University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Journey across China. Days 7 and 8 – Into a hidden paradise

July 9, 2013

I was excited to see the Taklamakhan Desert again after I traveled across it by bus two years ago on the western route that runs through the heart of the desert. There are two roads that cut north-south through the desert. This time, we took the eastern route that passes through the lower reaches of the Tarim River. Compared to the environment along the western route, this area looks more green and lush. Poplar trees flank the banks of the river and low shrubs grow on the sand dunes on either side of the road. Occasionally, gusts of hot wind would blow from the interior of the desert.

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After a scorching afternoon in Ku’erle 庫爾勒 where we made further preparations for our fieldwork, the rain brought cooler temperature to the next leg of our journey. We proceeded northwestward toward the Tian Shan mountain range. We came across heavy fog at 3000 m when we were driving across the mountain pass and had to reduce speed to virtually walking pace as the roads became increasingly windy approaching the summit. The slopes were scattered with patches of winter snow, and the temperature had dropped to 3˚C (37.4˚F).  The best part of this route (on which I had traveled two years ago) comes after one makes it to the top of the saddle pass. The heavy fog disperses and one begins to catch glimpses of the lush greenery of the Narat (Nalati) Grasslands. The hills below are overlaid with a velvet carpet and rows of fir trees line the hill tops that fall away to stretches of green pastures decked with wild flowers and animals. Seeing this sight for the first time, my companions gushed in amazement.

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Along the Kunes (Gongnaisi) River in the valley are yurts of the local Kazakhs who adopt a transhumant lifestyle. We encountered a few families who had just uploaded all their belongings onto their camels in order to move from their winter encampments to their summer encampments, this occurs between May and June each year. The people I met here last time were just as delightful as the scenery. I revisited their home in a traditional Kazakh yurt where they treated us to their homemade bread, butter, milk tea, cheese and an assortment of nuts. I am especially fond of the butter because its taste has the scent of the grassland. They also showed us three foals that were born less than a month ago, and offered one to be my namesake. It was a very special day to catch up with friends and rekindle with the charitable spirit of this beautiful place. I hope it would be spared from excessive touristic developments in the future.

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