The Road to Xinjiang

Trip Start Jan 01, 2008
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Trip End Aug 08, 2008


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Flag of China  , Xinjiang Uygur,
Saturday, June 14, 2008

June 13, 2008
 
I visited Jiayuguan in the morning.  Here's what my Rough Guide had to say about it.
 
"To some Chinese the very name Jiayuguan is synonymous with sorrow and ghastly remoteness.  The last fortress of the Great Wall was built here by the Ming in 1372, over 5000km from the wall's easternmost point at Shanhaiguan, from which time the town made its living by supplying the needs of the fortress garrison.  This was literally the final defense of the empire, the spot where China ended and beyond which lay a terrifying wilderness."
 
"The fort's location, between the permanently snowcapped Qilian Mountains to the north and the black Mazong (Horse's Mane) Mountains to the south, could not be more dramatic - or more strategically valuable.  Everything that traveled between the deserts of central Asia and the fertile lands of China - goods, traders, armies - had to file through this pass.  The desolation of the landscape only adds to the melancholy - being forced to leave China altogether was a citizen's worst nightmare, and it was here that disgraced officials and condemned or fleeing criminals had to make their final, bitter farewells."
 
The road to the fort was under construction so I had to ride across the desert for a couple of kilometers to reach it.  I stood in front of the fort and took a picture.  All of a sudden a herd of horses and camels came trotting out of the gate.  Altogether there must have been fifteen camels, pretty cool.  There was nobody at the entrance selling tickets so I just walked in.  I wandered around the fort for a few minutes then entered into a large courtyard, where twenty men were dressed in ancient warrior costumes and were preparing to perform some kind of routine.  There was a news crew with a cameraman ready to capture whatever it was they were about to do.  I saw someone do a cartwheel before they started, so I got excited, thinking I was about to see some crazy acrobatic routine.  It couldn't have been more disappointing.  Yes, there was one cartwheel in the dance, but outside of that it was just men dressed in silly costumes doing pitiful dance moves, if you could call them that, in unison.  After the dance was over, I could tell that the news crew was confused as to why they were there.  I walked back outside to my bike, and a man followed me, asking if I wanted to ride a camel.  I was in a hurry, as I still had more than 600km to drive, but I couldn't resist taking a picture on the camel for ten kuai.
 
The road to Xinjiang was even more desolate than I expected.  I spent the entire day in the desert.  Every 100km or so there was a rest area with a gas station and some little shops, but that was about it.  For most of the day I fought against blustering winds.  I saw hundreds of windmills, but there was more than enough room and wind for thousands more.  I stopped one to take a picture of a wind farm, because I had never actually seen one.  Another man on a motorcycle stopped with me and asked me where I was from.  It turned out he was from Sichuan, and had also driven here from his hometown.  He was also driving to Urumqi and Kashgar.  I told him that today I was driving to Hami, and he said he was also going there today.  However, when I got back on the road I left him behind pretty quickly.  I don't think his bike was fast enough to make it all the way across the desert in a day.  I hope he realized it and stopped at one of the rest areas for the night.
 
At one of the gas stations I stopped at, the crew got pretty excited that there was a foreigner in their midst, and the man in charge made me sit down and put a cold beer in my hand.  I was about to protest, saying that I had to drive, but then thought I would be polite and have a sip.  It tasted like ginger ale.  I turned the bottle around and saw that it was less than 1% alcohol.  So it really was ginger ale. 
 
For the last 300km stretch of desert, the road I was on merged with the highway.  Trade along the Silk Road is obviously still alive and well.  Out of every 20 vehicles on the road, 19 were enormous trucks, carrying anything and everything.  The desert can be rather cold when the sun is hiding behind the clouds.  I braced against the bone chilling winds as I maneuvered through the slow-moving giants of the road.  I stopped at the Xinjiang border to eat some prepackaged tofu, my snack of choice at the moment.  My teeth were sore from being clenched for the past two hours. 

After I crossed into Xinjiang, the sun came out and warmed the rest of the way to Hami.  I raced it to the horizon through the last 200 km of desert.  I made it to Hami before sundown and found a hotel.  I must have gained at least an hour of sunlight today; it was still light outside well after 10:00 p.m.  However, time zones don't change anywhere in China.  Everybody is on Beijing time.
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