What really can be said about Huatougo? Really nothing, indeed. It is a small village, half way between Magnai and the asbestos mines. But finally we were in Qinghai. Or, better said, we had left the Xinjiang. Which meant that Police will be helpful, instead of suspicious, and that we have left the specie mutton meat.
So, we took a shared taxi from Ruoqiang towards Magnai, through a 3.800 meters mountain pass in the Altun Mountains, flanked by 5.000 m peaks. I expected to find landscapes like in the Andes Cordillera, like these:
All blogs and guides agreed that it was not easy to go from Ruoquiang to Magnai, 350 km away, through a 3.500 m mountain pass, that was closed in winter due to snow, and in summer due to sandstorms. Moreover, as Ruoqiang was an oasis city in the middle of nowhere, but essentially oriented towards the North and the Xinjiang, and Magnai was a mine city, oriented towards the South and the Qinghai, nor people nor goods felt the need to join these to cities.
We made this 900 Km in three stages:
– Hetian – Minfeng (Niya) 300 Km by bus
– Niya – Qiemo (Tchertchen, Charchan) 287 Km by private car, although we made a 500 km detour through the desert
– Qiemo – Ruoquiang (Charkilik) by bus
None of these cities is interesting in itself. Of course, everyone of them has a mosque, a bazar and a main square (and a lot of Police stations), but nothing really that “must be seen”.
But.. I wanted to see the desert, I love them. And this trip is 900 Km of desert. Different kinds of desert, of course. The sand of the Takla Makan is like flour, so, there is sand everywhere as soon as there is a little breeze. Dunes are everywhere, quite high, some of them swallow electricity poles, and bury the wires
But really, outside the desert, there is nothing to see…
In Qiemo a policeman asked us what we were doing there, Qiemo was a small and quiet town and tourists never went there. I told him that I loved deserts, and small towns, and do not liked tourist places. He was half convinced by my answer, because in the afternoon I received the visit of a Police Officer (with a Police card) and a translator who asked me to show all my electronic equipment. They verified the photos stored in my phone and my computer, and left. So, if you travel there, be careful, no photos of
– police posts
– armoured vehicles
– official buildings
– airports and train stations
– people begging in the streets (there are not a lot, but poor people are everywhere)
Said that, I was not really interested in the cities in themselves, nor in ruins, or mosques (after my experiences in Iran, I prefer skip this sort of visits).
So, this part of the trip was, essentially, what I remember of Ella’s book, and this part is what we see:
The road that slowly transforms itself from a road in the desert
to a poplar bordered road in the oasis (here, entering Nija)
or the tamarisks area where the kid (wawa) of the gold diggers was lost (yes, in Ella expedition the tamarisk field was near Golmud, but I am sure it was identical).
It is while going to walk with Peter to visit abandoned fortifications I understand how our oasis is dangerous, for miles of tamarisk bushes rise, all identical. The paths made by the sheep cover the ground with a real network, and in this labyrinth there is only the compass which can serve as a reference. There is only the Demon of the Sands, an opaque whirlwind of dust, an immense column that flares out towards the sky, whirling on its base, almost compact, with a disturbing rustle
I love deserts, so we hired a shared taxi only for us (900 RMB, 110 € for the full day and 500 km) to go from Minfeng (Niya) to Qiemo (Tchertchen) via the new Cross Desert Road, that goes to Kuka. From Niya this road goes North, and, after 220 km, it meets a road that gives service to the Tazhong Oil Field, and from there it goes to Qiemo. It is a kind of inverted Y, the two branches being Niya and Tcherchen, and the cross is Tazhong.
(see the map which opens this post)
Our taxi driver wanted to be sure that he would not have problems driving foreigners through this area, so, we went to the Police station in Niya before leaving and we went again before turning towards Tazhong and Qiemo. We did not have problems, although each control took something like 15 to 20 minutes while they checked our passports, register them in books (it seems that computers are not widespread, at least on isolated Police posts), they take some mug photos, and afterward, eventually, take also some selfies with us. Of course, for the sake of safety, I did not asked them to take a selfie with my camera to keep memory of them… and it was a shame.
Definitively (if you like deserts, of course) I must recommend the detour through the Cross Desert Route. The branch from Tazhong to Qiemo was not finished in my Gizi Map but it was on my Chinese map. The Cross Desert is well maintained and it is irrigated all long with bushes planted to stop sand to invade the road. The Tazong Qiemo branch has not it, so, probably in case of wind (even light) the road would be closed.
Opinion of Ella Maillart about Khotan:
Finally, under the bright sun, we enter Khotan. This great city, which I believed, I do not know why, being a museum like Samarkand, disappoints me. At the edge of muddy alleys stagnates a stinking water, the shops are full of flies (…). At Khotan, I shall discover only a few large modern mosques: not a single vestige of the past
We did not find too many muddy alleys, essentially because the Chinese have destroyed almost everything and replaced them by ugly apartment blocks, 20 to 30 storey high, but, as Ella says, “not a single vestige of the past”
Hetian is a relatively big city (population 300.000) in which, as guides says, only the Sunday bazar is interesting. Well, I went there and it is as interesting as a flea market with new Chinese items: It is not even a street market, it is distributed in several buildings, some selling clothes, other textiles, other tools, other is a row of similar shops selling the same products.
In time it is said that there was an animal market there, in which to find the finest donkeys and the fastest camels, but if it exists yet (I suspect that it has been replaced by a truck and tricycle market somewhere) we were unable to find it, and nobody was able to tell us if it existed.
Of course there are glimpses of the true mid-orient life, at the stalls where you can have a delightful yogurt with honey,
or an omelette
or the street barber
and finally you end at a Uygur restaurant, not really typical, because all restaurants there are similar, in which you eat over a kh’an (a platform) covered with rather dirty carpets
Chinese people does not like to “lose face”, so, usually things are never clearly stated. Usually a Chinese will never answer : “No”, but will give you vague and inconsistent responses, “I’ll think about”, “you are probably right, but now it is impossible”, or will say “I need to confer with my boss”, or will express his regrets by not being able to fulfil your request.
The Xinjiang is a China Autonomous Region, in which the original population is Muslim. It was the territory for the Great Game, between UK and Russia for the control of Central Asia, on the second half of XIX Century, while the region – nominally Chinese or independent – was ruled by different warlords.
We decided to start our trip in Kashgar, and to go East, towards Xining, in the Qinghai, 2.700 km (1,700 miles) away. Main reason was that this stage, the first one, when we did not know what to expect, could be done by train.
Items needed until now (see previous post)
a.) two maps, one in Western Characters and Western names (which may or may not be the local names, for instance, Nija is Minfeng, and Charqilik, Rouquiang. Plus a spare map, kept in your luggage to be used only if needed.
c.) So, when I arrived to Shanghai airport I bought a prepaid Chinese SIM card, for something like 150 RMB with 100 RMB prepaid. Although it is probably more expensive if bought in an airport (I am sure, they said 250 RMB, I said it was too expensive, and I finished getting one 200 RMB card for 150), it has the advantage than people there speaks English, and are eager to change the card you brought in your phone by theirs. They swap cards, and there you go, with all your email accounts, whatsapp contacts and everything working without any need of configuration. My phone is an iPhone, so, Apple send me a message asking me to accept operator’s change, and that’s it. I recharged my China Unicom card in several different phone shops 3 to 4 times with 100 RMB each. I did that every three to four days, and, simply, because I did not want to be without internet in the middle of nowhere.
Did I need to recharge the card? I have no idea, I received regularly SMS with information in Chinese, but, as iPhone does not allow copy and paste of SMS (or I ignore how to do it), I was unable to copy it in the translator, so I never knew if it was necessary.
All hotels (there are no bars) have WiFi, so, strictly, there is no absolute need to stay connected. But, if you are on a bus queue, or you want to ask for directions on the street, I prefer to have the possibility.
d.) I had with me an Iridium tracker and SOS device. I have been cut from Internet in three occasions in my life
1.) USA – Irak first war, that caught me in a fly from Frankfurt to Delhi, and Internet was cut for two days in India,
2.) two earthquakes, one in Costa Rica and the other in Chile.
These situations create anxiety at home. For the Irak war I was able to phone home as soon as I saw that I was unable to connect through Internet (cut internet access in this case was a political decision, not a technical issue), but on the other two cases, cell towers stopped working, and land lines were clogged. I needed to wait for 48 to 72 hours to be able to notify home.
So, I have with me the Iridium tracker (Garmin inReach) which does not use cellular or land phone lines. It is able to send SMS-like messages through their own satellite system. It is not very performant (the device must “see” the sky), not very fast because the device must wait until a satellite passes to send the message (typically between 30 minutes and one hour), and wait another passage of the satellite to get the answer. But, at least, anything may happen on land, you have your lifeline with your family. Moreover, the system has an SOS button, monitored 24/7 which takes over in case of need. The tracker sends your position every 10 minutes, so, anybody with access to my web page is able to know where I am. (of course, if I authorize the access). The device is not cheap (450 USD), nor the service (25 USD/month, although it may be 10 USD if you do not need the tracking feature). It prepares a gpx of the track, that you may load in Google Earth. Send me a contact form if you are interested.
and, last but not least
e.) an antidiarrheic. You probably do not need to take with you an antitussive remedy, you go to a pharmacy, you cough, and they will understand you. I do not imagine doing the same if you have diarrhea
I brought also with me
1.) an emergency kit, with bandages, blister protection, and a thermal blanket. I did not need them, but it is light and you never know. By the way the kit did not include alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, mercurochrome… so, you need to buy these separately.
2.) a very light and foldable bath towel. I did not needed it, but I would bring it again with me
3.) a silk coocon bed sheet. I did not needed it, but I remenber trips to China 20 years ago, in which it would have been welcome
4.) a rice bowl and a chopstick set. Tableware is not really clean in China, everything is eventually rinsed with the same water, and chopsticks were often somehow sticky, but I really did not dare to ask the restaurant to use mine
5.) warm clothes. Although temperature was perfect in the Xinjiang in May (20 to 30 degrees), as soon as we arrive to Golmud, temperature drop by 15 degrees. And in the Qinghai temperature was 2, 3 degrees in the morning up to 10 in the afternoon.
6.) a photo camera. Although a phone is discreet, and makes good photos, a true photo camera, with a powerful zoom, brings another dimension to the trip. Due to the sheer weight I left my trustable Nikon F4 (yes, with roll), and I brought with me a Leica V4. Powerful mechanic and electronic zoom, and all sort of fancy and useless gadgests. But excellent optics, and an automatic mode who is able to allow an old man affected by Parkinson disease to shoot a horse race from 500 metres without blurr.
Taken at 100 meters, aprox. in Dulan, a Tibetan mother and his daughter which come from a school festival
Next two posts present travel hacks that I only discovered upon arrival. Of course, I would have appreciated to know them before departure!! so, let me start. After these two posts, I will start with the travel itself