“Once you get in, you’ll never get out!” That’s the meaning of the Uyghur word Taklamakan, as it was notorious for snatching the lives of countless travelers, merchants & warriors for ages. The northern and southern branches of legendary silk route, spread along east and west passed through Taklamakan and therefore this death zone was mandatory to cross for the sake of trade prospect of the mainland China in central Asia and far west. This romance of old age mixed with the thrill of its ill-famous deadliness gave us goosebumps whenever we heard the word ‘Taklamakan’. It was never in our bucket list, always considered it as a land of no return. When we started planning our trip to Xinjiang, Uyghur Autonomous Region of north-west China, newer things started to get revealed and apparently it became ‘land of no return’ no more as world’s longest desert highway of the world cut through the very heart of Taklamakan.
Desert Highway of Taklamakan
Ancient oasis towns like Kashgarh, Niya, Yarkand, Hotan, Kuqa, Turpan were the resting places for the merchant caravans of the silk route passing through the desert Taklamakan. On modern days, after the discovery of an oil-field in the heart of Taklamakan, the need of easy accessibility was on the top priority and therefore the longest desert highway ( 697km) connecting Niya and Kuqa was built along Tarim river basin on 1994. Later another highway (653 km) along the basin of river Hotan, connecting the city Hotan with Kuqa was formed. We took this newer one, the second longest, as now-a-days foreigners are not permitted to travel by the old highway.
What’s Unique about Taklamakan?
Though sand dunes are the signature picture of any desert, but for most of the deserts of the world, sand dunes actually cover few parts of the entire desert area. Taklamakan consists of 80% of sand dunes. It holds rank 17th on the list of deserts of the world by area. But according to the area of sand dunes it is number 2, just after the greatest Sahara. On our day-long journey of 653km from Hotan to Kuqa, almost 450 km was within deep desert, full of countless sand dunes stretching to the horizon. This entire 450km is a continuous stretch of dunes. Nowhere in the world, one can experience such an wonder! It felt like we were floating on an endless sea of thousands of sand waves! The sand dunes were pretty small in compare to the dunes of Sahara, we saw last year, but the dunes of Taklamakan are unique for their un- interrupted endlessness where numbers of ancient traders lost their way which killed them eventually.
Needless to say that making two highways through this extremely malicious terrain is an unimaginably commendable and courageous technical marvel of the mankind, but the actual challenge lies in protecting them from being engulfed by the continuously shifting dunes of Taklamakan. This epic desert is also noted for its extremely drifting nature. Today, where we can see dunes after dunes was once a place of prosperous civilization, later entirely covered with sand. On our sightseeing day of Hotan we visited the part of Taklamakan where the ruins of 1700 years’ old Rewak temple had been found and were amazed to think how the desert took all its glory away!
During our journey we found mainly three techniques to protect the desert highway from windblown sand: 1. fencing by interwoven reed stalks or thick plastic sheets, 2. plantation of reed stalks deep into the ground in a checkerboard pattern, 3. plantation of small shrubs along the roadside. Small waterholes are made in every 30km for fetching water for these plants. As we were travelling in early October, those plants were turned golden yellow due to fall season and they looked stunning with the background of the unending waves of sand. The waterholes attract wild animals. We saw an antelope, a pheasant and a big herd of Bactrian camels. From early morning to late afternoon, it was a saga with the sand. The day started with overcast depressing sky, followed by dark cloud, sandstorm and rain, yes, rain in desert and finally… sunshine!
- Xinjiang, Uyghur Autonomous Region is a highly sensitive province of China. Though I always prefer independent trip, but if you are a foreigner, it is highly recommended to hire the car from or arrange the trip through a registered travel agency. Apart from the core area of sand dunes, there are numbers of check posts and independent travelers usually face security-related checking on every step in Xingjiang province which kills a lot of time. Remember that very few security person can understand, speak or read English there. Tell your travel operator to make a written invoice in Chinese, with the clear mention of the names & passport numbers of you and your companions, purpose of your visit and the detailed itinerary.
- Never take photograph of any police check post or security person on duty.
- You may stop anywhere to take photographs, but I repeat that this is a highly sensitive zone. If your driver does not feel safe to stop on a place, do not force him to do so.
- Take an English speaking driver. If you face any issues on any check post it will be easier for you to share your problem with the driver.
- It’s almost 10 hours’ journey, therefore start as early as possible.
- Have a heavy breakfast before the trip and carry plenty of food and water with you. You will find not a single shop in the desert.
- Don’t throw any rubbish out of your car. We saw numerous plastic bottles and bags lied alongside the road. Keep in mind; you are in Taklamakan, an extremely hostile terrain, where nobody can be appointed to collect your waste. Be a responsible traveler.