exploring XINJIANG’s silk route
Dorgelo’s northwest China trip: discovering another world
Trip of a life time
Crossing the river
by feeling the stones.
Some advised us not to go. Some
thought it would be too dangerous.
Too far. We ended up following
Deng’s approach to reach our goal.
With no detailed maps available and
ever-changing road conditions,
we went ‘one day at a time’.
The Silk Route opened a complete
new world for us: a world of sand and
heat; hidden feelings and open
wounds; big noses and blue eyes...
A trip we will not forget.
The Silk Route: another China
We left at 4:30 in the morning and the road don't bother to repair. No wonder that all young
was already busy, not with cars but with sweepers. and strong leave town for big cities like Chengdu;
Every other kilometer another sweeper was anything better than this! A government placed sign
sweeping the dust of her assigned asphalt from A to to educate its population says: "environment is the
B. (Her, because these are mostly high heeled power of energy; how you look is the power of
middle aged women.) Cars passing with 120 km per inﬂuence." They surely inﬂuenced me with how their
hour will blast it back to A and that guarantees their town looked!
job for tomorrow. Chinese are sweepers, but surely
not scrubbers. We discovered that once more on Two days went by before we passed through
our ﬁrst day of this trip. Lanzhou and saw the Yellow River. Before reaching
Getting out of Sichuan driving into Gansu was as Lanzhou, we slowly descended the higher mountain
entering a different country. One that obviously ranges that divide Sichuan and Gansu. Gentle
somehow missed the fast train to modernity. We're broad plateaus and wide valleys with lush green
passing through towns that even 2 years after the ﬁelds open up to small hamlets wrapped around the
earthquake has many of its citizens still live in tents. highway housing mostly people of the Hui (=muslim)
Houses and everything else are either brown or minority group. A local market-day causes a long
gray. Streets are streams of coffee colored mud. delay. Wreckages of trucks in houses show that the
Our car wheels disappear at the deepest points. highway leading through towns might need to be
Below their knees, pedestrians are all the same reconsidered. (Continue pg.7)
color: mud brown. No one cares anymore. Mud is
everywhere. Splashed up against walls, doors and
cars. Smoke from the brick factories darkens the air.
Rubbish is piled up meters high on roadsides and
river beddings. People come out of houses they
This trip of 27 days and 9510 km
in 165 hours-on-the-road, bringing
us as high as 5000 meter; passing
the 2nd lowest point of the world;
in temperatures up to 45*C; with
languages unheard of and
it gave us a view of
the other side of China.
For Gien and Asher, time is measured by number of overloaded truck. Buses ﬂy by with the speed of
toilet stops and movies watched. Asherʼs little poem light. We arrived in Dunhuang after passing through
says it all: several types of deserts and ﬁnally settle in a hostel
just out of town in an old orchard on the edge of the
Bored desert. The Gobi desert. Hot sand dunes that
Bored in the car barbeque your feet in seconds are piled up in a 800
Doing nothing but feeling car sick square km area, rising hundreds of meters above
Bored in the airplane us.
Doing nothing besides watching tv or sleeping
Bored in a boat
During an early morning walk, I pass one-storey ﬂat
Doing nothing but playing card games on the bed
Bored on a train roofed mud houses with beds on the roofs and in
Doing nothing but talking or looking out side a their front yard with blankets rolled up, caravans of
window camels pass me, donkeys neighs and I found myself
Bored with using an iTouch if returned to Egypt. But instead of Nubians, palm
Trying to do something when I am bored trees and sugar cane ﬁelds, I'm surrounded by
Hearing the bird chirp Chinese, high poplars and shady orchards.
Hearing the flies buzz Although the desert is growing each year with
Hearing pages flipped from reading a book several feet, the poplars seem to do remarkably well
Hearing the ping pong bounce on the table in protecting the green. It all refreshes my desire to
To do something when I am bored
show Gin, Gien and Asher the beauties of Israel
and Egypt; the pyramids and Cairo, feluccas on the
And so, though the desert road is good, long and Nile, resting under the village tree and Jerusalem.
very straight, or because of this, it is as Asher wrote: The hostel is wonderful but somewhat behind in
very boring to drive here. The kids watch another maintenance. (Continue pg. 8)
movie while we pass ruins and small oases. Far
ahead, the road seems constantly to disappear into
a lake that we'll never reach. Every so often we
overtake an oversized and surely heavily
It is run by a couple of Chinese that are clearly Itʼs quite reassuring to know that when I die from
neither sweepers nor scrubbers. It's built as an old thirst and sunstroke, at least my camel lives on to
Chinese courtyard, with the rooms all around the make the last arrangements.
cool inner court. Swallows nest on the bars under And these arrangements for the afterlife are
the patios. While the desert is right behind the different here in Dunhuang. While the shadowy
hostel, orchards surround it on all other sides. A orchards slowly disappear behind us in the vibrant
heaven on earth as long as you're not too close to hot air and the dunes to the south continue to grow
the toilets. Asher is really having the time of his life. I higher, we are bumping our way through the valley
haven't seen him this energetic, wild and initiative of the dead. A real encouraging start. As far as the
for a long time. Sand dunes and kids. Texel without eye can see in this heat, cone shaped pyramids
the sea. Running up, rolling down, sliding down, pop out of the sand. Just like in Egypt. But here
jumping down. Building castles, though this project they are only 1 to 2 meters high. Here, the villagers
he abandoned quickly due to lack of water. No claim a plot of desert land to bury their dead. And to
wonder that most of the ancient Silk route towns drink. Besides the old trousers, shoes and shirts
and castles of old are no more but ruins. In the that have once been donated to the dead to assure
afternoon we exchange our car and the comforts of them a good travel to the next world, broken bottles
the hostel for camel and tent. The camels are litter the area. Alcohol helps a lot when negotiating
shaved and look skinny. with the gods. In the evening we settle in a pit
protected by high sand dunes. Our butts are sore
Compared with a horse they seem to live in slow and it is a relief to lay down and just watch the stars.
motion and are constantly re-chewing their previous An hour long sand storm beating against our feeble
meals. They walk like an Egyptian and shout like a little tent between 3 and 4 in the morning kept us
dinosaur. They stare at you with their cartoon like quite awake. But not just that; it was a great night.
popping-out eyes. They just look dumb and dull. We (Continue pg. 20)
are told that that is OK. To enable tourists to enjoy
a ride without being thrown off, they purposely keep
the camels weak and under fed. They are still able
to survive in the desert for up to 10 days without
water and food. That makes me feel better.
One of the most annoying aspects of traveling in encountered our 2nd sandstorm with wind speed 5,
China is that for each ʻthingʼ of interest there is an it all didnʼt really matter anymore.
entrance fee. From old villages to a pond in the
desert or a tree on the grasslands; youʼll have to Urumqi is a divided city: Uyghur and Chinese. Police
pay. If they could charge you for breathing in fresh in between. Guns pointing at the Uyghur though. It
air they would. Old towns are rebuild into souvenir is exactly one year ago that some Uyghurs
paradises, nature reserves into a series of stepping fought for their rights, so THEY say - and lost.
stones. It all need to be high-heel friendly. Signs are Other minorities like the Tajiks, Kazakhs,
placed teaching you that “Civilization is the most Mongols, Russians, Tibetans, Uzbeks and Xilans
beautiful scenery” and that “Grasses are afraid of are part of the silent sufferers. Talking with a
your feet” (this, I have to admit, is surely true for my Kazakh shepherd, hosting us for one night in
feet after a day of walking in mountain shoes) but his yurt, Earjan NoLastName (Kazakh tradition
even that you need to “Look out for your steps and have no last name), we learned that although
be averted in your mind”. All included in the price. they agree that the Chinese government has
Good thing is that thereʼs often a back door that treated them well: providing land and
gets you in for free. You just need to ﬁnd it. supporting their culture, they also say that they
do not have equal chance to get better jobs
From Dunhuang it took us 13 hours to reach that go beyond being shepherd, cowboy or
Urumqi. With much of the highway under repair, it tourist guide. It seems that the Chinese love
seemed we would never arrive. What makes the their minorities as much as the Americans their
night travel harder is that Chinese don't know how Indians.
to use the car lights. Some just don't use lights at As our Chinese friend continues to say: "So
all. Saving energy. All Others only know the big pretty!!" Minorities as cute rarity to take a
headlights. Blinding whoever they meet. To make snapshot with when the tour bus stops by the
things more challenging, there are the invisible minority souvenir shops where Han Chinese sell
pedestrians, walking on the road as if going for a junk mostly made in Nepal or India.
Sunday afternoon stroll in the park; kids, elderly, You wonder why the Kazakhs stay here. They
drunk, cows, goats and camels. When we can freely travel to Kazakhstan and there have
(Continue pg. 22)
up to 7 wives and countless more kids then the So we left. West again. Further west; to
respectively 1 and 2 allowed here on China side Kashgar. Distance here needs to be measured
of the border. in time. Due to bad roads, 100 km can take
half a day driving. And don’t cheer if the map
From the cool heavenly mountain we dived identifies a road as highway until you've seen
down into the boiling pot of Turpan. Everything it –and see how it is around the corner: it may
is turned up: the temperature, the windows, just be a small dusty - or muddy- road with
the aircon, it is up to 50*C. Close to the 2nd lots of heavy traffic to slow you down even
lowest point of the earth at 250 meters below more. We were forced to make an overnight
sea level (but who cares about the sea here; stop in Kuqa, a Chinese oil town (once it was a
there is no place on earth farther removed kingdom on its own) on the edge of the desert
from any ocean than this place), Turpan has with a surprisingly interesting old Uyghur
much to offer. Yet we didn't see any of it. One animal bazaar, right under the bridge.
after the other, we got sick. Probably the
street food in combination with the extreme And finally, Sunday night, we arrived in
heat. So much for their famous sheep meat Kashgar. A historical major Silk road city that
street BBQ... still depends heavily on the old trade; carpets,
Why people started living here remains a herbs, music instruments, silk and of cause any
mystery to me. To get water, 2000 years ago, type of animal living in Asia. An old city of
they had to dig tunnels from the gletchers up mud houses, though they are now all being
the mountain many kilometers away. Now, demolished to be replaced by brick and
that water is drying out. Gletchers are cement. Each street has its own craft; carpets
disappearing. Over the centuries it has created on the Carpet Street, Iron ware on the Smith
a green grape producing Eden with a distinctive Street, wood-work on the Carpenter Street. Far
culture. For us however, once sick and off, the snowy mountain tops. It is a city of
sensitive, the heat becomes unbearable; the Uyghur, more remote and out of Beijing's reach
squatting toilets a nightmare and the smell of than most other city. These Sunni, and often
local food a reason to vomit. To make things Sufi Muslims seem more fierce and exclusive,
worse, the kids fainted one after the other. (Continue pg. 38)
This Kazakh yurt was our home nor
th of Urumqi.
making you at first contact constantly feel at they don’t often do, they’re usually mistaken
unease. Their standard gaze is not just one of for foreigners. Foreigners with a Chinese ID
curiosity, it has an expression of anger, card.
distance and aggression. But, more innocently, They are poor and with no real perspective to
it could well be caused by fear; fear for the improve their situation. They are not even
unknown; for using a language they do not allowed to open a guesthouse. Han Chinese
master. Talking with them and using some rule like true colonists. By and for their people.
words of their language does in some cases do Signaling the local minorities to be peaceful
wonders. and patriotic Chinese on the one hand,
Gien and Asher don’t bother; they are looking suppressing and discriminating them on the
forward to each evening: watching the FIFA other. As the poster that flanked one of the
world cup; so far they missed all Dutch games. many military trucks patrolling through the
Kashgar streets teaches: 'we are all one
From here to the Pakistan border is only one family'.
day. So on south we went. Across a pass of
4200 m high, to the land of the Tajiks. With Kim, a local Tajik, brought us around and got
only about 40 thousand left, they are mostly us to a night performance of Tajik dances.
very poor sheep and cow farmers. They look Reason for the event was a visiting VIP –yes,
like as if walked out of the British ‘James Han Chinese. In the pre-Mao time we would
Herriot’ series of the ’70-‘80‘s; as if we went probably call them warlords or Mandarins.
back to Wales. They are taller, features are
soft but skin is weathered and rough, eyes are After returning to Kashgar once more, we went
more round and light colored; brown, green, east this time, following the southern Silk
blue, just name a color. But their nose; their Route to Hotan. Fast moving pillars of sand
nose is huge; sharp and bend like an eagle’s towering high above the desert surrounded us
beak. If they speak English it is without the on this sandy road. Impressive sandy columns
typical Chinese accent, in fact, it could well be dancing on the heat rhythm and sometimes
the highest level of civilized English: British. crossing the road.o Such miraculous beauties
When they go to a bigger town, which of the desert. (Continue pg. 48)
We were equally surprised and impressed by Needless to say, we were happy to have 5
the large number of wild streaming mud rivers. good tyres again. And thus we thanked God for
Some of which crossing the road or sometimes bringing us safely to Hotan, where even de
even ripping the road away, forcing us to cross donkeys have to cover their legs.
the river at any shallow part we can find.
Which you never now until you are there. We Hotan, an even more than Kashgar
won't be the first to get stuck. Quite a story: remote center of Uyghur troublemakers. Not
stuck in a river in the middle of a desert. But quite the place to find rest and quietness after
we made it each time. Moving along on the our little desert adventure, but so be it. Here,
never ending desolate desert road we felt quite the Han Chinese are scared. Asking how many
invincible and, though tired, in high spirits. Hans live in Hotan, they answer quick: not
Bach, Vanessa Mae and Sting blasting through enough. Asking the way to the animal market,
the desert. Until our back tyre popped. we are warned not to go: too dangerous. We
Stranded. 100 km into the desert and several never found the market, because the Uyghur
100 still to go before the next town. Forced to here cannot or will not speak Chinese. They
get out of the car, the heat slash-hammered stare with much suspicion before turning away.
us. Whirlwinds blew sand in our eyes wherever The town has a very poor appearance, it has
we looked. No car had passed us for as far as never been able to live up to the glorious Silk
we could remember. Suddenly, the desert lost route days, despite that it has been the center
its beauty and we lost our high spirit. It took of Jade trade for over 7000 years. It is dirty
1/2 hour and lots of sand-biting to change the and quite a mess. And everyone is dealing
tyre. No more spare, many more unspoken here. Some in the open, some secretively.
worries. On we went. Driving much slower, Hiding their ware in their inside jacket pockets
praying much harder. (Continue pg. 53)
In Hotan we found a Han Chinese helpful to
get us the right size tyre after finding out that
no shop seemed to have what we needed. It
took quite some effort, but then, he made a
lot of money out of us that day.
The Karakoram Highway, the major connection between China and Pakistan.
or in the trunk of their car or simply spreading pals further away from civilization and deeper
it out on the sidewalk. Buyers and sellers make into the desert. There we knew we will be
deals that involve hundreds, thousands or even stopped again, like it or not, and stripped of
ten thousands of yuan. The ware: jade, and the our belongings. Well, the 2nd group never
experts go for green jade. Traders are from all materialized. I guess we were lucky or the car
over China, Pakistan, India and now, Holland. was too cheap. But I may have just imagined
Having learned quickly, we found our own set it… I did keep my doors locked all the way!
of jade collection during our first toilet stop not
far outside of Hotan, near one of the last trees Soldiers. More soldiers and special forces
in the endless desert to come. Asher is marching in the street in the last village we
confident that it is top-notch quality and visited at the border with Sichuan. With leaving
expects to sell it well in Chengdu. Xining, where we watched Holland win against
Brazil with a large group of other Dutchmen,
In these fast and desolated areas with we left the desert behind us for good and
conflicting and very poor people groups, crawled into the Qinghai-Tibetan mountains,
imagination easily takes a hold of you. Stories back to Sichuan. And from Sichuan is where
of robbery, killings and political unrest on top the problem came. Lang Mu Si has 2 Tibetan
of the general feeling of not being welcomed monasteries. With 2 different lamas leading
strengthen these ideas. What if you’re stopped them. One is Sichuan Tibetans, the other
in the middle of nowhere? And so we were Gansu Tibetans. Last week, the Sichuan
stopped. They were dressed up as road workers Tibetan lama decided to mobilize followers
and 'busy' on the road just out of town. They from Sichuan and attack their Gansu
stopped us and asked a silly question, noting at counterparts. And on their way to that
the same time who and what’s inside and monastery they destroyed much of town. Not
estimating the value of the luggage. You will sure what happened with the warriors and their
stop because in Xinjiang, nearly every town, lama lord, but with soldiers now marching in 4
village and hamlet has a police checkpoint. by 6 's through the muddy streets and special
While we drove on and were wondering what riot police with large guns strolling along the
this was all about, they made a call to their (Continue pg. 61)
Tajiks; chinese citizen with big noses and blue eyes...
Tashkurgan town, along the Karakoram Highway.
roadsides trying hard to avoid the mud and rain world cup football (Americans: soccer) match.
pools, peace has somewhat returned to town. Holland didn't play well is their analysis and
The provincial government has paid a good Germany surely deserved to win.
amount to the local leaders to compensate
people for damages, but most of that money is Just around the corner is a small restaurant we
not expected to ever arrive. frequent now. Not because it is good but
because the story. My impatience helped us
Hostels in these areas are anywhere between discovered it. We’d settled in another
‘great’ and ‘disgusting’. The hostel we had restaurant recommended to us by many and
hoped to stay was destroyed last week and the we weren’t sitting there alone. After ages living
one remaining seems to house more on rice, packed noodles and water we graved
cockroaches than humans. Hostels are an for some good old solid western food. So we
upcoming thing here in China, but the audience placed our order but all that arrived after 10
is somewhat different from the traveling minutes was my beer and the notification that
students in the West. Here, well-to-do urban half of our order was out of stock. We waited
Chinese love to be seen in hostels with the another 15 minutes and realized that, with
latest outdoor ware, fastest laptops and biggest some luck, the other half could be with us by
cameras. A new trend leading to a new tomorrow. We were tired and starving and I
promotion slogan for these hostels: "we're not feared for the well-being of my family so we
cheap; we're social"; which means that you got walked out and found an empty restaurant
to pay more for wooden beds and smelly serving some western food right near our hotel.
common use toilets and showers that don’t It really wasn't much more than a yak shed
work to be able to freely enjoy the smoke in with newspapers stuck on the mud wall and
the socializing areas. lose bricks on the floor. Five plates and four
We're in a local Chinese hotel with equally cups. No running water. But Xiao Tian is
smelling toilets but at least with good beds. cheerful, optimistic and determined to make it
The kids are especially happy with one of the work. The soldiers that occupy the opposite
two tv's actually working because they would hotel (they’ve taken over most of the town’s
murder me if I cause them to miss a FIFA good hotels) often drop in (Continue pg. 62)
for a cup of coffee. They respect her as their far- After that it took us 15 hours to get back to
from-home mum. She makes the boys ground the Chengdu. The sweepers returned, even on sandy
beans and brew the juice. They ﬁx her broken roads were the asphalt had been torn out for repair
heating plate and write Chinese phrases on the and somehow it made us feel at home again; safe,
wall. And thatʼs about all the support she gets in this without any unknowns.
town. Once stability has returned and these boys
are gone, loneliness will return too. Life is hard for This trip of 27 days and 9510km in 165 hours on
her here. the road gave us a view of the other side of China;
literally and ﬁguratively. The Silk Route opened a
She is from ʻoutsideʼ. A lone Christian lady amidst complete new world for us.
two rivaling factions of Tibetans and Hui muslims
and all have their own exclusive, very controlling A trip not to forget!
social network and pressure groups. Sheʼd been
visited by all of them. With the skills of a seasoned
diplomat, she has declined all help so not to be
seen as being part of one or the other group and
sucked into the generations old twists and distrust.
How can someone continue in a situation like this if
not for knowing that God knows.