There aren't many cities in the world whose names can double as verbs. Although we weren't forcibly put aboard a ship, we did find ourselves Shanghaied in a way, drawn irresistibly eastward. It all started with Facebook, to which I’d succumbed in Kyrgyzstan and where I managed to locate some old Taipei friends—Olivier and Laure—with whom I'd lost touch. As it turned out, they are now living in Shanghai and were quick to offer us a place to stay. At first we dismissed the idea; Shanghai wasn't on our original itinerary, and we'd both been there before. But leaving Kashgar, as we looked out the train window at perhaps our 5000th kilometre of dusty desert, the prospect of staying in a clean apartment and spending some time in a big city suddenly grabbed us, hard.
We arrived in Dunhuang shortly after dawn, and headed to Charlie Jhong’s Café for an early breakfast. Charlie and his wife greeted us warmly and offered to take us to their new guest house on the edge of town. Cat, our travel companion, had already promised to meet friends there, so she accepted. We wanted to look around town first before committing to staying so far from the centre. But on viewing a few prototypical Chinese hotel rooms, we quickly changed our minds and opted for the more hospitable guest house. We weren’t disappointed.
Turpan is famous for its grapes, and infamous for being the hottest place in China. The town is set in a depression 80 metres below sea level, on the northern edge of the Taklamakan desert. The train stops an hour short of the town, in the village of Daheyan. We alighted to find that in October the weather was pleasantly warm and sunny, not scorching. On the platform an adjacent train was transporting hundreds of gleaming new mobile missile launchers, presumably to one of the Taklamakan desert testing zones. We stared, but refrained from photographing.
Our experience of Kashgar was all backwards. For most visitors, it is the end of the road, as far west as you can go in China, an exotic outpost nestled between the mountain ranges of Central Asia and the far edge of the treacherous Taklamakan desert, peopled by Uighurs whose culture, language, and appearance are entirely un-Chinese. But after two months in Central Asia we were more inclined to appreciate—for purely selfish reasons—the creeping development that has transformed Kashgar into a modern and increasingly Sinified city.
After almost a month in Kyrgyzstan, we figured we ought to start moving on to China. Although we'd been dreaming for weeks of warmer weather, easier communication and vastly better food, we knew we had a long journey ahead, and it was with some reluctance that we started out. From our starting point in Bishkek, the relatively northerly Torugart pass would have been the more convenient border crossing, but the Chinese require special permissions and pre-booked transportation for tourists to use it, amounting to several hundred dollars and a lot of hassle. Irkeshtam, the southern pass, is wide open and relatively easy, but geography dictates that it can only be accessed through Osh. In the end, our Long March to China took over a week.