On the morning of our fourth day in the desert, we wake up in a dried riverbed at the base of vermillion mountains outside Turpan. It’s not where we planned to be; we squint through tired eyes at sunrise as we try to get out before it’s so hot we can’t drive.
The night before, we had already decided to camp. Cruising towards dark at dusk we looked for spots that would make sense: something that had cover from the wind and sun, but not something stuck in between the orchards and the vineyards of the local farmers. When we saw an exit for somewhere called “big canyon,” we knew it was it meant to be. We got off the freeway on to a road that winds through a picturesque Uyghur village flush with grape vines and poplar trees. In the summer, everyone sleeps outside, covered only by a blanket and the stars in bedframes that sit out in front of the doorframes of mud-brick houses that are more walled courtyards than they are full structures. Beds begin to slowly fill up as we drive by and some people have even put a mat in the back of their three-wheeled electric moto-trucks that are ubiquitous in this part of the country. It feels like every night is a community sleep over.
We somehow end up out behind the back of the village on dirt roads that weave through the grape fields. Through the vines and up a hill we find what seems to be the most ideal campsite we could ever ask for: the ruins of an old brick house on a ridge that overlooks the setting sun and the entirety of the village. Elated with our discovery, we start setting up the tent and get dinner ready, a full cantaloupe that we stuffed into my pannier in Hami, ripe and wet with subtle hints of honey.
I turn to Jie, “this is the kind of place that we’re out here for. This is living with purpose”
From around the structure, the thinking of a shovel hitting hard clay catches our attention. We look over and see the swinging of tens of headlights in the fields below: the night is full with people coming out into the fields, relishing in an escape from the oppressive midday sun. Soon we hear footsteps close by; an old man comes over to our tent and starts talking to us in Uyghur. We say Ässalamu läykum and try to explain we don’t understand what he’s saying. I point at my chest and say America in what I think sounds like a Uyghur accent. We grab the peaches and apricots we have left and share them with him. He exhales in excitement after the first bite; fruit this good never gets old. He teaches us the words for both fruits, pointing over to the grapes he’s growing on his farm and mouthing the words for that too. Seemingly having his fill, he turns and heads back into the night.
Half an hour later, there are footsteps again. We joke that he’s brought friends back for more fruit. Suddenly there are four flashlights pointed at us and a badge being pushed in Jie’s face. Police regulations in Xinjiang are especially strict and foreigners especially are supposed to register every place they go in the region, even though in practice not every one does. Not ten minutes earlier I’d told Jie how strange it was that the only thing in Xinjiang I was scared of was the police.
“Hey,” the cop says “We heard there were Americans out camping out here. That’s not ok.”
We’re confused, but he continues. “We are Muslim. We bury our dead above ground. Look at all the stuff you have here, you can’t be here,”
Suddenly it clicks. These decaying stone rectangles that we could barely make at in the low light are graves –we thought they we just one of many crumbling stone structures that fill the desert.
We’re camping on the edge of a graveyard, our jackets even placed on top of what must be a marker for a gravesite. Worn down and weathered, presumably ancient, we couldn’t even tell what they were when we got here. We had no idea.
We begin to apologize and start packing; the cop is understanding.
“Aren’t you scared?” One of the guys accompanying asks us repeatedly
“We didn’t know,” I say.
“I’d be scared,” another one chimes in.
We head to the police station, where the cop has told us we can camp for the night. But when we get there it’s obvious they have no idea what do with us. The most senior officer jumps on my motorcycle without asking and takes it for a ride. The cop that brought us in tries calling whoever’s higher up in the main town for advice. Inside the station we remark on the amount of weapons for such a small place.
I take a photo and the mood changes. “No photos. Delete that. Give me your phone,” the cop says as he takes my phone from me ad starts swiping through every photo from the last 10 days. The cops make Jie pour out a bag he’s wearing onto the floor and after a couple awkward minutes they say we can’t stay. It’s midnight and we’re tired; it’s not ideal in any way. We leave upset, but manage to get a picture with one of the officers as a memento. He insists he should be holding his gun for it.
Thrown into the night, we ride aimlessly back on the freeway headed west. We rise and drop in the dark, moving through a canyon lit in multiple shades of black. Soon we’re dipping further downhill and the temperature is rising: this must be the Turpan basin. 154 m below sea level and the hottest place in China, it’s the Death Valley of the east. Maybe it’s driving, maybe it’s that it’s late, but it’s the hottest I’ve ever been in the dark. It’s pitch black but the sun feels like it’s beating down on my thighs. The wind on my chest feels like it’s squeezing my lungs. Without our helmets pulled closed, the desert air sweeps literally all of the moisture out of our eyes.
“I’m sweating already and I haven’t even moved,” Jie says when we’re setting up the bikes. It’s that hot. The last sign we see before we pull of the road reads “Flaming Mountains 5km.” Even the mountains here burn.
The next morning we continue into Turpan proper, still as unbelievably hot as the day before. Somehow people having been living here for almost 6000 years (don’t ask me how) and the oasis was an important stop on the Silk Road. We stop briefly at an ancient pilgrimage site and make it to the city by noon. I
It’s way to hot to drive when the sun’s out so we decide to leave once it’s dark to head to Urumqi –we can’t be here more than a day. Instead we decide to spend the day at a local hostel built in classic Uyghur style with a beautiful courtyard and full of extremely nice people also hiding from the heat. We leave for an hour to visit a local winery –Turpan is China’s largest grape producer— and get a tour of the place after I explain i'm from a family of wine growers. But mostly we spend our day more content in the shades of the grape vines back in the courtyard. We don’t see much of the city according to guidebooks, but short drives through alleys stretched with shadows and long flowing conversations in the slow afternoon make for a day that’s more fulfilling than any sight we could have seen. Turpan is a gorgeous portrait of life lived against all odds: tranquility in an environment hostile and oppressive. An oasis through and through.