grey marble

September 4, 2009

Hello Xinjiang. Goodbye.

We didn't stay long in Xinjiang, just a week spread over two cities; not enough time to explore the largest of China's provinces (it comprises 16% of the country's landmass). There's a saying that you don't know how large China is until you've been to Xinjiang; you don't know how large Xinjiang is until you've travelled to Kashgar.

We arrived by plane, flying over large swaths of the country. From our window we could see mountains and rivers, deserts and plains. The capital city of Urumqi was our destination, a city noted as being the farthest city from the ocean in the world (and far as it is from Beijing, you could feel the presence of the capital in the soldiers stationed there after the unrest in July).

We took a cab to our hotel and settled in. I was given a note at the front desk. Unfolding it, I discovered that Teresa had arrived from Taiwan by way of Hong Kong and invited me to a drink (she had been living in Moscow and is the friend with whom I stayed while I was there). She was in a nearby pub, soaking up the atmosphere. I called her and arranged to meet her for dinner.

My parents and I then went to the nearby Hongshan park, I to climb the mountain steps up to a hilltop pagoda overlooking the city, my parents to ride the bus to the top. The views over the city were expansive, and I was surprised at the reach of this inland city.

For dinner, Teresa and I went to a nearby nightmarket, where all the stalls were orderly numbered, each third stall selling much the same: skewers of meat or seafood, noodles in hot pot, whole roasted lamb. We chose a stall and had a seat, feasting on skewers of mushroom and meat, a whole roasted fish, and a hot pot of noodles. The spices on all the dishes were the same, and while tasty, each portion of our meal began to run into each other. For dessert we ordered sliced melon from a vendor who wound his way through the crowd, a platter perched upon his shoulder.

The next day my parents and I took a bus Tien Chi, the heavenly lake. The bus was late, and had to pick up a group of elderly tourists. When we arrived, there were arguments to be had, and after everyone had settled, the guide asked us all to try to put our differences behind us and enjoy our trip. She then told the oft-told joke equating using the restroom with singing a song that seems to be a staple of Chinese tour groups.

The lake was serene in a way that the surroundings were not as groups of tourists flocked to the platforms built along its shore. In the distance, snow-capped mountains must have watched over the transformation for eons, as the pristine alpine scenery became increasingly made accessible, and the wanderers who had come in search of pure waters went from a trickle to busloads.

That said, the number of tourists in Urumqi are far fewer than in years past, much to the dismay of the tour operators and local economy. The effects of the decrease in tourism are felt even more in the desert oasis of Turpan, where we went next.

Our bus left the cooler climes of Urumqi to head into the Turpan basin, where at its lowest point it is 154 meters below sea level. Just outside Urumqi we passed large wind farms, the white blades of the windmills visible for miles. As we began to descend, the temperature rose until the bus became uncomfortably warm. We arrived at our hotel mid-day, the sun hot on our backs, and we welcomed the air conditioning in our room.

The town is noted for its grapes and trellises are everywhere. One pedestrian mall is entirely covered with them, the ripe grapes hang temptingly from above. There's a fine for picking them, however, a cost more dear than the less than fifty cents US it costs to buy a kilo. I bought one kilo then another. The grapes were the best I had tasted. If it were possible to overdose on them, I would have.

For lunch we had the local rice specialty, and then I braved the afternoon sun to visit Sugong Ta, an Afghan style minaret built in 1777 by the local ruler. A seemingly recently-renovated mosque sits beside it. The minaret was once open to tourists, but has since been closed for conservation.

My ticket also offered admission to the nearby governor's mansion and so I gamely climbed a small hill to look in. A woman appeared from nowhere to tell me that the basement lights were motion and sound activated. I thanked her and she disappeared.

At the entrance to the basement I paused. The steps lead into darkness. I clapped my hands. I whistled. I took a step. The darkness remained, and I considered turning back then took another step. With a whoosh the lights came on and a fake fire blew at the curved rafters. Behind me hung a portrait of the former governor. Ahead of me lay a long dim corridor, lit again only at the other end.

I inched my way forward, half-expecting the woman to jump out at me, an Asian Large Marge at once warning of her own presence as she lead me further into the horror of it all. I began to whistle tunelessly. At the end of the corridor, another long dark hall lead to the left. I walked faster, careful not to lose my step. There, another hall lead to the left, but at the end of that I could see a series of steps leading to the light. I all but skipped skyward.

The next day we toured the ancient cities of Jiaohe and Gaocheng, with stops in the grape valley and the ancient cemetery near Gaocheng. The grape valley had been turned into a Chinese tourism attraction the likes of Knotts Valley Farms, though without the rides or the shows. The low number of tourists didn't do much to encourage them. Our driver told us over lunch that usually in high season the roads would be jammed and the small grape-trellis covered restaurants would be packed. That day we saw a handful of cars. The restaurants stood mostly still.

Along the way we also toured the karez, an underground irrigation system that had first been developed and dug 2000 years ago. The engineering to bring the water down from the snow-covered mountains was astounding, even more so for the fact that it had been developed so long ago, using gravity as the only source of power. It's a feat to be compared with the Great Wall, though it's less given to the imagination for it all being underground.

At the Asitana graves, an attendant followed me around the hot plains down into the opened tombs to turn on the lights and make sure I took no photos. The first tomb held two mummies, the second some beautiful paintings of birds, and the third portraits of the deceased. I thanked the attendant when I left. He nodded to me from under the towel he placed upon his head.

At the Gaocheng ancient city, I took a covered donkey cart into the middle of the city to tour the ruins of a large temple there. I had planned to walk but the sun was hot and the children who drove the cart were insistent. Along the way we picked up a Korean tourist who gave in to the comforts of the cart.

We walked back out, sweating through our shirts. Back at the entrance I bought two bottles of iced tea. I drank one in minutes; I gave the other to the driver. Heading back to town he offered to turn on the air conditioning. I told him he could if he wanted, but I didn't need it. He said I was the first tourist he had come across to refuse the a/c. He braved the heat with me.

Driving up towards the main road, he pointed to a large swath of land. He said many more graves lay underneath. Efforts were being made at conservation before opening them up to the public.

Passing the Flaming Mountains we paused for photos. I couldn't resist a photo of the entrance: The Monkey King perched upon a gate announcing the mountains. The gate couldn't keep the mountains in, however. We drove further and I took photos from the cab. Nearer to the city, I saw oil wells and the driver said that Turpan was rich in oil, but only that area was open to exploration. He said the largest reserve was right in the middle of the city, near our hotel, and under the central square.

We left Turpan the next day, climbing back up out of the depression and into the cooler climes of Urumqi. A storm threatened. We stayed in Urumqi another day and I went to the Xinjiang Musuem. We had attempted to go before we left for Turpan but were ushered out midway through our visit so they could clean. We surmised an official was on his or her way but could never confirm it.

I spent some time with the mummies, one a brethern to the ones I had seen in Asitana, then left and toured the city. The day before I had walked to the People's Square and attempted to take a photo of the obelisque that stands there, its facade inscribed with the Arabic script used by the Uyghers, and was told by a soldier that it was forbidden. It wasn't until then that I saw the transport vehicles and soldiers stationed around the square. I had wondered why it had seemed so bare.

I decided to get a haircut. I asked the barber to cut it short. He left it a little long. I asked him again. Was I sure I wanted it that short? I was sure. It might be better a little longer at the top? It's a style of fashion. No, I wanted it short. He cut a small portion and asked me if I was sure. I was sure. He proceeded, but he didn't seem happy about it.

We left Urumqi by train, boarding our sleeper car at 11:48 for the 10 hour journey. Another man joined us, who seemed to be known by everyone working on the train. He told us he worked for the railroad and we later learned he worked for the police responsible for railway tourism in Xinjiang.

Everyone either seemed to know him or want to know him. One woman made him a cup of tea. With us he was sociable and jovial; with his colleagues he was serious. He asked us if we knew how they had dug the karez so straight between the wells, and then explained that they had placed mirrors in the shafts. As long as the digger could see his light reflected in the morror he must be moving straight. He told us that Turpan in the local language meant "hot place," and indeed it was. He told us he was Han Chinese; his father had come to Xinjiang with the army and stayed.

He sat with us a time and then they found him another berth. We travelled on through the desert. At Hami, I bought some of the namesake mellon and lugged it back to our compartment for the sake of saying I had bought them in Hami. Three mellons for a little over two US dollars. I gave one to our train car's attendant and looked forward to eating the others at our hotel in Dunhuang.

We arrived at Liuyuan near 10pm. My parents had decided to stay the night. We walked to a hotel recommended by the railway attendants, but it was booked. We decided to take a share taxi for 130km ride to Dunhuang.

We drove on towards midnight and the distant oasis. An almost full moon tried to light our surroundings. A single star or planet shone nearby. The night was cool and the road was near empty. Piles of mellons dotted the sides of the road. The desert spread out around us. Then trees appeared and the lights of a town. Emptiness gave way to blocks of buildings and neon signs. We had arrived.

Posted by eku at September 4, 2009 4:21 AM

Recent Entries