On our 24-hour sleeper bus ride across the Middle Silk Road and the Taklamakan Desert, I saw lots of oilfields and derricks and I read hundreds of pages in the amazing Team of Rivals. We drank tea and ate laghmian, or Uighur pulled noodles, at a roadside stop once sundown came at 21:30 Beijing time, 19:30 Xinjiang time (this is done because Xinjiang is so far from Beijing, whose time zone is officially imposed on the entirety of the PRC). I got very fitful sleep thanks to the bad roads and discomfort.
I awoke in the morning while the bus crossed over the Aksu-Hotan Cross-Desert Highway. The Taklamakan Desert seemed like the beach without the ocean: sporadic but plentiful trees and shrubbery on low rolling dunes, a far cry from the massive Arrakis-dunes of Dunhuang. We disembarked in Hotan, a major point on the Southern Silk Road. We forced down a cheap Chinese lunch before trying to get a room at the the Yingbingguan hotel, but they said “no foreigners allowed.” So we went to their other branch, which tried to shoo us away with “we have no rooms, try the Yingbingguan.” I explained that we had already tried to get a room there. After the concierge called the Yingbingguan, she said “Okay, we have rooms.” It frequently happens this way. We took a nap to remedy the poor sleep we fought for on the not-so-sleeper bus.
Later that afternoon we visited the Hotan Cultural Museum which despite its poor translations includes two ancient well-preserved Indo-European mummies. Their shoes were interesting, not unlike the traditional shoes Uighurs wear today. The museum also boasted a spiffy wooden coffin with Buddhist and Chinese-language paintings on it. These were the people and artifacts who made Hotan an important Central Asian trading hub famous for its jade, the most highly prized form of the stone in China. It seems that Chinese demand for reliable access to Hotanese jade spurred the development of what we now know as the Silk Road.
That evening, Arnab and I had a misadventure trying to reach the Imam Asim Shrine when our driver went the wrong way down a sandy desert path and got the taxi stuck. It took over 30 minutes to help get him out, and a guy on a motorcycle came by to help. We sandwiched on the back of his whip and tossed about in the thick sand until we reached the blacktop, when we got back in the taxi and the driver took the correct, non-sandy road to the shrine. The mosque had a peaceful, quiet air about it. It is out of the way of the main town drag just inside the desert, and there are Tibetan-Mongolian influences in the burial mounds. That night we ate overpriced local food at the night market and watched some of a cultural performance in the square.
The bus to Yarkand did not leave until about nine the next evening, so we had plenty of time to see the Sunday Market. It was fascinating; one can find everything and everyone from around the area comes to see and sell. It is much bigger than Kashgar’s Sunday market, and we were the only foreigners there; we only saw two small clutches of Chinese tourists whilst perusing the market. It is held in a vast space which includes packed covered shopping arcades and several long avenues with three rows of goods. The only negative (major for me) is that in Xinjiang for some reason, raw meat and delicious pastries offered outdoors are absolutely swarmed with yellow jackets, and I have a phobia. How the butchers and sweets-sellers sit and butcher and sell these things all day long while surrounded by a cloud of wasps I will never understand. We got lost in the massive market for a couple of hours, and aside from the heat, the escape from the vespid plague most relieved me.
We spent the rest of the day eating a long Chinese lunch, the only kind of food readily available in daylight during Ramadan, and I read plenty in Team of Rivals. The bus took six hours to reach Yarkand at 3 AM and was super-uncomfortable, not least because the driver played loud Uighur KTV videos at the front where we sat.
All of my photos from Hotan can be found here.