Tales from the Western Furnace
Part One: Turpan- The Long Vine Interwines with my Thoughts
A handful of hours on a bus would do it. I stuff my extravagant nylon bag into the holding area, wondering if I’d ever see it again. With a lot of shady looks coming out of a busy Urumqi, I remained ambivalent. It was 2007, and I had just arrived in the Autonomous region’s capital. Emerging from the train station, the melting pot of ethnic minorities stunned me; accustomed to the black hair and brown eyes of the Han, the multifarious (although predominantly lighter) skin colours and assorted eye colours made me feel both at home and completely lost. This was to be my time in Xinjiang: a sparsely populated region larger than Alaska, brimming with over fifty incredible nationalities, encompassing a geographical palette of shimmering desert aquarelles, taiga pastureland dotted with flocks of sheep and grand mountain ranges.
I boarded the bus, full of old Uighur ladies donning their silk headdresses and conservative floral clothes. There I was, unshaven, sporting a Chengdu-bought Baleno polo shirt. Not only did I look foreign, but I looked silly. Another woman, possibly the oldest on the bus, supported by a wizened old staff, flashed a toothy grin, small nuggets of gold lining the edges of her mouth. Appearances can be deceiving, I thought to myself, and recalled that Xinjiang sits atop 30% of China’s oil reserves.
The destination: Turpan. A legendary oasis, an important stopover for the northern route of the silk road, and best known as the “point of inaccessibility” – 154km below sea level, the second-lowest depression in the world (after the Dead Sea), and counted as one of the ‘Furnaces of China’. Not a drop of water in sight, as the bus drops through the grey cliffs into the Turpan Basin. It was the end of June, and the height of summer; the wind stopped dead, and the landscape changed from vast wind farms to a dry and desolate desert oasis. The driver nonchalantly enabled the air conditioning in the bus, and not a moment too soon. A wash of searing heat assaulted my eyes, forcing them shut. As I opened them, nearing the end of our travel, a pale-skinned, ginger-haired man turned round to face me. His russet-coloured eyes glittered as he looked into mine, as if appraising my gullibility. After exchanging tentative greetings, he tried to persuade me to join a guided tour of the surrounding area.
“So how about it, foreigner?” he asked, smiling wryly.
“Not today,” I replied guardedly.
“Grape?” He asked, holding out a punnet he was hiding behind his seat.
His accent was strange, his Chinese sounding almost foreign. It was these idiosyncrasies, coupled with bad grammar, that I’d come to get used to. Eventually.
Once I got off the bus, I was greeted by the hustle and bustle of a popular desert city. Uighurs lined the pavements, idle and car-spotting. The sweltering heat put a haze over everything I could see, waves of hot air filtering my gaze. So I decided to take a walk. The dusty, tree-lined streets conjured up a glimpse into the Turpan of old. Horse and carts were making their way west, unsettling the makeshift roads. It wasn’t too long until the Sunday market was to start in Kashgaria. After walking into the centre of town and getting something to eat at the bazaar, I decided to frequent the local museum. Apart from a mummified Tang dynasty dumpling and some small exhibits from Gaochang, there was nothing that caught my eye. I decided, upon recommendation from my red-haired friend, that the real excitement was to be found outside of town, in even hotter environs. Fastening my lucky nylon bag, I head to the side of the road to ask the locals where to find a driver. After a while deciding between themselves whose turn it is to speak Mandarin, they told me to stop anybody. So I did, and thus began my two-day relationship with the enthusiastic Mr Zhen.
I was told frankly by Mr Zhen that there were some “very good” sites around Turpan, and some “not so very good” attractions. Predictably, I asked for the former, and we started at the grape-producing village of Tuyoq. Set in a valley fringed by the Flaming Mountains, it has been a popular pilgrimage site for Muslims for centuries. Indeed, according to Mr Zhen, seven trips here equal one trip to Mecca. What I learned later was the mazar, the symbolic tomb of the first Uighur Muslim, was located here, but he didn’t take me there. We passed scores of grape orchards, but again, we dared not to stop there – Mr Zhen had other plans for me. The sun was high in the sky, and he wound up through the valley, opening out to a most majestic sight.
The Flaming Mountains most certainly deserved their name that day. Etched by volcanic activity, the red sandstone hills cross the entire Tarim Basin from east to west. I was told that its midday appearance is aptly compared to multicoloured tongues of fire. It was portrayed in one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature, Journey to the West (Xi You Ji 西遊記) as a mountainous inferno that the monk Tripitaka (Xuan Zang 玄奘) had to pass through. Thankfully for Tripitaka, Monkey (Sun Wukong 孫悟空) managed to obtain a fan with which to extinguish the blaze. In the Uighur version, a hero slays a child-eating dragon living within the mountains (its blood, therefore, is the colouring) and slices it into eight pieces which each represent a valley around the area. From personal experience, I can vouch for the former explanation; I failed at traversing the mountains myself, and the camel ride didn’t help much.
After a sizzling stop atop the Flaming Mountains, Mr Zhen told me the next journey would be a short one. Amidst jingling bells, I saw through the window a great, sloping red valley and a great structure seemingly carved out of it. It was the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves, grottos dating from the 5th to 9th centuries, and a welcome escape from the heat. Some murals had been tampered with by Muslims and Red Guards, and some were removed by foreign adventurers, but the caves that were untouched were simply gorgeous. Murals of hundreds of Buddhas, colourful and depictive, it was a welcome sight, reflecting the close relations that existed between the Mongolian, Uygur and Han ethnic groups. The caves had been the Buddhist centre of Gaochang, which was my next stop.
Originally settled in the first century BC, Gaochang 高昌 rose to power in the seventh century under the Tang and became the Uighur capital in 850 AD and a major staging post on the Silk Road until its ruin in the fourteenth century. Texts in classical Uighur, Sanskrit, Chinese and Tibetan were unearthed here, but unfortunately the ancient oasis city didn’t grasp my attention as much as the other set of ruins near Turpan, the Jiaohe 交河 ruins. Slightly more obvious than Gaochang, Jiaohe was established as a garrison town by the Chinese during the Han, and it is one of the largest, oldest and most preserved ancient cities. As I walked through its winding, ghosted outline, a warm wind washed over my face. I felt like I was walking through its time in the Tang as the seat for the high-level military post of a Chinese commander in the West. With the road leading ever westward, I could envisage sentries constantly on the lookout for those dastardly Xiongnu. This, and a wind-borne dreamlike state left me with a lasting impression of the memorable area. It was about time to head back into Turpan, and wind in the slow night.
A traditional Uighur music, song and dance show? A group of young Uighur men urged me to come and see a lively performance in a local club. Risking being dragged out to dance with the performers (and possibly by my new friend Mr Zhen), I consented. And, to be sure, in the end I lost the battle to stay in my seat. After an awkward and highly embarrassing debacle followed by courteous applause, I sat down once more, vowing silently never to move from this seat again. This vow, however, was quickly broken as I was beckoned by the very locals I had met earlier. Grinning from ear to ear, they commended me for my bravery as they were popping away grapes and drinking the local beer. Steering away from the beer-water, I ask if I could try some of those plump-looking grapes. Indeed, they were delicious and fat, and I was told that they come from an area that I drove past under the blazing sun. I couldn’t help but recall the punnet of grapes I was offered that morning by my red-haired friend with a soothing voice. Perhaps I should have tried them sooner… Like the grapes I drove past under the noon sun, adventurers stray away from many areas in the Muslim-prominent Xinjiang, woefully underappreciated by the swathes of tourists hopping off planes in the friendly invasion that is the modern Grand Tour of China. But once savoured, it reveals an alternative insight into a far-flung province that has been inextricably linked to the Middle Kingdom for centuries in an endless push-pull relationship. After tasting the first delicious grape, I continued my adventure further west.