Together with Anja and Hauke on their motorbikes, Ronald and Rini in their camper and Anand, Punita,Yash and Dhriti, the Baid family, we continued through the deserts of Xinjiang into the city of Turpan, China’s Death Valley. At 154m below sea level, it’s the second lowest depression in the world and the hottest spot in China. Despite the heat, ( we were there in spring, the theoretically cool time of the year) the ground water and fertile soil of the Turpan depression has made this a veritable oasis in the desert, evidenced by the nearby centuries-old remains of ancient cities, imperial garrisons and Buddhist caves. Though the Turpan area has been inhabited for thousands of years and was once an important oasis on the northern Silk Road, the new town is a fairly recent creation. As we had finally reached our group, we needed a break here. So we avoided any sightseeing and got some quality time resting. In the new city, where we stayed, there was a mellow vibe. Recovering from the days of constant driving over a cold Xinjiang beer, under the grape vines, on a warm evening, was for me one of the joys of travelling through this province, especially after the stress and psychological pressure that I had been through during the previous weeks.
After that came a row of five long days driving through a monotonous landscape, changing from desert to semi desert or just plain rock, long stretches of no man’s land. We passed the cities of Korla, Luntai, Kuqa and Aksu that have nothing more to offer than an overnight stop before you reach Kashgar, the city crossroad of the Silk Road. Locked away in the westernmost corner of China, physically closer to Tehran and Damascus than to Beijing, Kashgar (Kāshí) has been the epicenter of the regional trade and cultural exchange for more than two millennia. The roads, rail and planes that now connect the city to the rest of China have brought waves of migrant workers and huge swaths of the old city have been bulldozed in the name of economic “progress”. Yet, in the face of these changes, the spirit of Kashgar lives on. Uighur craftsmen and artisans still hammer and chisel away in side alleys, traders haggle over deals in the bazaars and donkey carts still trundle their way through the suburbs. Add to the above the Sunday livestock market that is the real deal, and you have a highlight to everyone’s visit there. For the first time we felt more Central Asia than China. There was not much else for us to do than soak it all up, eat a few kebabs, chat with the local carpet sellers and prepare our trip along the southern Silk Road to Hotan, over the Torugart Pass to Kyrgyzstan.
We sadly found out that China is definitely far from being a tourist friendly country. Everything is completely controlled by an inflexible governmental system that can make you feel trapped and reduces your sense of freedom. Numerous times during our stay and even on our way out of the country, it seemed to me that in China nobody trusts the other. On our way to the border, we had to cross four passport controls and in all four of them the procedure was exactly the same. Their system is not effective at all. Although to the outside world China seems to be the upcoming world power, the Chinese system of governing the people is still in the medieval times. Despite the bad experience through a natural disaster that we had, this route except for the Himalayas crossing part that is an experience by itself, the rest of our China crossing was just a drive through. Indeed we both agreed that the total cost was really high and at times not worth the effort and the price that we had paid. One of the reasons that most overlanders choose to travel with their vehicles is the sense of freedom that this provides. Stop wherever you like, sleep beside the street, meet people as you pass by and make your route as you go. All of the above were taken away from us in China.
Still the thrill, that you follow ancient routes of the Silk Road that millions of people crossed many centuries ago, is still alive and no-one can take it away. Consider this route as an alternative to the more southern route of Karakoram Highway. Unfortunately the routes that used to unite Europe and Asia are getting fewer and fewer as wars break out every day and the classical routes of traveling are out of bounds, leaving a huge gap on the way from Europe to Asia. Hopefully as time goes by, the old Silk Road will be one more time an overland route that unites cultures and spreads civilizations. Crossing China… The choice is yours.
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