Hacktreks in Asia
the Taklamakan Desert
Taklamakan Desert, also called The Desert of Death, is located in
China's Xinjiang Province. It is the second largest desert on Earth.
Scientists consider it to be the most dangerous desert in the world.
My plan was to travel 544 km, under my own power, along the famous
Silk Road, from the oasis town of Aksu to the oasis town of Kashgar.
Urumchi, Taklamakan Desert
Journey began at the train station in Urumchi, the capitol of Xinjiang,
where the Uyghur, a Turkick people, who follow the religion of Islam,
make up more than 50% of the population. Many Uyghur men wear skull
caps and a knife in a sheath on their belt. Women wear headscarves,
some were completely veiled. The sights, the sounds, the smells
of the street in the Uyghur capitol are remeniscen of anything but
China. It could just as easily have been the bizar at Marakesch,
Aksu, Taklamakan Desert
All Photos © Antionio Graceffo 2003-
The Open Road
rickshaw salesman asked me, "What kind of rickshaw do you want?"
I gave him the one criteria I insisted upon. "Give me a red
one." I also had a choice between large and small. Since at
this point I still wasn't sure if I was just playing an elaborate
practical joke, I bought the smallest one they had, to save money.
This way, if I got two miles out of town and quit, I wouldn't be
out so much cash. The problem with the small sized rickshaw, however,
was that it fit me like a clown car in the circus.
It was hilarious seeing this 200 LBS caucasian with a New York Yankees
cap trying to ride a tiny, three wheeled bicycle, with a barbie
doll camper in the back.
An hour later I had loaded up the rickshaw with food, water, and
my gear. The whole hotel staff came out to see me off, and to get
a look at my crazy vehicle. They were all laughing and smiling,
but still suggested.
"Wouldn't you be more comfortable riding the bus?"
They just didn't get it. I made it about three blocks, when I realised
I didn't know how to get to Kashgar. So, I rode back and asked directions.
A truckdriver drew out a map on the back of a coctail napkin, and
off I went again.
Atuchi, Taklamakan Desert
I made it over 500 KM! The first day I rode for four hours. It was
around eight o'clock, and I needed to get out of the sun. But in
the desert, there was no shade at all. There wasn't even anything
that cast a shadow. I found a power pole with a brick base. The
base was one meter wide by one and a half meters high. If I lay
on the ground, and curled up in a fetal position, the shadow just
about covered my body. I stayed like that till sundown. The sun
doesn't set until about 11:00 PM in the desert. So, I had a long
wait. I was eaten alive by mosquitos, and spent a fitful night.
second day, I got the hang of riding the bike, and rarely went off the
embankments or ran into cars. A construction crew invited me to their
camp to eat lunch, and take a nap.
I learned to sleep in drainage tunnels under the highway or under the
railroad. I ate the food I brought from Aksu, dried sausage and Uyghur
bread. Almost every day I managed to buy water and one hot meal in a
Uyghur village. Usually the Uyghurs eat bread and goat meat or goat
The most memorable day was the sixth day. There was a twenty mph head
wind, which lasted for five hours, and which pelted me with sand.
The wind didn't come in gusts. Instead it was one long, continuous force
of hot air, blowing mercilesly in my face and eyes, like walking into
a hair dryer. It was so strong I had to walk most of the way, dragging
Unfortunately the big bike acted as a sail. When my grip weakened the
bike actually blew away from me. This was also the only day that I ran
out of water.
I was panting from exhaustion, which meant my mouth was open, and the
hot, wind-born sand was drying out my tongue. It was the closest to
hell that I came. After the sand storm Uyghur workers invited me for
dinner, and to stay the night at their camp. TheUyghur workers played
a duodar, a stringed instrument, and a drum.
While they sang, we danced and whirled out in the desert under a huge
sky, where the stars burned as bright as a reading light. It was magic,
and definitely the happiest moment of the trip.
The final 45 km to Kashgar were interminable.
My bike began rattling apart.
First the carriage jumped off of the rear axle. Then the handlebars
came loose, and began rotating, like a radar antena. The final day
was also the day of the most intense sun I had seen during the whole
trip. I actualy heard the citoplasm in my brain boiling.
Far off to the right, accross an expanse of about 1 km of barren
desert, I thought that I could see a huge, cool lake glistening
in the sun. I wanted nothig more than to, run over, and jump in.
Assuming I was just halucinating, I tried to ignor it. But, no matter
how long I rode, this lake kept bekoning me.
What appeared to be one 1 km of straight line distance accross rolling
sand dunes could easily have been ten times that distance once I
actually started walking. That would mean the walk to the river
would have taken hours. It would have required at least a liters
of water. And what if I was wrong? What if there was no river there?
The Desert Hotel © A Graceffo
the end I took some advice from an old paisano. In the diaries of his
travels, Marco Polo had warned that all along the Silk Road the traveler
would hear voices and spirits bekoning him to abandon the path, and
walk into the desert. He would then loose his way, and die of thirst.
Rejecting the promise of swimming in a cool lake, probably full of ice
cream, I twisted my wayward handlebars back into position, more or less,
and continued to Kashgar.
No one gave me a parade or a medal when I got to Kashgar. The trip was
But the Journey continues. I remember my hero Dan Eldin whose biography
is called. "The Journey is the Destination." It's not about
achievements or rewards. It is about having an interesting life along
the way. Next spring I plan to be the first American to cross the interior
of the desert from South to North, with a camel.
© Antonio Graceffo October 2003
Born in New York City, Antonio spent much of his youth in the Appalachian
Mountains of Tennessee. Fluent in Italian, Spanish, German, and Mandarin
Chinese, he traveled to Europe, Asia, and Latin America for his education.
He spent nearly seven years in the US Merchant Marines and US Army NG.
Antonio studied at Tennessee State University, University of Mainz,
Germany, Trinity College, England, Heriot Watt University, Scotland,
Universidad Latina, Costa Rica, and The Taipei Language Institute, Taiwan.
He has competed in martial arts and boxing for over twenty five years,
having studied at the Shaolin Temple, in Mainland China. Most recently,
Antonio has begun a full time career as an adventure writer and explorer.
He currently lives in Taiwan.
His writing has appeared in the following publications: Marco Polo Travel
Magazine, Kung Fu Magazine, Martial Arts Planet, Travelmag.com, Close
Quarters Combat, Radical Adventure Magazine, TaiwanHo.com, The Blue
Lotus Club, The Travel Rag, Escape From America, Bike China Adventure,
The Elizabethton Star, The Bristol Herald Courier, The Italian Voice...
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