June 7-9

Ride from Urumqi China

Kentucky Fried Chicken has been a favorite of the group. There are several who are addicted to the fried chicken, the potatoes and just hanging out at the place. Before leaving Urumqi, Dennis and I stopped in to get our grease/fat fix, and we were very amused at a large troop of school children who were being taught how to dance in the middle of the restaurant at 10:00 a.m. – that would be too much for me if I was just getting up and having my morning coffee, but they were cute as hell, and the waitresses were exceptional teachers. The restaurant looked quite similar to the U.S. version, but if there is a rare problem with salmonella in the U.S., I would think it would be epidemic in Urumqi. I ate gingerly with this in mind.

We drove through the mountains and into the desert to Turpan, an oasis on the edge of the west part of the Gobi Desert. While Urumqi was green, fertile and very hospitable, the road to Turpan was the opposite. We drove on an exquisite super highway (regrettably in convoy) through canyons chiseled and blasted from the rock on a road surface stolen from the ravines that cut through the mountain passes – ravines that undoubtedly support huge rain flow in the unusual times that it rains in the desert.

We drove through the largest wind turbine farm in Asia with hundreds of turbines, 85% of them operating and generating electricity from the hot desert winds blowing up into the cool mountains. The wind in this area is exceptionally strong. It has on one occasion blown a train off its tracks and further down the mountain in the desert, we saw an overturned truck that looked like it might have been a wind incident. We were lucky on the day we went through the wind farm – there were only moderate winds (perhaps 30 mph) and the driving conditions were not that bad. The economics of this wind farm project would be very interesting. It is built in a center having the lowest possible labor rate – 57 cents per hour – in an area with constant high winds. Although it is not particularly close to a big electric market, Urumqi is moderately close. The math for this project, I would think, would be able to work without the subsidies that are necessary in the U.S. and in other countries.

The Gobi Desert

The desert was like nothing I had seen before. The wind was blowing hard, perhaps 30 knots, but there was no sand. There was gravel with pieces ranging from pebble size to pieces perhaps 2-3 inches in diameter. It looked like some sort of alluvial basin where the sand had been stripped away by the wind. The temperature was approximately 100°, but seemed even warmer because the heat radiated up from the irregular surface of the gravel. However in and out of oases (where there are trees) the heat drops as much as 30°. Clearly part of this temperature drop is related to shade, but also from evaporating water from the leaves of the trees. It is dramatic how in some areas they are reclaiming the desert by planting trees.


Turpan is an oasis that has been around for thousands of years. The water comes from the nearby mountains. The flow in early June is constant. In the past there must have been underground springs that surfaced in Turpan to provide the life-giving water. These springs may still exist, but what we saw was a large lake created by a modern dam with sluices running from the lake down into Turpan. The guides made a big point about the way tunnels were dug to allow the mountain water to surface in the oasis and along the way creating wells from which water could be drawn.

The principle cash crop is grapes. There are thousands of acres of vineyards. It looked as though the majority of the product is sold as dried grapes. There were airy structures made of brick where the grapes were dried. The dried grapes are extremely sweet and delicious – if these were available in Cleveland, it would create an addiction.

In spite of the enormous number of grapes, there did not seem to be a significant wine industry that was indigenous to the region itself. With the two Yves, we tasted a few of the wines from the area, and though they were passable, they were not what they could be. Yves (Geneva) told us of a French company that invested in the region 10 years ago and recently left – I'm sure leaving all their technology behind.

Irrigation is critical in this region, and what impressed me the most, as it did further west in central Asia, is that the irrigation is quite crude. Flooding is common. There are numerous sluices moving off of canals that are controlled in some methodical way to ration the water, but the fields are flooded, and there are many places where you see salt deposits on low areas indicating that water is pooling, drying out and impacting fertility in these areas.

The Road across the Desert

The road connecting the rest of China with its northwest is elegant and shows an enormous commitment to do things right. It is as straight as an arrow - a divided highway with numerous vehicles traveling in both directions. There were occasional slow moving vehicles like three-wheel 100cc motorbikes traveling at less than 15 mph, very distracting on the highway that connects the most primitive part of China, the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, to the rest of China. This region comprises one-sixth of China's land mass, but has an absolutely unmistakable central Asian flavor. The people are Kazaks, Mongols and Uygurs – all come from nomads and herding people who have been genetically well mixed by invading armies, caravans and persuasive merchants and middlemen. There, of course, is an emerging strong Chinese stamp on the region, and a sense of hard feeling among Uygurs, but you are not left with a strong impression of the scent. The road connecting the area to China is a sign of China's enormous commitment to this region. This road has tens of thousands of people working on it. It is being elegantly constructed. There are thousands of pieces of heavy equipment and the road is lined with more equipment heading west – track loaders, rollers, dump trucks, track hoes, front end loaders, dump trucks, and all sorts of other road building equipment. The municipal buildings are exquisite. The government systems are working more efficiently; the government employees are in pressed uniforms with clean shirts and are efficient and courteous. This is all a far cry from the other central Asian republics. But in spite of all this progress and commitment, there is definitely a strong Chinese stamp. Chinese people are in control of the high visibility jobs (hotel clerks, tour guides, etc.), and the Uygurs are the hard working low level workers. We got up early one morning at 5:00 a.m. to drive on an excursion. As we were leaving Turpan the only people on the street were Uygurs, identified by a tight white hat worn by the men. These are hard working people who get up early in the morning, but they are gradually beginning to live in someone else's country.

The early morning trip to Aydingkol Lake was a true adventure. We drove in a convoy finally finding our way to the dirt road leading south. It was barely a road, and the wind was blowing at about 50 knots. If you left your motorcycle on the stand leaning the wrong direction, the wind blew the motorcycle over. There was not much carried sand because the gravel desert had little sand, but our clothes were caked with dust when we returned. The lake, of course, was dry, but it had rained the night before, and there was a dry cake with a little bit of moisture underneath – enough to make it slippery and precarious for a heavy motorcycle. The storm the night before was dramatic – very little rain, but much noise and lightning and high winds blowing through Turpan. This is definitely a hostile climate, and it takes tough people to live here.

The Second Lowest Place on Earth

The early morning trip, eluded to above, was to Aydingkol Lake, the second lowest spot in the world after the Dead Sea. We drove in a convoy finally finding a dirt road leading south. It was barely a road, and the wind was blowing at about 50 knots. This made driving in the sand and gravel particularly difficult. If you left your motorcycle on its stand leaning in the wrong direction, the wind would blow the motorcycle over. On the way we saw a large sign indicating that this area was part of a wild camel reserve. I'm sure there is some self-satisfied Californian who thinks he has given money to preserve wild camels. There is no wild camel stupid enough to live in this region. There isn't one stick of vegetation, and it could not be a worse environment.


With nearly three days to spend in this desert community, we had some time to explore. Mark, Dennis, Bill, Joe and I were touring the countryside when we came upon an old mosque in ruins with most of the ceiling missing. We squeezed through a small portal in a wall to get inside. To our surprise, we found a fresh human body covered with a bright red shroud surrounded by fresh roses. We supposed that this person would lie in state in the mosque ruins for a period of time and would then be buried – a rural and less expensive way to imitate our tradition of lying in a funeral home. There are several ways that people are buried in Turpan. One way is in circular mounds. It almost looks like they were planted into the ground rather than laid flat. Sometimes the circular mounds are covered with bricks. Another method is burial in elaborate mausoleums that look a little bit like mosques.

A second discovery was an oil drilling operation. Bill, a former Sohio/BP employee, and now the owner of his own petroleum company in Arkansas, explained how the drilling process worked. The drilling rig was quite modern and comparable to a U.S. rig with respect to safety. The men were friendly, and we snapped lots of pictures. They enjoyed being a "photo opportunity" for a group of infidels on motorcycles visiting their digs.

The Uygurs

We did not get the opportunity to inter-relate much with Uygurs. We had dinner with a Manchurian lady who is now a citizen of Canada and lives in Toronto with her South African husband. They were running a Land Rover tour much like our bike tour from Istanbul to Xian. She spent her early childhood in a labor camp. Her father was an intellectual, and a victim of the Cultural Revolution in China. She gave us some information about the Uygurs. Considering their Muslim heritage, they are jolly. They take their Muslim religion lightly. They drink wine often to excess (a Muslim prohibition). They enjoy family and life in general and are less serious than the Chinese (but they do get up earlier in the morning). Some of the reading material states that half the community is composed of Uygurs. I would say it is at least 80% with Chinese and Kazaks being the two minorities.

The Uygur women, as a rule, refuse to allow photographs. I don't know the reason why, but I assume that they are Sunni Muslims. When we were growing up in Turkey, the Shiite Muslims did not like to be photographed because they thought the photograph took away a part of their soul. Some Uygur women dress conservatively with long black dresses, heads covered – some do not. But there is no where near the style or provocative look in women's clothing that we saw in the former central Asian Soviet republics.

I particularly liked the Uygur lunch habits. Our excursion group ate twice at the same Uygur restaurant. The proprietors served whatever they had - there was not really an ordering process. You might point to what was lying around or what was on someone else's plate. They would bring it out. The patrons eat in a very leisurely fashion, and then lie down and fall asleep, usually not more than ½ hour. Sleeping in the restaurant would not help table turnover in the States, but it would certainly add a more healthful dessert to a nice meal.

It is apparently reasonably common for prominent wealthy Uygur men to have more than one wife, although they may not be called wives. The State recognizes the second and third wives; they have a status above concubines, but below the first wife. The Toronto Land Rover tour guide said that a fee (equivalent to a little more than $10,000) is paid to the state when each successive woman is taken. The fee is returned to the second or third wife in the event of the dissolution of the relationship. Our Chinese guide would not discuss these practices.

Without spending some serious time talking to Uygurs, it seems like the Chinese system is working well. The area is being developed with irrigation and roads, while maintaining the culture (I heard the call to prayer at 5:30 am). But clearly, there could be more participation in the broader economy among the Uygurs (like making their own wine from the grapes they grow).

Tomorrow we move on to Hami, a distance of about 250 miles across the Gobi Desert. It will be hot, and I am trying to convince everyone that they should have worn heavy black leathers (like mine) to keep cool in the desert!

Internet & Communication

It is incredibly difficult for someone who is not particularly Internet savvy to get "on" at some of these hotels. Rarely do the hotel people know how to do it, and there is the ongoing battle of interpreting hotel misinformation and then diagnosing the real problem. This blog is being sent after two hours of wrangling and trying to get connected. When I return home, my number one project will be to become more literate and to understand better how to use this valuable tool of communication successfully.

The same applies to telephones. The SAT phone system needs to be out in an open field – it doesn't work in the city. The particular cell phone system that I am using requires a call to a number and then sometimes they call you back with the connection, but not always. The volume control on my cell phone is not working. It can't be changed – it's a whisper, and often times the phone needs to be plugged to an outlet to get enough power to transmit. I will be much, much more careful next time.

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