Travel: Across the treacherous sea of sand

New Year begins in China this week. Martin Buckley celebrates with a Silk Road short-cut
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The Independent Travel
There was a map on the wall behind the reception desk of the Oasis Hotel in Turpan. It showed the vast Taklamakan Desert, with the twin legs of the Silk Road running north and south of it. Joining them together, roughly in the middle, was a black line drawn on with a felt-tip.

"What," I asked the receptionist, "is that line?"

She turned and looked at the map. "It's the new road."

I stared in disbelief. Taklamakan means, in the local Uighur language, "You go in but you don't come out". It is a notorious, oven-hot sand sea lying at the western extreme of the Gobi Desert. To think of the Chinese government taking the trouble to construct a road from nowhere to nowhere, across hell itself ...

"Why have they built it?" I asked.

She shrugged. She didn't know or care.

Outside, the sun was beating down on leafy streets. The oasis of Turpan is one of the delightful surprises of Western China. Its warm climate and pavements lined with cafes and restaurants give you the feeling you are on the Mediterranean rather than in a desert.

Turpan lies on what was once the Silk Road. The ancient trade route is now a tourist attraction, and though foreigners are not exactly flocking to the Taklamakan, I predict they soon will. At one end of the desert lies Kashgar, the legendary city that was once the centre of Great Game intrigues between the British and Russian empires, and whose magnificent Sunday market is a spectacle that still feels closer to the 19th century than the 20th. At the other end lies Dunhuang, a city with superb Buddhist cave paintings and towering sand-dunes on which you can ride a camel or even paraglide.

Dunhuang is now an established tourist centre, but is as far west as most visitors to China go. Kashgar, 1,000 miles of sand further on, is deep in Central Asia, closer to Tehran or Delhi than Peking.

The oases ringing the Taklamakan have romance, history and - in the right season - a delightful climate. What most do not yet have is tourist infrastructure.

Turpan is an exception. Its range of hotels and eating places sets it apart. It seems to have more joie de vivre than other towns, a sense of identity and a relish in being different. What makes Turpan different is the grape, which has been grown here for centuries. Vines have been trained across the main streets to turn them into grape-tunnels. There are tours of the vineyards with their extraordinary underground irrigation tunnels, and even an annual grape festival.

But if you wonder how much of Turpan's jolly street life has to do with the most celebrated grape derivative - wine - you will firmly be told, nothing. Turpan is, like all of the central Asian provinces of China, Muslim, and Muslims do not drink alcohol. But this injunction does not stop the town's pavement cafes from dishing out beer like tap water.

One of Turpan's most famous sites is the Emin mosque, dominated by a remarkable minaret dating from 1777. Made entirely from brick, and covered with decorative brick patterns, it rises from a massive base and tapers like a parsnip. Outside, in the shade of the vine trellises, hawkers recline on straw mats - jumping up to offer chilled watermelon or the carved daggers which seem to be Turpan's main non-viticultural export.

Nearby, the desert bristles with the remains of cities dating from a millennium ago, when the area was Buddhist. The frescoes and statues of Dunhuang were protected because it remained an active centre of Buddhist worship, but the rest of the sites around the Taklamakan were ransacked in the early years of this century. When the outside world heard rumours of an unknown Buddhist culture buried in a remote and barbaric desert region, a manic race began between the world's great museums to be the first to discover the sites.

Explorers such as the Briton Sir Aurel Stein (on whom Indiana Jones is said to be based) and the German Albert Von le Coq launched expeditions that resulted in extraordinary acts of heroism, and numerous deaths. Today, the Chinese feel about the whole episode much the way the Greeks feel about the Elgin marbles. Yet even though the desert cities have been stripped of their statues and murals, they remain mysterious and beautiful.

Not many tourists travel the 20 miles along an unmade road to the shores of a giant salt lake which lies at the bottom of the Turpan Depression, the lowest point in Asia. As the sun set I walked out across the salt crust, until it cracked, plunging me up to my knees in saline goo. My taxi driver, after his initial alarm, doubled over in laughter, and as we drove back to Turpan my trouser-legs dried into rock-hard pillars of salt.

But what about that alleged road across the Taklamakan Desert? Eventually I found a travel agent who knew about it. The road was not yet complete, he said, but I could definitely cross the desert by it. As for why anyone should have built a road across 300 miles of sand dunes, the reason was a recently-discovered reservoir of wealth lying under the sand: oil.

It was impossible to hire a car without a driver, and the driver I found backed out on the morning we were due to leave, having had second thoughts about crossing a desert that generations before him had every reason to fear.

Next I located a madcap Tibetan whose attitude was so cavalier that I had to persuade him to bring along some spare water for the radiator. This was at dawn the next morning, when we reached an oil-refining complex where huge clouds of billowing, orange flame challenged the early morning sun. The only shop was an old caravan, from the back of which a grumpy young woman emerged in her night-dress, rubbing the sleep from her eyes, to sell us a crate of water bottles. We were stopped at an armed police roadblock, but allowed to pass. Then we drove south, into the Taklamakan.

The dunes slowly grew into monsters hundreds of feet high. Hot air rushed in through the open windows, drying our lips to parchment, and making us crave water. Occasionally a road sign pointed to an oil-well invisible in the dunes, or a heavily laden oil-tanker thundered past us.

Romantically, I felt rather guilty to be driving across the desert. This infamous sand sea, one of the world's most wonderful natural phenomena, had been humbled by a strip of tarmac. But as we drove, that feeling was tempered by respect for the men who had built the road. It is a great feat of engineering, crossing shifting sand dunes which have been stabilised by driving a gigantic patchwork of dried grass deep into them. Even so, men and bulldozers labour constantly in terrible heat to keep the invading drifts from closing the road. We passed the camps where they live - tiny huts hundreds of miles from any sign of ordinary human life. It is one of the most arduous existences I have encountered.

My driver's daredevilry turned out to have its limits. At one o'clock we stopped for lunch among some of the highest dunes, and I announced that I was going for a walk. His expression showed that he thought I was mad. I waded into the desert for perhaps a mile, beyond his anxious hooting. At the top of a tall dune I sat and stared west into an ocean of sand. The desert had an untouched, monochromatic beauty. I was alone, at a spot where surely no human being had been before.

Towards evening we reached the unfinished section of the road, and drove 20 miles over dirt track. It was dusk when we reached the southern Silk Road. Here there are remote communities where almost all of the native Uighur men wear their traditional dress - frock coats and tall black fur hats - and the main mode of transport is the donkey cart.

As we drove through the dusk, I wondered how long it would be before the oil industry, television and tourism will drag this unspoilt desert region into the modern age. One thought, however, kept occurring to me: perhaps, one day, the oil will run out and keeping the road open will become prohibitively expensive. And then the tireless desert will reclaim the road across the Taklamakan, just as it has swallowed so many cities in the past.

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