The Road by Rickshaw
Traveling through China’s
By Antonio Graceffo
Biking through one
of China's largest deserts by rickshaw is not
easy, but it's an excellent way to see this
remote region of the world.
Here in the Taklamakan
Desert - a place known for wide-open spaces and violent sand
storms – life is not taken for granted. The region lies in
China’s northwestern-most province of Xinjiang, which is on
the Pakistan border, not far from Tibet. Xinjiang was an
independent country called East Turkistan until it was
annexed by China after the World War II.
This desolate “Sea of Death”, where the rolling yellow dunes
look like giant waves of a petrified ocean extending into
the horizon, is considered to be one of the most hostile
wastelands in the world.
And it’s this desert that has drawn my interest. My plan is
to travel 544 km, under my own power, along the famous Silk
Road from the oasis town of Aksu to the town of Kashgar.
It’s sure to be an adventure.
Beginning the Journey
All of my China adventures start and end in Hong Kong, where
I keep an apartment just for this purpose. The Taklamakan
Desert and Xinjiang, in general, is so remote that it is
nearly impossible to reach. The first Westerner to even see
this desert was Swedish Geographer Sven Hedin in 1928.
But when I contact travel agents in Hong Kong, even they
have no idea how to get to the Taklamakan Desert. The best I
can do is fly to Xian, in Northern China, home of the Museum
of Qin Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses. These life-size
figures from the Qin Dynastry 211-206 BC were the most
significant archeological excavations of the 20th century.
From Xian, I end up taking a 36-hour, standing room only
train ride to Urumuchi, the capitol of Xinjiang.
Comfortable dress is the
same the world over. This woman could just as
easily by my Aunt Congetina back in Sicily.
The Uygur, a Turkic people
who are followers of Islam, make up more than 50 percent of
the population here. Many Uygur men wear skullcaps and a
knife in a sheath on their belt. Women wear headscarves, and
some are completely veiled. The sights, the sounds and the
smells of the street in the Uygur capitol are reminiscent of
anything but China. This could just as easily be a bazaar at
Marrakech, circa 1600.
Xinjiang is immense, and distances run into the thousands of
kilometers. Most of the province is covered by uninhabited
desert, and Urumuchi is a medium size city at best. The next
largest city is Aksu, which is where I decide to start my
journey. It’s really not much of a choice, for after Aksu,
all of the cities are little more than oasis towns, left
over from the days of the Silk Road caravans.
Yet in Urumuchi, it’s almost impossible to buy a ticket to
Aksu. The train station is chaotic. Almost no one speaks
Chinese, except the railroad employees, and they won't be
bothered to sell a train ticket. They seem too busy ignoring
the Uygur workers who are trying to get home. In the end, I
pay a bribe, and am rewarded with a sleeper car for the
28-hour ride to Aksu.
In Aksu, I have to choose my mode of transportation, and the
choice is an easy one. "What kind of rickshaw do you want?"
the salesman asks.
I give him the one criterion I insist upon: "Give me a red
one." I also have a choice between large and small. Since at
this point I’m still not sure if I am just playing an
elaborate practical joke, I buy the smallest rickshaw they
have, to save money. This way, if I get two miles out of
town and quit, I won’t be out so much cash.
The problem with the small sized rickshaw, however, is that
it fits me like a clown car in the circus. Those who watch
me take it for a spin must think it hilarious to see a
200-pound Caucasian with a New York Yankees cap trying to
ride a tiny, three-wheeled bicycle with a Barbie doll camper
(the cargo department) in the back.
My trusty rickshaw
got me through the desert. I
learned to sleep in drainage tunnels along the
highway to escape the sun.
Still, I like the feel of
it. Having decided on my mode of transport, I load up my new
vehicle with food, water and my gear. The whole hotel staff
where I have been staying comes out to see me off, and to
get a look at my crazy vehicle. They are laughing and
smiling, but still suggest: "Wouldn't you be more
comfortable riding the bus?" I shake my head, and off I go.
I make it about three blocks before I realize that I don’t
know how to get to Kashgar. So, I ride back and ask for
directions. A truck driver draws out a map on the back of a
cocktail napkin, and off I go again.
In Xinjiang, communication is always difficult, even though
I am fluent in Mandarin. The Uygur people speak a Turkic
language, related to Turkish or the language of
Turkmenistan. Many of them either won't or can't speak
Chinese. Worse, with my dark complexion, dark hair and three
days of beard, they all assume I am Uygur, and can't
understand why I am speaking Chinese to them.
The people here almost never see foreigners. In the Uygur
mind, there are only two kinds of people, Chinese and Uygur.
The thought that any other race exists seems alien to them.
Every step of the way, I keep wondering just how non-Chinese
speaking foreigners would get along here. It would
definitely be a challenge.
Other than the communication problem, I find the Uygur
people extremely hospitable, if not a little curious. The
road is well paved and in good condition. Once I get away
from Aksu, there is little traffic except for People's
Liberation Army convoys.
Occasionally, other Uygur come riding by on three-wheeled
bicycles like mine, or driving horse-drawn carriages. During
my whole trip I only see one other cyclist. He has ridden
his bicycle all the way from Switzerland, and has already
been on the road 13 months, planning to cycle through
Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand before going home.
Whenever I stopped
in an oasis to buy water and
eat a hot meal of mutton and Uygur bread, people
came out to meet me.
In almost every village I
stop in, the whole town comes out to get a look at me on my
bike. They ask me to take photos of them. In one town, the
entire village lines up and I take a picture of every single
man, woman and child individually. They ask me to mail them
copies of the photos. I say that I will, if they will give
me their address. Unfortunately, they don’t know their
addresses, so I peddle on.
The reason I chose the San Lung Che, or three-wheeled
bicycle, was because it has a convenient cargo compartment
in the back where I keep my provisions. Since most villages
are less than a day's ride apart, I manage to buy water and
a hot meal almost every day. Villages are small, usually
consisting of two or three restaurants, a shop or two and a
truck repair garage.
Usually the Uygur eat bread and goat meat or goat meat soup.
I only carry a little food, enough dried sausages and bread
to last three or four days, but I always carry a full crate
of water. On average, I drink nine liters of water a day.
Each time I come to a village, I drink my fill, and then
refill my water supply on my bike.
The main danger in desert riding is that water is very heavy
and slows your progress. The longer it takes you to get from
point A to point B, the more water you will need to carry.
But, then your load will be heavier, and it will take
longer. The point is you have to be careful, but not crazy.
Depending upon the season, there is the chance of sand
storms here, and there is always the chance of injury or
illness. Either of these eventualities could cause delay,
depleting your water supply. It’s something I have to watch
Continuing Along the Path
I’ve left Aksu far behind me, and have made good progress.
But there are many times during the ride when I have to get
out of the sun. But in the desert, there is no shade at all.
There isn't even anything that casts a shadow. One time,
needing a break, I find a power pole with a brick base. The
base is one meter wide by one and a half meter high. If I
lie on the ground and curl up in a fetal position, the
shadow just about covers my body. I stay like this till
sundown. The sun doesn't set until about 11 p.m. this time
of year. Dusk lasts for several hours, and I am eaten alive
by mosquitoes before spending a fitful night.
Another day, a construction crew invites me to their camp to
eat lunch and take a nap. I’ve learned to sleep in drainage
tunnels under the highway or under the railroad. It’s not a
bad place to catch a nap.
The most memorable day of my journey is the sixth day. There
is a 20-mile-an-hour head wind, which lasts for five hours
and pelts me with sand. The wind doesn’t come in gusts.
Instead, it is one long, continuous force of hot air,
blowing mercilessly in my face and eyes, like walking into a
hair dryer. It is so strong I have to walk most of the way,
dragging my rickshaw. Unfortunately the big bike acts as a
sail. When my grip weakens, the bike actually blows away
from me. This is the only day that I run out of water. I am
panting from exhaustion, which means my mouth is open, and
the hot, wind-born sand is drying out my tongue. I imagine
this is what hell feels like.
Uyghur workers invited me
to sleep in their camp.
That night, they played their stringed
the duodar, and we danced.
After the sand storm, Uygur
workers invite me for dinner and to stay the night at their
camp. They play a duodar (a stringed instrument) and a drum.
While they sing, we dance and whirl out in the desert under
a huge sky where the stars burn as bright as a reading
light. It is like magic, and definitely the happiest moment
of the trip.
I finally reach Atuchi, one of the larger oasis, located
less than 50 kilometers from Kashgar. There is a tremendous
amount of military transport going through this region, as
well as trade and long distance trucking from Pakistan. The
same oasis that provided Marco Polo with rest and food a
thousand years ago is servicing the truckers who pass
through the region today.
Atuchi is ugly, but it has a hotel, a public bath and a few
restaurants. There is even an Internet cafe where you can
listen to Taiwanese Pop music being sung in Turkic
languages. It is here at the café where I catch up on my
The Journey’s End
The final stretch from Atuchi to Kashgar seems interminable.
My bike begins rattling apart. First the carriage jumps off
of the rear axle. Then the handlebars come loose and begin
rotating like a radar antenna. This last day is also the day
of the most intense sun I have seen during the whole trip. I
actually hear the cytoplasm in my brain boiling.
Far off to the right, across an expanse of about one km of
barren desert, I think I can see a huge, cool lake
glistening in the sun. I want nothing more than to run over
and jump in. I assume that I’m hallucinating, so I try to
ignore it, but no matter how long I ride, this lake keeps
beckoning me. But what if this is just a mirage? What if my
mind is playing tricks?
The Uygur people
are extremely hospitable. One of the gifts in
travel is getting to see a different way of
In the end, I take some
advice from Marco Polo. In his travel diaries, Marco Polo
warned that all along the Silk Road the traveler would hear
voices and spirits beckoning him to abandon the path and
walk into the desert. He would then lose his way and die of
thirst. Rejecting the promise of swimming in cool waters,
probably full of ice cream, I twist my wayward handlebars
back into position and continue to Kashgar.
No one gives me a parade or a medal when I reach Kashgar.
The trip is finally over. However, the journey continues.
It's not about achievements or rewards, I’ve found. Instead,
it’s about having an interesting life along the way.
The journey is the real destination.