Friday, October 12, 2012

Along the Northern Silk Route

Today is spent entirely on a train. A 26-hour journey from Urumqi to Kashgar, skirting the Taklamakan Desert along the Northern Silk Route. Trade has flowed east-west and west-east for well over 2,000 years along this and its sister route to the south.
We travel first class, which is far from sumptuous but is perfectly comfortable, in 4-berth cabins with a narrow corridor down one side. We are the only westerners on board. At first the train travels south-east to Turpan, an oasis in a depression - the lowest (and hottest) point in China - 154m below sea level - and the third lowest in the world. Surrounded by mountains, this seems absurd. The train then backtracks and heads south-west through the tail of the Tian Shan range.
The landscape is utterly austere. Not the classic desert of sanddunes, but a cross-between Marlborough-Man Utah and Mars on a sunny day. The railway line was only completed in, I think 1999. It is a thing of marvel: there are viaducts, tunnels, culverts to allow once-in-a-blue-moon flashfloods to pass safely under the tracks, and elaborate schemes to tame the desert with grass and bush. Early on we pass what we are told is Asia’s biggest wind farm. There is barely any habitation but at the same time the landscape is littered with the remnants of it. They look liker archeological digs but it’s impossible to tell whether they’re 1,000, 100 or 10 years old.
Occasionally we pass a marooned industrial complex – a mine or chemical works, who knows. And it is easy to fantasize a nuclear test centre or space programme complex lurking behind a ridge, hidden to all except a passing satellite, and from which Sean Connery makes a hasty exit in his Diamonds Are Forever moon buggy.
We chat about music, read, snooze, snack on raisins, take photos of the monotonous but fascinating topography. We eat in the restaurant car served by a foxy Uyghur waitress whom we’ve all taken a shine to – but she’s tough as nails. And in the end, halfway through the journey, we sleep, surprisingly well.

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