Desert by Rickshaw
Through Western China
|By Antonio Graceffo
Desert, also called The Desert of Death, is located in China's
Province. It is the second largest desert on Earth. Scientists consider
it to be the most dangerous desert in the world. My plan was to travel
544 km, under my own power, along the famous Silk Road, from the oasis
town of Aksu to the oasis town of Kashgar.
began at the train station in Urumchi, the capitol of Xinjiang, where the
Uyghur, a Turkick people, who follow the religion of Islam, make up more
than 50% of the population.
men wear skull caps and a knife in a sheath on their belt. Women wear
headscarves, some were completely veiled. The sights, the sounds, the smells
of the street in the Uyghur capitol are remeniscen of anything but China.
It could just as easily have been the bizar at Marakesch, circa 1600.
salesman asked me, "What kind of rickshaw do you want?" I gave him
the one criteria I insisted upon. "Give me a red one." I also had
a choice between large and small. Since at this point I still wasn't sure
if I was just playing an elaborate practical joke, I bought the smallest
one they had, to save money. This way, if I got two miles out of town and
quit, I wouldn't be out so much cash. The problem with the small sized
rickshaw, however, was that it fit me like a clown car in the circus. It
was hilarious seeing this 200 LBS caucasian with a New York Yankees cap
trying to ride a tiny, three wheeled bicycle, with a barbie doll camper
in the back.
|An hour later
I had loaded up the rickshaw with food, water, and my gear. The whole hotel
staff came out to see me off, and to get a look at my crazy vehicle. They
were all laughing and smiling, but still suggested. "Wouldn't you be more
comfortable riding the bus?" They just didn't get it.
I made it about
three blocks, when I realised I didn't know how to get to Kashgar. So,
I rode back and asked directions. A truckdriver drew out a map on
the back of a coctail napkin, and off I went again.
I made it over
500 KM! The first day I rode for four hours. It was around eight o'clock,
and I needed to get out of the sun. But in the desert, there was no shade
even anything that cast a shadow. I found a power pole with a brick base.
The base was one meter wide by one and a half meters high. If I lay on
the ground, and curled up in a fetal position, the shadow just about covered
my body. I stayed like that till sundown. The sun doesn't set until about
11:00 PM in the desert. So, I had a long wait. I was eaten alive by mosquitos,
and spent a fitful night.
day, I got the hang of riding the bike, and rarely went off the embankments
or ran into cars. A construction crew invited me to their camp to eat lunch,
and take a nap.
I learned to
sleep in drainage tunnels under the highway or under the railroad. I ate
the food I brought from Aksu, dried sausage and Uyghur bread. Almost every
day I managed to buy water and one hot meal in a Uyghur village. Usually
the Uyghurs eat bread and goat meat or goat meat soup.
The most memorable
day was the sixth day. There was a twenty mile an hour head wind, which
lasted for five hours, and which pelted me with sand.
|The wind didn't
come in gusts. Instead it was one long, continuous force of hot air, blowing
mercilesly in my face and eyes, like walking into a hair dryer. It
was so strong I had to walk most of the way, dragging my rick shaw.
Unfortunately the big bike acted as a sail. When my grip weakened the bike
actually blew away from me. This was also the only day that I ran out of
I was panting
from exhaustion, which meant my mouth was open, and the hot, wind-born
sand was drying out my tongue. It was the closest to hell that I came.
After the sand storm Uyghur workers invited me for dinner, and to stay
the night at their camp.
workers played a duodar, a stringed instrument, and a drum. While
they sang, we danced and whirled out in the desert under a huge sky, where
the stars burned as bright as a reading light. It was magic, and definitely
the happiest moment of the trip.
The final 45
km to Kashgar were interminable. My bike began rattling apart. First
the carriage jumped off of the rear axle. Then the handlebars came loose,
and began rotating, like a radar antena. The final day was also the day
of the most intense sun I had seen during the whole trip. I actualy heard
the citoplasm in my brain boiling.
Far off to
the right, accross an expanse of about 1 km of barren desert, I thought
that I could see a huge, cool lake glistening in the sun. I wanted nothig
more than to, run over, and jump in. Assuming I was just halucinating,
I tried to ignor it. But, no matter how long I rode, this lake kept bekoning
to be one 1 km of straight line distance accross rolling sand dunes could
easily have been ten times that distance once I actually started walking.
That would mean the walk to the river would have taken hours. It would
have required at least a liters of water. And what if I was wrong?
What if there was no river there?
In the end
I took some advice from an old paisano. In the diaries of his travels,
Marco Polo had warned that all along the Silk Road the traveler would hear
voices and spirits bekoning him to abandon the path, and walk into the
desert. He would then loose his way, and die of thirst.
promise of swimming in a cool lake, probably full of ice cream, I twisted
my wayward handlebars back into position, more or less, and continued to
No one gave
me a parade or a medal when I got to Kashgar. The trip was over. But the
Journey continues. I remember my hero Dan Eldin whose biography is called.
"The Journey is the Destination." It's not about achievements or rewards.
It is about having an interestng life along the way. Next spring I plan
to be the first American to cross the interior of the desert from South
to North, with a camel.
If you would
like to contact Antonio
Index ~ China