In and around Turpan
Sunday September 3rd
We finally arrived at Turpan at 7AM, 13 hours after we left Dunhuang. The pain from my leg had been unbearable for the past few hours. There was no way I could find a comfortable position so I didn’t sleep for longer than a few minutes the whole night. I was pretty tired when we went off the bus and was not feeling like dealing with the touts who was trying to sell us “one day” tour of the attractions around the city. I still asked for the price just to get an idea and he said 70, which didn’t include entry fee that would be around 200 (but of course he never mentioned the entry fees until I asked about them).
Tienh and I decided to get a bed first then decide. We got a dorm bed in a hotel close to the bus station. We had to wake up the japanese couple who was sleeping but they were cool about it and we talked with them for a while. Our first priority was to get a shower so we did just that and it woke me up a bit. I was finished before Tienh (surprise surprise) so I went outside trying to find batteries but ended up buying some local bread which was fairly decent. Hard crust but delicious in the inside, taste almost like a french bread. After 3 months of not eating any of that kind of bread I thought it was gourmet stuff.
After a while Tienh came down also and we started bargaining for a one day trip to the major attractions around the city. We managed to get the price down to 50 (although we were told to be quiet about the price as everyone else was paying 60 or 70) and were told that if we didn’t want to see one of the attraction we didn’t have to pay. I don’t like to do these kind of tours but Turpan just has too many attractions scattered around and I can’t pay for a car by myself.
The van was all chinese except me. There was me, Tienh, 2 chinese middle aged men, a middle age couple, and a chinese girl backpacker in addition to a guide and the driver. We first went to Emin Minaret, built in the 18th century in Afghan style. It is made of bricks which would be pretty boring if it wasn’t for the fact that they’re set up in a way to give certain patterns like flowers or waves on the wall. It gives it a very dry and colorless, but impressive beauty which goes well with the surroundings. Next to the Minaret there is a modest Mosque which I climbed (impossible to climb the minaret unfortunately). It was very different from the Mosque I’ve seen in China thus far which look more like chinese temple than the image we usually have of a Mosque. I walked around the Mosque and the Minaret for about 30 minutes, there are lovely gardents with vineyard nearby that give the place a very relaxed feel. But we couldn’t linger much as the jeep was waiting for us and we had 7 more things to see for the day.
Our next attraction was Astana Tomb, but on the way we passed by town again to pick up some uyghur girl who had so much makeup it was ridiculous. The Tombs were about 30 minutes away but no one actually went in because the guidebook said it wasn’t worth it. The next attraction was Gaochang ancient city which was pretty close. This was an ancient city built in the 1st century BC that was destroyed in the 14th century. It takes a bit of imagination to see the city as it was back in the day as time hasn’t been too nice on the ruins. Since it is made of mud it disintegrate fairly quickly. It was pretty cool to walk around the ruins of houses and try to figure out where the streets must’ve been. We made our way to the temple, 1km from the entrance but even if it took only a few minutes of walk all the tourists took donkey carts to get there. The city was buddhist as it was the main religion on the Silk Road in its early day (that’s how buddhism spread from India to China).
After the temple we walked along the Inner wall and back to the jeep. We didn’t find it but the middle-age chinese couple, who didn’t pay to get in, brought us to a place where we could see the whole city without paying. They were your typical chinese tourist, in the 30 minutes that we were away, they bought 6 souvenirs including the most ridiculous vest I’ve ever seen and a cowboy hat like mine but deep red. On the way back to the jeep, we asked a little girl what those building full of holes were for and she told us that’s where they put the grapes to dry them (immediately after we saw that they were full of grapes…). We rode to the next attraction, the Bezelick caves. The guidebook said it wasn’t worth it (everything worth seeing has been stolen and is now scattered in museum around the world) so Tienh and I decided to sit it out. However when we got there we saw a big sand dune that looked just too inviting. There were camels for the tourists but we decided to walk as high as we could in the 40 minutes we had before the jeep left. I didn’t bring my shoes as I hadn’t planned to do much hiking and my flipflops weren’t useful so I just did it barefoot. I managed to get to the top of the dune in 30 minutes (Tienh didn’t reach it unfortunately) and run (literaly) back down in 10 minutes. The views from the top were pretty amazing and if it wasn’t for the fact that I had to be back at the jeep I would’ve stayed much longer. Going back down was pretty hard to do it in a controlled manner so I found that the best way was just to run.
When we got back down, we were cheered by some of the people from the jeep who had been watching us. The next attraction in line was the Valley of Grape, although on the way we passed by the Flaming Mountains but didn’t stop (managed to get a shot however). I decided to sit out from the Grape Valley as it was a bit expansive and simply didn’t interest me. I was told they’d be back in 2 hours and was dropped at the entrance. I walked on the main street along local restaurant and I went in one of them. I didn’t know what I wanted so I just pointed to what one of the client was eating (like literaly go next to him and point at his plate, a bit rude but it worked). It was a bowl of noodles with a tomato kind of sauce with lots of vegetables. The man made the noodles (out of flour) in front of me while the woman was cutting the vegetables, they boiled the whole thing then fried it. I loved it, it was one of the best meal I’ve had in China.
The couple and another man were trying to get his kid to talk to me as he probably knew a bit of english from school. He looked really shy but after 5 minutes of being made fun of finally came to my table, sat on a chair as far as he could from me while looking at the ground. After being on the chair for a few seconds he quickly looked up for a split second and said “Where are you from?” to whch I answered “Canada”. About half a second after I answered, he got up and flew into his room. When he got back they still tried to make him come talk to me but he wouldn’t, I was way too scary!
After I finished my delicious meal, I got back to where I had been told to wait and read my book. They picked me up about 30 minutes late and, without any apology, we went to the next attraction, the karez. A karez is basically an underground horizontal tunnel where groundwater accumulate. They are built on higher ground, like hills or mountains and reach all the way into the fields. In the place where they want irigation, they build vertical well to bring water in the field. It is simply a way to tap into underground water without having to resort to any pumping equipment. This system was developed in Iran and is popular in central asia as it transforms barren streches of land into good agricultural fields. It is pretty impressive that they built that 2000 years ago. However, the place was packed full of tourists shops trying to sell the usual tourist stuff. I knew it would be touristy but I wanted to see how the thing was working. I’ll probably see some more when I go to Iran.
The last stop for the day was Jiahoe Ancient City. Only me and the chinese backpacker decided to go. I had been told that this was the city to see if you wanted to see a “desert city” and I was not disapointed. The place was a chinese output in the 7th century and was built in between 2 rivers in a sort of plateau 30 feet up (plus a wall for defence). The buildings have been conserved better than at Gaochang, you can get a better feel of how the city used to be. We walked in the government building, visited some of the houses, the edge of the city, the temple at the very back, then another temple with Buddha’s that had been defaced and then back to the parking lot. The guide and the chinese girl spoke a bit of english so they managed to give me a bit of information. It was all grand and all but again I wish I could know more about it. When I reach a place with english books I’ll definately get one on the history of the Silk Road.
We made it quickly back in town after that. Tienh and I tried to buy a ticket to Urumqi (the capital of Xinjiang province) for the next day but were told to come back tomorrow. After that we split and I went to John’s Cafe to eat and relax. I had a Kashgar pizza which is fried local vegetables in a kind of tomato sauce on top of a local bread. After a while, Alex, an expat from Beijing who just flew into Xinjiang sat next to me and we talked for about an hour. He was a typical expat, he tells you that he doesn’t want to be a typical expat who spends money like crazy and don’t have any contact with the local but then spend the rest of the conversation to prove that it is just what he is doing. I said goodbye at around 10PM and went looking for an internet cafe. I found one next to a openair pool hall (they don’t even bother with plastic covers as it never rains in Turpan) and checked my emails before heading back to the dorm where Tienh was watching some chinese movie. I said goodnight and fell asleep pretty quickly despite the noise.