Disease, dessert, deserts and dunes

Apr 7, 2003 0:52am

I hope you enjoyed my last email, because it meant a night out in the cold for me. As I mentioned, it took me several hours to sign into my account and read my mail, so by the time I finished composing the latest account of my travels I was ready to go home to bed. But when I tried to send it I discovered that I could no longer access any of my accounts…

Without a disk to be found on the premises of the dingy netbar – and with a ticket for a bus departing early the next day – it seemed there was no way of saving my masterpiece of travel writing (hey, I was tired). But instead of cutting my losses and getting a good night’s sleep, I perservered. You wouldn’t think it would be difficult to get someone in a packed netbar to email a text file to you, but by the time I got back to my hotel it was well after 1am and the lights were out.

So I spent the night outside the train station waiting room with the other homeless people, my glass-pressed face drooling over the hard plastic seats people were snoozing on. They finally opened the doors at 5am and I snatched an hour’s blissful rest.


The 24 hour busride to Dunhuang later that day could be characterised in several ways; mostly it was an exercise in bladder endurance. When I fell asleep we were crawling through the misty mountains. When I awoke we’d descended to the desert and were coasting into the oasis town of Dunhuang. Arabic had replaced Tibetan on the street signs and billboards.

The word ‘oasis’ conjures up images of palms and pools among white sand. Reality – at least in Dunhuang – is slightly different. At the edge of the town dusty scrub meets a smooth expanse of black gravel, broken here and there by small dirt mounds tufted with spinifex. It looks like an abandoned airfield extending to the horizon in every direction.

There are white dunes to be found to the south of the town, however, so later that day I walked 5km to Cresent Moon Spring, a banana-shaped pool wedged between two towers of hourglass sand. This was beautiful desert. I ended up spending six hours tramping about, climbing one sinuous sandy spine after another, my footprints stitching vast sheets of light and shadow into Chinese symbols. The largest dune – Singing Sand Mountain – was over a kilometre high. I sat on the lip of the wave, precariously, for an hour.

The next morning I made my way to the Mogao Caves, a series of grottoes carved into desert cliffs that contain a marvellous collection of Buddhist art. The earliest caves date back to the 4th century AD and the art develops and changes through a thousand years of dynasties and trade. Dunhuang was an important waypoint on the Silk Road and Buddhism was one of the many things the caravans brought with them into China. Thousands of tiny buddhas adorn the walls and rooves in brilliant mineral colours. Below, elegant Buddha and Boddhisattva statues meditate in the gloom. Some are among the biggest in the world, and took decades to carve.

In the time left to me I visited the Dunhuang Museum, where I discovered a single hemp sock. It was over 2000 years old … it seems not only did the Chinese invent something else way before the West, but also that “Where’s the other sock?” is an age-old riddle.


Apparently I’m the only person in the world to be disappointed by Turpan. I’m not sure why – the oasis town is dusty but relaxed, and the people are friendly enough, despite living in the second-lowest depression in the world.

Perhaps it was my companions on the day tour I took. One was a loquacious German diplomat who somehow managed to say “it’s crazy” in every second sentence. He was a nice enough guy. He was also an ardent ex-smoker concerned that everything happened on time and convinced that everyone was trying to rip us off; a deadly combination on a Chinese tour. The other guy  was a extremely odd young man who looked like a Chinese Harry Potter. His face was covered in a constant sheen of sweat and he ordered everyone around like we were his servants.

It didn’t help that many of the places we visited on the tour were overpriced and seemed solely designed to cash in on the tourist trade. (The diplomat kindly made sure I was very aware of that fact.) The best of the bunch were The Flaming Mountains, like shards of Uluru – Monkey Magic had to contend with them on his Journey to the West – and the Jiaohe Ruins. The ruins made it all worthwhile. Jiaohe Gucheng was an ancient city built on the clifftops of a river island. I spent a good couple of hours wandering the streets and courtyards of baked earth, which, like chocolate on a hot day, are slowly melting into the dust. With a little imagination you could reverse Time’s arrow and see the markets, temples and wells as they once were, busy with people.


Kashgar and Hotan are a China I hardly recognise, peopled by the Middle-Eastern-looking Ughyur. Mosques, minarets, bazaars, scorching sun, carpets, silk, jade, meat by the carcass, gold, piles of bread (bread!), silver, donkeys, carts, shit, mounds of dripping icecream (delicious), more spices than you can poke a pestle at, motorbikes with Persian seat covers, goats, goat heads, goat entrails by the bowl, hats of every kind, tiger pelts, legless beggars, merchants, women like colourful ninjas, old men in skullcaps and long white beards, dirty children, sweets, nuts and dried fruit, carpets, silk, jade … a full frontal assault on the senses as throngs of people buy, sell and beg like there’s no tomorrow.

There were perfect photos everywhere, and I’d come prepared with plenty of film, but I ended up taking less than half a roll, and they were desultory affairs. Perhaps photos can do it justice. I, at least, didn’t try, happy enough to wander aimlessly, or simply stand for a while and take it all in, exchanging stares with cracked faces and mysterious eyes.

Every journey must have a low point. I hope mine will be a couple of days after I arrived in Kashgar, when I began enjoying all the symptoms of SARS. As you probably know, SARS is not only a disturbing form of cola, it’s also an acronym for a disease that’s currently all the rage in China. That special part of the brain devoted to telling you that you’ve got the illness you’re reading about was working overtime, especially after I realised that the diplomat I shared a room with in Turpan had: (a) just come from Guangzhou, where it all began; and (b) had a cold. Thankfully, I’m recovering well. On the bright side, at least I now don’t have to worry about catching the disease when I reach Hong Kong.

After a few days recuperating in Kashgar, I caught a bus to Hotan and spent another couple of days alone in a dorm with a squat toilet that even Trainspotters wouldn’t dive into. I emerged in time for Hotan’s Sunday Market, a pulsing labyrinth of streets, warehouses, alleys and tunnels of clothing which by noon had engulfed the old town with people, animals and goods. Provided it doesn’t need power you can buy just about anything you want.

A feast.


My time in Xinjiang is now almost over. With the road to the Pakistan border closed, and it still too early in the year to get to Heaven Pool, I’ve spent the extra time resting, and wandering the streets of Kashgar and Hotan. Having skirted the Taklamakan Desert, the second-largest shifting sand desert in the world, tomorrow I’m going though it – on yet another bus – bound for Urumqi.

Perhaps not the smartest idea, when the desert’s name in Ughyur means “he who goes in will not come out”…


* Coursing wind and clearing away
* Resolving toxieity and detumescence
* Benefiting throat and eliminating halitosis
* Aroma and keep pure

— the manifold benefits of Golden Throat Herbal Candy

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