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wind, sand and stars

Written by Kate on May 27th, 2006

On a bike trip, you are exposed to the world around you in a way and to a degree that few other modes of transportation afford. That kind of raw vulnerability has its drawbacks — like choking on the fumes of transport trucks that roar past, or feeling every teensy bump in the road translate itself into a saddle sore. But in the end the perks take the prize: the freedom to explore a landscape at your own pace, under your own power, and the exhilaration of traveling with all you need strapped to your wheels. This is nomadism at its best, each day yielding some new acquaintance or adventure, insight or dream, vast horizon or gnarl in the road.

When you get off the bike in the middle of the desert in the middle of day, though, it’s a different story. After escaping the civilized decadence of Korla, the three of us opted not to skirt the Taklamakan Desert, as originally planned, but rather to ride straight into the heart of it. We had time, we had sunscreen, we had (some) water, and the challenge of crossing this fabled wasteland was too alluring to pass up. The only road slicing through the desert spans about 600 km, and while the distance wasn’t all that daunting, the extreme conditions definitely had us quaking.

Our plan was to wake up to stars and ride through dawn until the heat became unbearable, park ourselves in the artificial shade of our tarp for the long, hot hours of the day, then get back on the bikes at dusk and ride until dark. Great, fine, no problem – only I never imagined hours could approach infinity when you’ve got absolutely nothing to do but bake. It was too hot to read, to write, to move, to sleep, to think. Melting was honestly the only option – that and fantasizing about the polar temperatures we were battling in the Tian Shan mountains only days before.

Fortunately the desert wasn’t always like that. In the deceptive calm and cool of the early morning, the Taklamakan was a beautiful and benevolent place. As the stars slowly faded into sunlight, the corrugated dunes became sculpted with shadows, and there was no hint of the blasting heat to come, no premonition of the desert’s imminent transformation into a stinging maelstrom of wind and sand; just oceanic, awesome, silent space.

So much space! At 270,000 square kilometers, the Taklamakan is one of the largest shifting sand deserts in the world, dwarfed only by the Sahara and Gobi. The name Taklamakan ominously translates to “he who goes in never comes out”, and nearly a thousand years ago Marco Polo warned travelers of the “spirit voices” that echo through this haunted desert, voices that “lure [you] away from the path so you never find it again.” I strained my ears for those voices, but I think they’ve been silenced over many Silk Road centuries. To paraphrase Annie Dillard, the desert pronounces something, over and over, in a hoarse whisper; I cannot quite make it out. But goodness knows I’ve tried.

By midday, though, beauty and benevolence evaporate in fierce heat and wind. We dealt with the heat by resigning ourselves to bake in boredom for a few hours. The winds, by contrast, we welcomed, because at least they stirred up enough sand to block the battering sunlight. And even better, they were blowing in the vague direction we wanted to go. So we surfed tailwinds through the desert, the price of the free ride paid in sand loosed and flung everywhere. Heat and dust defined our days, coated our bikes and bodies, caused our gears to groan and minds to grind. Occasionally a sand tornado would whip up and whirl past, strangely mute; we watched them fury by with complete calm and mild interest, for such things had become the norm, such things had become our world. Ragged, rapt, and exalted, we pedaled our way through immeasurable sand. It was mind-numbing; it was magnificent.

Finding water in the desert ended up less of a worry than anticipated. We managed to make it to truck stops before we ran out, and when we didn’t, we hailed down transport trucks for water from their storage tanks. Then about halfway through the desert, we unexpectedly encountered a miniature forest in the making – or so the Chinese hope. The government has drilled wells every half-dozen kilometers in order to irrigate grids of human-planted vegetation lining the road side, a form of erosion control. and A couple was stationed at every well to baby the plants along. In addition to completely eradicating our water worries, the folks at the well stations were incredibly kind, stuffing us with food and rice wine while entertaining us with guitars and singing and cards. Between us and them, I don’t know who was happier to see who.

When we finally rode into Minfeng, the first real town after the desert crossing, our scalps were full of sand, our ears and nose and eyes were veritable beaches, our teeth gritty and clothes crusty. We drew even more stares than usual, along with some emphatic thumbs-ups and impressed if incredulous looks. After a massive meal, a cold shower, and a sleep, we hit the road again destined for Hotan, a city renowned for its jade located along the southern route of the Silk Road. Riding into the chaos of the city a few days later was a completely surreal experience.

The poplar-tunneled street leading into town was jammed with motorbikes buzzing and darting about like flies; recalcitrant donkeys pulled rickety wooden carts on which perched a precarious assortment of people, sheep, and stacked goods; skinny, dignified-looking Uighur men pedaled rusty bikes on the verge of disintegration; the pungent smells of kebabs roasting, nan bread baking, diesel engines coughing, coal burning, and the perfume of trees all blended into a cacophany of smells. And there we were, trying to breathe it all in while seeking a safe cycling path through the chaos.

From empty spaces to peopled places, from silence to the shrieks of civilization, we constantly wander between worlds on this trip. I love this dodging and dancing between realities, the one contrasting and complementing the other. Though I personally prefer the desert wilds over oasis towns, on the Silk Road, variety is the oft-traded and ancient spice of life.

Le vent se leve. Il faut tenter de vivre.
-Paul Valery


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