Setsuko Watanabe's World Sketches

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Silk Road

1. The Scorching Gobi Desert and the Tamarix

The oasis road which runs from east to west across the Eurasia continent was the route for caravans carrying salt, silk, glass, grapes and paper, and is a famous road in world history.

Persia's King Darius, Greece's Alexander the Great, Chinese Han Dynasty's Emperor Wu, Genghis Khan and Timour used this road for their battles. It is also the road of Journey to the West and Marco Polo.

hami melons's_photo
Copyright1998 Setsuko Watanabe

Washed by snowstorms and history, the decaying, sun-dried brick ruins evoke the traveler's romanticism. Changing the season and itinerary, I have visited Silk Road many times.

Among these many visits, the trip I made twenty years ago to scorching Turfan during the height of summer left a vivid impression on me. The trip by land rover from Urumqi, capital of the autonomous region of Xinjian Uygur, to Turfan, only 190 km, was a terrible one.

There was no bottled water. I bought football-shaped hami melons from young girls at the bazaar in Urumqi for my water supply. The Uygur girls were wearing scarves, pierced earrings and rings, but their mismatched muddy hands and feet made me smile.

After we passed by the strangely shaped rock formations and rocks layered with salt, there was the red-brown Gobi Desert (a sandstone desert of stones and pebbles). Having thought the Gobi was nothing but fine sand, I was surprised.

I clung to the sweltering car as it banged and rattled along the road for what I think was a six-hour drive. The car had no air-conditioning so I opened a window, but hot wind filled with sand came blasting in. Whether the window was open or closed, it was a burning hell. When I put on a shirt which I had soaked with water until it was dripping wet, it was dry in a few minutes. The temperature of the earth's surface was 72o Celsius. The outside air was 47o Celsius.

Copyright1998 Setsuko Watanabe

Even so, there were flowers in this land. Among the grasses clinging to the earth and covered with thorns was the camel grass with its small, modest red flowers. Camels eat this flower to replenish their water supply. I guess the camel's throats are protected against the thorns.

Then, there is the tamarix. Between thin, cool green leaves, small, pale red flowers hang in large clusters. Mismatched to the dusty Gobi Desert, they are beautiful. Growing gregariously around the oasis, they created a paradise. From far away, they were the sign of the oasis.

Stopping for a break in the shade of the tamarix, I ate a hami melon. It was lukewarm, but tasted cooler and more delicious than other any chilled dessert. The refreshing feeling which swept my body at the oasis is indescribable. My whole body relished the faint, cool breeze. Bogda, the peak of the Tian Shan Mountains in the distance (5,445 meters above sea level) is covered with perpetual snow.

Map of Turfan
Photos of Turfan

Copyright1998 Setsuko Watanabe

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