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Photo Report: Crossing the Taklamakan Desert, Western China

Taklamakan Desert May 2014We are in China. I promise. (Click on any photo to enlarge)

This is Part 9 of my China 2014 Photo Report series, you can see all previous Reports here. We are now heading 840km North-East from Hotan to Kuqa, still in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in Western China. This leg of the trip is done by sleeper bus and the entire journey is spent crossing the Taklamakan Desert, the second largest sandy desert in the world after the Sahara! But first to get the right bus ticket. We are in a region where absolutely no one has any notion of English and a large majority of the population does not read Chinese script nor understands Mandarin, so my very sparse knowledge of the language is useless here. As such, what would be considered a mundane purchase can end up taking an entire morning! That’s adventure to you.

China Map up to TalklamakanThis is where it’s all happenin’! 

To add a bit of fun, the city I came from before Hotan (Kashgar) is alternatively called Kashi (pronounced “karsher”) while my destination (Kuqa) is pronounced “kootcher”. Seems different enough, but not in a chaotic bus station. So here I am comfortably installed in what I thought was a sleeper bus to Kuqa only to discover it was actually headed back to Kashgar where I came from… Negotiating my offloading from the bus, the reimbursement of my ticket and the purchase of a new ticket to the right destination involved so many nervous, borderline upset, people and so many attempts at making myself understood that it could genuinely fill an entire episode of The Amazing Race… Indeed even though we are in Uyghur land, the organisation remains rigorously Chinese and a bus with a missing *foreign* passenger at arrival in Kashgar would have put a lot of people in serious trouble. Tip: if all else fails, revert to drawings – universal language. All is well in the end…

Taklamakan Sleeper BusWelcome to the Hotan-Kuqa sleeper bus! (not)

…or so I thought. Only too happy to finally have secured a berth in the correct bus, I figured asking for a spot at the front so I could take pictures of the Desert Highway would push the counter lady over the edge. Surely someone can swap seats with me once inside the bus? Baaaaaad idea. Being the only foreigner in hundreds of km and speaking English automatically categorises me as an American, which in turn automatically categorises me – in this part of the world close to Afghanistan – as being here for the wrong reasons, whichever they are. So at the back of the bus I was, after being solidly told off by the bus driver for trying to sneak my way up…

Taklamakan road signSometimes Chinese script was not even bothered with.

All was not lost fortunately, and I will ask you dear readers to join me in thanking beautiful granny with baby for swapping her berth at the very front of the bus with mine so I could admire the view and share with you this Taklamakan Desert Photo Report. One last interesting event on the trip before I go on to the cars was the Chinese officer at the first check-point asking me twice whether I was ‘Taliban’. (must.shave.tonight.) Wait what? An American Taliban? I’m lost. The tension dropped significantly when the word spread inside the bus that I was French.

Suzuki Lingyang TaklamakanThat would be a looooong taxi ride…

So what cars are travelling across this brand new Desert Highway? The (disappointing?) news is that all cars do, which in turn means pretty much all Chinese vehicles can withstand long desert trips, including the fragile-looking Chana and Wuling minibus and mini pickups. The highway is in excellent shape and freed from any sandy incursion by heavy protections on each side of the road keeping the sand in place. This also means the sand dunes visible from the road are not as ‘pure’ as I wished… Second striking observation was the presence of huge, very new-looking tractors in most tiny villages we passed in the desert, clearly far from missing out on the region’s fast development.

Kia K3 TaklamakanKia K3 on the Hotan-Kuqa Highway, Taklamakan Desert – May 2014

Some of the cars spotted more than once on the crossing include the now traditional Hyundai Mistra, Wuling Hongguang, Kia K3, Great Wall Haval H5 and H6, Toyota Corolla, Skoda Octavia, Honda CR-V, old gen VW Santana (the latter two being the most frequent vehicles in the Taklamakan Desert), Hawtai Santa Fe, first gen Citroen Elysée, Suzuki SX4, Great Wall Voleex C30, Shanghai Englon SC7, both generations Nissan Tiida, Mitsubishi Pajero and Landwind X8. I also spotted my first Chery QQme of the trip, right in the middle of the desert! Next stop: Kuqa… Stay tuned!

This Post Has 5 Comments
  1. I have enjoyed all the China reports, a fascinating country, so many different peoples and landscapes. Cheers Matt.

  2. Is there a bed for the driver too when he is driving? 🙂 A bit scary, dont you think? Because it means the trip is very long…

    1. Hi Arthur – there are two drivers in each bus, when one drives, the other one rests on a berth in front of the bus – the berth I was trying to snap up! Ha.

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