It wasn’t our preference to ride the Taklamakan desert again, we’d already struggled through that on our Silk Road ride of 2005. But the Chinese refused us entry to Tibet from the northwest and insisted we could only enter along the northeast entry route. Given we’d just entered China from the south west via Pakistan that condemned us to have to ride around the bottom of the Taklamakan again an get east. Thankfully there is now a highway whereas when we did it in 2005 this road was just being built which made the ride quite epic. This time it’s been just a grind, day after day of long straight roads with nothing but sandstorms to amuse you. Still, it is interesting how the Chinese continue to develop farming along the waterways that come down from the snowmelt on Tibetan highlands to the south. The soil of the desert is fertile but the groundwater is very saline so the oases towns around the southern road are the important centres of agricultural endeavour.
As we ride eastwards the population in these oases towns slowly change from being Uyghur-dominant to being predominantly Han. The oil extraction we saw in 2005 is still going as is the asbestos open mine in the southeast corner of the desert (which dated back to Marco Polo’s time). This seems incongruous given what the rest of the world thinks about asbestos these days and we cover up as we ride through the thick clouds of asbestos dust on the way by. The life expectancy around here is about 30 they say – who would have thought it in this day and age. The other activity that is rife all along this road is procurement of jade rocks either alluvial from the rivers or mined in the Kunlin mountains that lie to the south of our old silkroad route around the desert’s southern edge.
Really we can’t wait to turn south and rise up on to the Tibetan plateau, having ridden the Taklamakan before and having by necessity to do it again, that adage of never riding over your old wheel tracks comes back to haunt us. Bring on Tibet.
Taklamakan Desert Photo Gallery