Yining is the Fruit Garden City, but pollution throws an unhealthy, yellowish sheen over the flat landscape. As the sun burns off the haze, the Tian Shan Mountains come into view. We climb into the Borohoro Shan and stop to admire the alpine scenery around pristine Lake Ebinur. A local entrepreneur wields an old Polaroid camera and earns a two-euro coin from me for his artistic capture of my profile. He bites the coin in comic test of its value.
We drive through a region called Dzungaria, home to the Dzungar people, vast steppes, and rich reserves of flora and fauna, including the sable, snow leopard and, yes, the much-feared Dzungarian dwarf hamster. Watch your ankles.
Day 4: Urumqi to Hami, 373 miles
Urumqi (say oo-room-chee) is a moderately sized boomtown of two million souls that lies further from an ocean than any other spot on earth (shout "surf's up" and all you'll get is blank stares). Its skyline, a mix of decrepit concrete apartment complexes and soaring glass office buildings, illustrates the immense gulf between the affluent and the very poor in China. Like every other city we've visited, a pall of pollution makes everything appear in soft focus; there's a catch to my breath.
In the Tarim Basin, the second largest sand basin in the world, the horrible smog lifts slightly to reveal China's largest wind farm. China is currently the world's second largest energy consumer, with most of its needs provided by burning cheap, dirty coal. Alternative energies are crucial, or the nation's air will continue to befoul the atmosphere.
We descend into the Turfan Depression, the lowest point in China. Entering the old quarter of the town of Turfan is like passing into a slower era, when time was marked only by the sluggish turn of the seasons. The Uighur people have lived here for centuries, carving out an oasis amid the hottest climate in China. Grapevines flourish on the snowmelt that's collected into some 3000 miles of subterranean channels, preventing the precious water from evaporating too quickly in the over 130-degree F summer heat. It's an ideal 70 degrees F during our visit, and we watch local women separate luscious raisins for sale in the market. I buy an exquisite Pashmina wool shawl, CDs of Uighur music and several old propaganda posters, including a young Mao frolicking with happy children and a fatherly take on another 20th century monster, Josef Stalin.
Day 5: Hami to Jiayuguan, 398 miles
Hami. You know, like in the famous Hami melons. No? Actually, the melons come from Shanshan, further east, but Hami took the credit long ago and it stuck. Hami's another wide spot on the ancient Silk Road that has grown in size over its 2000 years of existence. Named by the German geographer Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen, the Silk Road transported spices, glass, porcelain and silk for centuries, fading only with the coming of the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1916. Rail now carries most of the trade through these empty reaches.
Much of the day is spent skirting the Alashan Shamo, the largest and most inaccessible sand area of the Gobi desert. We've entered Gansu Province, where agriculture and livestock still contribute more to the economy than the burgeoning processing industries. It's easy to get too comfortable behind the wheel, as there's never much warning before one of China's thousands of traffic hazards gets in your way. It's not unusual to come across a vehicle traveling in the opposite direction on a divided highway, and once a group of kids on bikes played chicken with us in the fast lane. Then there are the camels.