Roughing it along the desert road to Turpan

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 August, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 August, 1997, 12:00am

The ride to Turpan is a fascinating journey. In vast stretches, the road from Urumqi, the capital of the mainland's northwestern Xinjiang province, appears to be a trail of gravel that lines a bumpy way to the foot of surrounding mountains.

But it is only a surprisingly short distance before the stones give way to meadows sprinkled with dandelions, or to patches of parched earth sprouting tufts of grass. At times, two wildly different types of vegetation exist on opposite sides of the road.

Riding the minibus through parts of this eclectic study of topography is akin to riding a boat in a stormy sea: there is little rest or relief for your body as you are tossed and jostled about for parts of the 200-kilometre journey. The road is narrow and sometimes busy, especially coming out of Urumqi where trucks are driven head on leaving just seconds to veer out of each other's way.

Scattered across the desert are oil rigs, dust-layered chemical factory towns, sand huts where television sets are visible through their small entrances, and single rows of narrow restaurants offering chicken and lamb. Men appearing the size of ants toil on a distant highway being built parallel to the road being traversed.

A sign at one point reads 'Drink Xinjiang beer. Make friends with the world'; other signs remind travellers of the mainland's economic 'open door' policy. Water from a freshwater lake can be seen snaking through the scorched earth; mountains rise and drop in the distance.

Our guide described the Turpan Basin as the 'hottest, sweetest and lowest' place on earth: hottest, because summer temperatures often reach 40 degrees Celsius (we were lucky, it was at least 10 degrees lower); sweetest, because it produces grapes; and lowest, because its depression is 155 metres below sea level, ranking it among the lowest spots in the world.

It was against this backdrop that we climbed into the minibus after stopping to feel the dry earth at our feet and to survey the vast desolate region at a standstill.

Our minibus, however, managed only a hiccup after the key was turned in the ignition. Images of a truck ride among sheep skins, or worse, of a night spent in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, danced in my head. We all breathed a very dry sigh of relief when the minibus sputtered to a start after several failed attempts.

The driver dropped us at the nearest restaurant for lunch - the Petroleum Restaurant at the Petroleum Hotel in Turpan - so the vehicle could be repaired for the journey back to Urumqi.

We rode by taxi to a colourful Uygur market, which lies on the west side of Turpan and appeared rather sleepy at mid-day.

The autonomous region of Xinjiang is mainly Muslim, and is home to more than a dozen ethnic minorities other than the Han Chinese, including the dominant Uygurs.

In the market, dried grapes and other fruit, bolts of cloth, carpets, hand knives, embroidered shirts and caps are among the choice picks for tourists.

On our way to the Grape Valley just north of the city, we endured another temporary breakdown, this time in a taxi. The other half of our travel group had even less luck: their taxi broke down three times, with the final one apparently being its last exhausted breath. The group was forced to hitch a ride on a truck instead, then walk the rest of the way.

The vine-covered walkways of the valley provided cool relief from the mid-afternoon sun and the frustrating transport troubles. Small lakes in the valley, probably once clear and pristine, were littered with plastic bottles and wrappers, sad evidence of tourists who left behind their own souvenirs as they snaked through the serene oasis.

Parts of the Karez Underground Irrigation Channels or the Karez Wells, said to be one of the great wonders of China rivalling the Great Wall and the Grand Canal, thread through Turpan. The system was constructed by hand more than 2,000 years ago, with wells to collect water as snow melted from surrounding mountains. Though the water runs mostly underground to reduce evaporation, there are openings above ground which people use to clean their hands or dishware.

Back in the repaired minibus, we drove through a street of brick huts where grapes are dried. At the end of the street itself, vendors sold baskets and boxes of fresh but dusty grapes.

With a few hours yet before dark, there was time to visit the Flaming Mountains east of Turpan, a 100-kilometre stretch of mountains with a surface that appeared to be lurching in fear of the scorching heat. From there, we headed to the Jiaohe Ruins - the 'meeting point of two rivers' - west of Turpan and one of two ancient cities in the area. The sandswept ruins, once a garrison town, sit on the edge of a cliff overlooking a narrow bed of trees and grass.

Under the late sunset, a cool dusty breeze fanned through the windows of the minibus as we drove back. When we reached the busiest part of the road, closer to Urumqi, night had darkened our path. The minibus rode the rocky terrain ungracefully; it lurched, then halted, avoiding trotting donkey-drawn carts and trucks that expired without warning. The bus curved around unseen bends, only to stop abruptly when it found itself facing down a truck much bigger than it was.

I had seen enough for the day; I laid my sand-filled hair against the jostling wall of the bus and closed my eyes. My lips were parched, my mouth was dry, but the experience, nonetheless, was unforgettable.