26 year old Canadian, Dutch resident travelling to every country in the world (111 so far) to become the first Canadian female to visit them all. Bestselling travel AUTHOR and founder of popular #TRLT Twitter chat.
We claimed four bottom beds at the rear of a sleeper bus, the first one we’d seen since returning to China.
We only stopped a few times along the way for toilet breaks and to buy cookies, bananas, apples, water, and some boiled eggs for dinner at a fruit stand, so we made really good time.
Very full cages of pigeons and chickens were stacked tightly against each other, and there were our bags, squished in right next to them.
“Just another day on the road.” Bree smiled, oozing ridicule. Yup! We were back on the open road, and it was already beginning to feel like we’d never left it.
Chapter #22 “Taking A Walk Down The Silk Road”
We drove for over an hour through the infertile, windswept landscape to reach Aydingkol Lake.
A few people lived in the small, derelict town beside the parched lake…
…digging random holes in the crusty ground to farm salt.
The whole area looked like a greyish-brown field that had been ploughed ages ago and had then hardened in the baking sun.
When the car first stopped I’d held my breath, thinking we’d broken down again, but the driver let us know we’d reached our destination by pointing to the tall Chinese monument…
…clearly labelled in red script ‘–154 metres’ (–505 ft). I was surprised that these deserted salt pans were even marked.
“Okay, we have a new contender for the End of the World title,” Ammon said excitedly as we stood at the edge of oblivion. “We’re way below sea level; this is the third-lowest spot on earth,” he announced, as if presenting himself with a trophy.
There were crunchy layers around small pools of extremely salty mineral water.
As we turned to leave, I was sure I saw Bree pocketing some of the salt. I wondered what she intended to season with it.
“Gaochang, the ancient capital of the Uyghurs, is set on the northern edge of the inhospitable Taklamakan Desert,” Ammon explained during the hour-long drive to the ruins.
It had once been a busy trading centre and a major rest stop for merchant traders travelling the Silk Road.”
Built at the foot of Huoyanshan (‘Flaming Mountains’), remnants of the crumbled city lay in the foreground.
“Initially built in the first century BC, the city submitted to Genghis Khan and his rapidly expanding Mongol Empire in the thirteenth century.
Though eroded almost beyond recognition, it was staggering to think these sand castles had been standing for over two thousand years.
Our next stop, the Astana Graves, was only six kilometres (3.7 mi) away. While Ammon was delivering his mini-lecture about the burial site, Bree was off doing cartwheels and handstands.
“Bree! Get down from there. What the hell?” Ammon shouted at her as she stretched out horizontally in a stone gateway.
The cemetery didn’t have the usual crosses and monuments you’d expect. Instead, it was covered with lumps of arid earth, so you’d never know there were over a thousand tombs.
In the open courtyard below were twelve human-sized Chinese zodiac animal statues.
Chinese zodiac animal statues
As we crept down the long, deep stairs into the tomb, I changed the subject. “So, are we going to go to Egypt, or what? Now that’s a place I’d be interested in seeing.”
In the small, almost chilly room, bodies were lying on their backs with their arms by their sides and their heads propped up on a pillow in two glass boxes.
And here she was, one of the few who were left for us to observe. She’d been an actual person with a real life, and her challenges and worries so many centuries ago were much the same as mothers today experienced. I couldn’t stop staring at her feet, trying to imagine the earth between her toes and the road she’d walked.
Turpan happens to be a world famous grape-growing valley, so we were taken to a lovely spot for lunch that felt like an oasis amidst the desolate surroundings.
The small restaurant was open and breezy, shaded by a thick covering of green vines heavy with ripe grapes.
As was the custom in China, the table was draped with a colourful plastic sheet that held plates, a plastic jar filled with chopsticks, napkins, and two hot thermoses of green tea.
We all overindulged in sweet, juicy cantaloupe, green grapes, and giant watermelon, delicious naan bread, and my current favourite, a typical Central Asian dish called lagman.
In the hotel where we had been staying in Turpan…
…we’d been enjoying huge pink-and-white-swirl ice cream cones that only cost six cents. They were absolutely scrumptious, and we still had no self-discipline when it came to eating ice cream, even after getting sick from eating them (according to Ammon, at least – but that was something we obviously didn’t want to believe).
Biting into a juicy piece of cantaloupe, Ammon said, “After lunch, we’re heading for a museum about wells.”
“The irrigation system is called karez, which means ‘well’ in Uyghur. Karezes are unique to this part of China, which is full of wells and underground reservoirs.
Grape-drying structures with tons of little windows lined both sides of the road leading to the karez museum, where the first exhibit explained the process in detail.
A wooden fence prevented us from getting closer to the water, but you could still look down the dark, circular tunnel through a section of observation glass on the floor.
Our last and final stop of the day was at the remnants of the city of Jiaohe.
Built on a natural fortress up on a plateau a couple of thousand years ago, the remnants had been standing abandoned for eight hundred years. According to Tang dynasty records, its population was over seven thousand at its highest point.
Unlike Gaochang, which had enjoyed prosperity and growth under Mongolian rule, Jiaohe had suffered at the hands of the Mongolians when they did not submit.
The lifeless surface was like a blank chalkboard waiting to be coloured in, ready for the greatest of creations.
Ammon read us a last passage out loud: “Jiaohe was finally abandoned when it was destroyed during an invasion by the Mongols led by Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century.”
Chapter #23 “City Of Sands”
Having traveled further south on another overnight sleeper bus, fourteen hours southeast from Turpan, we’d arrived in Gansu province the night before and re-entered the China I remembered.
“Did you see that?” Bree shouted, slowing down to talk to me as we peddled the quiet highway on rented bicycles.
The clothing was the more familiar attire of dress pants and shirts, and we could once again wear whatever we pleased.
The wide, tree-lined road led directly to the soft sands piled high in the distance, and golden threads of sand occasionally swept across the black pavement as we got closer.
Tour guides were screaming over each other’s megaphones, while trying to keep all the flags and hats that were the same colour together. I couldn’t help but think of the chaos that would ensue if one blue-hat tour crossed paths with another blue-hat tour.
Just beyond the gates, we could see tourists riding on paragliders, sand boards, ATVs, dozens of trams, and camels that were tied nose-to-nose in an unsightly parade. Part of the magic of sand dunes is watching as the sand covers your tracks and become instantly flawless again as soon as you’ve passed, but what we found here was more like an overturned sand box.
Chapter #24 “School To Go”
I found myself packed tight in the middle aisle on a bed so narrow that a harness would’ve been more helpful than a seat belt to keep me from falling out on either side.
“Golmud itself is really just a nothing town in the middle of nowhere,” Ammon informed us. “For a “nothing” town, it looks pretty modern to me,” Mom said.
We trusted Ammon to find a place for us to rest our weary heads.
At least six taxis drove next to us, nearly all the way to the hotel, honking and laughing at us, sure that we’d never find our way.
Chapter #25 “Smuggled Goods”
The paved road slid through the rounded mountains…
…and hours later, when we finally stepped out of the cars, we were at five thousand, three hundred metres (17,500 ft).
“Did you guys see this?” Mom said, holding up a bloated bag of potato chips. “One of our bags exploded on us and freaked us all out.”
“Except for the breathing, it really doesn’t seem like we’re going through super-high passes, does it? I was expecting mountains and spectacular snow-covered peaks, but I guess we’ll get that on the way to Nepal,”
The pass to Tibet was open and dry, and actually rather boring.
The towns we’d passed through were bland, with nothing more to mark them than a few wooden telephone poles and colourful shampoo advertisements stuck on square, white buildings.
“I’m really glad we drove it, though,” Mom said. “I like seeing the landscape of the country we’re going through.”
“You sure you really want to be part of this crazy family, Daisaku?” Bree said with one of her childlike grins.