Monkey Magic


Almost forgotten, buried in sand and myth, the southern Silk Road route through the Taklamakan desert was the path we decided to take from Kashgar. Although less popular the way did host a few ‘stars of the Silk Road’. Marco Polo used this route on his epic adventures to the court of Gengis Khan. It was also used by the famous Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, returning to the court of Emporer Taizong with Buddhist scrolls from India. His tale was the basis for the amazing TV series Monkey

Our first day out of Kashgar to Yarkant was also one of longest, lasting 190kms in total, 20kms of which I did on a flat tyre along a dark and rocky track. Colin’s first puncture in over 7ooo miles, not bad, considering the hefty burden he’s had to bear.

Such a Stirling effort required a reward, so we booked ourselves into the cheapest hotel we could find at 12am. The owners supplemented their income by a more illicit stream as the rooms hourly rate*, condoms, sensual oils, hygiene wipes and, the pièce de résistance, pairs of fresh underwear in the bathroom attested to. Though we felt we deserved a reward, we were too damned tired to make full use of the facilities…

Breakfast was a spectacular failure. Pickled cabbage, dry eggs and soggy bread was complimented by the addition of milky white, salty tea.

We left disgruntled, dehydrated and uncomfortable in our new undergarments to ride into the vast desert beyond. It was intimidating; the sheer scale of the task sank in as we pedalled along the flat, sandy highway towards a vague horizon that never abated or showed signs of life.

We did pass the occasional truck stop and small town. Precursors to which were irrigated brown squares of mud, waiting for the first buds of cotton to peek through the sodden dirt. Then rows of poplar trees would follow, shielding us from the wind and making riding quite pleasant. The treeline would end in some ramshackle huts selling bread and meat-filled buns, lagman noodles, shashlyk and 24 packs of Red Bull to cater for the HGV drivers who ply this route ferrying heavy machinery and building material westwards, crops and cattle to the east.

Outside of one such town we met an American cyclist pedaling the opposite way. Eleanor was heading to Kyrgyzstan and has been traveling through China for 2 years and some 18’000kms! We stopped and chatted to her for a few hours, taking in her advice about the places to see but trying to ignore her jokes about mushrooms.

After parting company with Eleanor, Matt and I rolled into Hotien. A city famed for it’s white jade.

Here we recharged our carbo batteries at the fantastic evening food market. It was a colourful array of Muslim fare, though it was the smell that first enticed us to the collection of food trolleys. Aromas of barbecued meat, shashlyk and spices filled the cool evening air. Some of the stalls sold tripe. It lay coiled in a soggy mass upon large silver trays. More appetizing were the oodles of noodles and bright pots of sauce usually a brilliant red reflecting the quantity of chili contained within.

The snacks were remarkably cheap – between 1 and 5 McGregors per dish. Buoyed by the low cost we decided sample most of the wide variety on offer. We slackened our belts and prepared for battle.

Lovely sticky rice and veg

A plov like dish of rice fried with vegetables was up first. We sat around the giant metal bowel with all the other male customers (a busy stall is a good stall!) and got stuck in to a healthy portion of the glutinous goodness.

From that gentle introduction I plunged into the depths of the unknown. A toothless old woman offered me some spongy, doughy stuff. It was a bit bland but I enjoyed the texture so I ordered a plate for 5 McGregors. I got more than I bargained for (and, infact, wanted) when the garrulous old girl unexpectedly added a bit of sheep’s offal and chili sauce to the stack of dough. The chili, at least, was a welcome addition. ‘I’ll be seeing that later!’ I thought.

Following on from my foray we decided we’d better stick to more familiar waters: Spinach pancakes were up next, tender shashlyk with hints of garlic and dumplings in broth followed while desert consisted of sticky rice with yogurt and toffee sauce. There was just enough room for a chunk of pineapple. Total cost: 17 McGregors (less than $3!), weight gained: about 5lbs and not a single twitch of the sphincter.

The experience was visceral. Meat is butchered upon the same streets as it is sold. You can see the sheep, goats and cows chained-up ready for the slaughter in the morning and be eating them by lunch. There’s no clingfilm wrapped, bloodless packets of meat as in Tescos. There’s no gap between the kill and the consumption, no opaque walls of a slaughter house to hide the reality. This is how it should be.

Offal was offered

Leaving was difficult, not only because we enjoyed our hearty feast and longed for another crack at the sticky rice packets but due to an intense headwind that whipped-up the desert sand into waves that crashed into us. Just like water the sand got everywhere. I could feel the gritty grains between my teeth and taste the earth (it was better than the offal). The sand got into every nook and cranny – EVERY nook and cranny!

Hazy picture of sandstorm

Apart from the strong winds, days were warm, enabling us to unwrap our white legs. But the nights and the mornings still carried winter’s chill. One morning we awoke in the freezing cold and struggled to get-up and pack away. Our sluggish start meant we were rumbled by the farmer whose hedgerow we’d camped in.

Far from taking the typical, 12-gauge, double-barrelled response we’d expect in Europe, he invited us in for breakfast.

We followed him to his mud brick home. Swinging back the heavy curtain that lead to the living space I was taken aback by a welcome wave of warmth being produced by a small iron stove which formed the focal point of the dimly lit room. We sat on the surrounding daybeds and removed our miasmatic boots.

The Uyghur farmer kindly made us cardamom tea. He added large chunks of crystallised sugar to it. It fizzed and crackled like popping candy as it dissolved. Into the sweet mixture we soaked dry bread. The result was a sumptuous soggy and sweet treat that gave us the energy needed to push on.

The next part of our route was desolate. The only sounds were of the wind rushing through the dried grass along the road and the hiss of sand slithering across our path into the dunes. Much of the history of this route lies hidden under the sand and we’d never know the fullness of it but we discovered the spirit of adventure along the route still lives when 3 Chinese men stopped their 4wd ahead of us. They had just driven 1000kms straight through the heart of the empty expanse and were on their way home. The three adventurers donated surplus supplies to us including some craved for snickers.

Later that day we met 2 other cyclists. Matt and Lucas, brothers from Brussels, were heading to Kashgar. We shared out the rewards from our earlier bounty, told them of Eleanor, warned them of her mushroom jokes and went our separate ways.

A final push saw us ride into Cherchen (Xiemo) for a needed break. Both of us were showing signs of wear: dark circles around our eyes, cracked lips and wind burnt skin. We were covered in dust and had sore legs from battling the wind.

*The hourly rate was 100Yuans, pronounced Ewans and hence McGregors…we’ve been out of touch a while, OK!

2 Responses to “Monkey Magic”

  1. John Robertson says:

    Xuanzang and Marco Polo aside, this stretch sounds like a hard ride and your appreciation of the dubious delights of the ‘food’ probably reflects the degree of deprevation you have suffered en-route! As I sit in my armchair, contemplating whether to have the Nero D’Avola or the Lagioiosa Merlot with my Rib-Eye steak and chips, my admiration for your endeavours and sense of adventure grows beyond all bounds. Bravo! chaps, keep up the good work!

  2. Eleanor says:

    Oh, you know you love the jokes!!! What the desert does to one.

    Anyhow, thanks for the shout out and hooking me up with the Belgium boys.

    Keep on keepin on!

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