Kashgar’s Sunday livestock market draws farmers and buyers of different ethnic groups from all over the region in a great show of noise, dust and smells. It’s a bustling, boisterous affair with animals, vehicles and people pushing past each other with a constant din of haggling, herding and general gossip. It’s very much a male dominated arena, I could probably count the number of women here on my toes.
Cattle, fat-tailed sheep (which have the odd appearance of having huge overhanging buttocks), horses and even a few straggly looking camels are all on sale. Bartering is done by fingers and great theatrics of pride on behalf of the seller and disdain on behalf of the buyer with animated waving of arms and grimacing until both parties agree and money changes hands.
The heat, sun and dust are blinding but it’s a great place to dive into and submerse yourself in the chaos of it all.
It’s not for the faint hearted if you’re sensitive to animal welfare – for the large part, the animals are either a form of currency too big for the wallet, or future slabs of meat, depending on which side of the buying line you’re on, and are treated with as much respect. Sheep are kept on long chains of looped roped through which their heads are put through, the bulls end up trying to fight one another or mate anything that moves and the camels seem to be in a constant state of panic.
Wandering around here without breakfast gets a hunger on, luckily I find the guys making lamb mince bread at the back. I guess the meat’s fresh at least …
Kashgar was a major hub in the Silk Road days. To the south lies the Karakoram Highway to Pakistan, the west is Kyrgyzstan with Afghanistan and Tajikistan in between and Kazakhstan further north. More Stans than you can shake a stick at. Being at such a strategic crossroads surrounded by regions ruled over by competing factions and warlords, it’s changed hands more times than a hot potato at a hot potato changing hands competition:
754 Tibetan Empire
840 Karakhanid Khanate
1041 Eastern Karakhanid
1134 Karakhitai Khanate
1218 Mongol Empire
1225 Chagatai Khanate
1392 Timurid dynasty
1524 Yarkent Khanate
1697 Dzungar Khanate
1759 Qing dynasty
1867 Emirate of Kashgaria
1878 Qing dynasty
1913 Republic of China
1933 East Turkestan Republic
1934 Republic of China
1949 People’s Republic of China
The people here are mostly Uighur with Tajik, Kazakh and ancestors of a host of other peoples who came in its heyday and never left. In the last twenty years a significant number of Han Chinese have moved here as part of the government’s resettlement programme, the cynic might say to Sinicise the area, something that doesn’t go down well with the more traditional inhabitants who are strongly Muslim. There’s a strong feeling of control going on here including posters displaying what is considered appropriate Muslim dress and what is forbidden (including hijabs, niqabs, veils of any description and any beards considered excessively Islamic). It’s not a touristy town, in fact many Chinese stay away from the area believing it to be some kind of hotbed for terrorism. It’s safer than a lot of Western cities that I’ve been in.
I’ve missed seeing the original old town. The historic buildings were torn down a few years back and replaced with a new old town made from concrete and sprayed with a synthetic mud to give the appearance of the original style. If you don’t know that it’s surprisingly got a very historic feel to it, largely due to the streets being filled with people selling all kinds of wares as it probably once was – various bazaars cater for different specialities including metal work, spices, carpets, musical instruments and hats. Oddly, it seemed every few shops popped up a back street dentistry … maybe not.
While not Turpan heat, it’s still hitting low 40’s and with clear skies the sun is packing some punch. Ramadan is on, meaning the Muslim population are fasting during daylight hours and have taken on a decidedly lethargic attitude to everything. It’s contagious and a few hours of wandering the streets is enough to fog the mind and call for a siesta followed by a cold beer or two. There’s a good crowd in at the hostel, this pattern seems to continue for the next few days. I’m happy to turn down the pace a little after the last 10 days or so of constantly being on the move in the heat.
Evening brings more respectable temperatures and the day’s end to the fast kicks off with the opening of the night market street food, which the locals descend on with the vigour of hungry locusts. There’s all sorts of food on offer here, some recognisable, some not. I’m game to try just about anything including the sheep’s head, but I draw the line at stomach (bad experience in Morocco) and the “Fountain of Dysentery” – a dubious hose firing white liquid of some sort into the air and back into an entirely unsanitary looking trough. Good call as it happens, I meet someone later who tried this one and ended up three days in bed. It’s a noisy bustling affair, you squeeze onto tables where you can and get shouted at if you linger too long. Sensory overload.
I’ve arrived in Kuqa as a watery sun struggles to pierce the early morning smog. I’m a bit tired and grumpy from the overnight train due to sleep deprivation – it was an all-night circus going on with the Chinese lack of concept of personal space or consideration that people might be trying to sleep on a sleeper car, possibly so named from a Confucian sense of irony but I’m doubting that.
The hard sleeper cars are chicken coups set up in bays of two lots of three tiered bunks open to a narrow corridor the length of the carriage. It’s open game to have long conversations with someone at the other end of the carriage at a volume to overcome the distance, the noise of the train and the noise of other people doing the same. Add into this the curse of the Chinese mobile phone addiction which means people playing games and movies at competing volumes (nobody has heard of earphones seemingly) and the curious Chinese habit of a) watching your phone for a good minute while the ringtone plays at full volume before answering it and b) putting the phone on speaker mode then holding the speaker to your ear, then holding the phone out in front of you and yelling as loudly as possible (repeat this cycle for a good 15 minutes minimum). This went on all night.
My first impression of Kuqa is “what the hell have I come here for?”, possibly due to aforementioned sleep deprivation, possibly due to it being ugly and smoggy as hell. I’m more interested in getting out of the city to some of the remote sites but even my best haggling powers struggled to get a driver down below NZ$100 for the day – seems the distances were more than I realised and nobody was that desperate for business. I figure to cut my losses and catch the next train on to Kashgar, but that turns out to be at 2am the next morning, 20 hours away. I book that and go for Plan B – find a cheap hotel, get a shower and catch up on some sleep. At the hotel, I meet a couple of Korean and Chinese tourists who are wanting to head out to a canyon in the desert and figure I might as well chew up some time and tag along.
After a long drive through dust flat desert we reach a mountain chain and, shortly afterwards, the mysteriously named “Mysterious Grand Canyon of Tianshan”. The mystery being “what’s so mysterious about a canyon in the desert?”.
It’s a narrow cleft a few hundred metres deep with a thin stream running through with some nice sandstone patterns. Along the way up we reach a side canyon with the mysterious sign reading “… the whole valley twists and turns leaving anyone roaming inside with an endless aftertaste”. A bit like eating Durian fruit then.
Further up the canyon gets narrow enough to almost be a squeeze to get through before ending up at a small waterfall (more of a water-trickle really). The drive back through the dusty plain and intense heat send me off to a blissful slumber.
I figure I might as well visit Kuqa’s one site to visit, a mausoleum and palace from the days when this was an important city in the now defunct country of Kashgaria. It’s pretty run down and a bit of a fizzer so I wander back through the markets, but even here it seems everyone is in a kind of torpor. Time for that shower and bed before the 2am train, which, as luck would have it, I find in a dreamy state of dormancy, not a sound. I’m rocked to sleep as the train pulls out, headed south the old capital of Kashagria itself.
The train glides into Turpan, the doors open and a wall of heat normally only found inside a fission reactor greets me. It’s the evening and the temperature is a bone dry 47 degrees. A bit like sticking your face into an oven on gas mark 6 to see if it’s heated yet.
Despite being thousands of kilometres from the nearest coastline, Turpan sits at 154 metres below sea level in the second deepest depression in the world. Daytime temperatures are hitting low to mid 50’s. Maybe I’ll crack out the shorts for that one then.
Winters here on the other hand are bitter as Siberian winds arrive dropping the temperature to -20 and below and then some for the wind chill. Spring time brings dust storms so I’m guessing there are a couple of days in late autumn when the climate is agreeable.
On my way out of the station, I meet a Ahmed, with light skin, fair hair and pale green eyes, he looks more Russian than Chinese, and speaks perfect English. He’s never taken a lesson and had learnt everything from watching movies apparently. He’s Uighur as it turns out and also a tour guide with an amazing knowledge of the history and culture of the area, and has a car as a bonus. I’m dropped at the hostel and arrange to meet the next day to tour the surrounding sites scattered far and wide around Turpan. The hostel’s a bare bones affair with no air con and a heat radiating off the walls that could grill bacon. Luckily they’ve given me a duvet in case it’s not warm enough for me.
The area around Turpan is one of the largest raisin producing regions in the world. The surrounding countryside is covered in vineyards with adobe drying houses scattered around. Despite the dry arid climate, Turpan is home to one of the engineering marvels of the ancient world, the Karez System – hundred of kilometres of underground aqueducts that have existed for thousands of years to bring water down from the distant mountains and turn the scorched earth green.
After travelling through long kilometres of grapes we reach the Flaming Mountains, so named because of the orange and red hues of the rocks that glow in the sun. Apt considering the already soaring temperature despite only being 7:30 in the morning. In fact they’re a bit murky today as fair amount of dust is blowing in from the desert.
We pass through an impressive gorge and reach the ancient village of Tuyoq, inhabited for thousands of years and home to the most sacred shrine for Uighur muslims – seven trips to this one is equivalent to one to Mecca apparently. There are also some 2nd century Buddhist caves in the cliffs close by which have somehow resisted centuries of attempts to destroy them by both muslims and the Red Book waving zealots of the 1960’s, mostly due to their apparent haunting by the spirits of massacred monks. Who said realism was dead?
The countryside contrasts with stark barren mountains on one side and lush green vineyards at the other. The ancient Buddhist caves at Bezeklik weren’t so lucky as the caves at Tuyoq, local and passing muslim people have sabotaged the huge wall murals depicting scenes from the sutras and the life of Buddha. Portraits of living things (plants, animals, people) are considered haram and in their zeal for kuranic purity, any offending portion of these once amazing paintings dating from the 6th Century were chipped and ripped from the walls. What was left was largely looted by European and Japanese treasure hunters in the early 20th Century and then suffered further damage from bombing campaigns during World War II (I can’t think what anyone would have even been targeting way out here). Still, there are enough remains to get an idea of what once was, and the setting is dramatic enough.
We visit some other villages and sites, stop for some lunch at a local hangout and then, early afternoon, arrive at the 1600 year old remains of the garrison town of Jiaohe on the edge of the desert. A thermometer nailed to a shady tree proudly proclaims that the temperature is currently sitting at 55°C which just pips my previous record of 54°C. The site was built on an island between two (now dry) river beds and built of mud and adobe. The city spread over around six square kilometres now mostly just the remains of walls and streets to wander along. The heat is radiating off every surface, my two litres of water has gone before I’ve even reached the far end and I’m feeling like I’m wandering about in a heat induced stupor. I’m sparing a thought for those ancient soldiers that used to have to stand out in this in full battle dress standing guard over the town.
Last stop for the day is the impressive Emin Minaret built in the 18th Century and standing 44 metres high, it’s the tallest in China and one of the tallest mud brick structures in the world.
I’m on an overnight train to the west this evening, and fortune has it that as I mention this to Ahmed he tells me that it’s from a different Turpan station that lies an hours taxi ride to the south in the desert. Nothing like Chinese travel to keep you on your toes …
Lesson #2 in not holding romanticised ideals of places I’d read about and seen in old photos …
The Crescent Moon lake was an important stopping off point on the Silk Road and the principle reason for the existence of Dunhuang back in the day. Crescent Moon lake … because it’s the shape of a crescent moon … Singing Sands mountains, because the sand makes a long mournful moaning sand when the wind shifts it, said to be the cries of the souls of those who perished trying to cross the desert. Not that you’d hear today as the place is abuzz with camel ride touts, quad bikes, micro-lites and helicopter joy rides.
I wanted to go up mid afternoon, in the 45 degree sun, which the locals told me I was mad to consider. “Go at sunset, that’s when everyone goes there”. That was about all the encouragement I needed to go there and then. It was busy but comparitively quiet compared with what was to come, but with a bit of effort I could still get relatively away from it all. By “bit of effort”, I mean climb a 300 metre high dune during the hottest part of the desert afternoon. Nothing a few litres of water couldn’t put right …
From the top is a view back to the dusty city of Dunhuan and the tourist mecca below. In the opposite direction, endless tracts of massive dunes stretching off beyond the distance. I stayed long enough to watch the shadows lengthen and the colours become deeper, which was about the time the wave hit below and thousands started to pour in. Exit stage left. Time to head into town and try out the lamb’s penis kebabs.
Near to Dunhuang is the UNESCO protected Mogao Caves. Started by a Buddhist monk some 1000 years ago after he came across the oasis here, it grew to over 700 intensely painted and carved shrines hacked into the cliff face.
The level of detail and scale of it is mind boggling, particularly when you think of the crude implements and technology they had at their hands to create this. Amongst this is the now second largest Buddha in the world (promoted after the Taliban blew up the Bamiyan giant Buddha’s in Afghanistan). There’s a powerful sense of history and timelessness inside the caves, hard to put into words.
The miracle of this place is that it survives at all – not from the elements (the bone dry climate here is perfect for preservation). Muslim travellers and local rulers took offence at images of deities and portrayal of human and animal forms (prohibited in the Koran) and promptly gouged the eyes out of everything they could reach. In the early 1920’s, White Russians fleeing the Bolsheviks came down into this region and, having no food or money, began ransacking everything they could lay their hands on – modern day Hun. The newly formed Republican guard rounded them up and, in their infinite wisdom, decided to use the caves as a prison. The White Russians being orthodox also took offence at the portrayal of heretical images of worship and began to destroy the images, also largely motivated by the extensive use of gold leaf throughout. Once they had been dealt with, the first academics moved in and found a hidden cave containing ancient scrolls dating back to the origins of the caves themselves. Lacking any funds to preserve and study the cave, the local commissar promptly sold them off to anyone who would have them at bargain basement prices only to appear in later years in private collections and museums across the world.
An unexpected bonus of Mogao Caves (and something I’m in full support of being spread across the rest of China) are that the ubiquitous tour leader loud hailers are banned here, tour groups have closed system headsets to listen to their commentaries on. The result, a blissful hush everywhere. Fortunately, I was the only honky in town that day so got my own private English speaking guide to show me around.
Photography inside is forbidden, but here are some photos plagiarised from Google to get some sense of the interior (which don’t come anywhere close to the sense of wonder you get walking through these caves but it’s the best I can do considering …).
The bus continues out into the far desert along a rough road. We arrive at the Yan Dan desert area not long before sunset and as a series of thunderclouds roll through.
The low glowing sun makes for some amazing shapes and colours under the dark clouds. There’s a selfie-fest going on with the other members of the bus, but it’s easy to wander a short distance and enjoy the scene unfold in some peace and solitude. The vastness of the desert out here is incredible.