Despite Xinjiang’s vast size, it’s easy to remember its topography and terrain on the basis of the Chinese character Jiang. Just imagine. The left part of Jiang, from the top down, represents several wide river valleys and mountain passes in the west, the southern Tianshan Mountains and the Pamir Plateau. On the right part, the three top-down horizontal strokes represents the east-west ridges of Altay Mountains, Kunlun Mountains and Tianshan Mountains, and the two characters of Tian represent the Tarim and Junggar Basins in between.
Xinjiang has a good name, which is quite in accord with its geographical structure. This closed geographical structure makes Xinjiang the driest area at the same latitude on the earth. It’s the result of crustal movement and nobody can change it.
Xinjiang’s natural environment is indeed not satisfactory. There are vast wastelands, extensive Gobi deserts, tall snow mountains and continuous mountain ranges. In some special places, such as sentries on mountains, oil fields in deserts and residential spots in remote areas, circumstances are too adverse for people to live.
But people still live in these places for some special reasons.
Since the long border needs guards, no matter how hard the conditions are, the snowfields shall be sentried. Oil is such important energy sources that people need to drill for the “black gold” even in desert hinterland. The scarce sylvine mineral is unluckily distributed among Lop Nor where a small town with only hundreds people was built for the exploitation of potash deposit.
As for settlements in remote areas, there are many complicated ethnic, historical and social factors. Now most remote settlements have been or will be relocated as a whole to places with better conditions and herdsmen have basically finished the settlement or semi-settlement. But for some places, especially settlements along the border, it’s not just as simple as relocation.
In some places, there are plenty of water and smooth terrain, which are quite suitable for human living, but the environment is very strange.
For instance, on the old oasis of Khotan, there is scarce rain but a lot of dust fall. In other places on the earth, it is common to see precipitations like rain, snow and hail, but for Khotan the major substance fallen from the sky is dust. There are more than one hundred days of dust-floating weather each year and the annual per square meter dust fall amounts to a few kilograms. Just as a ballad goes: “The life of Khotan people is so bitter, that each year there falls one kilogram dust, not only during the daytime, but also at the night.” The strange thing is that there are much fewer floating-dust days in other oases in the Tarim Basin than in Khotan.
Also, Turpan area is very hot and its summer temperature is often around 40 degree Celsius. It might be a “furnace” with the highest temperature in China. However, Urumqi, which is just about 100 kilometers away from Turpan, is quite cool and pleasant. In order to avoid the heat wave, Turpan people do not open doors and windows for ventilation in the summer, but shut them tightly with thick curtains covered.
There are also many no-man areas in Xinjiang, where human trails are few. If you look at the map of China, you may have a direct impression that there is a large blank area in Xinjiang, which contrasts clearly with the crowded counties and cities in central and eastern China. For many place names on the map of Xinjiang, some from ancient times and some newly given, there are few long time residences, just some temporary human activities. For instance, there is a village called Yingsu at the lower reaches of Tarim River. A few villagers used to live there, but when the end of Tarim River dried up, the village was left empty and exists in name only. In 1995 when I passed by there, I just found relics. Thanks to environmental control during recent years, water comes back and vegetation recovers. When I passed by again in Feb. 2007, I saw newly built houses along the road.
However, most people neither live in wastelands, nor on the snow mountains, but in tree-shaded oases, far-reaching forests and beautiful grasslands. Although oases are surrounded by deserts and wastelands, they are abundant in water, trees, and soil and quite suitable for human habitation. Forests distribute among Xinjiang’s tall mountains and the vegetation is lush in valleys and along river banks. The vast prairie is God’s gift to Xinjiang and the ideal home of herdsmen.
Actually wastelands and snow mountains are just act as the distant backgrounds at the margin of life, and don’t seem to have much influence on people. Wastelands are like a portion of savings, and snow mountains are like a secret love. If you do have some relations with them, it’s sure for opening up wasteland or traveling. You have to endure sufferings while opening up wasteland, otherwise you can’t obtain fertile land; travel may also be tiring, otherwise you can’t see the beauty of snow mountains. Furthermore, to open up a wasteland is much better than lacking lands to plant; to explore a wonderland is much happier than being confined to everydayness.
Moreover, there are a lot of arid places in the world and they are not certainly bad. Mecca is very droughty, but it’s the holy land of Muslim around the world. The Persian Gulf suffers from drought, but it is the heart of the world’s oil reserve. Israel lacks fresh water, but it builds the advanced agriculture in the world. California in the United States is also dry, but there are Silicon Valley and Hollywood which have impact on world economy and culture.
Drought can’t be the reason for bad, just like wet can’t be the reason for good. Each condition has its strong points and shortcomings.
There are also Gobi and desert accompanying the drought.
Gobi and desert are two different concepts and relieves. There is no sand and dust on the surface of Gobi, but black blocks and carpolites eroded by sun and wind. But usually there are no blocks on a desert. Gobi is a place with blocks and no trees, and desert is a place with sand and no grass.
Neither desert nor sea, mountain and plain is an environment at our own choice, just like that we can’t choose to be born on the earth or on the Mars, determine the rise or fall of the earth’s crust, and influence the appearance of plants and animals.
But we can choose our attitude towards deserts, which is very important.
Desert is an expression of nature and we shall learn to communicate with it, otherwise we can’t understand it well. If we have an affection for it, we’ll observe the beauty of sand dune waves, feel comfortable with soft sands, and appreciate the characters of desert.
Desert is not a forbidden zone for life, or a name for worthless.
In deserts of Xinjiang people construct roads, open oil fields, and build hotels. There are reserves of fresh water, oil, natural gas and other minerals under the deserts. On the surface, psammophytes with great economic value can be planted for desert economy. Desert is also a particular place for exploration, tourism, photography, sunshine bath and sand treatment.
The first desert road in Xinjiang runs over 500 kilometers across the hinterland of Taklimakan Desert from north to south, and has significantly improved the transportation in southern Xinjiang. The reed grid sand-binding pattern invented by Chinese scientists and the tree planting of underground water have played a good role in ensuring road traffic safe and unblocked in deserts. The second desert highway constructed along Khotan River will also soon be finished. In the Uygur language, Taklimakan means “never get back if you go in” and some explorers died there before. Now you can easily travel across the second largest mobile desert by bus and may even enjoy a friendly feeling.
What other advantages does desert have? We are still not quite clear.
However, in an age of environmentalism when environment protection is highly stressed, desert does not only deserve adequate liberation, but can be a natural company in harmony with people. Now that the Moon and Mars can be imagined as migration destinations of human beings, desert beside us shall certainly not ignored. Maybe the days will come when deserts are ideal home to many people and sands are as pleasant and comfortable as lawn in front of the door. It may not take much time for human beings to realize such a vision. When the idea arrives there, technology will follow.
For the same reason, geographical distance in Xinjiang is also an absolutely relative concept.
Xinjiang, with a vast territory of over 1.6 million square kilometers, covers nearly one sixth of China’s land area.
Since it’s so vast, people may feel it’s quite far away.
In times before cars were invented such distance was hard to span, which usually took several months on foot or by riding. Travel across Gobi and desert was an uncertain fate.
Nearly 1400 years ago Monk Xuanzang had ever undergone such hardship and danger on his way to India to bring Sanskrit Buddhist texts back to China and recorded his experience minutely. He started from Dunhuang and got lost while traveling across the Gobi desert named Shahe. Although he was ever on the brink of death, he finally made his way to Yiwu Valley of Xinjiang with an indomitable will and God’s blessing. When he reviewed his journey across the Gobi dessert where there was “no animals, birds, water and grass”, he sighed that “these dangers and hardships couldn’t be described in words”.
Monk Faxian, who passed by there more than two hundred years earlier than Xuanzang, had a similar feeling. It took him 17 days to travel across deserts from Dunhuang to Shanshan Kingdom near Lop Nor. He described the journey as “full of deadly demons and hot airs which nobody can escape once encounter; there were no animals or birds, but skeletons of the dead as identification.”
At that transport time Xinjiang was truly a place hard to go. But nowadays with advanced technology in transportation and communication dangers and hardships that people used to face no longer exist. The long distance to Xinjiang can be easily spanned now.
Trains running across the southern and northern Xinjiang
The international and domestic air transport of Xinjiang is well developed, and Urumqi Airport is an important international airport in western China. The Lanzhou-Xinjiang Railway is double-tracking along the entire process, and even the remote northern and southern Xinjiang are accessible by railways. Freeway and highway networks connect major oases and important cities, and communication cables link Xinjiang with other places around the world.
Nowadays it takes some three to four hours by air, two days and nights by train, and four to five days by bus from Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou to Xinjiang. Sitting before a computer in Urumqi, you can chat or play chess online via broadband network with your friends in other places.
If we view from another angle and take Xinjiang as the transport hub and transfer center of the central Euro-Asia Continent, relying on modern technologies, Xinjiang lies right at the convenient crossroad.
That is all about Xinjiang’s natural environment. Those are Xinjiang’s deserts, Gobi and snow mountains. You can hate it, or love it. Whether to love or hate it is up to you.