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15.01.10 13:13 Age: 8 yrs

Taklamakan Part II: Riding in

By: Roger and Megan

Even our fire freezes over

Setting off into the desert didn't go all too smoothly.  As we've mentioned before, the highway itself is very new and not marked on any map we had available to us, so all information regarding the road and environment had to come via word-of-mouth from the locals.  The first group of people we asked had us heading back in the direction of Kashgar, and then the second group set us heading back east toward Charklik.  Seeing that we were having some difficulty, a kind motorcyclist escorted us to the turnoff at the east bank of the Dragon river, and pointed out on the road sign the "A-La-Er" (Alar) characters that would direct our path for the next 426 km.

The other concern we had for our desert crossing was seasonal wind direction, as even if the road was dead-flat, a constant headwind could set us back days, meaning serious underestimations for food and water supplies.  Back in Kyrgyzstan we'd researched on the internet but not surprisingly found no concrete answer for the middle of the Taklamakan on that new highway during winter.  Our friend in Kashgar had said that the wind was usually from the north in the western part of the desert (meaning a headwind for us), but wasn't sure whether that applied to winter as well as summer.  Back in Australia we'd attended an archaeology lecture that had informed us that the best time for excavations in the Taklamakan was December and January, due to the relative lack of wind and thus infrequent sandstorms (only two per month).  So even if the headwinds did eventuate, we were hopeful they'd at least be gentle on us.  The only other indication we had was from a cartoon map of Xinjiang that we'd seen in Hotan that depicted sanddunes running perpendicular to the highway in the west (meaning north-south or south-north winds), but parallel to the road on the old highway (meaning crosswinds), but we weren't sure whether to trust that for our planning.

When we finally escaped civilazation in the afternoon of Christmas Eve, we were relieved to have only a very slight tailwind accompanying us.  We were also thankful for the kilometre countdown markers, meaning that we weren't really as handicapped as we thought without our GPS or speedometer.  We only achieved about 20 km in that afternoon, but we were glad to be finally out there when we set up camp in the dunes that evening.

However, before we could retire into the tent for the night, we had an unexpected visitor.  A carload of men pulled up on the roadside and came over to chat.  Our first thought was that it was again the police, come to retrieve us from our non-Public Security Bureau-endorsed sleeping location.  Soon enough we got the message that he was not the police but instead a friendly Uyghur man who lived only 8 km away, who was concerned for our safety.  He invited us to come and stay at his house and he would call the PSB to register our stay there.  Even though it sounded like he was abreast of all formalities and perhaps could take us in legally, we didn't want to take even the slightest risk of being hauled back to Hotan again.  So we resisted his persistence and remained there camped in the dunes, sleeping out our first night in the Taklamakan.

Our Christmas day present was a good tailwind, however this also brought with it a sandstorm that resricted our visibility to about 200 m.  The wind blew the fine sand all over our faces and clothes and by the end of the day we were each glistening from the thin layer of silicon over everything.  We achieved a decent distance that day and set up camp a bit further from the road that night.  By only day 2, we were settling into our daily routine - when the sun is about 30 minutes from the horizon we look out for a flat section of hard sand leading off from the road, unload half the bags at the road, push the quike through the sand at least 10 metres, then Roger starts preparing food and water while Megan sets us the tent and mattresses.  

The next day we awoke in shock to a chilly headwind, which wasn't too strong, but heading into the desert it was getting colder by the kilometre.  Looking outside was extremely decepetive however, as it was fulltime sunshine and sand, no ice or snow or water in sight, just sunny beachside vistas.  On this day (Dec 26), we were wearing our goggles and balaclavas not for the sand but instead just to allow us to breathe in the face of the cold wind.  That night it was getting very cold, and we found that our blocks of water were turning to ice, rapidly.  The salted bags were still mostly liquid, but we could see that with the temperature gradually dropping as we went deeper into the desert, we'd have a battle on our hands to keep our water stocks liquid.  

One of the other problems we faced was of our misbehaving stoves.  It was only three days in that the trouble began.  The Whisperlite was first to fail, but we weren't too worried by that as we also had our super-trusty bombproof XGK.  But unfortunately, we were finding that this too wasn't functioning quite right and the heat would slowly fade til the point that the flame would just die.  The worst part about this was we found this out at night time when it was freezing, when we had no water left to drink and were hungry for dinner in the bitter cold. We managed to get one of the stoves working, only for it to die some 2 minutes later, fixing it took another 5 minutes, and then it relit and burnt for another 3 minutes before dieing.  This process went on and on for over an hour, burning for 2 or 3 minuutes, dying, taking 5 minutes to fix, and then burning and dying again.  In all it took about 3 hours to boil 4L of water.  In -25c temperatures a pot which has only been on the stove for 2 or 3 minutes quickly gets cold again, resulting in 3 steps foward, and 2 and a half steps backwards, making for a very inefficient boiling process.Even after some quick repairs and replacing of stove bits, the stove was still not functioning, the pump and the shaker jet and stove nozel were all clear, so i looked like a blockage in the hose, which we had no way of clearing.  We suspected that the reason behind all this was that the Chinese fuel we'd been using was very bad, but since we had no other option, we had to keep using it to the detriment of the stoves themselves.  It looked as though we'd just have to perservere with our 5 minute intervals of cooking, and we'd not be able to boil our noodles to cook them.  Unfortunately, wheat flour noodles just taste like wheat flour when they're rehydrated and not actually cooked.By the time our stoves had deteriorated to the point of being almost completely useless, our water problems had also escalated.  All our water bags had turned to ice blocks, so we had to rip open the bags and retrieve the water that way.  Our first attempt to break up the ice was with a saw (on our Leatherman), followed by hammering a big bolt into the iceblocks and bashing it sideways to try and split it, and finally just using a big rock to bash away at the iceblock. This proved to be the most successful, but our hands still suffered from the cold as a result. The full time freezing conditions meant that each morning and night we would bash away at our iceblocks, to melt, then we would heat up the water to put in our thermos' (5.5L in total). After this, whenever we wanted a drink, we would bash away at the iceblock again, and add it to the water in the thermos to melt, thus effectively turning our 5.5L into around 10L for the day.