The desert spectacle from the train window doesn’t fill me with as much disquiet as a view of an oceanic horizon.
It’s comforting to know that although parts may be impassable and whole towns have been lost in the sands, the surface is not a nothingness. Unlike the ocean, a desert is not an immense, unknowable environment. It may be inhospitable, but you can at least see what’s happening on top.
And there’s a lot going on in the Chinese Gobi, as seen from the train anyway.
Power lines criss-cross the land, drawing power from the wind farms planted where people can’t be. In more hospitable areas, where once desert reigned or farmers struggled, trees are reforesting some areas to tie down the loose soils. Tall concrete piles cut a swathe above the landscape from Jiayuguan to south of Urumqi and are destined to float a new railway line above the treacherous ground.
Tyre tracks in the desert’s grey gravel coating are environmental garbage left by the poor suckers who have to man the fields of windmills that stretch into the horizon. Or from the army tanks using it as a playground.
Scrubby little greeny-yellow plants only a hand span in height provide a break from the grey-stone and white-clay vista, and traces of old stream beds suggest at occasional rains.
Around the bleakest town I’ve ever seen, Liuyuan, the sands are replaced by black hillocks of rock, which are mined for gravel. The dust clothes the town in grey and blots out the sun, making it look just like I’d imagine a northern England mining town in its heyday would.
The landscape is spotted with small oases. Every so often a clutch of trees and some pitiful fields will come into view as evidence that there are people out there, trying to make a living on the edge of their habitable world.
But it’s not the human element that makes the desert less psychologically uncomfortable than the ocean. It’s the idea that out there you could survive, maybe, and the impression that it’s more knowable than the sea because it’s land.
All of which is totally flawed. Deserts like the Taklamakan, next to Kashgar, have eaten whole towns alive and for the unwary novice and expert alike are just as mysterious and dangerous as the sea.