Turpan to Hotan (China)



Turpan to Hotan : through the Taklamakan desert
The journey from Turpan (top right) to Hotan (bottom left) has taken us from the Northern Silk Road to the Southern Silk Road. As can be seen on the map, the Taklamakan desert (meaning "he who goes in will not come out" !) is skirted by oases towns that would constitute the stops of the caravans going East or West. Before that we drove to Kuqa, to the North of the desert.


Turpan to Kuqa : the Kuqa mountain road
In Turpan we decided we were bored of taking national roads which, since Xi'an, have been a lot better than before. Less traffic and better roads have enabled us to drive at least 400km or more per day. Our "Asia overland" guidebook mentioned the "Kuqa mountain road", open in summer only. This route promised scenic villages and mountain passes. Let's go !  
Day ONE : at the top Day TWO : Stuck !


Despite raining in the morning, our afternoon in Kuqa was blessed with a glorious sun.

Views from the oasis town of Kuqa


Kuqa children


The desert countryside between the mountains we have just come from and the oasis town


The Kizilkaha Signal tower. This 13.5 meter high mud tower was initially built some 2000 years ago. It was used to levy taxes on caravans and is made of just mud and wood ! It was apparently still used 100 years ago.


Through the Taklamakan desert
This particular desert has the reputation of being seriously more dangerous and less tame than Arabia deserts. It has been called the following names : land of death, a very abomination of desolation. Sir Clarmont Skrine, who served as British Consul-General in Kashgar in the 1920s described it as such in his book Chinese Central Asia : "To the north in the clear dawn the view is inexpressively awe-inspiring and sinister. The yellow dune of the Taklamakan, like the giant waves of a petrified ocean, extend in countless myriads to a far horizon with here and there and extra large sand-hill, a king dune as it were, towering above its fellows. They seem to clamour silently, those dunes, for travellers to engulf, for whole caravans to swallow up as they have swallowed up so many in the past."


Close-up of a dune in the Taklamakan desert, Western China


As can be seen on the map above, travellers on the Silk Road had no choice but to stay on the outskirts of the deserts as it is surrounded by mountains. To the north, the Chinese T'ien Shan, to the south the Karakoram range (the most dense mountain range in the world with, amongst others, the K2) and to the west, the Pamir range or "the roof of the world". Four years ago, a cross-desert highway was built thanks to oil money. Despite the dunes, it is now possible to blast through desert at speeds much higher than 100 km/h on a road as smooth as a billiard table (the only road in China so far on which we have been able to work with the computer inside the car).


The view behind us as we leave the mountain range and the oasis to enter the desert (left) and night falling in the desert (right).

The sand in the desert is so fine, your shoes will stick to it giving you the feeling you are walking in a water puddle.


That evening, we stopped in the middle of the desert and slept in our rooftop tent, in the courtyard of a small guesthouse that caters for oil workers. We tried out this amazing device that is a satellite phone for the first time in a location hundreds of km away from normal life. Just set it up with a clear sky to beam towards the geo-stationary Inmarsat satellite and 5 seconds later you have a tone and can IDD dial anywhere. Thank you to Eurodis Enterprises Ltd. for lending us such a wonderful device !


Having fun in the dunes


Camels are still used in every day life


The Hotan Sunday market
As a testimony to their great past, all city oases along the Silk Road remain trading places. Each city or village has a weekly market to which thousands of people will come to buy or sell their goods.


The Hotan Sunday market


This is not Mao and the local leader of the time having a good time. The story goes that this local farmer took his donkey cart to Beijing to shake hands with the big boss.


We are doing well !

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