Expect the Unexpected
Journey through Xinjiang
An overview of our epic traverse through Xinjiang, overlanding more than 10,000 miles while crossing through deserts, canyons and mountains.
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By Kevin McFarland
Visited June 2017
More reminiscent of Central Asia than China, mixed in with a daunting force of police officers and checkpoints, this journey tested us in ways we previously haven't experienced in China. We stumbled upon so many adventures, stories, and mishaps during the course of this journey, it will take several months to detail the highlights (and low-lights), share the unbelievable experiences, and present in words and photos a part of the world very little travel to, yet alone even know about.
Let me state plainly that this was in no means a vacation, but rather a series of tests to prepare us for greater challenges in the future. We had to encounter tenting in flash-floods, getting lost for several hours in the wilderness, and even a visit to the police station for entering a restricted area (that's all I'm allowed to discuss about this). This trip exhausted and excited, with a wind of conflicting emotions constantly engulfing us. One day we are on Cloud 9 in seemingly perfect harmony with nature, and the very next we are dreading every minute and longing to be back home. But at the end of the trip, when we were sitting on the overnight train heading home, an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and desire to be back filled our minds. For the last few days, we have been refusing to accept the journey has concluded. Instead, we are treating this next stage in life as a short pause until the grand adventure continues. Before I delve into the details and stories we created, here is a summary of the journey.
Where did we go?
On June 15, we set off from Jiangyou, Sichuan, our living quarters for the past half year, for a long journey consisting of three consecutive overnight train rides to our first destination of Kashgar and the surrounding South Xinjiang. With our two packs filled to a brim, including a tent, sleeping bags, and food to last a few days, we were determined to see all of Xinjiang that we could possibly fit into our 19-day schedule. We crossed the world's second largest sand desert, ascended one of the highest and most dangerous roads, witnessed the tallest natural arch, walked through ancient Silk Road ruins, rode Kazakh horses through pristine meadows, traversed around towering granite peaks, haggled in time-tested bazaars, all the while conversing with its colorful and hospitable locals. Yes, it was a bit ambitious looking back and it made for some frantic moments, but we don't regret the process one bit.
How far did we go?
We over-landed a grand total of more than 11,000 kilometers (to put that into perspective, San Diego to Shanghai, China, is 10,600 km). This included transportation options ranging from trains, buses, taxis, minivans, cars, and even donkey carts. In addition, we hitchhiked on 8 separate occasions for 1,005 kilometers. Each experience was unique but all shared the common characteristics of human kindness and friendliness. The joy of hitchhiking is interacting and meeting locals one would be hard pressed to meet elsewhere. They ranged from Uyghurs, Hans, Kirghiz, and Kazakhs who all stopped on the side of the road to pick up two dirty strangers, and never once did they ask anything in return.
Safety in Sleeping
Our 18-night trip entailed 4 nights tenting in the grasslands and mountains, 2 overnight buses, 4 hostels, 2 hotels, 1 home-stay in a yurt, and 6 overnight train rides. There was a moment in our trip, day 16 in Turpan, where we tried to hitchhike to a picturesque canyon near some Buddhist caves to pitch our tent. After an unsuccessful amount of attempts, we instead headed to the nearest hostel as it was nearing sundown. It turns out, as we were driving by the caves the next morning, the canyon experienced a severe flash flood that same night where we hoped to tent. The road was unable to be driven, and our driver, a local tour-guide, said in shock he hasn't seen this in over 5 years here. We sat in the back of the car in unbelief, yet with a tremendous sense of gratitude for our safety.
Checkpoints - Checkpoints Everywhere
With the police presence everywhere unendingly checking our passports and ID cards, we inadvertently tried to escape their presence. Whether it was pitching our tent after dark to avoid being seen, or entering areas without permits and paperwork, we were met with both success and failure throughout the trip. There was time when I crossed into a border zone one without a permit with no problems, and another time when I was told I can't enter but have to drive through to the next destination. Ultimately, the last day it all caught up to us when we had a 1-hour visit with the police, photos deleted, and told I can't report the details of such matters anywhere on the inter-webs.
Expect the Unexpected
We realized the best places are often most overlooked, while the most disappointing place also being the most popular and well-known. We will definitely keep this in mind for future travels, but it puts a damper on planning and preparation. For instance, Hemu Village and the surrounding Kanas area, considered by many as Xinjiang's most beautiful landscape, was met with painful disappointment for us, to the point we aborted mission and took our travels elsewhere. On the other hand, the mountains and valleys surrounding Sayram Lake, not the ever-popular lake itself, remains one of our travel highlights for life. Expect the unexpected.