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Two Years & Twice Around the World...  
Jiaohe Ruins - Turpan, Xinjiang, China
CLASSIC CHINA Beijing April 23 April 24 April 25 April 26 April 27 April 28 April 29-30 May 1-2 May 3-4 May 5 Pinyao, Shanxi May 6 May 7 Xian, Shaanxi May 8 May 9-10

TIBETAN PLATEAU Xining, Qinghai May 11 May 12 Tongren, Qinghai May 13 May 14 Xiahe, Gansu May 15 May 16-17

THE SILK ROAD Lanzhou, Gansu May 18 Dunhuang, Gansu May 19-20 May 21-22 May 23 May 24-25 Turpan, Xinjiang May 26 May 27 Kashgar, Xinjiang May 28-29 May 30 May 31 June 1-2 June 3-6 Hotan, Xinjiang June 7 June 8-9 June 10-11 June 12-13 June 14-16 June 17-19

A LAST LOOK Shanghai June 20-29 Beijing June 30
Jaohe Ruins, Turpan, Xinjiang Province, May 26, 2003


May 26. TURPAN (Xinjiang) "A Whirlwind Tour of Turpan" We arrived early into Daliyan, about 6:45am.  A public bus picked us up in front of the station and took us to the main bus station so we could get tickets for Turpan.  It was local rush hour so our bus was full and we got the evil eye from some locals for having our backpacks inside the bus.  We'd set them in seats that had absolutely no leg room because the seat in front had a broken back so we would have gladly moved them for anyone without need for legroom.  

It was only an hour and half or less to Turpan.  When we reached the SARS checkpoint it was the first time that they boarded the bus and when we began to offer up our documents they just waived us away!  The weather was warm but still surprisingly nice for the lowest point in China and the second lowest place in the world.  We checked the hotel next to the bus station but it wasn't very cheap so we looked further.  The next hotel was closed and the third was "full" (very unlikely) so we finally ended up at the Turpan Guesthouse looking for a room.

As we walked into the hotel parking lot we passed a John's Information Cafe, a sort of tourist chain found in many western China cities, and a man came running out to try and interest us in his tour of the Turpan area.  We were pretty beat and getting annoyed with the hotel situation so we just waived him away.  While we were negotiating for a room at the hotel three people came in, a British couple and a Korean man from Chicago. The British couple had been living in China teaching English so they spoke some Chinese and helped us sort out a good rate for our room.  They also wanted to interest us in the Turpan tour because they hoped that adding more people would get their cost down further.  We finally acquiesced and after dumping our bags in the hotel room we met them across the street at the cafe.  We still had to negotiate the final rate for the tour and the shifty tour operator wanted to charge us almost double what he was charging the other three people. We wouldn't go under those conditions and in the end we all went for the same price but the others didn't get any additional discount for having two more people along.  We all avoided having dinner at John's Cafe that night because we didn't want to give him any more business.

The tour was a very long full day of sights.  We were already tired from a poor night's sleep on the train and having to catch the bus into town but with the low volume of tourists we decided we should join a tour when we had the chance because another group of people might not pool up for a few more days.  

The first stop we made was at the Flaming Mountains, given their name because of the effect of the midday heat on the red mountain that made them look as though they were flaming.  We weren't very lucky because the conditions weren't right and we didn't see any flaming.  A nearby man with his camel watched us patiently as we starred hopefully at the red wall of rock, as though the flames would materialize any minute.   Since the mountains were a disappointment I decided to give the man Y5 for a photo on his camel.  It was lying down with a decorated red cloth in its back.  I swung  my leg over and straddled the camel between its two humps.   As I turned to have Rob take the photo the man made a sound and the camel started to stir.  Before I knew what was happening I was being launched forward against a hump as the camel straightened its rear legs.  It then came slowly up on its front legs and I realized just how large of an animal I was sitting on.  I must have been a good seven feet off of the ground!  The old man led the camel over by the plaque for the Flaming Mountains for a proper photo.  When we finished he brought a self standing wooden ladder over and pushed it up alongside the camel so I could get off.  I began to wonder what it those multi-day camel treks across the desert would be like.  One thing is for sure though, camel hair itches.

While we all lingered in front of the Flaming Mountains our driver came over and wanted to work out a deal for him to take us to an additional site on the sly.  The British couple, James and Jenny, had tried to include the Aidingkol lake in our tour but because of the long drive Mr. Slick at John's Cafe wanted to charge us double.  Our driver on the other hand was okay with half that amount (Y120).  We left him hanging while we visited the next site and he came down to Y100 and an additional pack of Rob's Marlboro cigarettes.  He'd already been puffing away on the first pack Rob gave him and with the awful tobacco they get in China he was persuaded to take us to the lake for a bit less.

Our second site was the Bezeklik 1000 Buddha caves, which were even more of a disappointment than Dunhuang's Western 1000 Buddha caves.  These had suffered much more damage over the centuries due to vandalism by Xinjiang's Muslim population and there wasn't very much to look at anymore.  I was wishing we had visited the nearby amusement park that was made to look like an old mud village.  The location, at least, was beautiful.

Stop number three was at the Astana Graves.  The guy from Chicago, Lee, sat these out and he may have been the wise one.  It was a quick visit since there were only three grave to see, with the surrounding landscape covered in mounds of dirt that represented other graves.  The large mounds had stairways going deep into the ground to a doorway that opened into small burial chambers.  One grave housed a male and female couple of mummies, that was pretty interesting.  The others had some paintings along their back walls that were in amazingly good condition for having been painted back to the 7th century.  This was the cemetery for the old town of Gaochang, remains of which still stood nearby but were currently closed due to SARS.     

It was lunch time and our itinerary had us stopping at some grape valley for lunch but our driver convinced us to get some local bread and drinks so he could get us out to the lake.  He had to shave off some time somewhere so it wasn't too suspicious when we returned late to the cafe.  The bread was very good, a typical Uyghur bread with some onions and salt mixed in, so we all got full anyway.

The drive to Aidingkol lake was very long and bumpy.  It took us a good hour at least and when we arrived there actually wasn't any water to see.  The lake represented the absolute lowest point in China (-154m) and was the second lowest point in the world next to the Dead Sea in Israel and Jordan.  It was more of a huge expanse of salt crusted mud that provided some striking scenery.  It was a big unearthly looking in its desolation. Far off in the distance it looked like some water might exist but after some closer investigation we realized it was just a mirage.  Jenny and James discovered that land wasn't as hard as it looked by walking further out and sinking into gooey salty mud.  The only pool of actual water, a meter wide puddle with a layer of salt on top, came in handy for washing off.

Our driver was pretty beat from the hard driving by the time we got back into the Turpan area. He stopped at a local canal that received a strong flow of fresh spring water.  It was a good place for everyone to wash off any remaining evidence that we had been to the lake.  On the way back into town we took a brief stop at the interesting Emin Ta and Sugong Mosque.  The mosque had a large 44m high minaret attached to one side that was built back in 1777 out of clay in a simple Afghani style.  We opted not to go in because our entrance fees were racking up for the day and I didn't want to enter without proper attire.  We observed some Chinese tourists coming out with the women dressed in tank tops and nothing on their heads.  The local Muslim community may tolerate that but I can't believe they appreciate the blatant show of disrespect towards their customs.

We ended up nixing the grape valley place all together since it had yet another entrance fee and it wasn't really grape season until August.  The whole town was covered in grape trellises anyway.  Instead we moved on to see the famous canals that keep Turpan served with water.  The local term for the canals is "karez" and they make an impressive irrigation system.  The water is actually traveling from the snow capped mountain that are visible from the city but must be a couple of kilometers away.  One statistic stated that the total length of all of the karez was over 5000km. It is an astonishing accomplishment considering these are basically a system of tunnels that are dug underground with wells extending down to them every 20m.  The wells are access points.  The whole system is built by hand without modern equipment or materials.  Gravity carries the water from the mountains to Turpan and the tunnels protect the water from evaporation as it crosses the desert.  The museum where we got to view an actual karez wasn't very significant but walking down along an actual tunnel was a worthwhile experience. 

Our final stop of the day was, for me, the highlight with the lake coming in second.   The old Gaochang Ruins were closed due to SARS but we were still able to see the Jiaohe Ruins just outside of Turpan.  The city was an old Chinese garrison that was mostly destroyed by Genghis Khan (1200s) but a recognizable collection of building parts and structures still remain today.  It is a UNESCO heritage sight and has been maintained in as much of its original form as possible.  When we first entered the city it wasn't obvious how large it actually was.  We climbed up on the roof of one structure to see across the acres of area covered in remnants of the city.  Some areas were restricted but most was accessible and still fairly sturdy.  It reminded me of Luke Skywalker's home in the first Star Wars, which probably sounds corny but I don't know how else to describe it.  A brick path had been laid where the main road would have once extended through town and countless walls and structures extended from both sides.  The best structure in the complex was the old monastery and its nearby pagoda.  It was roofless and had dilapidated but the altar area was easy to recognize.  The bodies of small Buddhas even remained around the top of the altar (head missing of course).  These mud structures had been exposed to the elements for some 800 years and it is inconceivable to me how anything still stood.  Behind the main monastery were two smaller monasteries, one in very good condition.  Most of the rest of the city appeared to be made up of residences with some larger structures that had been government buildings.  The sun was starting to set and the maze of walls could have kept me entertained for hours but our tour had come to an end.

Back at the hotel it felt great to finally shower! After getting cleaned up we all met at John's Cafe and from there went to a night market for dinner.  We crossed paths with our tour driver twice as we walked across town.  He was still in the van driving through town when we first saw him but he turned up later in a car with a friend.  We asked him to suggest a good place to eat and he even offered to take us somewhere but it was a long walk from the hotel so we settled for the night market area that he recommended.     

The night market of Turpan didn't have the calm ambiance that we had experienced in Dunhuang.  It was a bustling place of many people selling noodles, dumplings, kebabs, watermelon, etc.  We took a table and each searched out our item of choice. Rob, of course, had the kebabs while I had some tasty dumplings in a soupy base.  Several of the people running nearby stalls came over to flip through our guidebooks.  One man, we learned, was an Iraqi who either came to Xinjiang young or was born by first generation parents.  I had to wonder if she still was in contact with any family in Iraq.  It was an awkward question to ask and he was friendly so we didn't bring it up.  

The dinner was just enough for our tired bodies.  We had a good night's sleep in the soft beds at our hotel.