April 23, 2009

Trans-Taklamaken Express

Many years ago, during one of my frequent daydreaming moments of If I could travel, where would I go?, I scribbled down the Taklamaken Desert, along with a few other places, on a small sheet of paper and tucked it away in the I’m probably never going to do this file. Staring at maps and contemplating history is more than a rainy day activity for me, and when I came across the description of the Taklamaken Desert as being such a harsh and inhospitable landscape that not even the weathered and hardened people of ancient times could penetrate it’s core, I immediately wanted to go.
I read that Takla Maken in Uyghur language means, “Go in and you will never come out.” History records that even on the edges, along the very outskirts of this desert, there was an extremely high mortality rate and plentiful amounts of human and animal bones have been found scattered about the old trading routes.
After traveling on the long road of my own history and circumstance, I remarkably found myself, years later, on the fringes of the mighty Taklamaken Desert. Usually the blending of technology with a plundering of the earth’s natural resources results in a negative, but this time, for me at least, the combination of the two meant that I would have the opportunity to travel right into the beating heart of this sandy Grim Reaper.
Oil was found in this desert, and in the 90’s, the petrol companies built a highway that sliced, from North to South, right through what was once nearly impossible terrain. And there I was, standing in the Korla bus station, purchasing a ticket for a 15-hour bus ride through what I once thought was a near impossible dream.
I excitedly boarded the stinky sleeper bus, which last saw a cleaning before the birth of Jesus, and soon became the object of local fascination. My plan was to get off the beaten tourist track by traveling the Silk Road, and as I tried to ungracefully twist my legs into my miniature, assigned overnight compartment as a full busload of eyes intently watched every itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny move I made, I realized I was in the process of successfully completing that goal.
My fantasy of traveling through the desert was in motion, but the reality of actually seeing it taking place was another matter all together. The bus left in the evening, and I had about an hour’s worth of light, just enough time to enter the highway and get a brief glimpse of her surface, before night covered the view. But even though I was rolling through in complete darkness, carried by a dirty sock on wheels, it did not matter. It did not matter because I was still there. I had once written down a far-flung travel fantasy on a small piece of paper, and though many mountains to climb in between, there I was actually living it.

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