There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Friday, 8 August 2008

Turpan, Ruined Cities of the Silk Road: Part 4 of the Chinese Silk Road

Sleep comes easily with the gentle rocking of a moving train, and vanishes as quickly when the rocking stops. Somewhere in the night we had a long stop in the wind-scoured desert. Then we were moving again, but this time in the opposite direction. This would have been mildly disconcerted had not the rocking lulled us back to sleep.

Sunset over the Gobi Desert

We had watched the sun set over flat and featureless desolation. Morning brought more of the same, but not quite so flat. Low cliffs trailed aimlessly through a landscape punctuated by odd heaps of grit, like a vast builder's yard abandoned at the dawn of time. Empty culverts channelled non-existent water away from the railway line and there were several outbreaks of nodding donkeys - there is oil and gas below the grit. The odd patch of greenery was accompanied by sad, neglected buildings, and twice, in the middle of nowhere, we passed huge industrial plants, their black smoke a sharp edged stain on the blue desert sky. We seemed to take forever to pass a distant wind farm

Wind Farm in the Gobi
Despite feeling that we were going in the wrong direction, we duly arrived at Turpan station an hour or so late.

Dragging our cases, we joined the crowd pushing past the ticket inspector and emerged into the small square of a frontier town. Around the perimeter stalls were being set up, but despite this activity, there was a peculiar air of nothing happening.

No one seemed to be there to meet us. Then we saw a man holding up the base of a cardboard box and staring at us with a worried expression. We walked towards him. Encouraged, he walked towards us. When we were right in front of him we could see our name, or some approximation to it, scrawled in ballpoint pen on the cardboard. We identified ourselves and the man looked relieved. He pulled a phone from his pocket, dialled a number and passed it to me.

“Hello, I’m Rana, your guide.” The voice had a distinct American twang. “My train has been delayed by high winds. I am sorry. I am still in Urumqi, but the driver will take you to your hotel. I hope to be able to join you for lunch.” 

I returned the phone to the driver who pocketed it, smiled and took charge of our cases. “Our guide’s late,” I told Lynne, “wrong sort of sand on the tracks.”

Turpan station is a small settlement some thirty kilometres from the city itself. Beyond the square we drove through an area of industrial dereliction as ugly as any we have ever seen, and then we were crossing the grit of the desert on a straight and well-made road.

After twenty minutes, grit gave way to vineyards and we were in Turpan. Pleasantly bright and clean, it was big enough to be a city yet small enough for the feeling of being in an oasis to be ever present. The wide streets with a regular grid pattern were very Chinese, but among the usual buildings, others were of very a different design. Domes and arabesques reminded us we were now in Central Asia, well beyond the Chinese heartland. In the Xinjiang Autonomous Region the ethnic majority are Uighers, a Turkic people whose language is written in a modified Arabic script. They make up 80% of Turpan’s population and it was strange seeing Arabic signs jostling for space with the Chinese lanterns.
Turpan, the wide streets on a regular grid pattern are very Chinese

Our hotel and its courtyard occupied a whole block approached by a narrow road off one of the main thoroughfares and it was here we first encountered Xinjiang security. The driver was stopped and told to open the boot. Satisfied that it only contained suitcases we were waved through. At reception, the staff searched our cases before checking us in, though this was done with such polite embarrassment I doubt they would have troubled a genuine evil-doer. Apparently convinced we had not come to blow them up, they provided us with a pleasant ground floor room overlooking a garden, and a belated and much needed breakfast.

Lynne had a rest and I took a walk round the city. After a cool morning, it was warming up and I moved slowly, observing the locals to see if I could tell Uigher from Han Chinese. Those wearing the distinctive four-cornered Uigher hat made it easy. There were many others whose faces and colouring were clearly not Chinese though they did not advertise the fact with their headgear. With the majority, however, I was unsure. If 80% of the people I was seeing considered themselves Uighers, then there must be plenty of Chinese looking Uighers and inter-marriage was common, and had been going on for a long time. The physical differences between Chinese and Uighers, I discovered, would become more pronounced as we travelled further west.

Turpan oasis is famed across China for its grapes, and much of the land is covered with vineyards. A pedestrian street roofed with a vine-covered trellis passes through the town centre. It is pleasant to walk through China’s hottest city in the dappled shade of trailing vines. That, at least, is the theory and it so very nearly works. In late July the grapes were ripe - some two months earlier than in Europe – and in the fields the harvest was in full swing. In town only the birds were harvesting the trellised grapes and many inevitably fell to the floor. This was good news for the large and healthy gerbil population, but meant that the marble surface was uniformly sticky with grape juice. All progress along Qingnian Lu was accompanied by the sound of shoes tearing themselves from the pavement. It is, I am sure, preferable to chewing gum, but harder to avoid.

Qingnian Lu, Turpan
Cartloads of melons were stationed at road intersections, the donkeys and drivers waiting patiently for custom. Donkeys are easy to find in the countryside, but this was the first time I had seen donkey carts in urban China.

A Turpan melon donkey
(photographed that evening)
When Rana arrived there was no doubting her ethnicity. A slim and very attractive girl in her early twenties; her skin was too brown, her eyes were too round and her shoulder length dark hair had too much body for anyone to think she was Chinese. Her American accent, she said, was due to an American teacher. Like all the other guides we met, she had never travelled outside China.

We visited a Uigher Restaurant for lunch. The heavy wooden furniture, staircase and balcony could not have been less Chinese. Rana asked, somewhat meekly, if she and the driver should eat with us. We said ‘yes’, aware that although it is normal for guides in the Middle East and North Africa to eat with their clients, the Chinese invariably disappear to a table on the far side of the restaurant. The food was different, too, as were the eating utensils. Chopsticks were available but most diners used metal spoons. The mutton pilaf, with a yoghurt accompaniment, was purely central Asian while the 'macaroni' dish [it was actually laghman, of which much more later, but I did not know that at the time] - also containing mutton – was a reminder that Marco Polo had passed this way. Mutton kebabs were already slightly too familiar, but here they were in their heartland, not the exotic dish of a minority community.

Finding the pilaf a little dull I reached for a pot of what I took to be chilli pickle and dug in a spoon. “Stop!” Rana said urgently, almost shouting. “It’s chilli.” “I know,” I said, letting a dollop fall onto my rice. I mixed it in and was transferring a spoonful to my mouth when she said: “Perhaps you should try a little less.” I ignored her well-intentioned advice. She and the driver waited expectantly for an explosion that never came. It was actually not particularly hot, so I stirred in some more while the driver sat slack-jawed with amazement, shaking his head as though witnessing an event as rare and remarkable as the eclipse.

In the afternoon we visited Jiaohe on the edge of the oasis some nine kilometres east of Turpan. Everywhere, grapes by the million were being packed into boxes for transport to market....

Grapes ready to go to market

It is, however, not fresh grapes that make Turpan famous but raisins. Every road was lined with grape drying houses, single storey mud brick cubes with a lattice of missing bricks to allow circulating air to slowly shrivel the hanging bunches of grapes into intensely sweet green raisins.
Grape drying houses line the road
The city of Jiaohe had a spectacular setting. Ten metre high cliffs at the confluence of two dry rivers provided a plateau with secure naturally defences on three sides, while a ditch protected the fourth. The city was founded around 100 BC as the capital of the Jushi Kingdom. Around 450 AD it became part of Tang dynasty China and remained so until the ninth century when it briefly became part of the Uigher Empire before being overrun by the Kyrgyz in 840. Being on the Silk Road ensured the city survived all these changes, but as the importance of the Silk Road waned Genghis Khan paid a visit, after which the Jiaohe was abandoned.

Jiaohe - a site with natural defences

Walking through the ruins the street plan is discernible - even where modern paths have not been laid - but the mud brick has spent seven hundred years reincorporating itself into the desert and the buildings are too far gone to work out what they were.

Through what remains of the streets of Jiaohe

The central Buddhist temple is obviously the remains of an important building and I circled it three times in a clockwise direction to show proper devotion and ensure our share of good luck.


The Buddhist temple, Jiaohe

Looking through the ruins and across the ravine to the grape drying houses beyond, it is easy to see that building methods have not changed that much. The sandy colours of the buildings ancient and modern blending so well that through half closed eyes it was impossible to tell which was which.

The old walls and the modern grape drying houses blend remarkably

On our way back we stopped to see the karez underground irrigation channels. While Turpan has fertile soil but minimal rainfall, water is plentiful in the snow-covered Tian Shan Mountains, so an underground canal was dug from the mountains to the city. They sank a series of vertical shafts, tunnelled from one to the next and so allowed gravity to deliver cool, clean water all the way from the mountains to the people, the gerbils and the vineyards they share. We descended the rocky steps into the cool interior and watched water flow from darkness, through the section lit for tourists then off into more darkness.

The longest canal in the Turpan area runs for over 30 kilometres and altogether there are almost a thousand with a total length of some 5000 kilometres. The earliest karez date from the second century BC and are similar to the qanats in Iran. The Chinese, reluctant as ever to give credit to anyone else, claim their system is entirely different. It is not, though the earlier Persian system was slightly more sophisticated; a combination of qanats and wind towers allowing them to maintain a supply of ice in the middle of the scorching desert. The concept, like so much else, moved along the Silk Road. It came east to China, spread west throughout the Middle East and was picked up by the Romans. They built qanat systems in North Africa, from where the Moors took the idea to Spain. The Spanish in their turn built qanats in South America. The water running cool and clear in Turpan to this day is testament to much visionary hard work many hundreds of years ago and to the importance of the Silk Road.

Karez underground irrigation system

Although Uighers are Muslims, and China has no great wine making tradition, it would be contrary to human nature if this land of vineyards produced only table grapes and raisins. Outside the karez well, we sat at a large wooden table to taste three local wines.

Poured by a girl who looked Chinese but was, Rana assured us, Uigher, we first sipped a light fragrant red, like a red Muscat, then a wine labelled Cabernet Sauvignon, which tasted as if it might have been but probably was not, and finally a wine made from wind-dried grapes with more than a passing resemblance to Tuscan Vin Santo. Pleasantly surprised by the quality, I would have taken a bottle of the wind-dried wine home, had the open bottle not been the last they had. As it turned out this was a blessing though, at the time, well disguised.

Later, while fruitlessly searching Turpan's poshest supermarket for 'wind-dried grape wine', my eye fell upon the familiar black label of a much-respected Irish whiskey. I was surprised to see it priced at 50 pence until I looked more closely. Perhaps 50p was indeed a reasonable price for a bottle of ‘Bushtits Single Malt Whiskey’. I was amused but did not buy any – a failure I have regretted ever since.

The following morning we drove through the Flaming Hills towards the ruined city of Gaochang. From afar the shimmering heat, reddish rocks and floating clouds give the impression that the hills are ablaze, whilst from the middle distance they resemble a sleeping red dragon. Well, that is what the Chinese tourist authorities want you to see. The less imaginative can easily observe a small range of very hot rocky hills.

The Flaming Hills
near Turpan
The sixteenth century epic ‘Journey to the West’ is a highly fictionalised account of the adventures of the seventh century monk Xuanzang and his companions on their quest to fetch Buddhist texts from India*. Once beyond the borders of China they meet all manner of grotesques, particularly in the Flaming Hills where flesh-eating demons were the least of their problems. We, on the other hand, drove through with remarkable ease, passing the ‘Journey to the West’ theme park on the way - if a fenced off rectangle of desert containing several camels and few statues can be called a theme park. Charitably, we decided it was a ‘work in progress’.

Nearing Gaochang, we ran into the first of the countless roadblocks that we would meet in Xinjiang. It proved one of the more difficult as our driver was not displaying a current insurance sticker. The policeman had him out of the car for a long, serious lecture. The necessary sticker was, it turned out, in the glove compartment and our driver sheepishly extracted it and stuck it on the window. After much finger-wagging we were allowed to proceed.

The ruins of Gaochang date from the same period as Jiaohe and are similar, though without the dramatic setting. The advantage Gaochang does have, however, is a working public transport system. Beyond a corrugated iron gate in a corner of a vineyard, donkey carts were waiting to take visitors to the centre of town.
Riding into Gaochang on 'public transport'

We clopped along steadily, passing ruined walls, large and small, standing at all sorts of angles, making it impossible to discern streets or houses or much of a road plan.

Walls in Gaochang, though nobody has any idea what they were the walls of

Lacking Jiaohe’s natural defences, Gaochang has been vulnerable to military and non-military attack. Long ago the locals discovered that the stucco covered mud bricks made effective fertiliser and they have been ploughing them into the surrounding fields for generations. Ancient monument abuse is not a peculiarly Chinese idea - stones from Hadrian’s Wall are incorporated into many Northumberland farmhouses - and it stopped the instant they realised there was more money to be made out of muppets like us who come to see the monuments. Not that there were many, or indeed any, other such muppets the day we were at Gaochang. There is, of course, important archaeological and conservation work being done but judging from the rebuilding of the central hall and the scaffolding all over the Buddhist temple, the authorities seem more concerned with over-restoration than conservation.

Over-restored Buddhist temple, Gaochang

Ignoring the building work and walking slowly through the ruins we tried to recreate the city in our minds. The wind soughing gently through the shattered walls became the sound of long-dead merchants haggling in the bazaars. We imagined women making their way to the wells where now wild watermelons struggled in the parched soil, their fruits perfect miniatures of the cultivated plant....

Wild watermelons, Gaochang

...and lizards skittered in the sand. It was some time before we returned to our donkey who was waiting patiently to transport us back to the modern world.

Well camoflaged lizard, Gaochang

Leaving Gaochang, we returned to the Flaming Hills, survived another roadblock and made our way to Bezeklik.

The Bezeklik Caves were hewn into a ledge below the lip of a steep valley. Like the caves at Mogao they contained a treasury of Buddhist art from the great days of the Silk Road. Being a much smaller site, we were able to see most of the caves, but there was, sadly, little worth seeing. The arrival of Islam in the tenth century had moved religious fanatics to scratch out the face of every Buddha, angel and demon. The arrival of Europeans in the nineteenth century saw collecting fanatics spirit away any murals that might have survived the Muslims. The arrival of the Red Guards in the twentieth century inspired political fanatics to destroy anything that had survived the Europeans and the Muslims. We saw only sad hints of former glories.


The Bezeklik Caves
At the end of the terrace, an old man in a four-cornered Uigher hat sat with a rawap - a four stringed guitar-like instrument - on his knees. He needed little persuasion to play folk songs, and the only other visitor, who had obviously come from far less distant parts than us, sang along. The tune was central Asian, entirely unrelated in style to the singing of the porter in Huashan.

Rawap player, Bezeklik Caves

Returning towards the oasis we saw dozens of houses marching in straight lines across the desert. They had been built to house people displaced by the Three Gorges Dam. Three years before we had watched the destruction of whole towns that would pose an obstruction to shipping when they were covered by the waters rising behind the newly completed dam. We were assured the Chinese government had gone to great lengths to house those displaced. Now we were looking at the promised replacements. They were all empty. The buildings are good, but who could possibly live there?  clearly not even the desperate.
Resettlement home near Turpan

Amid the greenery on the edge of the city, the Emin Mosque was built in the eighteenth century by Prince Suleiman and named in honour of his father Emin Khoja. The region had recently been incorporated into China by the Qing dynasty, but they treated their empire with a light touch and encouraged their supporters in the building of the mosque. Uighers have been Muslims since the tenth century but after decades of communist repression, religious observance in Turpan is not overt. We walked round the elegant building and its well-tended grounds, the beneficiaries of much government cash.

The Emin Mosque, Turpan

Perhaps significantly, the building is no longer in use as a mosque. The huge pepper-pot minaret, at 44m the highest in China, was like nothing we had seen before, but photographs suggest it is a cousin to those in Samarkand and Bukhara.

Inside the Emin Mosque

After lunch we walked out to a small artificial lake in the south of the town. According to Rana it was the place where everything happened, although obviously not in the heat of the afternoon. Olympic Rings sat in the centre of the lake and there was a promontory of decking with a gazebo. The music, blaring from loud speakers disguised as ornamental rocks in the flowerbeds, was turned off as we arrived. Empty tables were set out along the far side beyond the waterless fountains. We were almost the only people there. Walking round the lake, we found a family feeding not the ducks as they might in England, but the carp. The children squatted on the bank and the adults passed them titbits. The bright red carp beat the water to foam in their feeding frenzy.

Feeding the carp, Turpan
A little further on we came across a few people seated at tables set up outside a shop. The owner pointed to an empty table and we needed no second invitation. It was not a bar as such, but in true Chinese entrepreneurial style they were selling whatever customers needed, and on a hot afternoon a cold beer was exactly that. A telephone stood on a table outside the door. Few people have telephones at home and there are no public phones, but mobiles are so common that ‘phone shops’ have become hard to find in Beijing and Shanghai. They were, as we discovered, alive and well throughout Xinjiang.

At nine o’clock the car park outside the posh supermarket was transformed into a night market with kebab cookers, sausage salesmen, chicken vendors and a beer stall. Mutton kebabs were, as ever, ubiquitous, but there was also other sheepy parts impaled on the scimitar like skewers. ‘Westerners don’t eat liver and kidneys,’ Rana told us when we discussed it the following morning. Fortunately, no one had told the man who sold them to us. The second night we had a chicken. Brought to the market ready cooked it was dismembered by the stall holders own fair hands and plonked on a bed of crisp but unrecognised salad vegetables before being covered with a thin cold sauce. It was good, if not without the risk of food poisoning.
Turpan night market

Full of chicken, we followed the crowd back to the lake which was almost unrecognisable from our earlier visit. Hundreds of people were milling around, some of them dressed in their finest. There were children on little rides, teenagers jumping in and out of the now gushing fountains and adults buying lottery tickets and sucking ice creams. The Chinese love of neon had been given full reign, the gazebo glowed purple and garish strips covered every edge and reflected in the rippling water. The Olympic rings, now in appropriate colours, revolved in the middle of the lake. Rana had been right, this was where everyone went.

They do like a bit of neon
Happily unpoisoned, I went out next morning to buy supplies for our train journey. It was eight o’clock, but I seemed to have Turpan to myself. Strolling around in the cool, clean morning air I eventually came across a butcher taking delivery of his day’s meat, but could not buy even a bottle of water.

Delivery at the butcher's

All Chinese time is Beijing time. We were now so far west that clock time and natural time were some two hours apart. Hence, the night market at Turpan started as those in Shanghai closed down, and the shops were closed when most Shanghainese would be going to work.

Returning to the hotel I found a baker had fired up his oven in the roadway leading to the entrance. Mrs Baker passed roundels of dough through the window and Mr Baker placed them on a moistened pad and pressed them into a mixture of onion and coriander before carefully leaning over and patting them onto the inside of his tandoori-like oven. Then he pulled out a half done loaf with a metal spike, moistened the other side and stuck it back. I joined the small crowd jostling against the oven’s concrete surround and waved a banknote. Five minutes later I was the proud owner of a Uigher naan, a 20cm disc of unleavened bread with a thick raised rim. I carried it back to Lynne in triumph, the sole product of my shopping expedition.

Breakfast at the hotel was interesting though not for the food. Every day we had two fried eggs and half a sausage, garnished with tomato and cucumber. It was the same ‘western’ breakfast for everybody and the places were laid with knives and forks. Although Lynne and I have become fairly proficient with chopsticks we have, over the years, provided amusement to fellow diners as we learned the art. I think, therefore, I am entitled to get my own back by enjoying the Chinese struggling with knives and forks. I had never realised there were so many different ways to hold them, and so many ways to attempt to transfer food from plate to face. Many were only partially successful; often leaving those attempting to look worldly and cosmopolitan with, quite literally, egg on their face.

We returned to the station at mid-morning and this time passed the X-ray inspection with ease. Inside, a large, ebullient woman who was clearly in charge checked our tickets and mother-henned us into seats in the appropriate waiting area.

As the time for the train approached, she took up her position on the gate to the platforms. The doors to the toilets were just to her right and poorly signed. I spotted a man inadvertently wandering into the woman’s toilet, and seconds later a woman beetled out and spoke to the Woman-in-Charge. She pointed at the errant pee-er, still hidden from the view of the waiting masses and started to give him a lecture. She made sure she was loud enough to attract everybody’s attention, and when the man re-emerged covered in confusion, eighty faces were pointing in his direction, most of them laughing. It was cruel, and he reddened dramatically, but seemed to take it in good part. Then the train arrived and we all surged through the gate and into the tunnel.

Possibly to prevent the recently humiliated from jumping, the Chinese are obsessed with allowing nobody onto the platform when a train is moving. Security guards held us all back at the tunnel exit as a goods train passed slowly through.

Everybody was searched as they boarded the train. Our two large cases posed a problem and the carriage attendant sent us to find our compartment with the promise that we would be searched later. She turned up twenty minutes into the journey when we had given up on her and stowed our cases. Never have I seen anyone go so meticulously through so much dirty laundry. Eventually, satisfied that we were not carrying a knicker-bomb, she left us in peace.

Sharing our four-berth compartment was a well-dressed official. He was clearly a man of some importance as he was travelling soft-sleeper class, but not important enough to use the Kashgar air link. The Chinese are often, sometimes unjustly, accused of being xenophobic. Our official was clearly terrified by two foreigners suddenly arriving to share his billet. He was also intelligent enough to realise that his fear was largely irrational. We watched him grit his teeth and try to carry on as normal. We smiled and tried to give him as much space as possible. He needed it.
The train approaches the Tian Shan Mountains
We spent some time perched on the folding seats in the corridor, which are fine except that you have to move every time somebody wants to walk past. We took pictures during the day and sipped Chinese vodka when it became dark. How I wished for some Bushtits Single Malt Whiskey.
* and, of course, the inspiration for Damon Albarn's Monkey: Journey to the West which premiered in 2007.

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