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 previous, slower era, when time was marked only by the slow 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 snowmelt collected into some 3000 miles of subterranean channels, preventing the precious water from evaporating too quickly in the 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. China seems far away from this Islamic enclave with its open markets full of multi-hued fruits and vegetables and its many spired and domed mosques. I could stay here for days, but we have a long, desolate drive ahead.

Day 5: Hami to Jiayuguan, 398 miles

Hami. You know, as in the famous Hami melons. No? Actually, the melons come from Shanshan, further east, but Hami took the credit long ago and the credit 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.

Most 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 growing processing industries. It's easy to get too comfortable behind the wheel, as there's never much warning before one of China's countless traffic hazards gets in the 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 all those camels...

Day 6: Jiayuguan to Lanzhou, 466 miles

We visit the fortress at Jiayuguan, built in 1372 at the western end of the Great Wall. For a long time, it was the only refuge for traders on the Silk Road. Up to 30,000 soldiers were once garrisoned at the huge complex, which was partially destroyed during the rampages of the Red Guard. Only heavily eroded remnants of the Great Wall remain standing outside the fortress.

About halfway to Lanzhou, we come across a large section of wall that shows the ravages of both time and looting for building material. A lone shepherd wanders over to find out what this group of cars portends. He silently suffers our clicking cameras and mutely refuses any offer of compensation for his posing. His quiet gravitas touched us with an almost spiritual caress. A magical place, resounding with history.

We reach Lanzhou at dusk in a crush of rush-hour traffic. The former garrison town, now the capital of Gansu Province, houses more than 1,000,000 people and sprawls on both sides of the Huang He, or Yellow River. I can't believe the drive is ending and wish I could stay on for the final leg into Beijing. I give car #11 a final, affectionate pat and silently thank it for safely ushering me from the modern world into history and back again. I clasp the hand of my co-driver a final time, gather my bags and walk away from one of the finest automotive adventures of my life.

By Greg N. Brown
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