Silk and Sand

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 December, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 December, 1995, 12:00am

ON leaving the misted rice paddies which form the outskirts of the Keriya oasis one realises that it is out of necessity the thrice weekly bus to Charchan began to load two hours before dawn.

The rooftop luggage rack had been transformed into a lopsided jumble piled precariously high with matting, bicycles, irrigation piping, sacks of fruit and chests of personal belongings.

Chaos also reigned inside the bus as baggage, lengths of iron, musical instruments and even five fat-tailed sheep were jostled about in the aisle by passengers preparing themselves for the arduous 17-hour trip that lay ahead.

The southern arm of the ancient Silk Road that skirts Xinjiang's Taklamakan Desert and winds through its scattered oases runs closest to the route once travelled by Marco Polo.

His actual path lay somewhat to the north of the present road passing through ancient Buddhist cities that now lie ruined in the sands of the Taklamakan.

The present-day residents of the region, mainly Islamic Uygurs, a Turkic people, formed the bulk of my travelling companions.

Among them, a colourfully dressed woman with a huge goitre, a turbaned pilgrim returning from the 'haj' to Mecca, a team of professional gamblers, children with round faces like Buddhas, an elderly Chinese with tobacco cured skin.

Nan (the local flat bread), raisins and nuts were passed around as we began to grind past small settlements and grazing areas of reeds and a kind of saltbush favoured by sheep and goats.

After several hours of crashing over teeth-rattling corrugations we stopped at the town of Niya for lunch. Half the bus and the bleating sheep alighted and new travelling companions made their presence felt in the mad rush to secure seats.

A pair of gem hunters across from me and a group of migrant Sichuan road workers returning east, sat on sacks in the aisle offering cigarettes.

I was curious about an unusually quiet man behind me. Dressed in People's Liberation Army-type clothing, his bag covered with a fertiliser sack, he looked decidedly local, however his expensive sunglasses gave away his true identity: a young Japanese adventurer gone native. I didn't let on that I had seen through his disguise till later that evening.

Large dunes met the shimmering waters of the Niya River that meandered through green pasture-lands, then flowed through the dunes to peter out in the desert sands.

To the north lay ancient cities explored by Sir Aurel Stein at the turn of this century and numerous shrines in honour of the legendary 'Four Imams' venerated by the local Muslims.

When we came to a highway camp, the gamblers alighted seeking new prey and the Sichuanese waved to friends still working out their tenure under the desert sun.

Road maintenance is a never-ending job as wind storms and the creeping dunes are constantly covering the minimal road surface. We passed a road junction with lots of construction activity, and the gem hunter informed me that it was the end of the new bitumen road which crossed the Taklamakan from north to south.

Scheduled to be completed this month, its initial purpose is to service oil exploration in the Tarim Basin. By some time next year it should be open to passenger traffic, cutting travelling time from the remote southern oases to the capital by one day or more.

The gem hunter went on to say that 'out there' lay, undiscovered, more oil than in the whole of Kuwait. His mind fused by the mystique of the desert, he started pointing to sandy hummocks along the roadside imagining buried treasure.

'If only people knew which one,' he says. 'Everyone knows it's out there some place.' We were bogged down for the first time in a sand drift and were forced to get out of the bus and lay yulghoon branches under the wheels. With a mighty push and roar we were back on the road again.

The scenery changed, an almost savanna-type landscape unfolded with high reeds and the twisted shapes of 'Toghrak' forests panning off into the distance.

Later, more razor-backed dunes came into view. We moved through them slowly and come to a place of reeds where streams running from the snow-capped Kunlun Mountains to the south have formed large pools.

The place was known as Yar Tunguz or 'place of the pigs', but donkeys and goats also abound.

Two hours before dusk we stopped to eat at a small settlement where vehicles with huge wheels used in oil exploration are parked.

With tears and much stroking of beards, the old pilgrim received an emotional welcome here from the local villagers. Many of the chests on the rooftop were goods and gifts he had brought back from other lands.

After a full meal of noodles and mutton washed down by numerous bowls of green tea to slake our thirst, we drove off into the dying day.

TOGHRAK trees became eerie silhouettes in the cool mist of the late afternoon. The mud huts of shepherds were numerous, and the man beside me said that despite their poor appearance, the shepherds are in fact quite wealthy.

Each of their many sheep sell for 500 yuan and in spring one kilogram of fleece brings 350 yuan.

I studied a local girl's features. Her aquiline nose and fair skin cannot differ much from that of the earlier inhabitants of this area. Mummies found in the nearby desert are thought to be 4,000 years old, perfectly preserved by the arid climate they reveal a 'Scythian' type people once lived here who were weavers of wool and silk. (On display in the regional museum in Urumqi, these outstanding mummies with their long fair hair, elaborate garments and frozen expressions seem to cast a spell over all who view them.) A state of extreme discomfort began to possess the bus-load of bone-weary travellers. Innumerable potholes and continuous corrugations jarred our bodies into a state of numbness. Our patience was also tested as we travelled the last four hours in the dark to reach the poplars of the large Charchan oasis, their long white trunks glowing ghostly in the headlights.

At the bus station I made myself known to the Japanese and we walked together by torchlight to look for a guesthouse to spend the evening.

The one-day stopover in Charchan was not only welcome, but necessary as the ongoing bus to Charklik departs only every second day.

Charchan is the largest town in the eastern Taklamakan and is preparing itself to become a centre for the developing oil industry.

A new bitumen road due to be completed next year will link this isolated oasis with the railhead town of Korla in the north, making the journey through the middle of the dunes possible in just one day.

The town boasts a large mosque, a small airport, newly built guesthouse and a typical Uygur bazaar selling fruits, carpets, cloth and jade from the nearby Kunlun Mountains.

We pulled out of town at dawn as hundreds of turbaned men filed past returning from their morning prayers. A bleak stretch of unforgiving desert, flat, stony and lifeless, followed.

The road is rough. We stopped at a roadhouse near a large bridge. The young driver looked stunned as he sat drinking his tea on a brightly coloured felt rug. He also wore a tumar or Islamic charm around his neck sewn into the shape of a heart.

The bus drivers in Xinjiang are a breed apart as they daily negotiate some of the most rugged and dangerous roads in China.

The day was clear, the blue dome of the sky omnipresent, and barren ranges appeared in the south rising out of a great featureless plain. We crossed numerous watercourses, some dry, others rushing with glacial waters.

Off in the distance we made out a huge range of dunes and the poplars of the small oasis of Ashay Daban smouldering in the haze of a mirage. The dunes often meet the road on this stretch. It was hot and we were bogged 17 times in just 50 kilometres.

We carried shovels and special pieces of timber to act as running ramps when bogged. Some women, veiled and secretive, use these times to collect coloured pebbles.

I found out later they were a group of travelling fortune tellers, and the small pebbles are used in their particular form of divination.

We saw a large bowl of swirling dust off in the distance, a dust storm violently twisting and sucking the contents of the desert floor skyward. Fortunately it missed us and we were spared the unpleasant ordeal of being completely covered by the fine loess sands.

A lone cameleer appeared with a herd of 50 double-humped Bactrian camels. The jovial Uygur businessman sitting beside me who knows him as well as everyone else along the way, yelled and waved from the window.

A great sea of reeds stretched to the horizon, circled by numerous eagles and hawks, then the sprawling oasis of Watchari with its extensive fields of wheat and corn offered us cool respite from the afternoon heat.

A basin of mesa-like formations revealed the foothills of the Altun Shan, a nature reserve and home to wild camel, gazelle and the Kiang or wild ass.

The nearby snowy extremes of Mount Muztagh (6,973 metres) are also the habitat of the elusive snow leopard and reportedly a strange yeti type creature.

This is mysterious country and true wilderness, its southern extremity formed by the foreboding Chang Thang plateau of Tibet. The momentum of the day's journey began to take on a dream-like quality as we passed the ancient ruins of Washixia to enter the pleasant orchards of the Charklik oasis for our nightly stopover.

From this point the road forks eastwards into Qinghai Province and on to the former Buddhist centre of Dunhuang.

The ancient silk road ran just to the north of here as caravans left the endless sands of the Tarim Basin to enter the even more fearsome desert of Lop, a spectral wasteland noted historically for its awful storms, strange sounds and apparitions.

Numerous ruined cities lay to our east, among them Miran and the famous Loulan near the shifting marshes of the salt lake known as Lop Nur.

We headed north towards Korla. The day was hot, the road horrendous and the stairwell at the front of the bus crowded with refugees. No one behind could stay in their seats as we were mercilessly slammed time and again into huge potholes and sand drifts. It's hard to imagine the bleak landscape outside once supported flourishing city states. My eyes gladly greeted new stands of poplars, a fox, and a wild antelope.

Near the 34th Bingtuan an old city wall appeared replete with watchtowers and barbican.

The Bingtuans or 'soldier farms' are a feature of life around the edge of the Taklamakan.

Originally marginal arid land given to decommissioned Guo Min Dang soldiers, they have mostly been transformed into models of production and industry. Largely autonomous, they are free to import and export without central bureaucratic interference.

Water seemed to be around us everywhere now with endless kilometres of cultivation as the many channels of the Tarim and Kunqi River flow towards Lop Nur. Duck ponds abound, young Chinese boys fished the streams, horses and livestock became more plentiful.

From the town of Yuli we drove the last 50 kilometres on a tarred road, and I felt like I was floating.

In the bustling city of Korla we were deposited at the foot of a large statue - a Bingtuan pioneer with rifle in one hand, hoe in the other gazes out across the desert.

Although drained by the ordeal, I decided it was worth it.By next year as new roads open up the sleeping sands of the Taklamakan, this mode of travel through the remote region will have been rendered obsolete.