Day 2: Almaty to Yining, China, 283 miles

The city's free-for-all is quickly left behind. Congestion is replaced by all manner of transport, from donkey-powered carts to cheap Commie cars belching smoke. Lots of older Audis; not much other Western machinery. It's hard to gauge lane discipline; there are no lanes, painted or implied. Overtaking is like entering a no-man's land thick with mines and sudden crossfires.

We're on the old trading route that connected the Far East with wealthy Europe, which craved the silks and spices transported thousands of miles on the backs of camels. Like those caravans of old, our group stays together, but not for protection from bandits. A helicopter has been hired to provide aerial coverage for a film documenting the journey, so we're followed for miles by the swooping, swaying chopper. A long, dusty drive on a deeply wrinkled dirt track takes us to the red sandstone cliffs of Sharyn Canyon. I marvel at the car's quiet comfort as we crawl slowly along the rutted road. However, we linger too long on the canyon's edge. We must cross into China today and the sun is already falling toward the horizon.

A short stop just shy of the border. Meet and greet local dignitaries, and enjoy a local dance troupe that twirls brightly in front of the civic hall. We join in the tradition of dipping pieces of fresh-baked bread into tiny dishes of salt and listen to a local singer belt out a magnificently incoherent tune. Then, we're off... into China.

We've been warned of possible difficulties crossing the border. It was probably much the same early in the sixth century, when this border town of Korgas was an important post on the Silk Road. Today, it's clogged with trucks waiting for permission to cross in one direction or the other. Sure enough, the three American-spec E320s have slight discrepancies in their respective manifests. A couple hours of bureaucratic wrangling later and we're all friends, enjoying a quiet chuckle over the little misunderstanding. We're quickly dismissed and make our way to a celebration of our arrival in the town of Yining.

Day 3: Yining to Urumqi, 426 miles

The western reaches of China, remote in distance and economic progress to the financially powerful provinces along China's coast, are home to rich deposits of the materiel the giant country needs to sustain its current rush into the future. But China's `Wild West' is also home to separatist movements claiming the support of such indigenous peoples as the Uighur, who are largely Muslim, speak a Turkic language and are ethnically different from the recently arrived Han Chinese majority. We are driving through what most maps call Xinjiang Province, but which the Uighurs call East Turkestan.

Fields stretch off into the dying dawn. Yining is the `Fruit Garden City' but foggy pollution throws an unhealthy, yellowish sheen over the flat landscape. As the rising sun burns off the haze, the Tian Shan Mountains fade into view. We climb up to the Borohoro Shan and stop to admire the mountain scenery around pristine Lake Ebinul. 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. We spot none of the above fauna and the flora is all hunkered down against a bitingly cold wind.

Reception at the Mercedes-Benz dealer in Urumqi. Pretty girls, entertainment from a famous Chinese classical pianist and colorful drinks make a fine end to a long day.

Day 4: Urumqi to Hami, 373 miles

Urumqi (oo-room-chee) is a moderately sized boomtown of two million that lies further from an ocean than any other spot on Earth (shout `surf's up' there and all you'll get will be blank stares). Its skyline, a mix of decrepit concrete apartment complexes and soaring glass office buildings, speaks of 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 that reveals unhappy lungs.

In the Tarim Basin, the second-largest sand basin in the world, the horrible air pollution lifts slightly to reveal the largest wind farm in China. Currently, China is the second-largest energy consumer in the world, and most of its needs are provided by burning cheap, dirty coal. Alternative energies are crucial, or China's air will continue to befoul the atmosphere disproportionately and poison its citizens.

By Greg N. Brown
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