adventures in the people's republic of china and beyond

Friday, May 30, 2008


The Taklamakan Desert

I haven't updated this blog in a few years. Most of the stories and photos on this blog are about my travels in Xinjiang and other parts of China in 2007.

Out in the Taklamakan desert, our last adventure in Xinjiang.

From Hotan, we rode a little minivan out to Niya, called Minfeng in Chinese. Minfeng is a small town on the edge of the Taklamakan desert; there are two hotels in town, of which we picked the nicer one. In the middle of the town's only intersection down the road from the bus station is a large obelisk covered with Communist sayings in Chinese and Uyghur. It's interesting to note that the Uyghur on the obelisk is written in Romanized script, which was adopted for a time during the 1970s. The current Uyghur writing system is a slightly modified version of the Arabic script they have been using for centuries, the most important modification being the inclusion of short vowels, which are unwritten in most Arabic-derived writing systems.

The obelisk!

But enough about the Uyghur writing system. There's a bit of a market area around the main intersection, and if you walk up the road here, you'll leave the main town and get to the surrounding farms. Donkeys and sheep graze in the green pastures around Minfeng; just behind the pastures you can see the sand dunes of the Taklamakan.

We walked around the pastures and the tree-lined rural roads a bit, enjoying the animals, the colorful gates of local houses, and the painted injunctions to observe the one-child policy. Uyghurs (and other minorities) are exempt from the one-child policy, but receive monetary compensation if they comply. We also spotted a couple China Mobile banners on some rural farmhouses. They're everywhere!

The sign says that single-child or two-daughter (no son) households can receive government assistance after the parents turn 60.

I like this picture for some reason. It captures the feeling of rural Xinjiang well, I think.

That night, after some bad Sichuanese food (I don't know why we kept trying to eat it) we headed out to the intersection, where a night market had sprung up. Despite the heavy wind blowing lids off pots and extinguishing cooking fires a couple times, we still managed to get a nice hot bowl of chuchura (Uyghur dumplings).

The next morning we headed out to the bus station and bargained with a driver to take us to the tomb of Imam Jafar Sadiq, a few miles away from Minfeng, right next to the dunes of the Taklamakan. On the way there, we rode on a stretch of the Cross-Desert Highway (which I'll get to in a bit). Lush green pastures with flocks of sheep were right up on the edge of huge sand dunes; it was a bit strange.

As we neared the mazar (tomb), we had to stop and pay for entrance tickets. The guy wanted 100 yuan for both of us, which was a pretty ridiculous price considering Minfeng isn't exactly the hottest tourist destination in China. I had a counterfeit bill I'd picked up in Hotan that nobody was accepting. I'm not sure when I got it; we'd been eating at a restaurant and I paid with a 100 yuan bill; I wasn't watching very carefully, and the owner gave it back to me claiming it was fake. I've never run into counterfeit bills in ATMs and I doubt hotels would give them out, so perhaps it was a sleight of hand on the restaurant owner's part. I had previously tried to use it to pay for bus tickets, but the experienced bus ticket seller gave it a single rub and identified it as a fake. We had some fun figuring out how to identify counterfeit 100 RMB notes - they feel slightly different, but I can't tell them apart consistently by touch or sight without detailed inspection. The real key is in how they sound. When you wriggle a counterfeit bill, it doesn't make the light, crisp, crinkly noise a real bill should make - it sounds more heavy, more thick.

At any rate, the ticket guy didn't bother giving my bill a rub, and off we went to the mazar. It was a typical Uyghur mosque; I started taking pictures in front, but a guy came out and told me not to take pictures. He then offered us a tour of the mosque, which consisted of him pointing at various buildings and remarking on how old they were, and occasionally allowing us to take pictures at certain points.

The tour wasn't very interesting, but that was OK; our real aim was the huge sand dunes surrounding the mosque. We went back to the driver and told him we'd be taking a walk; he seemed annoyed and asked if the trip across the highway wasn't enough. We set off into the brush surrounding the mosque, avoiding an aggressive dog, and reached the edge of the sand dunes.

The climb up the first dune was pretty tiring, but the view once we got the top was amazing - miles of endless sand dunes. We walked around for a good while up and down the sand dunes. You'd think someone who grew up in New Mexico wouldn't be that amazed by sand dunes, but the desert out here was completely different - it looked like those pictures of the Sahara, with rolling sand dunes stretching out to the horizon.

Flies buzzed around my head; they must have followed me out from the brush, and now were hanging around me for sheer life, as there weren't any plants for them to fly off to; endless desert surrounded us. At some point we started hearing loud, repeated car beeps in the distance - our driver was getting tired of waiting, I suppose.

Our footprints...

We headed out from the desert and through the brush; by the time we got to the road, our driver had already pulled up, having spotted us coming down the dunes, I suppose. Back in Minfeng, the driver gave a big grin as I handed him the fare, and we had a leisurely lunch of laghman while waiting for the bus back to Urumqi.

My last bowl of laghman. I could sure go for some of that right now.

The sleeper bus arrived from Hotan, completely full but for two bunks in the back which had been reserved for us. We were lucky to have gotten them; being a day late would mean missing our flight out of Urumqi, which I'd booked back in Hotan.

The bus went on the cross-desert highway directly through the Taklamakan from Minfeng, on the southern edge, to Korla, on the northern edge, and then to Urumqi. The highway itself is an amazing feat of engineering - 446 km of the highway cross the shifting sand dunes of the entirely uninhabited Taklamakan desert. Bushes are planted on both sides of the highway to anchor in the sand; despite this, there were still a few parts of the highway covered in sand. There isn't any water in the Taklamakan, so they had to run an irrigation system along the entire highway. Every mile or so there's a blue irrigation pump house; workers are actually hired to live in those houses and maintain the pumps, though I'm told the pay is enough to make up for the isolation.

After driving for five or six hours through empty sand dunes, we reached a PetroChina service station out in the middle of nowhere. There were even a couple of restaurants; given the quality of food in Minfeng, I can't even start to imagine how bad the food out at those places must be. We took a pit stop and a few people went out to take care of business; I ran up into the sand dunes and snapped some shots. The little service station town in the middle of the dunes was an absolutely bizarre sight, but I guess it's a good idea; it would be pretty bad to have a breakdown or run out of fuel out in the middle of the desert, hundreds of miles away from anybody.

We reached Urumqi the next morning without incident; we spent the day at the bookstore, then went looking for a Pakistani restaurant we'd seen before, and read about on the internet. We couldn't find any Pakistani restaurant at the address on the website, although the neighborhood itself was interesting; there were a lot of Russian signs about and even some Russians walking around. Even the Uyghurs who worked in the area could speak Russian, as youngish guys standing outside of businesses kept calling out at Rebecca, "dochka, dochka!"

It was getting late and the Pakistani restaurant was nowhere in sight, so I hailed a taxi and asked him to take us to the bus station. I distinctly remembered seeing a different Pakistani restaurant as you drive north from the bus station, and sure enough, after a bit of a walk, we found Abdullah Pakistan Restaurant. Inside were many bearded white-robed, white-capped men who I assumed to be Pakistanis, since most Uyghurs don't dress like that.

We were a bit disappointed by our order of chicken curry, daal, and naan. The naan just seemed like ordinary Uyghur bread, which isn't bad by any accounts, but it didn't seem particularly Pakistani to me. The chicken curry was basically dapanji in a thinner sauce. The daal was OK, but not memorable. I guess it's a bit much asking for authentic Pakistani food in Urumqi, but we'd been searching for the place for over an hour, so it was a bit anticlimactic.

The next morning we flew out of Urumqi airport back to Beijing; on the way to the airport people were selling crates of grapes on the side of the road as last-chance Xinjiang souvenirs.

And so ends my Xinjiang trip; it's taken me nearly a year to finish recounting it, but I hope you enjoyed it!


Thanks for your posts. I and my family lived in Hotan for 5 years. It was nice to reminisce over your photos and description. I know that road, places, and people very well.


Thanks for the comment, Bob! It must have been quite an experience living in Hotan for five years! I wish I could go back to Xinjiang someday.



Great post! I like the scenic view in that part of the country.



Hi Pravit,

I randomly stumbled upon a question you raised on metafilter about
working in China, and was interested because that's a question I've
been asking myself. I was curious about what you ended up doing as i
sense a few parallels. I'm also asian descent but raised in the west
(australia). I did a bachelors in electrical engineering and computer
science, but after 2 years working finally accepted it was not for me
and am now lost for a career choice. I've also learnt chinese on my
own and am about to move to Beijing in two weeks hopefully to improve
mandarin, travel, and get a better idea of what to do with my life.

Since its been almost a year since you asked your question - i
wondered what you eventually decided to do and how its worked out for
you? did you end up pursuing a job in China?
Would be interesting to hear from you,
my email address is sparkysel at gmail dot com


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