Leaving Ge’ermu at dawn, we resumed our journey westward, accompanied on the road only by towering trucks maneuvering themselves slowly toward mining operations on the Chaidamu (Qaidam) salt flats; there were barely any passenger vehicles. At some point, we crossed one of the major salt lakes, Chaerhan salt lake, on a 32 km land bridge built on top of it.
Surrounded by a vast and barren landscape studded with sculpted sandstone mounts known as the Yadan landform, the road in front of us looked dismal and yet entrancing in an overcast morning. A few hours on, the sky cleared and the sands radiated in warm beige under the midday sun as shadows of the clouds moved across the land. Just when I was enthralled by the scenery, salt lakes suddenly appeared in between the undulating hills, adding a burst of shimmering turquoise to the landscape. Magical.
The desiccated soil cracked under my feet as I approached the lakeshore lined with white salt crusts. The water felt cool and refreshing in the dry heat. We spent an hour climbing the hills around the lakes. For the first time on the trip, I had the feeling of being in utter wilderness and there was something spellbinding about it.
Later that afternoon, we entered Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the province of our final destination, but it would take us another 3 days to travel across it. Since this was my third time in Xinjiang, it felt like coming back to a second home. Due to a history of ethnic riots and conflicts, the government has tightened security on the road by installing checkpoints at the borders between prefectures. There are barricades at these checkpoints and every vehicle is pulled over where a security officer goes through the contents of the vehicle and checks the passengers’ identification documents. This is obviously no laughing matter as we were asked if we had carried in the vehicle guns and grenades. We were also told we were not supposed to carry fire extinguishers and the gas can with backup gasoline.
There was a final barricade before we reached our pitstop, Ruoqiang 若羌. The Altyn-Tagh stood tall and mighty in front of us. Another few hours on the windy roads through its rugged and rocky peaks and a continual descent of 56 km, we arrived at another endorheic basin, the Tarim Basin, home to the Taklamakhan Desert and ancient oases that once fostered settlements with rich material cultures. We stopped by the ancient city of Milan 米蘭, dated to the Eastern Han and Tang Dynasties (2nd – 10th centuries CE). The city is situated in the southeastern corner of the basin, covering an area of 46.5 km2. In the hue of the evening sun, which was setting at around 9pm, the weathered ruins of the city walls and Buddhist stupas mirrored the natural landforms on the Qaidam Basin. After 17 adventurous hours on the road, the lingering heat of the night in Ruoqiang reminded us that the Taklamakhan desert awaited us the next day.