Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 6, 2021

© Jeremy Ferguson

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China's other desert

Mythical Silk Road towns and singing sands await visitors to the Taklamakan

My wife Carol, our friend Ping and I are on a highway in the Middle of Nowhere. Way up above us, an indigo drape of a sky hangs from a golden stud of a full moon. We’ve covered 500 kilometres of blacktop, one lap of our journey across China’s remote Taklamakan Desert.

This desert unhinged young Marco Polo, two years out of Venice, on his way to Beijing and 17 years at Kublai Khan’s court. He wrote of eerie whisperings in the dunes. They called to him by name in voices that seemed to be those of his companions. He decided they were ghoulish spirits who lured travellers to their doom.

Marco would have marvelled at the Desert Highway, one of those impossible feats the Chinese routinely take on without blinking. It crosses north to south across the Taklamakan, the second-largest desert in the world after the Sahara. In the 13th century, the route used to fork into northern and southern branches around the fearsome desert before converging for the final stretch to the old capital of Xi’an. Marco’s caravans took the northern route to Beijing and the southern coming home.

China's Wild West

China’s Silk Road lies principally in Xinjiang (pronounced Shin-jiang), China’s westernmost and largest province. It is today one of the poorest, most distant — and compelling — regions of all Asia. A grand scheme is afoot to revitalize it by restoring the romance of history’s most celebrated trade route. Earlier this year, China and its Central Asian neighbors Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, launched the Silk Road Project, jointly calling for tourism, trade and investment.

Westerners who come this way are certain to be floored by its grandeur. Xinjiang’s Desert Highway, constructed in 1995, presents scenery to rival anything out of Lawrence of Arabia. Ruins of fallen cities, ancient tombs, 2000-year-old mummies, Buddhist grottoes and weathered mosques festoon the desert.

Over the course of three weeks, we’ll drive more than 6000 kilometres. We’ll spot only two Westerners. We’ll start in Urumqi (Urum-chi), the furthest city from the sea on the planet. We’ll get as far west as Kashgar, the most famous of Silk Road cities. Surprise being a perpetual companion hereabouts, we’ll have one every day: the rip-snorting Sunday market at Hotan; China’s answer to the Grand Canyon out of Aksu; lunch of wok-fried donkey in Dunhuang.

As you’d expect of such a crossroads, Xinjiang is a whirl of Chinese multiculturalism: here are Mongolians, Tajiks, Tartars, Kazakhs and, of course, the Chinese relocated to Han-ize the region in typical Beijing style. But the majority is Uyghur (Wee-ghur), cousins to the Turks who arrived from Mongolia a thousand years ago.

Desert metropolis

The Uyghurs are Muslim. I’m surprised since those I meet have the capacity to drink an Irish poet under the table. The popular alcohol for toasting is a pungent liquor infused with emulsified male virgin silkworms. When, at the end of many toasts, I’m still standing, I’m given the Uyghur salute: Urrzuwawa! We first encounter the Uyghurs in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s largest city. I’d visited Urumqi 25 years ago with Lindblad, the American touring company that pioneered Western travel to the area. There were few roads in those days. Now I realize how little I’d really seen.

Urumqi was a frontier town then, its avenues little more than camel and donkey trails. Now I stare at skyscrapers and highrises towering over golden domes, traffic snarls, showrooms with fancy cars, camera stores selling Nikon, neon streets, restaurants, nightclubs — all the hallmarks of a consumer society on a rip. Signage comes in Mandarin, Uyghur and Arabic, in that order. There’s no doubt about who’s boss.

The Erdaoqiao Market is a foodie bazaar that springs up at dusk every night at a prime downtown intersection. Its colours and aromas bring the old Silk Road to life in an instant. Flatbreads emerge from ovens in gusts of fennel and sesame. Grizzled Uyghurs in skullcaps preside over smoking charcoal grills. Whole goat heads, golden with turmeric and wrapped in red ribbons, sit like Christmas gifts waiting to be eaten, snout, eyes and all. The whole block is engulfed in a cloud of succulence.

And there must be lamb. Uyghurs eat more lamb than New Zealanders. It comes off the grill as kebabs crusted in chilies and salt, from the oven as juicy shanks, wok-fried with garlic and chilies, minced and stuffed into dumplings and pastries, braised atop rice and afloat as meatballs in soups.

The Uyghur diet may be one to watch. Out of Hotan, we’re shown to Bagaqi, a village of airy little family courtyards, vineyard-shaded walkways — and longevity. We’re supposed to meet its 128-year-old man, but it turns out, the old boy passed away two hours earlier. We’re introduced instead to the second-oldest villager, a lad of a mere 120.

Through an interpreter, he talks about his life. He attributes his long life to good genes — his father lived to 126 — good grapes and good walnuts. He’s married six times and outlived five wives. His current bride is half a century younger at 70. He married again because he was fed up with sleeping alone. He “takes care” of her. He winks.

He’s seen change, seen it all: the last days of the Qing Dynasty, the Revolution, the Japanese invasion, WWII, Mao, Deng, the new good times. He was given a TV set, but prefers his radio. Life is better now because the government is giving the villages more money. Before we depart, he fills our hands with pomegranates.

21st-century caravans

If any Silk Road cities conjures up Aladdins and Ali Babas, it’s Kashgar. On my last visit, it was closed to foreigners. Now, it seems, I’ve missed it at its otherworldly best. We arrive on a four-lane highway, running the gauntlet of suburban apartment boxes.

Kashgar’s 2000-year old ancient quarter, a labyrinthine hive of alleyways and 500-year-old mud-brick houses, is being restored by Beijing entrepreneurs as a high-concept tourist neighborhood of cafés and shops. Starbucks can’t be far behind.

Yet Kashgar hasn’t entirely lost its Silk Road soul. The city’s beating heart is the massive, yellow-tiled Id Kah Mosque. Repaired since the vandalism of the Cultural Revolution, it compares to the great mosques of Bukhara and Samarkand.

Days later, we pull into Turpan, at 150 metres below sea level the lowest point in China, and one of the hottest, with summer temperatures soaring to 47°C. Yet through a brilliant, ancient irrigation network of wells and underground canals called karez, the sweltering sands bloom mightily, an accomplishment ranking alongside the Great Wall.

Ten kilometers east of Turpan lies the Flaming Mountain, taking its name from the fiery hues it assumes in the day’s last light. Tourists pause here to ride the indigenous two-humped Bactrian camels to the summit.

The silk soul

Religion, like silk and spice, followed the trade routes. Southeast of the Flaming Mountain lies the archeological ruin of ancient Gaochang, a booming Buddhist metropolis more than 2000 years ago. Later it became capital of Kharakhoja, an Uyghur kingdom, and was destroyed by fire in the 14th century.

The ruins have been unearthed on a grand scale. Walking around this sprawling ruin in the late afternoon is pure magic if you’re one of those romantics that archeologists love to hate. We spend our last couple of days at Dunhuang, where the northern and southern silk routes converge. Travellers come here to see the Mogao Caves, the “Caves of a Thousand Buddhas,” a complex of 492 caves containing, in fact, almost 3500 Buddhas.

Yet to me, Dunhuang’s spell is far more basic. The Mingsha Shan or “Singing Sands” — so called because of the sounds of the wind whipping off the dunes — loom up like giant pillows at the edge of town. I’ve seen deserts from the Sahara to the Kalahari and never seen anything like it. Its soaring lines and golden hues stop me in my tracks.

We may be the only Westerners about, but we're far from alone. Tourists are loping into the sands on trains of Bactrians. Tourists are crawling to the summit for the sunset vista. They’re tumbling down the dunes like children, holding hands. They can rent dune buggies, and camp in the endless sands. Someday, no doubt, the desert ecology will prompt formal respect. But for now, the new highways connecting Silk Road cities are opening up some of the world most dazzling scenery to those among us unprepared to spend weeks sandwiched between Bactrian humps.

And, for the first time in 5000 years of written history, the ordinary Chinese can afford to see their own amazing land. I’m not one to quibble with their giddiness. To the Westerner, all I can say is, if you think you’ve seen everything and haven’t made it to Xinjiang, it ain’t over yet.

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