ALONG THE SILK ROAD (part II)By
OASIS TOWNS AND DESERT HOSPITALITY
I didn’t realize it at the time, but leaving Turpan was hard to do. It is a desert city, large by desert standards and lush – as lush as can be in a dust bowl! The ingenious underground irrigation nourished and fed the vineyards of grapes. Fresh dates, and other succulent fruits were also thriving here.
This contrasts with my next several days of driving! The Taklamakan Desert, one of the lowest and hotest in the world is one that not only tests the body, but tests the mind. If one strays off the road or route without any idea, it is almost certain death. Over centuries, this area has claimed many lives.
With temperatures souring over 100 degrees with no chance of finding water – the people who live along the edges of this desert are a breed unto themselves. In the west, and particularity in the American deserts, you will find many such places. The locals will often be crusty, gruff and suspicious of people coming into the area. But I found none of this myself in the other oasis villages along the road across the Taklamakan and south along the mountains to Kashgar. This was a 6 day drive from town to town that revealed the true character of western Xingjiang.
What I found was genuine welcoming hospitality. After a long day of driving, typically my driver and guide would find a hotel and settle in for the night. Since this was my first visit, I would rest an hour, then assemble a camera/lens combination and strike out on my own. I would always get lost, but it was not a problem. Finding my way back to the hotel hours later was easy once the entire town was wandered!
Along my walkabouts, I would enchanted delicious road side stalls selling breads, fruit (I have never eater so many melons in my life), all manner of meats and other unidentifiable things! Wandering this way, on my own, was of great amusement to many! Often a group of high school aged kids would join me and compete among themselves for an opportunity to use the English they were no doubt learning in school. Western pop culture was one of the constant references in their conversations. Such things as Western singers, sports figures and movie references were so foreign in this place. Who knew that Sylvester Stallone was such a big hit out here – still!
My walks would take me down small dusty lanes between houses, and alone the outskirts of fields. In one such valley I came upon a scene that was completely incongruent. Two young boys, one sporting a fetching Chanel sweater was holding the other at gunpoint! I kid you not! …
… OK, a little context! These boys were young, about 6 years old, heads shaved and playing in the sand outside their houses. True, one wore a sweater with Chanel logos on the front. I’d love to know where that sweater began it’s life, only to end up here! The other boy was pointing a gun at his play mate. But the gun was plastic. Pink plastic! After stopping to say hello, they joint the growing procession behind my walk and were happy to have a new face to chat with.
Eventually, after the sun went down, I would end up back at the hotel where my driver and guide were now refreshed and ready to eat! Perfect! I was hungry!
All along the route, this scene played itself out many times. The evening walks, the excited chatter of kids, and the amazing smells of the food. This was a new pert of China for me. It is raw, unspoiled by tourism, not fancy, but instantly friendly. It felt like home.
… more to come …