Traders along the fabled ancient Silk Road between Xi’an and Kashgar travelled only a tiny portion of the journey I’ve done today. From Shanghai to Kashgar, via Wulumuqi is over 4000 km, much further than, say, Shanghai to Calcutta or Shanghai to Singapore. For the next ten days I’m exploring Xinjiang, China’s western frontier, then planning to travel slowly back to Shanghai, west to east, by train.
I often forget how vast China is, sitting neatly over on the crowded east coast and imagining the rest of China to be largish, in a vague sort of way. It’s only when you fly over that expansive distance in one continuous arc that some perspective appears. I expected the flight to be long (some seven hours, plus an hours’ stop in Wulumuqi to refuel), but what I hadn’t expected was to see such sudden and precipitous changes in the landscape on the ground, like a catalogue of topography rolling out below, each page suddenly torn violently away to reveal a new and completely different landscape beneath.
For two hours though, I flew in a featureless vacuum of endless grey cloud above and below, without a glimpse of ground or blue sky. Then finally we crossed the mountain range that separates the east coast from the rest of china, north-south, and the moiture-laden air disappeared. Below, I could see green valleys and wide rivers, the valleys crowded with towns.
Then mountain ranges capped with snows pushed through the low clouds filling the valleys.
The clouds and mountains disappeared altogether to reveal the loess hills near Xi’an, millennia of compressed desert dust now terraced up and down the length of every ridge like stacks of pancakes.
Then dry, featureless desert scored with the tracks of long dead rivers, dried tears on a dirty face.
In the far south, the mountains of northern Tibet appear, permanently covered with snow.
And now brown folds of low hills, some dusted with dry vegetation as we reach the edge of the Qaidam Basin, Mongolia to our north.
Then the desert dust swirls around us as we fly through a sandstorm, buffeted by strong head winds. The sands clear for a moment to reveal a pale grey landscape, scoured to flatness, baked with salt. It looks uninhabitable from the air and yet there are roads, and patches of farmed land, and I wonder at the extreme limits of human habitation.
And then that limit reveals itself – no sign of life, just vast salt plains. A second sandstorm comes and the ground is lost to view again for almost an hour.
When the dust clears, it seems miraculous – a true oasis of lush green criss-crossed by rows of grapevines, fields of corn, tall trees and low clay houses. This, at last, is Kashgar, a jewel in the desert sought by travellers for thousands of years. Now I see why. Imagine crossing those interminable mountains, then deserts, then salt plains in a camel train, month after endless month, to eventually arrive in far-off Kashgar to a Uighur welcome.
We step out of the taxi to Kashgar smells of char-grilled meat, coal fires and dust, and tastes of peaches, melons and figs. The sounds of car horns mix with the beating drum and wailing horns of a Uighur wedding party, circumnavigating the city in an open back truck, the bride and groom following behind in a car completely encrusted with coloured silk flowers. They drive round and round, the music now further, now nearer, always wailing, always drumming.
I can’t wait to explore the city, but Kashgar is not our stop tonight – we are heading immediately further west along the Karakoram Highway through a high mountain pass to Lake Karakul, and we need to be there before dark where I hope we’ll find a soft bed in a yurt. Kashgar will have to wait.
Travels on the Silk Road