Turpan, ancient oasis of the Silk Road, 2009

At the half time point in the Silk Road tour we flew from from Dunhuang to Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang Province and recent scene of a considerable amount of anti-government protest. The whole state was under an information blackout imposed by Beijing, with no access to the internet, mobile phones or foreign TV channels. In fact, if we hadn’t been with the China Travel Service I’m not sure that we would have been able to go there at all. As we travelled around the region we did see a few other tourists but very few. We were reassured that phone calls to the family at home could be “arranged” through the hotel staff if necessary but, since I’d already warned everyone I’d be out of touch, I didn’t bother. The greatest difficulty I encountered was in getting hold of money with all the ATMs being out of operation. I will write more about the political situation later but for the time being I was really more interested in access to the historical sites that I’d come all this way to see.

We drove to Turpan, ancient oasis city of the Tarim basin and splitting point of the North and South caravan routes preparing to traverse the great Sea of Death, the Taklamakan Desert. I knew a few touristy snippets about the “mare’s nipple” grapes and Marco Polo’s first encounter with spaghetti but was unprepared for the charming welcome that awaited us. The obligatory evening display of local folk dancing (by obligatory I mean that they felt obliged to provide it, not that we were obliged to attend) was held under the grape arbours as it seems was just about every other event. It was actually possible to reach up and snip a bunch whenever you felt like it although it was better to ask the hotel staff who always seemed to know where to find the sweetest. I feasted on them for several days being so heartily sick of the banquet style meals that were served to us at least twice a day.

I promised to explain more about the food, didn’t I? I don’t know who had preceded us on these trips and I’m not going to point the finger at any particular European nation but CTS’s idea of hospitality was to arrange huge, multi-dish menus at every stopping place. I got to the stage when I thought that if I saw another revolving centrepiece loaded with elaborate dishes I’d have to go on hunger strike. “Resting” gave me the excuse to miss out on some of these meals and I’d try very hard to leave out as much starch as possible but the most irritating aspect of this constant feeding ritual was the amount of time it wasted. All the members of the group felt the same but we had had to negotiate with a new local guide in each region. The Uyghur style of cooking in Xinjiang Province was spicier, mercifully pork-free and altogether more digestible but it was horrible to continue seeing so much food being prepared and then wasted in a region of real poverty.

The ancient sites were all that I could have hoped for, all the more so for being almost deserted. The great city of Goachang flourished two thousand years ago under a people named the Yuezhi before the widespread introduction of Buddhism. They practised Manichaeism, a cosmological religion derived from ancient Mesopotamia but also accepted Nestorian Christians and Buddhists into their midst. The mud brick walls are heavily eroded but the remarkable natural preservation that takes place in these desert regions has led to the discovery of some of the oldest textiles in the world. In the nearby underground burial chambers of Astana were found naturally occurring mummies and wonderfully preserved grave goods. Jiaohe is even more spectacular for all it’s state of degradation because this city stood high on a bluff between two branches of the river and can readily be imagined in all it’s wealth and glory. It looks pretty spectacular on Google Earth as well.

The nineteenth and early twentieth century the European archaeologists who discovered this region did an enormous amount of damage. In particular a glory-hunting German gentleman by the unusual name of Albert Von le Coq who invented something called the “fox tailed saw” with which to remove entire panels of cave decoration. If memory serves, many of the pieces that he took back to Germany failed to survive World War II and I like to imagine him as a chicken, chased down through eternity by a pack of ferocious, saw wielding foxes. The sands cover these cities and the sands will reveal them again one day, there is still such a lot to be discovered in this remote part of the world. Let us hope that enough of it remains hidden until the time is right.

No visit to Turpan is complete without a stop off to see how the Karez irrigation system works. I have found a diagram that shows how a series of wells drill down to the rock basin, allowing water to be channelled from the mountain slopes while remaining underwater and safe from evaporation by the fierce sun. This system has been maintained for thousands of years but it probably supplemented by more modern methods today. The city gardens exhibit an almost unearthly green glow and whole streets are shaded by arbours of ripening grapes. We even received an impromptu invitation to a typical Uyghur wedding, where we had our introduction to a very special type of Islam: the type which allows men and women to socialise together, to dance and sing and enjoy the fruits of the vine under its bountiful canopy.

Turpan is a place to fall in love with, a place to remember forever.

Categories: Central Asia, China, Far East

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