As one hour turned into two, and then three, it was becoming quite clear that both my driver Wu and I were beginning to question the logic of our ‘shortcut’ through the remote Gurbantunggut Desert in northeastern Xinjiang. What had seemed like a way to see the sites with minimal travel was turning into anything but. Huge gusting winds had long ago forced us to close the windows in order to keep the sands from pouring in, and hours earlier the road had turned into a slight outline of tire tracks.
Why had so many different ethnic groups chosen this unwelcoming place as their home over the centuries? Its summers are oppressively hot, while winter’s bitter cold makes most outside travel impossible. Aside from the Gurbantunggut, the huge Taklimakan Desert fills up much of the southern half of the province leaving most of the area uninhabitable. There are only a few patches of land with enough water for people to flourish, and those parts are where most of the province’s population live. Despite comprising more than one sixth of China’s land, Xinjiang is home to only one and half percent of its population.
And yet even with their sparseness the people living in Xinjiang are incredibly diverse. Kazaks, Uyghurs, Hui, Kirgizes, Han, Mongols, Tajiks, and Ozbeks are among the many inhabitants. Most are Muslim, and the languages vary widely, although a number are similar, with Turkic origins. Once a great center of Buddhism, Islam began to become the popular religion of Xinjiang a thousand years ago. In the 16th and 17th the conversions picked up their pace and it is now the most heavily Muslim area in China.
Uyghurs (numerous spelling variations exist) are the dominant group making up the largest chunk of non-Han Chinese in the region. Most look more Russian or central Asian than Chinese, often with light hair and pale skin. There roots can be traced back to another rugged area not too for away: Mongolia. But by the 8th century they were already squarely rooted in modern-day Xinjiang.
As I looked out the window quietly listening to the sand scrape against the bottom of the VW, every direction looked exactly the same: dry, flat and lifeless. Were it not for the faded tread marks of better equipped vehicles that had traversed the land before, we would have had little hope of escaping our giant sand prison.
Not all of Xinjiang is like this though. There are beautiful snow covered mountains that hug the edges of the roads next to the province’s deserts. In Turpan, a couple of hundred miles away, lush vineyards spring from the parched earth thanks to human engineering, fueling the wine industry in an area where few locals drink.
Agriculture has been a staple of the area for thousands of years, and it was not until relatively late when herding entered into the culture from the ‘Stans to the west that meat—goat specifically—became such a central part of the diet. Today there are few vegetables in Xinjiang dishes, but fruit markets flourish, and thanks to pockets of wet areas the province actually has more water per square kilometer than most of parched China.
But in the desert it is hard to think about the pomegranates, hami melons, and wolfberries whose sweetness cause Chinese to carry boxes of them back to their hometowns around the country. Northeastern Xinjiang is a dry and unforgiving place, and if you go out unprepared you can get yourself into serious trouble. On the map it was only supposed to be 30 kilometers, a mere 19 miles, but four hours in we knew we had taken a wrong turn somewhere.
Earlier in the day Wu, a Han Chinese of 33, had been in a good mood. Being hired for the day is good business for Qitai locals, where monthly income is little more than a thousand yuan. Now, in the middle of nowhere, with our situation looking increasingly desperate, he had become quiet. Were he not so scared he would have been angry at us, or even embarrassed for agreeing to take a left-hand turn into the middle of a sand pit.
We pulled up to a fork in the road. The path to the right looked better worn, but Wu was less convinced. A wrong decision and we could be driving until we ran out of gas. The Gurbantunggut is hundreds of kilometers east to west, and at the speed our tiny car was able to go, there was no way of knowing how long that could take, or if we could make it at all.
Wu rubbed his hand against his head shifting his mop of hair. “Which direction are we going?” We looked up at the sun trying to make sense of it. It was about 4PM Beijing time. Xinjiang, however, only uses Chinese standard time for convenience. Many locals, particularly Uyghurs, prefer to set their watches two hours earlier in accordance with nature, meaning the sun was on 2PM time.
Not sure in which direction we were headed, we took the big road and continued on keenly aware that our situation was getting ever more dire. Our four maps, cell phones, and the use of a car were of little use to us. There was no phone signal as the solar-powered China Mobile towers had stopped appearing long ago. Without an idea of where we were only a GPS would have helped.
If we were having so much trouble, how did the ancient migrants manage to find their way to the bountiful areas of Turpan and Kashgar? In Xinjiang coming upon fertile land is a matter of finding scarce water. Clearly there was none around. The scraps of plant life that once scattered the roadside were now tiny brownish-green shrubs clinging to the ground. Even nature’s most desert-tested animal, the camel, had disappeared.
For us it was scary in the endless sea of sand, but the brutality of the Gurbantungut highlights the far broader problem for China. Once tucked away in the corners of the country—Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia primarily—the desert is spreading south, north, and most importantly east. Looking at a map of China you can see the areas that are changing from farmland to wasteland constitute huge swaths of the country. An overview shows that around Beijing there are fewer and fewer places that can support agriculture. Each spring sandstorms blow into the capital pushing people indoors and forcing those who venture out to wrap their faces.
And yet life has flourished in Xinjiang despite all of the obstacles and the cruel tricks of Mother Nature that are now causing havoc around China. Farmers devised underground waterways, karez systems, to feed their own thirsts and those of their crops 2,100 years ago. They steered melting snow water through a series of passages navigating it to their towns. The underground tunnels capitalized on the coolness of the stone to avoid evaporation that would inevitably occur in the dry desert air. In places like Turpan, the second lowest spot in the world, gravity became a friend to the locals, as little effort was needed ensure a constant flow from the Tian Shan range.
Not only have more than a dozen ethnic groups figured out how to survive in Xinjiang, they also created a trade route connecting Europe with the Far East when land and sea travel were both perilous. The famed Silk Road extended from the central Chinese city of Xi’an all the way to Western Europe. Over time it became a passageway for predominantly Muslim merchants to make good money through hard travel. Even today blue lanterns dot western China denoting qing zheng (清真 or Halal) restaurants that avoid pork in compliance with the strict Muslim diet.
Our taxi was only a couple of days’ journey by camel north of the stretch of the Silk Road that extended from Hami to Urumqi. For traders it would have taken a minor miscalculation to end up in this hopeless emptiness instead of the path to wealth. Experienced men would have been unlikely to get lost, but over time hundreds must have ended up in the desert, and with much less hope than we had.
Outside, each patch of sand, every hole in the road, looked exactly the same as the last. There was no way to distinguish one direction from another except for our creaky old trail. We arrived at an intersection, if you can call two sets of tire tracks meeting that. To me it seemed clear that we had to continue straight, but Wu was beginning to be more assertive in his skepticism.
Wu and I got out in the howling wind to examine the roads, hoping that we would be able to discern one from the other. Sand splashed against every part of my body: in my hair, ears, even inside my socks. To the left, where Wu wanted to go was a small hill. “Let’s see where this goes he said hopefully.”
By this point I felt his sense of direction could not be much worse than mine, so I apprehensively acquiesced. Yet as we made our way up the hump and the previous trail grew smaller behind us I spoke up that we certainly were making a mistake. Wu hardly seemed confident in his own instincts and turned around.
Water was still not a problem for us as we had several bottles left, but it would not last us long. The deserts in Xinijang are so dry that mummies excavated in the area more than 3,000 years old still have skin on them. Without moisture to rot the bodies they remain in much better shape than their more famous Egyptian counterparts. Many of these have been found in perfectly preserved condition, less from chemicals and ointments spread on them, than from the sheer aridness of the air that now gusted past us.
Wu stopped the car, got out, and started waving his hands wildly in the air. As the trucks approached I could see that they looked almost like military Hummers, high off the ground, and well equipped for the harsh land. Inside the men were ethnic Uyghurs looking thoroughly amused to run into a red taxi so clearly lost.
They spoke to Wu for several minutes as the wind whipped the side of his face. I could not imagine where they could be going or where they came from. Finally Wu came back to the car and announced, “We have to go seventy more kilometers and then take a left and go thirty more.”
He pulled at his hair again slightly and grumbled, “Ay-ah.” But I could sense that his demeanor had changed. Despite the apparent uncertainty of our route from my perspective, I suspected he was now calculating the damage to his car and the corresponding increased fare. Sure enough he started to chat again, and despite the fact that nothing outside had ostensibly changed, he seemed to have hope again.
By the time we reached a curve in the road that apparently marked our turning point Wu seemed downright giddy. After another forty-five minutes I spotted a truck flying along the desert horizon. Soon enough we were out back on a paved road going a robust 80 KM per hour.
On the highway it was easy to laugh because we had made it out, but who knows how many Xinjiang people have lost their way in the vast deserts that dominate the area’s landscape. Before conquering the land with waterways, roads, and herding techniques, countless locals must have failed and paid a steep price for their miscalculations. Yet the people that have carved out a life alongside the desert terrain have survived for thousands of years. If previous ingenuity and toughness are any indication, the people of Xinjiang will continue to overcome the brutal conditions for another thousand.