In the corridor from Lanzhou that wraps north of the mountains is where the desert begins. Slipping out of the tight canyons that divide Qinghai and Gansu, its here that we start a five-day jaunt through a khaki-red expanse. Flanked by the mountains on our left and an indefinite flatness to our right, we ride in high winds that almost push us off our bikes and through places with ominous names like “An Xi Especially Barren Ecological Protection Zone.” Barren earth stretches to the horizon, divided only by groaning hills scorched in black and brown. The lone presence of man is are multiple hundreds of acres of wind turbines, the pieces of which are constantly being shipped across the freeway next to us, curved and lying massive on oversized trucks like beached whales.
Every day we ride towards the late setting sun. This far west it doesn’t start to get dark until 10:00, when the entire world turns gold, then pink, then a briefly red and then fades from pale purple to black. There’s something magical about watching the sun drop in the desert. The sky here is so wide; the sun is so large. Like a ball of honey we watch the entirety of its methodological dip towards the almost perfectly flat horizon –slow but purposeful; solemn yet hypnotizing. The day seems so full when you watch every inch of sun squeezed out of its last minutes. Each time greys in the road begin to warm, my head always finds itself fixed toward the west, staring earnestly through polarized lenses into the suns last gaze.
Our days through the desert are broken up by nights in the few main oases’ that dot the landscape. Jiuquan, a city that translates into “fountain of alcohol,” 50km
away form the final point of the great wall; Guazhou, and old outpost at the beginning of the Silk Road; Hami, famous for its cantaloupes – literally called “Hami melons” in Chinese; and Turpan,
an ancient fertile plain in the hottest part of China. Life is abundant here despite the climate. We drive by valleys full of grape fields and hills stacked with offset hollow brick structures
for drying. The arms of oil rigs flex and pump without tiring in the unforgiving sand. One day the desert even extends us an offer of mercy: a sky full of rainbows and a sun shower that steams
off us briefly in a fleeting afternoon requiem.
The overbearing dryness and the cracking landscape may actually be the smallest change though. The biggest difference as we roam the desert is the changes in the language, faces, and food in this part of China. Signs are swept and dotted with Uighur, a Turkic language that looks like Arabic. Everything in locally grocery stores is different; half the products are imported from Turkey and Iran.
Suddenly, people start to look more like me than they do Jie.
Walking into a restaurant in Hami, it’s as if we’ve wandered through a wormhole to the Middle East. Men with dark features and square jaws wearing Tqiyah’s eat lamb pilaf polo (shouzhuafan) next to wives with light hair and green eyes. The food is a fair of lamb, flatbreads, tomato-based noodles, oil and root vegetables –all of it infused with cumin, cardamom and Sichuan peppercorns (we are still in china after all). It’s amazing. The flavors are ones we haven’t had in months. The smooth, heavy rice braised with lamb – cooked in a large, communal pot— and dumplings thick with melting squares of fat are balanced out instantly by a sip of black tea with hints of cinnamon. The markets are flush with dates, raisins and all types of melons.
We talk with a Uighur family making bread for their bakery and learn a couple phrases in Uyghur (rakmat for ”thank you” and yahshimo for “hello” –although the Arabic Ässalamu läykum seems to go over better as a greeting).
The husband asks me if I’m from here as he presses dough into circles for naan “Are you Uzbek? Turkmen?”
“No,” I say, smiling that even these people think we look alike. I’m often told by Chinese I look Uyghur, but I didn’t expect it here.
The wife, pressing a metal mold into the dough to create spiral patterns turns to me. “Look,” she says pointing to her arm and then me, “we are the same race.”
I try to explain that I’m American, which seems to be interesting to them, but doesn’t change their opinion on our similarities. I can see how it could feel far from Beijing if it seems like you relate more to someone from across the pacific than in your own country’s capital.
The first sections of Gansu are actually thick with farmland. It’s nothing like the rice paddies we passed in the south, but the landscape –and especially in the towns that wrap the highway— are surprisingly green, speckled with yellow from sunflowers and canola flowers in bloom. These are areas of long historical cultivation, thriving on ancient irrigation techniques and flourishing in surprisingly fertile soil. As we roll through neighborhoods of single floor houses flanked by poplar trees rustling in the dry heat, I suddenly feel nostalgic for summer visits to California; this could easily be somewhere in San Joaquin valley.
Throughout the desert we ride on the freeway. China’s freeways (toll ways actually) don’t allow motorcycles, but nobody really seems to mind. On approach we follow close to a semis slowing into the tollbooth and use our chance to skirt around the gate on the far right side. Once through we fly; exits only come about every 50 km. We ride like this through the desert every day for six days. Nobody seems to bat an eye. Gas station attendants at service centers by the road aren’t curious about how we got here and even the police outside of checkpoints wave us through with no qualms. The benefits of being far away from the powers that be. “The mountains are high and the emperor is far away,” as the Yuan dynasty saying goes.
This doesn’t apply to most aspects of Xinjiang, though. This is a region of major ethnic tensions between the indigenous Uyghurs (pronounced wee-ghur) and the Han government, especially since major riots in 2009 where hundreds died . In Urumqi, the capital of the autonomous region, the “emperor” has unequivocally found his way across the mountains. The city feels like it’s under martial law. Military and police are present everywhere. Manned armored vehicles and fully armed soldiers sit ready at street corners. For people here, it seems like the every day. They pass annoyed through metal detectors at malls, and the riot barricades that line the sidewalks have become de-facto bike racks. After the riots, the internet and all international calls were shut off here for ten months straight; some cities even banned muslim dress and men from growing beards Even at a gas station 900km earlier, by the border of Xinjiang and Gansu, we have to produce identification to fill up–the attendant doesn’t have an answer as to who is allowed gas and who’s not, but can only say that it’s because of issues with Uyghurs. Other stations flat out refuse to fill up motorcycles.
It’s odd to feel so trapped in a place so wide open.