WHERE THE HELL? Northwest China, 3,000 miles west of Beijing. WHAT IN THE WORLD? To the resident Muslim Uighurs, the 125,000-square-mile Taklimakan is "the desert of no return." Bone-dry riverbeds and dunes second in size only to the Sahara's have left its interior uninhabited, and most expeditions that have challenged it without motorized vehicles ended in disaster. Swedish explorer Sven Hedin lost 12 camels during his 1893 expedition (Hedin and his men survived by drinking the camels' blood). Now you can get in on the fun. From the small farming village of Tongguzbasti, China, Uighur guides can take you six days on foot to the ruins of an eighth-century fort at Mount Mazartagh, where trucks await to transport you up dry riverbeds toward Aksu, at the Taklimakan's northern edge. You probably won't have to crawl from the wasteland on hands and knees à la Hedin, but the sight of the Aksu's green poplars should still leave you whimpering. ACCESS: Don't try turning up at the Taklimakan on your own. KE Adventure Travel ($4,300; 800-497-9675; www.keadventure.com) can take you from Islamabad, Pakistan, across to Tongguzbasti, and will organize your truck pickup on the other side. RISKS: Hurricane-force spring sandstorms can choke the air as high as 13,000 feet. ESSENTIAL: A copy of Charles Blackmore's 1994 out-of-print ode, The Worst Desert on Earth.
WHERE THE HELL? India, 450 miles northeast of Calcutta. WHAT IN THE WORLD? Surrounded on three sides by tightly controlled Bhutan, tourist-paranoid Myanmar, and off-limits Tibetan China, India's Arunachal Pradesh has until recently taken its restrictive cues from its neighborsoutsiders were barred from the region's northernmost reaches for over a century. Finally looking to expand tourism, last March the government invited field biologist George Schaller and guide Jon Meisler to plumb the area's untapped trekking prospects. Linking timeworn hunting and trading paths and crossing raging streams on swinging bamboo bridges, the two charted a 150-mile route connecting sea-level subtropical rainforest to 16,000-foot passes below the Gori Chen peaksand found a region little changed since the British Raj closed it in 1875. The trek offers the prospect of exploring an uncommercialized Himalaya calmly unaware of the 20th century's passing. "This area has never had tourism," Meisler insists. "Period." ACCESS: Call Meisler's High Asia Exploratory Mountain Travel Co. ($5,100; www.high asia.com). They have the first U.S. permit to guide in Arunachal Pradesh in November. Solo travel is still prohibited. RISKS: Rickety swinging bamboo bridges may not be up to code. ESSENTIAL: Small giftslighters, pens, photos of the Dalai Lamaare diplomatic olive branches in this region.
Southern Siberia and Altai Mountains
WHERE THE HELL? Central Asia, between western Mongolia and Tuva, Russia. WHAT IN THE WORLD? Russia's autonomous republic of Tuva is a bastion of nomadic sheepherders whose hybrid of shamanism and Buddhism was disrupted by years of Soviet communist rule. Just over the border west of Ulaangom, Mongolia's arid, monochromatic steppes dissolve into sprawling grasslands that roll out beneath glaciated mountainscapes. The result is a forgotten realm where prayer flags are surrounded by the odd offering of vodka bottles and where Tuvan throat singers (who recently took America by storm) have been left alone long enough to learn to sing two notes at once. Mongolian nomads sleep in gers (a type of yurt), riding horseback over roadless terrain framed by the 14,000-foot Altai Mountains. The entire region remains an unwired world where camels, horses, cattle, and sheep far outnumber two-legged inhabitants. Just getting here is the closest thing to time travel the world can offer. ACCESS: Sign up for Geographic Expeditions' ($5,990; 800-777-8183; www.geoex.com) 24-day trip in July through Tuva and Mongolia. RISKS: Few. The guerrilla fighting affecting other central Asian republics hasn't penetrated this far east. ESSENTIAL: A digital audio recorder, to make bootlegs of multioctave Tuvan throat singing.