With Jiayuguan’s western gate behind him, Mensy left China for Xinjiang, the “New Territories” of Chinese Turkestan, whose desolate, sand-blurred vistas stretched thousands of kilometres west across two vast desert basins to the borders with Russia and Central Asia. His party marched onto the almost featureless plain, where bitter winds cut through everyone’s clothing (except for the carters, who had wrapped up in sheepskins), the route ahead marked by stone cairns. Mesny’s final destination was Hami, the journey an eighteen-day endurance test of waterless salt pans, whirlwinds, mirages, lonely garrison posts half-buried in drifting sand dunes, and a slew of miserable, unheated inns.
Ten in the morning, Jiayuguan bus station. “All aboard the 11am to Hami” screamed out an hour early over the speakers, rescuing me from a crowd of fascinated, staring rubbernecks in the departure hall. Out by the bus doors, a crowd of male passengers were chain-smoking desperately, some lighting up two at once. The driver was not sympathetic: “If you need a smoke or a piss go now; we’re not stopping for four hours”.
Then we were off down a four-lane highway, scudding past the fort and out over a pancake of yellow gravel. Pylons and wires were strung all over the plain, vanishing into the horizon; there was no sign of the old marker cairns. A badly-hidden speed trap on the roadside, visible long before the driver’s radar alarm went off, was manned by two miserable looking policemen. After a while Yumen popped up, an oil boom town whose fields were tapped from the 1930s until they dried up in 2000. Now Yumen was empty and its drilling rigs had been replaced by a forest of wind turbines, blades motionless despite the howling, abrasive wind. The ruins of an eighteenth-century mud-brick fortress emerged close to the highway, half swallowed by sand – perhaps Yumen will look like this one day – then the first real dunes appeared, held back from the road by high baffles. We overtook a small truck with a rotating disc of brooms on back, pointlessly sweeping the bitumen clean of drifting sand.
On we drove. Black hills appeared on the horizon, a worn volcanic ridge marking the modern border between Gansu and Xinjiang provinces. We were all turfed off the bus and made to show papers at a police post. The women passengers raced each other to the single toilet, a shed in the wilderness, pulling up their layers as they ran. With nowhere to hide, us men just had to unzip in the open, trying not to look at each other. The weather had become overcast and very cold; back on board the bus we immediately ran into a blizzard.
How to deal with these long journeys of forced immobility, staring out of a window into nothing? Just accept that you’re writing off a day, and slip into zen emptiness. At times like this, it’s a sad fact that travel can be numbingly dull. There’s no sense of striving towards worthy goal; any notions of purpose and drama tend to be added later when notes have been sorted through and it becomes clear which experiences led somewhere and which were dead ends – the times when you were, in fact, simply spending a long time in discomfort for no good reason.
And so the bus ploughed on into the storm, drifts piling up across the highway, very deep. We skidded suddenly, sliding around for long seconds before the driver regained control. Wrecks of several cars, some still with their lights on and wheels revving, lay half-buried in snow on the hard shoulder. A silhouette appeared ahead of a lorry slewed across the highway, completely blocking it. We pulled up. By the time things had been sorted out, only one lane remained open and a 10km-long tailback stretched in each direction as drivers tried to squeeze past each other (nobody gives way in China); we had to wait hours for a break in the crawl of oncoming traffic to force a way forwards. Hami was reached at 3am, after eighteen hours on the road.