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China: Taklamakan Desert Highway

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Taklamakan Desert Highway | China | Asia

[Visited: July 2010]

When I was preparing my visit to Xinjiang province, and started reading about the Taklamakan Desert, I became always more interested in crossing it instead of taking the easy way around it by train. The information I was using was still a few years old, and the crossing seemed uncertain and risky - just the kind of adventure I was looking for. Sandstorms causing sand dunes to cover the road, unbearably hot circumstances during the day, cold nights; it was advised to take an extra supply of food and water to survive long delays that could even last several days. With that image in mind, I inquired about the bus departure times from Hotan, using the new, second highway crossing the desert to Aksu.

Picture of Taklamakan Desert Highway (China): Sand dunes dotted with green plants in the Taklamakan Desert

It was not easy to obtain the information, but after some difficulties I was finally holding a ticket for an afternoon departure the next day - as it turned out, there were even two buses a day for the long drive. The sleeper bus departed a little after 4pm Beijing Time (2pm local time), and I noticed that, while Hotan is an almost purely Uyghur city, the bus was full of Han Chinese. Most of them were shouting into their cell phones, while the bus was driving through the streets of Hotan on the way to the highway, and I thought this would be over as soon as we would enter the largest desert of China. Quickly after leaving the city behind, I saw the first sand dunes, and the landscape was becoming always drier, sandier, and emptier. Even so, there were still green plants dotted all over the sand dunes I saw, giving the desert a fresh touch. I noticed that the shoulders of the highway were covered by mats, holding the sand in place. For some time, I was lying on my bed in the sleeper bus, with the window open, enjoying the view of the ever changing shapes of the sand dunes right next to me. I was lying on the right hand side of the bus, and the sun was going down on the left, so I decided to get close to the driver where I was able to see the landscape on all sides. It was a good decision: I was allowed to sit right next to the driver, which gave me the best view of the Hotan-Aksu desert highway, and the Taklamakan Desert, of the bus.

Picture of Taklamakan Desert Highway (China): Straight highway running through the Taklamakan Desert

Here, I got an even better idea of the highway, and I have to admit, it was impressive. Not only is the highway itself of outstanding quality, there are regular places to rest, there are signs warning of small ponds where animals can drink - even though I never saw an animal actually use them, and there are even transceiver stations at regular intervals. They explained how the passengers could continue talking in their phones, and indeed, I myself was able to send text messages throughout the entire desert crossing. The shoulders of the highway were well protected on both sides, and the sand dunes on both sides seemed well protected against marching over the highway. The sun was getting lower, and the light on the sand dunes on the left, western side, was becoming always warmer. I was amazed at how many sand dunes were still partly covered by resistant plants. After driving through the Taklamakan Desert for some six hours, with the drivers regularly changing seats, we were reaching the other side of this second largest sand desert of the planet - it was also the moment the sun really set and we drove into the night. After a very late dinner, past midnight, we drove through the night and would not arrive in our final destination, Turpan, the next afternoon, after a delay because of some technical problems. Overall, the crossing of the Taklamakan Desert, using the Hotan-Aksu highway, had been much less adventurous than I imagined.

Picture of Taklamakan Desert Highway (China): Elegant curves of the sand dunes in the Taklamakan Desert
Picture of Taklamakan Desert Highway (China): Horizon of sand dunes in the Taklamakan Desert
Picture of Taklamakan Desert Highway (China): Plants giving a green touch to the Taklamakan Desert sand dunes
Picture of Taklamakan Desert Highway (China): Landscape of the Taklamakan Desert
Picture of Taklamakan Desert Highway (China): Sand dunes everywhere in the Taklamakan Desert
Picture of Taklamakan Desert Highway (China): Passengers in the sleeper bus through the Taklamakan Desert
Picture of Taklamakan Desert Highway (China): Driving the sleeper bus through the Taklamakan Desert
Picture of Taklamakan Desert Highway (China): Road through a rocky part of the Taklamakan Desert
Picture of Taklamakan Desert Highway (China): Sleeper bus at the northern side of the Taklamakan Desert Highway

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