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Home / Trip Diary / Gansu / Days 37-40: The Sandstorm At The Lowest Place On Earth

Days 37-40: The Sandstorm At The Lowest Place On Earth

Just a quick note about the format of posts now. As the road West becomes more remote we will have our posts cover longer periods of time due to the roads becoming more difficult and our time for posting less available. We will soon be entering the most remote part of our journey as we make our way through Xinjiang and into Tibet in about 10 days time. This will unfortunately make it difficult to post on a regular basis due to internet shortages. However we will be posting updates on Facebook and Weibo on the fly from our phones so do follow us on there for those! For these longer post on the website we will do our best to publish when Internet and time is available.

August 24th-27th; 8,435km to 9,489km; Dunhuang to Hami, Xinjiang to Turpan to Urumqi

Departure from Dunhuang

Hot desert leaving Turpan

I was counting down the kilometers getting out of Dunhuang, as if there was some invisible barrier on the road right where our tire blew. Luckily though I could breath a sigh of relief just as we passed the point without incident. After the 130km out from the Gobi, we got onto the expressway west towards Xinjiang. On the expressway, we could feel the temperature getting noticeably hotter and were very thankful for our Revvit cooling vests, a piece of gear that you soak in water and can retain the moisture to keep you cool. Even in this weather though, within an hour or so it would be stone dry when normally it can last a few.

Arrival at the Turpan Depression

Stopping in the shade of an oil truck

Stopping in the shade of an oil truck

Next day we continued towards one of our landmark destinations, the Turpan depression location of the second lowest point on earth (or first or third depending on who you ask). We’re trying to get earlier starts now to avoid the heat of the afternoon and the morning was actually pretty cool. One stop we had when it was starting to heat up, we chatted with a couple of truckers, one of whom’s truck we had parked next to since it was the only shade around. One of them, a Uigher (local Xinjiang minority) with nearly incomprehensible Mandarin, brought out a melon from the cab of his truck which we all split in the shade of their trucks. I cut the melon in half with my knife and handed him a half. Rather than cutting it into smaller chunks he simply used his fist and hit it a couple times to break it up, it worked remarkably well! We got into the city of Turpan and settled down for the night. The lowest point is a lake called Aiding Lake and is about 40km from the city. We also heard that it is not only the lowest point in China but it also happens to be one of the hottest. So we decided it would be good to try and go for the sunrise and avoid any heat (both at the lake and on the road later on).

Drive at Sunup

Approach to Aiding Lake

When I went to check on the bike this morning I discovered to my alarm that the front hotel doors were locked, from the outside! What a ridiculous idea and totally unsafe! Turns out there was a member of staff sleeping in the little back office as well as a security guard on a camp bed outside by the door. She explained that the security guard normally slept inside but because of the extreme heat he was sleeping outside now, hence being locked in. Doesn’t make sense to me but there was at least an escape door that she claims was open at all times… We made it out to Aiding Lake a little after sunup where the tourist center was completely empty. The approach, after driving through little villages with families sleeping on cots outside of their homes to avoid the heat indoors, was about 20km through flat desert terrain, presumably the actual Turpan Depression, with a ticket house and barrier about 4km from the sight. The sight was completely abandoned, with two deserted buildings and no one around. We wandered around and couldn’t find any monument marking the lowest point but there was a small pond with a sign indicating it was the lake. We assumed this must be the point as it was also surrounded with plaques of the various highest and lowest points on earth and around China.

Approach of the Sandstorm

A wall of sand on its way

Then as we were packing up to leave, the wind, which had already been pretty heavy, started to pick up to a worrying speed. It looked like sand from the surrounding desert was being picked up onto the only road in or out. We started driving slowly out and soon were completely surrounded by sand until it got so thick we could hardly see 5 feet in front of us. We decided to turn back and take shelter in the abandoned buildings of the tourist center. Luckily the area didn’t get hit as hard since the land had some greenery and water and so not as much loose sand. That didn’t last too long though as soon it was also completely engulfed in the sandstorm. After about an hour or so the lake area had calmed down a bit. The road still seemed to have sand blowing over it though so we decided to wait a bit longer before driving and got out from our shelter to explore a bit. There was a boardwalk that led past the pond and out into the depression which it turns out led about 1-2km to the actual lowest point, in the middle of the dried-up lake, with a monument marking it! So something positive came of our getting stranded there as we got our pictures and made our way back. In the end, we didn’t get back until about 12 and were told that the road to Urumqi would also be really windy and not good to drive on today. So we got another day at our guesthouse to wait for the next morning when supposedly the wind would have died down. The fact that a light rain had also started made our decision a little bit easier.

Smooth Sailing (Could Have Used a Sail Actually) To Urumqi

Wind farm on the way to Urumqi

The last 200+km to Urumqi were pretty smooth. There was about a 30km stretch where the wind was pushing me all over the road and my only rest from being buffeted around were the brief moments when I would pass a truck and it sheltered us from the wind. Soon we left the wind tunnel and passed through a pretty mountain range, weaving through a canyon. It looked like there was another smaller road that paralleled on the other side that I’m sure would have been fun to ride. Got to Urumqi and found the local CFMoto dealer to drop the bike off at. This was going to be our last mechanic stop before Tibet so an important checkup! Next stretch we turn south west and head towards Kashgar, one of the major Muslim centers of China.

About Buck

Buck, originally from New York, first came to China in 2006 traveling with some friends and immediately fell in love with the country, returning frequently including a semester studying at Tsinghua University in 2009. He finally moved to Beijing after graduating from the University of Toronto in 2010. He has a passion for adventure and travel, completing numerous long distance motorcycling and hiking trips around the U.S., Canada, and China including a circumnavigation of the U.S. (13,840km) and a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail (3,500km). When he's not wandering (and sometimes when he is), Buck works as a web developer and marketing consultant in Beijing.