Crossing the Dry Tundra, the Taklamakan Desert of Xinjiang
Leaving Aksu was easy for me since I don’t really like the town. So I got up early in the morning, get a good breakfast before getting back on the road. I missed riding my bicycle so much, and missed being on the road again, my home and my master. After 2 weeks stucked in Xi’an, after the 50 hours of bus ride, I couldn’t actually wait to see the road again… to be alone on the road, not talking to anyone, just let my mind to fly away into another realm and think about something deep, something that is always interesting to me, about our existence, about the universe, the realm of space and time, about the concept of infinity. I couldn’t wait to live the now, not letting the past to bother me, nor the future. Can’t believe that I couldn’t wait for all that, after so many years I have learned to be patience… being patience by repairing punctures under the extreme heat and the extreme cold, which comes after punctures, which comes after another punctures…
While riding out of Aksu, I saw so many men in uniform on duty, both the police and soldiers guarding the town. Guess it’s the bombing that took many lives in a train station in Urumqi a few weeks earlier. Not really sure on what actually happened there, but I guess there is a tense between ethnic Uighur and the Han Chinese there. The event also took place a few weeks after some knife attack that happened in Kunming, southern part of China so maybe its related. I kept thinking about it while I was pedaling out of Aksu, kept asking myself why all these are happening. Why are we humans are hating and eliminating each other because of our differences? I came across many of these on the road, I still remember there was a big fight between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in the southern part of Kyrgyzstan. And now, its between Uighur and Han Chinese. We just continue to hate and kill someone else who has different skin colour than us. I will kill you because you look different and speak different language than me. And what next, so that there will be only one race that exists in this whole planet? This kiddish attitude really has to go. I will stop traveling if there is only Malay race exists in the whole world because it will be boring, no more differences and no more new things. If I travel in Russia or Africa or South America, I will meet only my own people who speak the same language and eat the same food as the one in my neighbourhood back home.
My mind kept going deeper about all these things. Sometimes I worry things gonna get worst in this world… and my kids and the rest of my descendants will never see the peaceful world anymore during their time. We humans also hate and eliminate each other because of our different belief… which is also very childish from my eyes, from the eyes of a nomad. Put a cup of water in middle of the two of us and we have to guess what is inside the cup. I believe that it is coffee and you might believe that it is tea inside the cup. And we start to hate and even try to kill each other because we both believe differently. This example is almost the same thing that is happening now in this planet. Im no expert but I did try to read other scripture of other belief system besides Islam and found out that there are so many similarities rather than differences in major religions of the world. Instead of eliminating each other, why cant experts from each religions of the world, Muslims Sufis Christians Jewish Buddhists Hindus etc… and also scientists, physicists and mathematicians, philosophers, thinkers etc, all come together, sit in a table and discuss, work as a team to find out about the real truth about the universe, not debating, not telling who’s right and who’s wrong, but discuss to find out about the real truth. We are fighting because everyone thinks that they are on the right side, but aren’t we all seeking the real truth? Or do we let ego to stop us from seeking the real truth, to keep blinding us from the real truth? Deep in each of our heart, we are eager to find out the truth, spending a lifetime to find the secret of the universe is never a waste of life.
Well, my mind was flying far into another realm thinking about all these… without realizing that my physical body here on earth has been working so hard and I already cycled some 140km from Aksu for hours and hours on the first day without feeling much tired, thanks to the wind for not slowing me down this time and the road was good since Aksu. The sun was about to touch the horizon, giving special colours to the surroundings and I scouted for a nice and peaceful place to pitch my tent. After a few minutes of scouting, I finally found a place where I can hide my tent and my bicycle, a few hundred kilometers from the road. It was really nice and peaceful watching the sun slowly sunk into the horizon while enjoying my bread and hot coffee. But when the darkness approached after the sun went away, the wind started to blow fiercely. It was normal to me so I just took a rest inside my tent, trying to sleep to recharge my energy for another hard work of the following day crossing this vast desert. But somewhere during midnight, the wind was blowing way too strong almost blowing away my tent together with me and all my stuffs inside it! Then the rain came down pouring so heavily with scary thunder all over. I became panic when the lighting strikes were so close to where I was camping. I was in the middle of the desert and was afraid that the lighting will strike me. And if anything happen, it will take days for people here to find me out since I was quite far away from the road. But I was too tired to deal with my fear, so I ignored everything and went to sleep instead, taking myself into another realm…
I woke up very early the next morning, I was still quite sleepy but I wanted to see the night slowly change into day so much. So I quickly prepared my usual breakfast with coffee, and enjoyed it while watching the birth of the sun. The sun was so lovely when it is just born at the horizon behind those Kunlun mountains that extend all the way to the Pamir mountains of Tajikistan. But as the sun grows higher, it became fierce. Crossing this vast desolated desert of Taklamakan during summer is not an easy task. The extreme heat and the usual sandstorm will put travelers into test. Taklamakan means go in and you will never go out safely. This desert has taken many lives in the past, mostly caravans who were passing this road which connects Asia and Europe. I still remember crossing this same desert 4 years ago, I was sick many times while crossing it, my body couldn’t take the extreme heat, scorching heat at 52 celcius on July 2010, with no shade to hide. This time, it was about 45 celcius on June when the sky is blue, hotter between 2-5pm and much better when there were thick clouds guarding me from the fierce sun. So usually I will take 1-2 hour rest somewhere between 3-5pm whenever I could find shades since it was way too hot.
Since I rode about 140km on the first day, I then decided to take it slower on the following days. I’m not in a rush and I still can stay inside China until July. So I moved slower on the days ahead, trying not to exceed 80km daily. I wanted to get connected more to the surroundings rather than concentrating on the road. Once in a while, I was caught by sandstorms, its not so strong… but strong enough to make me weaker. I sometimes ate the sand of the Taklamakan. For every 100km on the road, I see petrol stations and some Uighur food stalls. In less than a week being in Xinjiang, the Uighurs now become brothers with me. We first shook hands and exchange the smiles of our faces, then we started talking, some were in English, some in Chinese. Once they know that Im from Malaysia, they will recommend me an energy drink that they say its made in Malaysia. When I looked at it, yes the address was in Shah Alam but honestly, I never heard of the brand… hehe. Maybe its just for export. And being here on the desert, truck drivers became my friends too. Sometimes truck drivers offer me drinks and bread and some fruit sellers give me fruits for free. I have nothing to give them in return, so I told them I’m a musafir (traveler) and will pray for them. They smiled back… I also came across a Chinese cyclist from Urumqi about 180km away from Aksu, who are currently doing a big trip cycling from Urumqi to Chengdu through Lhasa.
I wake up early everyday, as early as 5am each day at the desert and it feels good. I never want to miss every sunrise and sunset, and to me, witnessing both sunrise and sunset in a day, is a complete day. Somehow, the feelings when the sun is at the horizon is magic. Maybe because it only happens in only a few minutes in a day, so it feels very special. I wake up early also because I love the lighting in early morning, for photography. And I love doing photography because of traveling. It all started back in 2008 when I saw a nice sunset from west Thailand overlooking the sky of Myanmar. The colours were amazing but sadly I couldn’t capture it with my compact camera. That was when I decided to get myself deep into photography, because I want the pictures to look exactly like how I see it with my own 2 eyes. And I never stop doing travel photography since then, always visiting Indonesia to capture the beauty of their mountains.
My ride crossing the Taklamakan Desert was around 500km in distance, which is from Aksu to Kashgar, the last big town for me in China before entering Central Asia again. Somewhere halfway in the desert, I saw like a small mosque, a room for prayer for Muslims, a surau in the middle of nowhere. It was quite weird, since I saw no settlements anywhere around it and it was quite far from the road. And it was hiding behind hills too, I was lucky to be able to spot it from afar. When I went near, it was abandoned. So after some 10 minutes of rest there, I got back on the road. Luckily I don’t receive so many headwinds here in the Taklamakan Desert, like the one I had in the Mongolian steppe. If I have to fight to strong headwind here under the extreme heat of the desert, I guess I will never be able to cross this desert successfully.
Since the desert is so desolated, sometimes it can be scary crossing it. It can be scary especially when camping behind hills and rocky mountains, far from any humans if we are not used to it. But somehow after years of doing this, I find it actually safer to do that, rather than to camp near the road where we are on sight of passerby. Sometimes, I do feel humans are more dangerous than wolves. And about 40km away from Kashgar, I finally saw a small town from afar again. I then quickly rode towards towards it in search for food and water, as I was so thirsty and hungry. In a food stall, since there were language barrier, I just told the waiter to serve me any food since I was too hungry. Then everyone watched me feasting the food like a lion. After my body finally received enough food and water, I then rode the remaining 40km towards Kashgar easily again. And again… before reaching Kashgar, I saw police everywhere and roadblocks just before entering the town. The road was busy again with cars and trucks. I finally reached Kashgar, which now put me close to the border of Pakistan.