I spent most of the day seeing the sights around Turpan.
The highlights were the ruins at Jiaohe and Gaochang. I would have missed out on Gaochang if I had taken the sleazeball’s tour, since it was the furthest location from Turpan. Gaochang was extremely ruined and desolate, with little remaining of the old city. The desolation was what gave it its special appeal though. Wandering around it I couldn’t help thinking of “Ozymandius King of Kings” from the poem by Percy Shelly.
” Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away”
Jiaohe was much better preserved and signposted, but also full of signs telling you keep to the paths – not that there was anyone around to enforce this. The setting was dramatic, with the city sitting on top of a small plateau lying between two canyons. The floorplans of some of the old Tang Dynasty temples in the city were also interesting, being rather different to those of the Ming and Qing Dynasty temples you usually see.
The Astana tombs were worth a quick look but there was honestly not much to see besides the holes in the ground.
Unfortunately strong winds were blowing up dust and the Flaming Mountains, the famous location from the novel Journey to the West, were only half visible. I didn’t bother with the Journey to the West Museum at the Flaming Mountains. From the display outside it looked like a cheesy private museum.
I dropped by a little museum on the Karez irrigation system. There wasn’t much to it other than walking down into a real Karez but it was still interesting. The Karez is the traditional system the Uigurs around Turpan use to transport water from the mountains and down into Turpan and similar ‘oasis’ towns, and comprises a network of underground tunnels with access shafts at regular intervals along their length to allow maintenance. The access shafts are visible scattered throughout the desert as raised mounds of earth. Of course this elaborate water transportation system makes you wonder why Turpan is referred to as an ‘oasis’ town. Oasis to me means some kind of a small lake in a desert area, surrounded by date trees and houses and the like. I didn’t see any obvious oasis in the area. Turpan was greener than the surrounding desert, which wasn’t saying much, but it seemed that all the greenery was dependent on water from elsewhere. The driver mentioned that many of the old Karez are dry these days because drawing upon deep ground water to meet the needs of the growing population has lowered the water table. There is a going to be a water crisis sooner or later. Whatever you think of the politics you have to question the practical wisdom of the government encouraging settlers from the Chinese heartland to take up residence in Xinjiang. While diluting the Uigur and other minority populations is helping integrate these border lands into the Chinese heartland, the associated population growth is placing stress on the region’s scarce water resources. It will be interesting to see how this situation pans out.
The last stop on the tour was the Amin mosque, supposedly one of the best examples of traditional Uigur architecture in Xinjiang. It would have been better if the exterior hadn’t recently been restored to look brand new. Even the graves in the cemetery had been replastered. The effect was to make you feel you were wandering through a film set rather than looking at the real thing. The mosque had also been surrounded with the usual Chinese tourist site paraphernalia, with statuary, a viewing platform and so on.
After hearing I had lived in Taiwan the driver got onto the inevitable subject of Taiwan independence and expressed the usual nationalistic chauvinism and complete disregard for what Taiwanese people might want.
I caught an overnight bus to Dunhuang in the evening. I had tried to get the hotel to book tickets for me and for some reason they were unable to get me tickets for that evening, saying the tickets were all sold out until the next day. Oddly, asking myself at the station I found tickets available for that night’s bus. Were they trying even by devious means to keep me staying in their hotel another night? It certainly seems possible.
I put the Uigur knives into the back of my belt, hidden under my jacket, so I could put my bags through the x-ray machine without the knives being detected. It felt very desperado to be boarding a bus with knives down my back. Once on the bus I transferred them back into my bag.
The bus was almost empty, with just a couple of Chinese passengers and half a dozen Koreans. I had a snack and did my best to sleep.