At the very foot of the Flaming Mountains, the vast system that defines the arid Tarim Basin of western China, Dan Buettner's AsiaQuest team is beset with illness and fatigue, yet it bikes on.
"Today we visited Toyuk, a village just outside Tarim," said expedition leader Buettner. "The surrounding countryside heaves with barren, time-scarred buttes and ridges. They make South Dakota's Badlands look like a botanical garden." But Toyuk itself, fed by massive underground glacial flows, is verdant and fertile.
At Gaochang, archaeologist John Fox's fatigue was heightened by gloom. "For me," Fox said, "ancient ruins are like churches. They still feel inhabited somehow by the spirits of those people, and for me, that makes them sacred." The once magnificent city is now in ruins, and worse. "Tumbling walls and mounds of tombs stretch as far as the eye can see. But walk in any beautiful, eroded ruin and you're faced with broken bottles and used toilet paper."
Fox's spirits perked up at the dark grottoes at Dunhuang. "Wealthy merchants and pilgrims, heading west on the Silk Road, made donations to monks here to paint dedications to their god, insurance against the dangers and evils that lay ahead. For three hours, looking at these paintings, my mind reeled with images of Buddha, repeated over and over in vivid colors, like passing through several Sistine Chapels."
Deborah Hardt, the team's video producer and only vegetarian, almost had her spirits lifted too, when a restaurant offered Dragon Eyes Rice. "It sounded just perfect," she said. The dish was raw pig's fat stuffed with peanuts.
A modern-day merchant on the Silk Road finally made the entire team's day. "We pulled up by a guy with a handmade stove on the back of his bike," said team biologist Christina Allen. "He's rigged a blowtorch underneath the stove, and with a hand crank turned the stove fast as he poured in a teaspoon of plain sugar. Soon filaments of wispy sugar started blowing in the air, and voila! Cotton candy on chopsticks!"
Hardt received the first treat.
Everyone is welcome to follow the AsiaQuest team on its adventures along Marco Polo's route on China's fabled Silk Road. All you have to do is log on to Classroom Connect and follow the links to AsiaQuest. Your educational adventure starts at http://classroomconnect.com. You can also review dramatic pictures of the Quest by going to its sister site, http://shopems.com/asiaquest/stories/asia.
Remar Sutton will continue to report on AsiaQuest over the coming weeks.
CAPTION: AsiaQuest's John Fox walks along sand dunes outside Dunhuang in western China. U.S. schoolchildren are following the group's journey on the Internet.
CAPTION: This Uigur farmer in Toyuk gives his new friends the thumbs-up. He invited the team into his mud home for a lunch of bread, raisins and watermelon.
CAPTION: Expedition leader Dan Buettner holds up a can of peanut milk in a small village near Korla.