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Crossing the 'Sea of Death'

Three a.m. and 30 degrees below zero, but the press pack is awake and eager. A kilometer away, a spot of light pierces the dark. It's the headlight on Wang Longxiang's motorbike as he approaches the finish of the Hotan Riverbed stage of his ongoing odyssey across the Taklamakan desert in China's far west.

This leg of his journey began 40 hours ago, and the final kilometer takes him half an hour.

When he makes it to the marquee where wait the press corps which have accompanied him since he set off from Aksu on December 27, he's almost too stiff to walk, moving more like a badly-controlled puppet than a man.

"It's too cold for him out there," says Tian Qinghua, Wang's mechanic. "When he's on the bike, wind-chill drops the temperature by 5 to 6 degrees. But he can't wear extra protective clothing because that would make his body warmth fog up his visor."

Testimony to the hardship of this, the most difficult leg of his whole journey: the windshield on the motorbike is broken and the on-board thermometer has stopped working. It gave up the ghost at 25 degrees below zero. Tired and frozen as he is, Wang, slow and hesitant, talks to the reporters.

"I fell asleep on the bike several times, I was so tired," he says, gratefully sucking at a Zhonghua cigarette, his favorite brand. "The sand is uneven, but with the snow covering it, it's impossible to see its undulations. So I had to drive with extreme care."

Facing a punishing schedule, however, Wang wasn't able to get off the bike for long - just a few cigarette breaks and a couple of bars of chocolate came between his careful negotiation of the snow-covered river bed.

"But the dark and treacherous desert holds no fears for me," he says. "I know all of you are waiting for me ahead."

Then it's time for a much-needed meal - two bowls of noodles with lamb, green peppers, and scrambled eggs - and six hours of hard-earned sleep, before the next leg of the journey.

It's only when the makeshift welcome camp is being packed up that someone thinks to ask the name of the bald 100-meter hill that forms its backdrop -"Mazhatage." The next day, a local Uygur resident will tell them that, in his language, the word means "tomb."

But the omens are hardly any better the next day - for Wang's journey draws to a close under an archway inscribed with the words "Sea of Death."

And on today's trip those words have nearly come true - it was so cold that Wang had to stop and make a roadside fire. He refused to be beaten, however, and after his impromptu warming session got back on his motorbike and made it to the end of the stage two hours ahead of schedule.

Five thousand kilometers away his friends and neighbors in Shanghai are celebrating this day - January 1 - as they always do; but there are fireworks here in the desert, too. And as they light up the sky, Wang says that he feels his remote location somehow makes the moment more special.

"I drank a little and slept a while before the ceremony here in the 'Sea of Death'," says Wang, smiling from ear to ear - something of a trademark with him.

Wang welcomes the New Year with a live interview for viewers back in Shanghai via satellite.

The first day of the New Year saw the end of his long journey, with a 330-kilometer dash out of the desert.

By 10 a.m., those last few kilometers have been eaten up, and, after riding 1,562 kilometers across the world's second largest desert, Wang has reached Luntai Town, the finish post.

A few minutes later, he stands on a platform at a downtown square, amid the glare of flash bulbs and applause of the crowd. Proudly, he displays a certificate. It reads "Wang Longxiang, who rode a China-made 'Loncin' brand motorcycle to finish a return crossing of the Taklamakan Desert in winter has set a Guinness record."

( 02/13/2001)

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