Right. Monday morning! It’s still dark though the full moon illuminates the street as I load up the Land Cruiser. Things get going slowly in Xinjiang and there’s still no one around so it’s a quiet start to the first leg of the South Silk Road. That is, a merry little eight hour trip to the last major city in Xinjiang. Well that’s what it says on Maps.me though judging on its track record, I doubt it immensely.
The beautiful morning does nothing to ease my anxiety. I slept like crap and am currently driving on a tank of adrenaline. There is a police check point immediately out of town then infuriatingly a second. This one’s a diversion though and the officer says the expressway is closed. Great start! Everything slows you down out here that’s for sure.
It’s entirely predictable really. To suddenly be on a dirt track that shakes the jeep violently behind barely visible traffic, immersed in a cloud of red dust at nine o’clock in the morning. In normal circumstances this would be fun, but the thought of the suspension giving in right now fills me with dread. It goes on and on and on, then, some distance away to the right, in a brief window of visibility, I spot what could be the expressway again.
Instinctively I gamble, make a hard turn and bring the Cruiser into full 4×4 mode ploughing down into a deep ditch. At forty five degrees it leaps back up and lands horizontally on the other side. I shout “Yeeeehaaaaa” and proceed over the desert terrain at full pelt followed by a line of vehicles that copied me. The jeep noses in and out of another ditch then amazingly slams down on to the open and totally empty expressway. Surrounded by desert it’s quite an eerie feeling but what the heck. Reeesult!
An hour later, the expressway practicably ends. The silky smooth new tarmac now replaced by a single lane potholed nightmare going through countless tiny towns that I can do without. I have to be honest here. Anyone who’d just arrived in China would be going wow at these places and taking millions of photos. To me they are now the biggest pain in the arse in the world, bristling with speed cameras, loaded with speed bumps and filled with slow moving trucks, farm machinery and motorbikes that you can’t pass. You know? All you want to do is just get there!
Hotan. I arrive after a good twelve hours completely mullered and predictably turned away from the first three hotels. It’s the price you pay for looking for a cheap place though and I am now addicted to these ageing three star places that charge a mere 100RMB for a room. That’s around ten quid or fifteen dollars. I go to look for a place that can fix my video recorder. There’s a super crowded underground system that has hundreds of mobile phone stalls. Everyone is nuts about getting the latest Xiaomi or Huawei p9 it seems and the din is immense. Hotan. A city of three hundred thousand completely surrounded by thousands of miles of desert. An island town in the middle of nowhere. I guess many people spend their whole lives here.