Part VI - Out of the Taklamakan Desert and through the village oases of the northern Silk Road, then back to Kashgar
Day eleven | 14 September | Taklamakan to Korla
Today involved a great deal of sleeping and there is not much to write, save that we went for an early morning desert walk up and down the dunes. We arrived in Korla after completing our overnight desert journey, and spent an hour looking for a hotel that could accept foreigners (another unusual thing here - don't expect you can stay in any old hotel). We had a late lunch of polo (pilav/pilau). Delicious. Juicy pieces of orange and yellow carrot, succulent lamb, raisins and stewed, dried apricots. The best polo ever.
Day twelve | 15 September | Korla to Bosten Lake to Turfan
Breakfast in the hotel: tasteless dumplings, cold pickles with veggies and warm milk with sugar. Left around 10:00 Beijing time for Bosten Lake. Xinjiang is unofficially two hours earlier than Beijing, but we've found everything to run on Beijing time, which is the official timezone for the entire country. Bosten Lake - the largest in Xinjiang and one of the largest fresh water lakes in China - is located 2 hours from Korla and we had to pay an exorbitant 20 yuan each just to get in.
This was out first experience of Chinese tourist-ification - the systematic payment for entry, the consistent over-development and the regular bus-arriving hordes of domestic tourists. Thankfully, the third of these was absent and the lake was quiet, except for the local fishermen. The place itself was not remarkable, but the light was good and storm clouds were gathering across the lake, so it was atmospheric.
The onward drive to Turpan was smooth, along a highway through dry scenery. Turban was reached in the evening and we shared a kind of hot-pot for dinner at the night market.
Day thirteen | 16 September | Turfan
The next two days have been allocated to visiting Turfan, where there are apparently a plethora of sights. Turfan itself is a small, but sanitised, laid-back city - the second lowest depression in the world at 130m below sea-level (second to the Dead Sea), and the hottest place in China (reaching 50° celsius which isn't doesn't sound so extreme to me..!). We certainly came at a good time; the whole trip we've met with excellent weather - warm days and cool nights.
First stop was breakfast across the road from the hotel. Boiled cow milk with a little salt and cream on the top. It was enjoyed with some delicious friend vegetables and freshly baked, crusty bread. The first visit of the day was to Jiaohe Ruins, just outside the city limits.
Among the earliest settlers of this area are the Indo-European speaking Tocharians, who had populated the Tarim and Turfan basins no later than 1800 BC. From the years 108 BC to 450 AD the city of Jiaohe was the capital of the Anterior Jushi kingdom, concurrent with the Han Dynasty, Jin Dynasty, and Southern and Northern Dynasties in China. Jiaohe is a bit less than 2000 years old. It was an important site along the Silk Road trade route leading west, and was adjacent to the Korla and Karasahr kingdoms to the west.
The city was built on a large islet (1650 m in length, 300 m wide at its widest point) in the middle of a river which formed natural defenses, which would explain why the city lacked any sort of walls. Instead, steep cliffs more than 30 metres high on all sides of the river acted as natural walls. The layout of the city had eastern and western residential districts, while the northern district was reserved for Buddhist sites of temples and stupas. Along with this there are notable graveyards and the ruins of a large government office in the southern part of the eastern district. It had a population of 7,000 according to Tang dynasty records.
It was finally abandoned after its destruction during an invasion by the Mongols led by Genghis Khan in the 13th century.
The ruins were visited by the archaeologist and explorer Aurel Stein, who described "a maze of ruined dwellings and shrines carved out for the most part from the loess soil", but complained that a combination of local farmers' use of the soil and government interference in his activities prevented examination. The site was partially excavated in the 1950s and has been protected by the PRC government since 1961. There are now attempts to protect this site and other Silk Road city ruins.
Our first reaction when we arrived was shock at the sheer number of domestic tourists. Bus loads followed by bus loads, flowing thickly along the pathways. We started at a small information centre where they had some photos and information on the site. Several tour groups were inside at the same time, each trying to out-speak the other with their amplifiers.
The second reaction was amazement at the site: it was the ruins of an ancient, Silk Road city, located on a willow-shaped plateau surrounded on all sides by deep river valleys. The city itself - houses, temples, roads and government buildings - had been dug out of the earth. Very impressive. But you did have to use your imagination. Sometimes walls and windows could be made out, but it was mostly lumps of earth growing out of the ground. Most of the tourists only went to the observation deck, so we had much of the rest of the site to ourselves.
Groups of men, and a few women, were gathered around pens of sheep and goats; examining, bargaining, buying and selling. It was a lively atmosphere. The most interesting part of it were the fascinating faces, peering out from under small caps, Mao hats and large sun hats. We in turn generated a lot of interest. Next was Emin Minaret. Again, an exorbitant entry fee (30 yuan each). Emin Hoja, a Turpan ruler, founded this Afghan style mosque in 1777. It was nicely built - strong wooden beams and adobe walls and ceiling. Next stop was the livestock market. We arrived too late, but there was still some action going on. Large traders with big trucks, as well as small Ma/Pa outfits with their mule-drawn carts. Groups of
Next stop was the "lowest lake in the world", at least according to Zunun. A long drive through a terribly dry terrain to an empty and cracked lake bed. The salt flats were found by digging a little into the ground; salty, muddy water would emerge and dry into salt crystals.
Day fourteen | 17 September | Turfan to Urumxi
We thought we were going to Tuyoq Valley, but ended up, after passing the Flaming Mountains, at Bezeklik Caves. The guide book recommends avoiding them, so instead of spending more money on the Tourism Department, we decided to spend it on some local camel owners, who took us for a short side up into the desert. We rode them up a steep incline to the edge of a sprawling, mountainous desert which we then continued to explore on foot. The colours of the sand and rock were astounding - white and black and yellow, orange and swirling red.
Next stop was Tuyoq Valley. This is essentially an old Uighur settlement which, unlike all others, has been preserved for tourism. It consists of the village itself, the mazar (cemetery) with the important tomb of the first Uighur Muslim, as well as Buddhist caves dating back to the 3rd C. AD. The village has been a pilgrimage site for Muslims for centuries. It is claimed that 7 trips to Tuyoq equal one trip to Mecca.
The village was very pleasant, but small. We encountered one family which had set up a small chaikhana in the main room of their house. We sat for a kokchai and grapes and only realised later that - like the other tourist spots we'd visited - the prices would probably be outrageous. However, our host seemed unwilling to accept any money for the tea so we gave him a big tip.
We visited the caves which are kept locked up and maintained by a Uighur gentleman. The walls and ceilings were covered with Buddha figures, or what was left of them, in pastel colours. Almost all of the faces had been scratched out. This happened at the time of the Cultural Revolution, we were told.
On the way back to Turfan, we passed another sweet village, surrounded by hectares of grape vine. We took a few minutes to venture into the vineyards, which are wonderfully well kept. The vines rest on shoulder-high support beams, so you crouch-walk under a canopy of shaded vine leaves and grapes. This was much more pleasant than the super-touristic "Grape Valley" we visited back in Turfan. In the evening, we packed our bags, said farewell to Zunun and took a 2 hour bus ride to Urumxi, where we took a room in a hotel next to the bus station that night.
Day seventeen & eighteen | 20 & 21 September | Urumxi to Kashgar
The highlight of our time in Urumxi was most definitely the Regional Museum. It had three sections. The first was on the different ethnic groups of Xinjiang, including displays of their costumes, handicrafts, jewellery and houses. This was very interesting, despite constant references to the Motherland and the Unity of the Chinese People that read like a lot of brainwashing. The second section dealt with the history of Xinjiang. Again, heavily propagandised. All displays were in Chinese, Uighur and English. This section continues upstairs with a display of mummies, dating back to 1800BC, including the Loulan Beauty. They were wonderfully well preserved - hair, teeth, nails, skin, eyelashes and clothes. There were two men with intricate face tattoos. Unlike the images of the mummies discovered in peat bogs in Europe whose shapes were flattened and deformed, these mummies looked quite human - one could imagine them getting up and walking out of the museum.
The final section of the museum was a little different, almost hidden away in a back corner of the building. There were no English signs, but it was clear that it was dedicated to depicting "the glory" of the Revolution. It displayed documents, clothing and lots for weapons. I was surprised when a chained band of prisoners were led into the exhibition by an escort of police. They were all Uighur, very quiet and peaceful. I guess it was an attempt at some sort of rehabilitation.
Urumxi is large - it's full of big buildings, huge roads, shopping complexes. It feels very cosmopolitan. One evidence of this is the restaurant we found ourselves in after wandering the city streets - The Vine, managed by a women from Caracao!
The 24 hour bus for Kashgar was supposed to leave at 8, but left 1 1/2 hours later, stopping after 10 minutes for a dinner break. The bus was a smorgasboard of sensual overload - stinking feet, blaring music from the TV hung at the front, men shrieking into their phones. It was three rows of berths, one on the floor level and one level above. The seat-beds were surprisingly comfortable - the lower part for the legs was flat, but the upper back and head part of the beds were raised, like hospital beds. Good for sleeping. The view was nondescript and constant. The desert stretching out to the left side (the South) in a flat, yellow-grey expanse; dry, "flaming mountains" to the right side (North). The mountains took on a beautiful colour in the afternoon light as we neared Kashgar.
Day nineteen to twenty-three | 22 - 26 September | Kashgar
The last days of this journey in Xinjiang have been spent in Kashgar, before Luc heads back to Pakistan and I carry on to Tibet. We have timed our journey so we could visit the famous Kashgar Sunday market. It wasn't quite as amazing as expected, however. We arrived at 9 and thought we had missed the main event, but it turns out the vendors were just starting to set up. The crowds swelled later in the day; the city is supposed to increase by 50,000 people on Sundays because of the market.
There were two sections to the market - one was a large, covered section that sold all manner of items, such as second hand clothes and shoes, carpets, household cleaning appliances, tea and dried fruit, leather wear, etc, etc. Outside of this section along one street was the fruit and vege market, where old men and women came on their donkey carts to lay out their produce. There was another market elsewhere for livestock, but we didn't make it to this one.
Here we end our journey from Pakistan to China. Join us soon on the next series of this travelogue, spanning the entire Tibetan plateau.