished with a pillow, blanket, and shoe-box sized storage space (large bags are store in the luggage compartment under the bus). The bunks were surprisingly comfortable, though quite a bit shorter than an average bed - my husband and I, at 5'5" and 4'11" respectively, didn't have any problem, but a normal-sized Westerner would probably feel a bit cramped. The vast majority of our fellow passengers were Uighurs of all ages, with a few Han Chinese mixed in. We slept through the night fairly well, and as the light grew the next morning, the last vestiges of towns and farmland slipped away behind us as we entered the desert itself. Along both edges of the road were planted several ranks of small, hardy bushes with irrigation lines running at their roots, intended to check the movement of sand dunes and thus keep the road clear for travel. The effort it must take to keep those plants alive through hundreds of kilometers of desert boggles the mind. Beyond the fragile line of green, the rolling mounds of dun-colored sand extended as far as the eye could see. These were not the great dunes of the Sahara but much smaller hills, appearing almost like waves on a vast, frozen sea. The early morning sunlight created deep shadows in the troughs between dunes, and beyond the line of bushes along the road, there was not a single living thing to be seen. As the day went on, however, to my amazement I saw several gangs of men working along the road; most appeared to be fixing the irrigation lines, which I am sure is a constant struggle. There were also periodic waystations, most consisting of a single building, maybe two, that appeared to be housing for the road crews. Occasionally there were even tiny stores selling drinks, snacks, and cigarettes, and at one or two of them I even saw women and children. I can only imagine how lonely their life must be. The bunks directly in front of my husband and I were occupied by three young Uighur women; they looked about 20 years old and appeared to be friends. Around mid-morning, one of them began studying English from handwritten notes, and using this as a starting point, we struck up a conversation in a mix of English and Chinese. As it turns out, they were classmates at the medical school and Xinjiang University in Urumqi and were returning home to Hotan for the May First holiday week. We chatted intermittently for the next several hours, and upon our arrival in Hotan, Nurbiya, the one with whom I had originally started the conversation, invited us out to dinner with her family; the next evening, we went to the beautifully decorated home of another of the girls and had a traditional dinner cooked by her mother. Needless to say, I was amazed by and extremely grateful for their hospitality. After about four or five hours, the desert gave way to a flat plain that, though barren and rocky, apparently contained enough water sources to support flocks of grazing goats and sheep. The shepherds lived in small, adobe-walled dwellings, usually shaded by one or two scrawny trees. Most had motorbikes parked outside, but we did see one man off in the distance riding after his flock on horseback. Occasional farms began to appear, clearly marked by the lines of poplar trees that delineated every road and field boundary. The land outside of the cultivated area was still extremely dry and almost devoid of life, but apparently the farmers in this arid region have developed an extensive and effective irrigation system over the centuries, and the farms looked relatively prosperous. We stopped for lunch at the first town we came to, a mixed collection of adobe and modern brick buildings. Though it had become rather hot by this time, Ryan and I decided that we had to try real Uighur food for our first meal in Xinjiang, so we ordered steaming bowls of laghman (thick handmade noodles) topped with vegetables and bits of lamb at a tiny restaurant next to the parking lot. We were served tea with our meal as well, a delicious mixture flavored with cinnamon and other spices that we couldn't identify; it was a refreshing change from the endless cups of bland jasmine tea we had become accustomed to in eastern China. After a break of half an hour or so, the journey continued, passing through two or three decent-sized towns before arriving in Hotan at about 5 pm, twenty hours after we left Urumqi. If time and comfort are of the essence, then this journey is probably not for you, but if you really want to experience the land and travel as the locals do, I highly recommend this trip.
Practicalities: Buses for Hotan and other destinations in southern Xinjiang leave from Urumqi's southern bus station (nanjiao keyunzhan). According to the schedule posted in the bus station, prices vary from 235 yuan to 340 yuan depending the quality of the bus, and there are 3 to 5 buses per day. Based on our experience, however, it appears that the schedules are rather flexible; our tickets cost 280 yuan per person. Large pieces of luggage should be stored underneath the bus, but make sure to bring a small bag with water, food, tissues and other necessities into the bus with you, as your bags will not be accessible during the journey. Earplugs and an eye-mask of the type handed out on international flights are useful as well.