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Report 35 +++ September 2006 +++ From Kashgar to Qarkilik

The Taklamakan desert in the far west of China, with 300.000 square metres it is the second biggest sandy desert in the world, and almost as big as Germany. The word "Taklamakan" comes from the "Uiguri" language and the meaning is "desert of death" or "place without return". The desert is surrounded by mountains which block the rain. Because it is far away from the ocean, the air is very dry. In the south is the Kunlun Shan, with mountains as high as 7000 metres. Many rivers rise here, but after some kilometres they run out of water and end in the sands of the desert. Just a few people live in these life giving rivers in fertile oases.

The northern border of the Kunlun mountain range, on the southern silk road was our route through the desert. We didn't like the sand, nor the desert, but there is no other way to Beijing. The crossing of the desert - some 1600km from west to east - took us 26 days by bicycle. But instead of the expected, exhausting torture, it was really an unforgettable, fascinating experience.

A little bit of luck and caution helps such a desert adventure not to end in catastrophe. One of the more frightening phenomena is the "Kara buran" - sand storm, which can last days or even weeks. It is told that in the sand of the storm whole caravans vanished and even cities. When one encounters such a storm, it can be impossible to move on the road, and in such a case it is very important to have enough water, otherwise your life can be in danger. Fortunately we were in an oasis, when such a storm began. But even under the protection of the trees, there was a lot of sand in the air, the sky got dark and the sun vanished totally. We thought about, how it would have been if we had been outside in the desert without protection. Even 3 days after the storm the days were darkened, because of the sand. During those days we spent a night in a hotel in a little oasis town, called Yutian and even after half a day there was a lot of sand on the furniture. People have to do a lot of cleaning at such times.

When we rode our bicycles in the desert we would take 15 litres of water with us so as to be able to sleep in the desert if necessary. The distance from one oasis to another can be up to 160km, and you cannot be sure to arrive at the next one in time. The heat during autumn is not a problem. The number one enemy is the front wind. For more than the half of our desert crossing we had good wind from behind. But then came the awful wind from the east and it didn't change it's direction for the remaining 600km. One day we had to fight against this strong wind for more than 50km to reach the next oasis. The wind became stronger and our progress became slower and slower. It was not possible to move faster than 10km/h. Lina got so much pain in her toes from blisters that she could hardly move. Despite Lina's pain, I laughed about it because blisters are usually only caused by hiking and trekking. For the last 30km she drove very close behind me in my wind shadow and it was easier for her to cycle. Fortunatly there is no wind in the desert in the night and because we couldn't rely on the wind changing it's direction, we got up at midnight for the next few days and started cycling at 2 o'clock. These nightly bicycle trips were very beautiful. The first nights we didn't even need our headlamps, because the moon was full and illuminated the well asphalted road perfectly. There was almost no traffic and no wind at all. There was no sound in this absolute silence, just the sound of our tires on the asphalt. In the morning came the light of the sun, the colour in the sky changed every minute, the darkness ot the night vanished and the burning ball of the sun ascended over the horizon exactly in the direction where we were headed. An unforgettable experience.    andreaslina@yahoo.de