The Silk Road is like a river, with its headwaters in Xi'an. From there, the road follows a northwest course through the Gansu corridor where it's pinched on both sides by 3000-5000m high mountain ranges. Once it hits Dunhuang where the desert spreads in all directions, however, it becomes a delta, and branches off across Central Asia before it deposits itself into the ocean of Europe. Branches lead one south to Tibet, India and Pakistan. A myriad of roads flows through the present-day '-stans' before heading into Saudia Arabia. One road leads north into Russia. Finally, the trunk stops in Istanbul, where West meets East. Names like Dunhuang, Turpan, Korla, Miran and Jiaohe don't mean much in today's world, but for centuries these were places travelers wandered through on their way to Xi'an or back. The Gansu Corridor/Dunhuang area was of such significance, that over history the equally-powerful empires of China, Tibet and Mongolia fought each other, each taking it over in turn. When China owned the corridor, the Silk Road flowed. When Tibet or Mongolia owned it, the tide was stemmed, and silk and gold stayed on their respective sides.
Sunset on our camel ride out into the desert, where we stayed overnight.
As we left Xi'an, we had no idea what we were getting into. This is a largely forgotten part of China, and finding information on some of the places we wanted to head to was rather like finding clouds in the skies over these deserts. We've had to remind ourselves time and again that we're still in China, as the faces, language and food has changed significantly. This area is largely populated by Uyghurs, Kazhaks, Mongols and Tibetans, though the Chinese government is still in full 'Han-isation', and construction is everywhere.
The oasis of Dunhuang was our first stop, and it proved to be a nice, sleepy town. The Mogoa Buddhist caves are some of the world's best, and recent documents found preserved in them have told us that these cities held the same name at least 1700 years ago. Crescent Moon Lake was just as famous back then, and pictures and accounts of visits there abound in the literature and on the walls of the caves. We enjoyed a great sleep in the desert, with no one and nothing around for kilometers - the stars were unbelievable, and the camels were suprisingly comfortable to ride!! It's easy to see why these places were famous along the Silk Road - from brown and desert to green and lush in a blink of an eye - amazing.
Is this China? Han Chinese become the minority out West - muslim Uighurs, like this man, abound.
From there we pushed on to Turpan, otherwise knows as the second-lowest depression in the world at 500 feet below sea level. The dry, heavy heat was the kind that made you feel like you deserve a tall, cool beer at the end of the day, even if you did nothing all day. This area is famous for its grapes, raisins and melons, of all things!! It is very strange to drive through hours and hours of arid desert, only to find yourself surrounded by trees, rushing water beside the roads, and local fruits and vegetables! We also tried the wine, which was ... well ... did I mention they're famous for their grapes? One highlight here was getting to go into the courtyard of one local family that were just finished harvesting their grapes - we had a great time checking out their drying racks and learning the process of turning grapes into raisins, Turpan style.After crossing the Taklamakan desert, we headed up into the Tibetan plateau on quite the road!
After Turpan, we really headed off the map. We were heading for where we are now, Golmud, which is the city you need to pass through to head into Lhasa, 1000 km to the south. To do this, we thought it would be a good idea to head across the Taklamakan desert and then up into the Tibetan plateau, and arrive in Golmud from the West, a sort of back door. Wow - what an adventure. The first 6-hour ride to Korla was uneventful, but the next supposed 6-hour sleeper across the desert actually took 12 hours - why? Sand storm!!! The wind and driving sand was amazing, and, coupled with a massive thunder and lightning storm, was an experience we won't soon forget. Peeking out the windshield while the driver tried to drive through the storm was like looking into a snow-storm, except it was yellow instead of white. We emerged in Ruoqiang dusty and dirty, needless to say.
From there it was a 6-hour packed jeep ride up into the Tibetan plateau - truly amazing scenery and quite the road!! 9 people packed in a 6-person jeep...well, we focused on the scenery. A quick 2-hour bus ride out of a hellish Asbestos-mine town and we landed in a city called Huatugou that reminded us a lot of Annikin Skywalker's home town - a city where you'd expect nothing could survive. A quick overnight in a hotel with no heat and no running water, and the we took a sleeper bus to Golmud, where we just bought our tickets for Lhasa!!
We're here for 2 days to acclimatize to the elevation (2800m) and cold (14 degrees this morning at 11:00) before heading through 5000m passes and into Lhasa. We're pumped, not only about surviving the past three days of travel, but about finally heading into Tibet! Check out our Picasa web album for more pictures. We'll probably update again once we hit India in about 10-days time. See you then!!