The first parts of our tour were so full and so spectacular, it felt like we’d already been traveling for a couple of weeks when we woke up that next morning, rather than only a few days. Our last night on the tour promised to be a good one though, so we wrenched ourselves out of bed and bundled ourselves and our gear into the VW one more time: We were heading to the desert!
The Taklamakan Desert, bounded at its northern and southern borders by two branches of the ancient Silk Road, is the second largest shifting sand desert. Located farther from the ocean than almost any other place on Earth, it is China’s largest and driest desert and was a hazardous place to travel for those brave souls traversing the Silk Road back in the day. (Thanks Wikipedia and eoearth.org)
From Wikipedia: “The name is probably an Uyghur borrowing of Arabic tark, “to leave alone/out/behind, relinquish, abandon” + makan, “place”. Another plausible explanation is that it is derived from Turki taqlar makan, which means “the place of ruins”. Either way, it’s all terribly romantic and intriguing!
But I think the poor Taklamakan got a raw deal. I’d already left my heart back in the mountainous landscape along the Karakorum highway. The weather there was over-cast and damp and our time was very limited; we couldn’t travel all that far into it at all. For me there was no way it could compete with the those massive, awe-inspiring mountains glimmering in that clean, crisp, sun-filled air. I think we’ll have to visit it again in more favorable conditions!
Still, spending the night camping in the desert was pretty cool, I loved getting a bit more familiar with camels – cute with attitude! – and we made a few fun stops on the way there and back. Here are some of the highlights from day four and five of the tour.
Tombs and furry friends
We made a stop at one point at a simple road-side farm. Yusef knew of some traditional Uighur tombs close by that he wanted to show us. Simple, long, clay tombs covered an entire hillside behind the farmstead. Yusef told us that Uighurs prefer to keep their final resting place simple, opting instead to spend money on decorating their earthly homes (as opposed to Tajiks, who apparently keep their homes simple but have elaborately decorated tombs).
Just as interesting to me was seeing the farm-house we had to walk around, made of the same sand-colored mud bricks. We also met a young, inquisitive donkey and its mother while poking around. Super cute! 🙂
Scenes from Yarkand
We took a small detour to the city of Yarkand, where we stopped for lunch and visited the mausoleum of Ammanisahan, an Uighur queen who is renowned for collecting the “muqam” (more about muqam on Wikipedia). The mausoleum was lovely and peaceful, but what I really enjoyed was the sights of every day life around town.
The bike seat covers that looked like mini-carpets were everywhere and I got such a kick out of them! Someone in Yarkand mixed things up though with the faux zebra skin! 😉
Outside Altun Mosque
Ironmonger/blacksmith shop in the old town
Yarn for sale
The endless sand dunes were cloaked under thick clouds when we arrived at the desert’s edge. I can only imagine how cool it must be when the skies are clear! We had a team of three camels and two camel drivers – two young men who are cotton farmers in the area, but who work the camel treks part-time for extra income. Abled and Iziz spoke only a bit of English, but with Yusef’s interpretation, we got to learn a bit about their lives and they about ours. They were soft-spoken but inquisitive and kind and it was lovely to get to know them at least a little bit.
The night out on the dunes was cold but peaceful. I loved toasting myself by the fire in the otherwise pitch black night before it was time to turn in. We all woke early in the hopes of seeing a desert sunrise, but things were still overcast unfortunately. We had another surprise though. After breaking camp and heading back to town, Yusef let us know that Abled had invited us to stop by his home, which was nearby, for breakfast before we headed back to Kashgar.
Abled lives in a traditional Uighur farmhouse – simple but spacious and decorated with richly covered carpets everywhere. He invited us to make ourselves comfortable in the main room and served us tea and bread. We got to meet his father too, who was sweet and gracious.
Our camel guide, Abled
Bags of cotton inside Abled’s home
The main crop in the area seems to be cotton, which Abled also farms. We saw many massive trucks, full to bursting with the white, fluffy stuff, along the road to the desert and the next day, when it was time to return to Kashgar and for our whirlwind-intro-to-Xinjiang tour to come to an end…