Road Stories #41: Hitchhiking with Uyghurs, the Taklamakan Desert, pollution death clouds and…melons.

Wild camping in China - header

Hitchhiking with Uyghurs through scary pollution clouds

Leaving Urumqi we didn’t really know where we were going to spend the night. We had a host in Hami, a city nearly 600km away, so we doubted we would be able to get there in one day. We had an open attitude and decided to see what happens. After all it was summer, we were in China and we had our tent with us, so sleeping anywhere wasn’t really a problem.

Our first driver spoke some Russian, so in theory it should have been easy. However, having a language in common doesn’t always guarantee successful communication and in this case he had either misunderstood us or decided to follow his instinct, and rather than dropping us off where we had asked, he took us to a deserted road away from the motorway we were aiming at. There was a little police booth and probably because we were in Xinjiang Province where, as all Chinese people know, the ‘terrorists’ (read: Uyghurs) live, there was a luggage scanning machine which we were forced to put our bags through.

Read more: Who are the Uyghurs and why are Chinese people scared of them?

This all took a long while and by the time we met a good soul who took us back onto the motorway, it was already quite late. Back on the road, however, we were soon picked up by 3 young Uyghurs. As we had already learnt in Urumqi, Uyghurs are lovely and hospitable folk, and far from the way they’re portrayed by the government.

They drove us quite far and as we were approaching one of the towns on the way, a strange sight appeared before us. It looked like if it was heavily raining outside or as if there was a huge cloud of dust as the visibility had drastically dropped, but the window was open and I put my hand outside to feel what it was. It was neither dust, not rain. I felt nothing but the air flowing between my fingers, but still we were in the middle of a brownish cloud and we had to slow down quite a lot. It was a pollution cloud of a sort I had never seen before and it made me uneasy to think that with the speed we are polluting the planet, one day we would see everything around us through this horrible brownish filter. It’s scary but according to a new study as many as 4000 people die daily in China due to pollution (which makes 17% of all Chinese deaths)!

Hitchhiking on a Chinese motorway

First night in the Taklamakan Desert

When the guys dropped us off, we had some late lunch in a roadside eatery and continued our journey for two more lifts. First with a wealthy man who was some kind of a road inspector and finally with two guys who we managed to explain to that we were looking for a place to camp, so ideally somewhere with trees.

Hellooo, we are in a desert! So what kind of trees are we talking about?

They dropped us off in the outskirts of the smallest village we saw on the map in hope there would be some land to camp. We walked for a bit until we reached a row of houses where a group of people were sitting outside. We looked up the word ‘tent’ and tried to explain that we wanted to find a place to pitch it.

One of the old ladies seems to understand our broken Chinese and points to the paved ground, right in front of her shop. We shake our heads. ‘We can’t sleep in front of your shop’, we continue in English as our Chinese doesn’t stretch that far, ‘We need grass or sand’, and Jon walks up to the side of the road and uses his best pantomime moves to convey tapping a tent peg into the ground. She nods but still points to the paved floor in front of her shop.

We thank her and go on, in search of a better camping spot. 200m away we spot another line of houses with some dried bushes between them. There is a middle-aged woman cooking outside, so I approach her with my friendliest of smiles and try the same conversation as with the old lady. This woman, however, seems to be scared off by my foreign face, and starts to crab-crawl back into her house. There is a young teenage girl with her who seems bolder, so I take out a piece of paper and draw a little tent. ‘Zhàngpéng’, I say with my bad Chinese pronunciation and probably screwing up all the tones. She nods understandingly and points to the dusty ground in front of their house. I shake my head and offer another solution, pointing to the bushes which I had spotted before. By this point, the other woman had returned with  another middle-aged friend and they are staring at me mistrustfully. They shake their heads, say something and wave their arms in my direction as if trying to swat away a large fly. It is time to go away, I think to myself and we continue on.

Wild camping in ChinaThere is one more house to try. A man sitting in front of it is somehow linked to the old lady from the shop as she joins in as I speak to him. I point behind his house, hopeful that he would let us pitch our tent there, rather than in the middle of the pavement. He makes beckoning gestures and we follow him. Behind the house there is a large fenced-off pit and heaps of straw. This would be our place for the night.

As we are pitching the tent, more and more people come to watch us, curious but friendly. When we are done, a kid, who introduces himself as Scheisse, gives us a huge melon for dinner. We know we have been accepted by the community and we will be fine sleeping there tonight.

Eating melon for dinner, China

Another day across the desert and meeting an angel in white gloves

We wake up by the suffocating micro-climate of our sweat-box of a tent. Soaked in our own sweat, we gasp for air and crawl outside hoping for a breeze.

Helloooo, we are in a desert, remember?

We pack our tent and look for breakfast. In the local shop we find a good selection of pot noodles, but we have no hot water, so they’re not an option. We are in China, so of course no bread-based products in sight. We opt for brown boiled eggs and continue on.

Our first lift is with 3 older Uyghurs in a  pick-up truck. We drive for miles with nothing but brown sand and wind turbines around us. The turbines are well located as it is very windy, I’m guessing for most of the year. We are in a large vehicle and there are 5 of us inside but the driver is still having problems keeping the car straight and it is pushed by the frequent puffs of wind from one side to the other.

We are in Hami province now, famous for their melons, so every time we stop our drivers reach for one and equally divide it between all the travel companions. Melon for dinner, melon for lunch, as you do in Hami province.

At some point we reach a toll gate with some police in front checking the documents of every car that tries to pass. Our driver gets out of the car and approaches one of the coppers with a melon. They talk for 5 seconds and our driver is back in the car, but instead of going through the toll gate, he drives off the road onto the hill at the side of it. We both look at each other perplexed and looking for answers, but neither of us has any. We skirt round the toll gate and after we go past it, we are back on the road. Now we understand, the melon was a bribe to avoid paying the toll. Very smooth, Mr Driver.

They leave us on the windy hard shoulder and we continue hitching. Our saviour is an old Chinese man wearing white gloves. We have problems communicating with him, so we are unsure of his final destination, but he seems calm, so we are too.

Hami, ChinaAfter a couple of hours of speedy driving through the desert, we reach an oasis and come off the motorway. We are a bit alert, ‘It surely cannot be Hami yet’. We try to explain to the driver where we wanted to go and show him a row of Chinese characters, our host had sent us, that were meant to represent our destination. He nods but still continues to drive in the same direction. We realise we must be in Hami and the town seems very pleasant, not at all like what you’d expect a desert city should look like. Wide boulevards, clean pavements and lots of flowers and trees everywhere.

The car stops in front of a luxurious hotel. Before we know it, our driver jumps out and directs his fast strides inside. We realise he’s decided to pay for our accommodation. We look up the word ‘friend’ and chase him into the posh lobby. Confusion is over, he finally understands we know someone in town and he calls our host for us. What a guy! Despite the fact we couldn’t communicate throughout the whole journey, he showed so much care and took it as point of honour to treat us as his guests. This is the beginning of Chinese hospitality, something we hadn’t expected and were very pleasantly surprised to discover…

With our Chinese driver, Hami, China

written by: Ania


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