Magical Sand and Heat of the Taklamakan Desert

“No more!” Joani yelled in frustration and exhaustion. “I am not taking another step.”

Joani began to argue on the crest of the great sand dunes of Dunhuang.

Hike up the sand dune was harder than we expected.
Hike up the sand dune was harder than we expected.

It was 8pm on July 21st and the golden sun was setting beautifully close to the horizon sending a warm breeze towards us as we struggled mightily to go up the sand dune edge. As we took one slow step after another, our bare feet sank deeply backers down into the sand such that it felt as if we remained in the same spot. We can visibly see the sand flying over the crest, quickly covering over the footprint left by the person in front of us.

“Look, we are almost there,” I pointed at the top of the sand dune.

Following another person's footstep was easier than taking the lead.
Following another person’s footstep was easier than taking the lead.

The truth was that I picked the tallest sand dune in our vicinity because I wanted to camp on top of the sand dune to see the sunset and sunrise at the highest point. I had never done it before, not knowing if it is even possible to camp on top of moving sand crests. We might have to hike back down if it is not possible. Although we hiked for half an hour, we were not even half way up. And now Joani refused to move.

“I am not taking another step unless someone carry my backpack,” Joani insisted as she continued to sob.

When it got really difficult, Joani tried imitating camel by walking on her hands and feet.
When it got really difficult, Joani tried imitating camel by walking on her hands and feet.

“As a dad, you should go to comfort her,” Annie reminded me.

“Why should I go? Why couldn’t you go? Why am I blamed for everything?” I defended, feeling frustrated at this unwelcome situation.

“She needs you. No one else can take your place. You have to go,” Annie looked straight at me and gestured strongly for me to go.

I struggled. My human nature wanted to be angry and not to be kind. My experience told me that I need to let down my pride and comfort her.

I plodded down the sand dune towards Joani who was still sobbing. I hugged her without saying anything at first. She hugged back.

“Let’s do this slowly. Step into my footsteps which will make it easier for you,” I told her gently after few minutes.

It was a long hike up the crest of the sand dune as we sinked down the sand with every step we took.
It was a long hike up the crest of the sand dune as we sinked down the sand with every step we took.

To my surprise she didn’t resist and followed me with her backpack while I led her holding her hand. That day I learned again the lesson of being s father.

As we were climbing up slowly again, to our surprise we saw the shadow of a figure climbing up an adjacent ridge towards the same peak as us. I tried to hurry up wanting to reach he peak before the other “invader” but the person was moving surprisingly fast. When we nearly reached the peak after more than an hour, we saw a local Chinese man in his thirties dressed in biking outfit sitting there as if waiting for us. He lived in Dunhuang but come here regularly to see the sunset.

We met a local biker who taught us how to best hike up the sand dune and to go down quickly.
We met a local biker who taught us how to best hike up the sand dune and to go down quickly.

“You should climb by digging your feet into sand at a 45 degree angle,” the biker yelled. “If you climb flat footed like what you are doing, your foot will simply sink in and you will make little progress.”

Previously Joani tried all ways of climbing the sand dune to see what would be the easiest. She tried climbing with her Teva. She tried without Teva. She tried climbing right on top of the crest and tried to the side of the crest. She even tried crawling on her hands and feet trying to imitate the movement of camels. When she heard the biker’s advise, she immediately dig her foot into the sand.

“Look! How fast I can go!” Joani scream in excitement.

Joani was running up and down the sand dune trying out the new found technique. I wanted to tell her that if you goes down, she has to come up again. But instead of dragging her feet and complaining, she was skipping like a goat on mountain cliffs.

Joani had lots of fun doing 'Sand Angels' on the sand dune.
Joani had lots of fun doing ‘Sand Angels’ on the sand dune.

“Doing ‘sand’ angel is so much fun!” Joani laughed as she lay on the steep sand slope while waving her arms and legs, creating an image of angel on the sand. “Look, I am swimming downward!”

Running down the steep sand slope was an exhilarating experience. It took 1.5 hours to hike up and only few minutes to come down.
Running down the steep sand slope was an exhilarating experience. It took 1.5 hours to hike up and only few minutes to come down.

All three children kept going up and down the peak playing sand angel, running down with large open strides, and doing leg splits on top of the crest. Only an hour ago, everyone of them were fearful of the slipping and moving sand. After they gained an understanding of the nature of sand, the children had learned to work with the sand, instead of against it. What seemed scary and formidable when new was now as if second natured.

Seeing the sun setting over the horizon on top of the sand dune was one of our most memorable experience.
Seeing the sun setting over the horizon on top of the sand dune was one of our most memorable experience.
The children had fun swimming 'Sand Angels' down the steep slope.
The children had fun swimming ‘Sand Angels’ down the steep slope.

“There goes a shooting star,” I pointed to the children. “It looks like a very fast streak of white flash that flies across the dark sky.”

We were all sleeping on top of the tent cover because it was too steep to put up a tent and the wind was also too strong. But when the moon dipped below the horizon, the night sky blossomed into thousands and thousands of twinkling lights since we were far away from the city lights. We saw the Milky Way Galaxy for the first time since our time in the Yi village of Yunnan.

We used the tent canvas as a floor covering and camped on top of it.
We used the tent canvas as a floor covering and camped on top of it.
The slope was too steep for a tent, so we slept under the tent canvas to keep warm and make holes in the sand to stop from slipping.
The slope was too steep for a tent, so we slept under the tent canvas to keep warm and make holes in the sand to stop from slipping.

“I saw a shooting star too!” Nathan yelled out. All of us begin to concentrate on the night sky waiting for the next appearance of shooting star.

While lying on top of the sand dune we tried to not slip down the slope by digging our butt into the sand. Although the surface of the sand was cool, if one dig under it, the sand was still warm from the earlier sun heat. We kept warmed by sleeping in the sand under the cover of he tent cover.

“My butt hole is too small!”

“Your butt hole is so hot!”

We all started laughing at these comments for the word picture that it brought to our minds.

As we camped alone on top of the sand dune, we saw galaxies of stars and counted many shooting stars streaking across the dark sky.
As we camped alone on top of the sand dune, we saw galaxies of stars and counted many shooting stars streaking across the dark sky.

When it was midnight we crawled out of the warm sand and sat on top of the sand dune.

“Happy 46th birthday!” The children congratulated me when midnight struck.

“This is so magical,” I sighed. “What a birthday to be able to celebrate it high up on top of a sand dune all by ourselves surrounded by star lights. Thank you God.”

The children surprised me with a birthday banner on top of the sand dune.
The children surprised me with a birthday banner on top of the sand dune.
Jumping for joy on my 46th birthday.
Jumping for joy on my 46th birthday.

Although it was dark and the wind was blowing all around us, the children began to play in the sand again doing sand angel and rolling down the steep sand slope. No longer were they afraid of the sand.

We waited in the cold on top of the sand dune for the sun to rise over the horizon.
We waited in the cold on top of the sand dune for the sun to rise over the horizon.
Seeing the sunrise as we woke up on top of the sand dune was magical.
Seeing the sunrise as we woke up on top of the sand dune was magical.

Two days later, we arrived at Turpan under 50C degree heat. Turpan is China’s Death Valley. At 154m below sea level, it’s the second-lowest depression in the world and the hottest spot in China. Although the train station where we arrived is 50km away from Turpan city, we could already feel the heat. By the time we arrived at the city, we were trying to find the next shade to kept cool.

All the food stall has these large water cooled fan at the tables for guests, without which would be unbearable.
All the food stall has these large water cooled fan at the tables for guests, without which would be unbearable.

“The heat is killing me,” Joani cried out.

I added, “The wind is scorching hot. Even under the shade, it is unbearable.”

“Make sure you find a hotel with really really good air-con,” Joani requested.

Of the whole family, Joani was the most heat sensitive. Naturally, the luxury item that Joani brought for the one year trip was a usb powered fan which was never an arm’s length away from reach. She used it on the train, the bus, and whenever it is hot.

With Joani’s request in mind, I found a hotel next to the bus station because I didn’t want to walk any more than I had to. I paid extra for a room with stronger air-con as promised. When we walked into the hotel lobby we all shouted with joy at the cool air. Entering our room, it was even colder! Strangely, when we come out of our room, the lobby suddenly felt warm, very different from when we entered from outside. And when we went outside of the hotel, we felt a gust of hot air which felt even hotter than before.

“I can just stay in the hotel all day and not go anywhere,” Joani declared.

The truth was that even I wanted to agree with her.

The desert heat and hot wind at the old ruin city was unbearable so 'Mr. Brave' has to take the heat for the family.
The desert heat and hot wind at the old ruin city was unbearable so ‘Mr. Brave’ has to take the heat for the family.

But after seeing all the air-dried mummies at the Turpan Museam, we couldn’t resist going out to see one of the largest intact ancient city ruin in the world called 交河故城. It is more than 2000 years old. However, the heat at this ruin city was even more than we had anticipated.

The city consisted of ancient gates, old government buildings, artisan area, Buddhist stupas, and storage houses, mostly carved out of the river clay bedrock. At the center of the city was a high point where one can see all the ancient ruin walls. There the ground temperature was close to 70C. We felt as if we were nan bread being baked inside an oven. All of our faces turned bright red from the intense heat.

The desert sun was unforgiving at the ruin city of Turpan.
The desert sun was unforgiving at the ruin city of Turpan.
The hot wind was around 70C such that all our faces turned bright red.
The hot wind was around 70C such that all our faces turned bright red.
The heat at the ruin city was so hot that we had to take refuge in small caves for brief respite.
The heat at the ruin city was so hot that we had to take refuge in small caves for brief respite.

Joani broke down under the intense heat, “This whole trip I didn’t complain when we had to hike, our camp in cold weather, or when I was hungry. But this is too much!”

After 3 days, 2 nights at Turpan, we took a bus to the train station that we originally arrived in.

“It is so cool here!” Joani said happily.

Eating yoghurt shave ice was the best way to stay cool in the 50C weather of Turpan. We ate them at least 3 times a day.
Eating yoghurt shave ice was the best way to stay cool in the 50C weather of Turpan. We ate them at least 3 times a day.

“Isn’t it strange that when we arrived here 3 days ago, we felt this place was so hot. Now, it is cool. Isn’t funny how everything is so relative,” I chuckled.

How interesting that we could so quickly adjust to the magical sand and heat of the Taklamakan Desert!

we made it to the top of the sand dune!
we made it to the top of the sand dune!
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One thought on “Magical Sand and Heat of the Taklamakan Desert”

  1. So real your complaint n inner pride…day by day I experience the same … Sometimes I can’t be patient any more n yell to my kids….Very bad of me.
    Annie’s reminder is wonderful….well…U have a cool mind but she has a warm sensitive heart.

    no need to say much but a magical hug will do.

    Thanks for sharing …this also reminds me my climbing experience at 火燄山…

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