Saturday, 29 January 2011

More of Khotan and the North/South link road across the Taklamakan ................

25th May continued.................
According to my diary I spent a pleasant afternoon walking with my room mate and going to markets where I bought a couple of silk scarves - which will by now hopefully be worn by the friends for whom they were bought.  I went for a meal with some of my fellow travellers and this is the description of the meal.  "Delightful meal with G, R & J, M, M & self.  M organised our meal by using our "crib sheet".  It was delicious apart from the chicken knuckles - which I think we all agreed was a bit naff - the seasoning was OK but there really is not much meat on a chicken knuckle.  Pork with ginger, potatoes & chinese leaves, a beef dish and the famous "fish tasting" pork which was not fish tasting at all but rather hot- (Sichuan [sic] style) & an egg plant stew which was also delicious.  Back to hotel to the strains of Colonel Bogey (very tinny and continuous!) - which according to G, played until 0200 - of this I was unaware."  "Colonel Bogey" was some piped music, I think from some sort of a merry-go-round in the main square below our window.  I also note about the Chairman Mao statue (yes, another one!) I saw in the main square just outside our hotel.  "Chairman Mao statue in main square shaking hands with a Uighur leader or representative of the Uighur.  CM towers over the Uighur - has the Uighur's hand firmly grasped - ie. "I have the power - you are in my hand"  The hand shaking the Uighur's hand appears to be cast bigger than CM's other hand by his side- all v. subtle but a strong message all the same as CM depicted as much bigger that the Uighur & the Uighur is looking very grateful."  So the power of political images and the messages they give.  Thirty four years after his death every city still has a statue of him.  In the Central Asian countries one had to look really hard at times to see Lenin, if there was one at all - and I only saw one of Marx - not Osh but one of the first places we visited in Kyrgyzstan.

We left Khotan on the morning of the 26th and this was the first time that I had been in a position to see the early morning Tai Chi in the main square.  I am sure that it happened in Kashgar and I certainly heard the wake-up music over the loudspeakers but round the Seman Hotel was not really a Tai Chi sort of place and probably not a Tai Chi sort of population!  So here are a few snaps - slightly blurred because I was high up in the hotel overlooking the main square and also I was using "zoom".

Early morning in Khotan

Tai Chi to wake up
and everybody is at it .............
& dogs do Tai Chi too!  And very obligingly there is piped musak to do the exercises to!
This is the statue that I refer to.  My photo of this was not good enough to post however Phil Colley, Chief Caravaneer at The Oriental Caravan ( has kindly given permission to use the one from their website.
Gives a little hint about the pollution levels.  You can make out the statue on a plinth in front of the white building with the windows on the left hand side of the photo.

So leaving Khotan behind we headed off to cross the Taklamakan Desert from South to North.  When Charles Blackmore wrote his account of crossing the Taklamakan in 1993 the road that we took had not even been built (see Charles Blackmore - The Worst Desert on Earth - a fascinating account of endurance by a British/Chinese/Uyghur exploration team who set out to cross the Taklamakan desert mainly on foot but also with the support of some camels.)    There are huge reserves of natural gas and petrol to the north of the Taklamakan and probably underneath it as well.  So as such it is a strategic resource for China which also explains the political difficulties with the Uyghur people who do not see themselves as Chinese at all and furthermore that that they belong in the region and the Chinese do not.

See the following links for more information:

We travelled along the road to the south of the Taklamakan through lots of small towns in the oases which skirt the desert.  Photos taken through Archie's windows and rather dirty at that!  But I should not complain there were days when I was on "window washing duty" and they were dirty!  Very hard to keep Archie's windows clean with all the dust in the desert.

                      Desert Landscapes

A typical Uyghur farm on the outskirts of a village

Oasis landscape

Back in the desert on the edge of an oasis. 
(If you look carefully behind the vegetation there are what look like piles of earth.  These are a karez (known as kanats in Iran)  or underground irrigation system  but more of these later when I get to Turfan.
My diary for 26th May reads:
"Left Khotan and headed out in the desert.  Lots of small towns in oases.  Stopt. for lunch and a group came to see what we were doing & a man offered us green dates.  Then into the everchanging desert.  The road north is fascinating.  A wide strip either side is regularly irrigated with pumping stations every 5k.  2 of the pumping station men joined us for our night camp.  The sat with us and chatted through John (our guide) J (fellow traveller & farmer) asked them a lot of questions about the upkeep of the road and the irrigation system.  They were happy to share information and I suppose gratified that we took such an interest in what could be a very lonely job."  As the pumping stations was a government scheme the men working them were state employees and Han Chinese - not Uyghur. 
I also write a bit about the desert; "Sand blew into the tent until everything was covered in a fine layer of sand - The sand blow always seems to co-incide with us leaving the truck!  As soon as we set up cook group the wind starts up carrying the sand.  The Taklamakan is a desert desert - sand dunes which shift & change shape like huge hills with wind ripples all over them.  The road north has pumping stations every 5k & irrigation pipes the whole way along & is lined with bushes in a band about 15/20 feet wide.  This is to keep the road open so that there is access to the oil fields & natural gas fields further north.  There is a gas pipe installation about 1/2 way along the road as there is a gas field.  The road after Hotan was atrocious but is being upgraded into a 4 lane highway.  This means that it will far easier to access into the Uighur Autonomous Region - such as military or Chinese influences.  Also far easier access to the rather unstable border- ie. Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, etc.  But it must also have and impact on the Uighur who may feel somewhat threatened - as up to now the poor communications s of the Taklamakan may have helped to keep some degree of distance from China.  As we move eastward the Chinese appear more in numbers & Uighur less.  Although there is a great emphasis on the surface on Uighur culture." 
There were also some jokes about the quality of the sand in the Taklamakan for it must not be forgotten that the Chinese use the desert near Lop to try out various nuclear tests - and in travel terms Lop is not that far from the Taklamakan and as the winds blow I, along with all my fellow travellers, probably inhaled some leftovers from various testings.  But despite this I would not have not gone through the Taklamakan for the world.

                    Some more desert landscapes
The Taklamakan Desert - a desert's desert - sand and dunes

The irrigation band complete with pipes!

One of the many pumping stations as we whisked past

And another one hidden behind the bushes.
And a third one - high on a hill.

Leaving Kashgar and "the worst desert on earth"............

The diary entry for 24th May reads:
"Left Kashgar in morning - drive to Yarkand to look @ Mosque but not able to go in as prayer time.  Lunch went down well - Group liked the salad and salad dressing.  (I seem to remember a tomato and mushroom salad with a garlic salad dressing) Then more driving - found camp in Taklamakan desert - meal cook - success - lots of fruit.  But the dust.  Fortunately had meal before the dust storm - watched it come in the tent in clouds - settled everywhere.  Very hot all the night - sweated so much."  Followed by a diary entry for 25th which reads "Decided I do not like desert camping - when I awoke @ 0530 the clock was covered in sand.  Everything was so gritty - Worked all the way through from 0600-0800 cooking - prep - etc..........."  
Just reading that now brings back the journey.  I took an executive decision not to take my camera out while in the desert, except for a few taken through the window while going along in Archie so I don't have many pictures of the Taklamakan desert.   I did not want sand in my camera.  When I was little on holiday at Wells next the Sea, on the north Norfolk coast, where there are huge expanses of sand when the tide has gone out  I have the memory of walking back to the beach from the sea across this seemingly endless sand and crying as the wind blew the sand against my legs.  It stung like 1000s of simultaneous pin pricks.  And if I put my towel around my waist to cover my legs then my shoulders got cold, we are talking about an English summer in the 1950s here!  It was misery.  I have often revisited this memory when I walk across wide expanses of sand with a sharp wind blowing; laughing to myself about the delicate juvenile skin on my legs that suffered so much and saying to myself that how, now I am adult (?) I can take it .......... or that was until I visited the Taklamakan!  And all of a sudden I was back into that child state with exactly the same sensations of sand whipping up against my now adult skinned legs and it still felt as though I was being stung by 1000s of simultaneous pin pricks!  And as to the grit - I remember my grandmother on one of these Norfolk holidays saying how the sand always got in the sandwiches and even got in the tomato juice (of the bottled variety). And if sand can get in a closed bottle of tomato juice it can certainly get in a camera! So imagine the morning cook with sand blowing.     It was early morning when we started getting the tables and chairs out, it was barely light, trying to be as quiet as possible so as not to wake the "happy campers"!  We were still stumbling around wearing head torches.  It was grey, though I must admit I cannot remember if there was a pre-dawn cold I have a feeling it was a pre-dawn mugginess- as I refer to being "very hot all night" but what I do remember is the greyness and the sun coming up through a haze of sand.  And trying to keep the breakfast we prepared from having a layer of sand deposited on it before we had a chance to eat it!  I think this campsite might have been the one where apparently lorries passed by all night right by the tents - but if they did I did not hear them despite my remarks about being hot and sweaty in the night! Interestingly enough it seemed that we would arrive in a seemingly sandless spot only to find that as soon as we got the cooking equipment out we were in a sandstorm!  When we got to Khotan we found - not the rather racketty and run down Khotan with a rebel army described by Ella Maillart and Peter Fleming some 75 years before - but a rather disappointingly slick modern city with high rise building, streetlights, pavements and tarmac roads. 

The Silk Factory in Khotan

Spinning the threads is women's work

but dyeing the silk is men's work,

as is tying the dyed threads into the pattern.

Weaving is done by women or men

using a technology that has proved good for maybe 1000s of years,

with results as sophisticated as any

modern machine woven fabric.