What happens when four friends drive a new car across an ancient trade route, dodging camels, braving sudden sandstorms and off-roading around jade mines. A 1,700-mile road trip through a changing China.
By GORDON FAIRCLOUGH
August 25, 2007; Page P1
August 25, 2007; Page P1
At midday, the wind picked up and the road ahead disappeared behind a veil of fine, yellow sand. Now and then, an enormous truck, lights blazing, emerged suddenly from the gloom, tugging a load along in low gear.
It was day three of a 1,700-mile road trip across northwestern China, and outside the windows of my small car, a sandstorm was threatening to overrun the narrow lanes of asphalt skirting the edge of the Taklimakan desert.
|The Journal's Gordon Fairclough takes a trip down the ancient Silk Road in a new Chinese compact car called the Chery A1.|
Since the rise of the U.S. interstate highway in the 1950s, the road trip has been an essential part of American life. As millions of people got behind the wheel, they reshaped the country in ways large and small -- leading to the birth of motel chains, fast-food restaurants, suburban sprawl and smog.
Now, China is embarking on its own version of this transformation. More than 4.2 million passenger cars were sold in China last year. And the legions of new drivers are embracing the freedom of the open road to explore the breadth of their vast country.
Car clubs abound. Drivers write popular blogs about their travels. Guidebooks are adding information on road conditions and gas stations. Chinese and international motel chains are expanding rapidly. And McDonald's Corp. says that more than half of the new restaurants it is building in China will have drive-throughs.
On my road trip, I test drove a new Chinese-made compact car, the Chery A1, which U.S. auto maker Chrysler aims to start selling around the world within the next year. My plan: drive the car, one of China's newest exports, along one of the country's oldest export routes. (See a review of the Chery A1.)
For thousands of years, the Silk Road was the main artery of globalization linking East and West. Camel trains carried silk, frankincense and other goods across a 5,000-mile path that once stretched from China through Central Asia to the Middle East and Europe. One of the most dangerous sections was right here, in the Taklimakan desert, where entire caravans could be lost to fierce sandstorms. In the local language, Taklimakan means roughly "once you go in, you don't come out."
|Just outside the Urumqi city limits, the desert starts. The road climbs into the Tian Shan Mountains and down to the Taklimakan desert.|
Over the Silk Road's modern incarnation, known here as Chinese National Highway 315, tractor-trailers haul inexpensive Chinese-made motorcycles and other consumer goods bound for Pakistan and other neighboring countries, while oil is shipped back to slake the energy thirst of China's booming eastern cities.
I was lucky -- the sandstorm I hit en route dissipated just in time to see an oasis of bright yellow sunflowers. Over the course of a week, my three traveling companions and I tackled some hairy mountain switchbacks, got stuck in traffic behind a camel-drawn carriage, and chatted with a group of prostitutes and workers at a roadside dinner spot. In one oasis town, we nearly hit some errant sheep when they strayed from their herd and dashed into the road.
Despite bringing along detailed maps, navigation was sometimes a challenge. In Shanghai, Beijing and much of eastern China, road signs tend to have English as well as Chinese characters. Here in the remote Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, the largest ethnic group is the Uighur, who are mainly Muslim and speak a Turkic language unrelated to Chinese. Instead of English, the Arabic script used to write the Uighur language is used alongside Chinese on street signs.
Crossing the Desert
We started our trip in Urumqi, the provincial capital of Xinjiang and about 2,300 miles west of Beijing. The province -- which borders Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India -- covers an area four times the size of California. Travelers are drawn by the striking geography of forbidding deserts, towering mountain ranges and startlingly blue fresh-water lakes.
|View an interactive map of Gordon Fairclough's route.|
Once we had purchased the car -- the Wall Street Journal paid the equivalent of about $7,000 -- the dealership helped us arrange a temporary vehicle registration with the provincial traffic police. We headed southwest, across the Tian Shan mountain range, toward the northern edge of the Taklimakan.
We waited until evening to drive into the heart of the desert itself to avoid the blistering summertime temperatures, which can heat road surfaces to 165 degrees and cause tires to burst.
After the discovery of oil near the desert's center, a 300-mile-long highway was built to connect the wells to the outside world. I had expected the road to be straight and flat. But as the darkness closed around us, the route started to wind sharply and run up and down steep hillsides. The two-lane road was unlit, and oncoming drivers were not in the habit of dimming their high-beam headlights.
About 200 miles into the desert, a pink glow appeared over the dunes. As we crested a rise, we saw a small strip with restaurants, brothels, a karaoke parlor, a video gambling hall and a gas station that had sprung up by the turn off to the oil fields. Truckers and oil-field workers wearing red coveralls and black boots drank with prostitutes at tables in front of their red-lit storefronts.
"We wouldn't be here if it weren't for the oil. The workers are rich and there's no place to spend money in the desert," says Lei Mingjian, who moved from Sichuan in China's southwest to open the small restaurant, where we dined on spicy Sichuan food.
Many of the prostitutes say they are also from Sichuan. "I didn't like it at first," says one woman, dressed in a tank top, black shorts and high heels, who moved to the desert near Tazhong several months ago. "But you get used to it."
We reached the southern edge of the desert just before dawn and, after a few hours sleep in a small hotel -- which lacked an elevator but had a box of condoms placed squarely on top of the towels in the bathroom -- we continued westward.
Once an independent Buddhist kingdom, the ancient city of Khotan was converted to Islam around the year 1000. Known in Chinese as Hetian and in Uighur as Hotan, it is famed for its beautiful carpets and jade. On the road there, we passed through a series of villages, oasis settlements with groves of poplar trees and arbors heavy with grapes. Farmers there grow cotton, wheat, corn and sunflowers. Mud brick houses are built around shaded courtyards guarded by elaborately carved wooden doors.
Mosques and markets line the road, and we often had to slow to a crawl, weaving in between melon sellers and dodging donkey carts carrying bricks, tomatoes and hay.
China's central government places strict limits on people's religious practice in Xinjiang, where it fears links between villagers' Islamic beliefs and separatist sympathies. Government employees and students aren't allowed to worship in mosques, human-rights groups say. Imams have been forced to attend government re-education programs and their sermons are often monitored, these groups say.
Still, many Chinese are attracted by the spirituality and traditional way of life of the Muslim Uighurs. "Here, you can see how Islam shapes every aspect of people's lives," says Yu Mo, a 33-year-old sculptor and professor. "Young people in eastern China, like my students, they don't believe in anything -- except globalization."
Mr. Yu fears that even here, in one of China's least-developed provinces, the old ways won't last long. "I want to catch it before it's gone," says Mr. Yu, who drove more than 2,500 miles on a solo voyage in a Nissan pickup from his home south of Shanghai.
Other tourists are drawn by adventure. Liu Wenfeng, 39, who owns an information-technology services company in the southern city of Guangzhou, is spending August driving around Xinjiang in a rented SUV with his wife and 9-year-old daughter.
Mr. Liu had visited Xinjiang more than a decade ago on a group tour arranged by the state-run travel agency. Now, he says, "the road conditions are so much better. Even the maps are improved." China has long restricted mapping on national-security grounds. "Some day it will be like the West, with people traveling in RVs," says Mr. Liu.
Fifty years after the publication of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road," China is also developing road-trip literature. "Go the Distance Now," a book chronicling five years spent traveling around China by car, was published in January. The author, Liu Yilin, writes that "driving a car yourself is like a bird flying with its own wings," and that car travel offers people a way to be "healthy, free and happy."
For the moment, road-tripping remains mostly the preserve of the privileged few -- at least for major treks like month-long excursions to Xinjiang. Gas isn't cheap; it was selling in the province for between $2.18 and $2.26 a gallon. And most people don't get enough vacation time from work to take long trips.
The total length of roads and highways in China has more than doubled over the past five years. State-owned oil companies are building new service stations. Other amenities, such as clean bathrooms, remain scarce. At one PetroChina service station, the bathroom was three slits in the floor of a concrete blockhouse thick with flies.
All the drivers pouring onto China's new roads have also led to a spike in roadway accident deaths. In Xinjiang, road fatalities are more than triple the national average -- in part, traffic police say, because of the number of unlicensed drivers. A sign on the desert highway admonishes: "Control your temper. Pay attention to safety."
Outside Hetian, we took the car off-road to the bluffs near the Yurungkash River, source of some of China's most sought-after jade. After a short scramble up and down hills of pebbles and sand, we arrived at the scene of a chaotic strip-mining operation.
Massive yellow excavators, with tires more than six-feet across, took bites from the earth at the edges of large, flooded craters. They carried loads of gravel out of the depths and then dumped them slowly as groups of Uighurs with picks and hoes sifted through the falling earth.
|Road to Kashgar: Clockwise from top left, Kashgar bakery; trucks lined up at the start of the Cross Desert Highway; Uighur farmers on a donkey cart; village mosque on the road to Luntai; the Chery being trailed by camels in the desert outside Kashgar.|
The miners live in tents near the pits. Many are teenagers hoping to strike it rich; if they are lucky enough to find jade, they get a commission from the mine owners who then sell it at the market in Hotan.
From here, we left the main road and soon were hopelessly lost. Inching through a market town, we were suddenly engulfed by a crowd of people, men and teenage boys who had just left evening prayers at the mosque.
Thirty minutes later, we were free -- only to spend hours crisscrossing irrigation canals on rickety bridges and slipping along muddy village lanes before arriving at the ruins of an ancient burial site. The site, which comprises seven grave mounds of undetermined age, is a local shrine, decorated with prayer flags and sheep skins.
On day six, we reached Kashgar, the westernmost city in China, and a place where the clash between Uighur culture and the modern Chinese state is in stark relief. On one side of the central square sits the city's main mosque, first erected in 1442. On the other side is a shopping mall.
The mall, designed in Islamic style, was erected after developers bulldozed a large section of the traditional neighborhood and bazaar that had once stood across from the mosque. A giant-screen TV on the plaza the day we visited was broadcasting a documentary about a Chinese textile factory and then a film version of the classic Chinese Buddhist tale, "Journey to the West."
In the warren of small streets behind the mosque, government propaganda signs warn people against backing the Islamic Liberation Party, a group that supports the creation of an Islamic government across Central Asia. Those messages are even more common in rural areas on the outskirts of Kashgar. "Cracking down on the Islamic Liberation Party will bring peace to your village," reads one sign.
China has tried to use economic development to win people's hearts and minds. And in some cases, it is succeeding.
|Drive Through: Clockwise from top, a woman spinning silk in a village factory outside Hotan; sheep at the livestock market in Kashgar; the Chery on the road near Yecheng; gas station south of Urumqi; traditional quarter of Kashgar.|
"We're happy to be Chinese citizens because the economy is much better than before," says Gilili Abulimit, a 67-year-old farmer who lives in a village outside Kashgar. The government paid half the cost of his new house and the newly paved road outside makes it easier for him to get his crops to the market. He even has tap water.
Others are more ambivalent. A twenty-something farmer who speaks almost no Chinese, he says he wants his son to learn the language so he can have a brighter future. Still, the clocks in the farmer's house are set to local time rather than Beijing time, the official standard (China has only one time zone). The lone decoration hanging in his bedroom is a picture of a building from Pakistan. And the inequality of development between China's Han-dominated east coast and its west rankles: "Living conditions are much better in the cities in the east. Things here aren't so good."
As we were preparing to leave Kashgar for home, an SUV with mismatched tires limped into the parking lot of our hotel, on the grounds of the former British consulate. The driver, Dai Jinhao, a tourist from Shandong province on the east coast, said he had to borrow a tire from another driver after repeated punctures on the road from Tibet used up all his spares.
Mr. Dai, a 47-year-old computer-system administrator, traveled off road over blazing patches of desert in Xinjiang and rocky terrain in Tibet. "We were thinking of giving up in the middle," says Mr. Dai. But he and his friend completed their month-long circuit of China's western-most provinces.
"For a lot of people in their 40s and 50s, life is all about going to work in the morning and going home at night. They can't escape the daily routine," he says. "I like the sense of freedom I get from my trips." He says that next year he wants to ride a motorcycle from Argentina to Venezuela.
--Ellen Zhu contributed to this article.
Write to Gordon Fairclough at email@example.com