About 20kms on from Yiwanquan, an old abandoned trade route strikes off from the current main road (which leads to Urumqi via Turfan), and crosses the end of the Tian Shan to Dzungaria, continuing to Urumqi on the northern side of the Tian Shan mountains.. This was the route taken by the Trio in 1926 and one I am following. The first stop on this northern route was Cheguluquan (referred to as Cart Wheel Halt by the Trio) and as Mehmehti had told me there was still a water source and someone living there, and it was a longish haul to the next settlement Qijiaojingcun, I hoped to stop there overnight.
However, on my rendezvous with Niyaz at the above waterhole just before the turn off, it was clear he had other plans. A Kazakh shepherd had just given him the dreadful information ‘Cheguluquan mei you ren’. Niyaz first suggested staying at a ghastly truck stop down the road, and then with the family of the shepherd – the latter being quite an attractive proposition had it not been for the fact that it involved riding 3kms in a completely different direction. Added to this another Kazakh family member turned up on a scary camel which caused panic among the horses and I can’t say I blame them as it did resemble a kind of Camel of the Baskervilles. Here it is glowering at Zorbee and Shandan and I felt I could not expect them to spend the night with it.
So I stuck to my guns and set off along the gravel cart track to Cheguluquan, preceded by a resigned Niyaz. French and Cable comment about Cheguluquan ‘The little row of inns stood in a gorge between stony hills, and force of the gales through the narrow ravine was so great as to have worn the rocks into hollows, in the depths of which birds had made their nests. This was the most striking example of wind erosion that we saw’. To my delight, although all that is left of the row of inns is rubble, and there was no evidence of nesting birds, the narrow gorge with its wind eroded rocks is there as they describe it.
But the prediction ‘mei you ren’ was correct, and I could not see any source of water (though I later found a scummy pool) Faced with the sighs of a baleful Niyaz and the fact that it was still only 3 o’clock, I decided to push on to Qijiaojingcun where it was rumoured three people lived.
This in fact was one of the loveliest rides I have had in China. After winding along the lonely gorge for a couple of hours, I emerged into a wide desert basin ringed by bare rugged mountains and completely without sign of human impact apart from the ancient trade route. Leading the horses down the old earth track through the sparse scrub I felt for the first time that I was living the route exactly as the Trio would have experienced it eighty years ago. All that was missing was the creak and rumble of their heavy carts.
The distances are quite misleading – the Trio reckoned the basin to be about 20 miles across, but as you can see from the photo it looks much less. From this point Niyaz thought we would reach Qijiaojing in a couple of hours, but I was rightly not so optimistic, and was still plodding across the sandy plain as shadows lengthened. Approaching Qijiaojing we passed through surreal scenery of great tamarisk mounds up to 20ft high – the Trio stated that they had been computed to be up to 1000 years old.
We reached Qijiaojing as dusk fell, and to my amazement it was not the couple of inhabited houses I had been expecting, but a whole ghost town – even more ghostly as I padded in through the failing light. However, Niyaz had tracked down one of the inhabited houses, which belonged to a most welcoming farming couple. They let us park truck and horses in their large courtyard, and invited us in for milk tea and chat.