Xingjian province of China is a no man’s land. It is a desert basin much below the sea level in parts, the lowest terrain on earth.
Interestingly though, this Martian landscape is bordered on the north by the great Tian Shan mountains, almost crisscrossing the region, forming an impressive and formidable wall on the northern side of Gobi and Taklamakan deserts.
The cities of Urumqi and Turpan lie at the foot of these mountains creating a topography of contrasts, of opposites, and disparity.
From the city of Urumqi you see the Bagoda mountain all high and looming, dressed in white snow, but as you move a little further south east, the scene changes to hard grainy flat desert plains, and mountains made of single huge hard boulders and stones.
By road the travel time from Urumqi southeast to Turpan is about 6 hours on an incredibly smooth highway. China is tattooed with slick roadways going up and down, east to west – that is in all directions. It is estimated that China has used more cement in building infrastructure and roads in 3 years as US has consumed in a century! Perhaps – this obsession of building roads, pathways, tracks, routes have become so ingrained in the Chinese character because of its centuries old traditions of ‘traveling caravans’- and the age-old travels on the silk road, that it has now become a part of the Chinese character.
It is a nation obsessed with constructing traversable and welcoming roads forking out to all parts of the country. For hundreds of years, people of Central Asia and Europe have been bringing in caravans of goods to sell to the Chinese peoples, and in return have carried silks, spices, tea and jade to the fascination of the royal palaces of the west.
The Gobi desert area and the Taklamakan desert are among one of the most inhospitable and lonesome areas of the world.
The word Takla means ‘Nothing’ and ‘makan’ stands for house as in Urdu, so it literally translates into no house or barren house, a befitting name for an arid, desolate, unfamiliar and strange region. The locals also have a saying for the Taklamakan desert – ‘You can go in but can’t get out’. It is like a labyrinth, devoid of any distinguishing landmarks or milestones.
If you go in unguided you may never find your way out because every place is like every other place. We were on the road for hours, and yet the scene outside the van windows didn’t change much, it seemed we were constantly circling within the same area over and over.
The silk road runs through the foot of the Tian Shan across these deserts, and as we traveled the same route we were reminded of the terrible hardships those caravans must have faced.
The sheer isolation of these mountains has also attracted another local name, the lonely mountains, for alone they stand. Being in a place so unfamiliar and different, one is made keenly aware of the ‘otherness’ of reality. One’s own existence and presence is foiled against the warped landscape in a way that one is forced to confront one’s own selfhood.
Coming out of the hustle bustle of downtown Urumqi suddenly you are plunged into a tabula rosa, a clean slate, where reference points do not exist.
You become keenly aware of your inner loneliness. I use the word loneliness with caution here, and perhaps for a lack of a better word, use it neutrally, to mirror the ethos of the topography in anthropomorphic terms. Each one of us have a place as lonesome as this desert and mountains inside of ourselves, for we are all alone on a journey that’s dangerous, exciting, stressful, and enjoyable at various times of our lives. We may have companions on this voyage of life, our partners who walk this path called life with us part of the way. But essentially, we are on our own, individual, unique and alone.
Tian Shan mountains and the adjoining desert on its fringes, was a reflection of this lonesomeness for me, it was a manifestation of a ‘location’ found inside each of us, where we are our only observers, and where we converse with our own self. A locale, a place where we are alone with ourselves, an oxymoronic state – where we are the ‘I’ that we are, and we are also the observer that is observing and conversing with this I.
Mountains intermingled and sprayed with sand dunes, black granite hills, and the single road cleaving them radiate an emptiness, a minimal ness, a kind of raw naturalism that is separate in time and space from society. It is akin to traveling back in time, if there were such a possibility. Travelers of ancient times witnessed the Flaming mountains the same way we did, but instead of from rough hard camel backs, from the vantage point of our comfortable seats in a modern chinese van.
They must have felt the bone dry air sucking out every drop of moisture from their bodies, as we felt, they must have found the caves hidden within the lower hills a hospitable refuge from scalding sun and blinding sand storms just as we did. The Kizil caves or the thousand Buddha caves dating from the 3rd C.E are an evidence of the travails and remoteness of the peoples in that time.
It is also an evidence of exchange of thoughts and ideas, religions and creeds, peoples and customs that was the obvious outcome of silk road and its continuous movement of people from west to east and vis versa.
This is hauntingly an unfamiliar landscape, which we urban dwellers, and products of the modern world find intimidating, foreign, and alien.
We see the world through our eyes, our individual mindset and way of thinking, our own perspective is shaped by a myriad of things making all of us unique interpreters of reality, or what we believe to be reality. What is reality here? Where do ‘I’ that lies within the conscious me ends and the other ‘real’ world starts?