Sunday and the road to Kuche

We all convened at Turpan’s Johns bar behind the hotel for breakfast. They had opened early by special request. By just after 8.00 we were on the road again and back into the desert.

It was not long before the cool morning air started warming up. 10 hours later at the end of our journey it was intense.

‘Desert’ is a word that conjures up a vision of miles of the same. There is a lot of that, but at times the scenery changed dramatically and always there is evidence of the Chinese efforts to master the elements. Not long after leaving the laid back suburban feel of Turpan we were travelling through a man made mountain pass. The two lane road twisted and turned through the contours of the cutting and once again we commented on the skill and ingenuity that had obviously gone into its creation, particularly as somewhere out of our sight there was another carriageway carrying the traffic in the other direction.

Later we were to see watering systems that allowed acres of chilli peppers to grow, plantations of new woodland and fields and fields of maize. Whole cities reared up in what seemed a totally inhospitable landscape. In the more remote areas menacing looking chemical factories with a maze of domes and exterior pipe work belched vapour out of tall chimneys

When we stop now there is no English signage at service areas, only Chinese and Arabic characters. We are definitely moving to the western extremes of China. We have travelled just over 6,000 kilometres since we set out on the truck nearly a month ago.

We arrived in Kuche pretty drained. It had been a long day. Jason was excited about the buffet opportunity the hotel next to ours offered. Some went there for dinner but we set off for a small market that had been sighted near the hotel to forage for fruit, vegetables and local delicacies. We were rewarded handsomely by smiling Muslim ladies who supplied us with savoury flatbreads (at last bread that is not sweet!) and small lamb patties tasting very much like a Cornish pasty with less pastry. We could find no cold beer, so collected some from the truck ‘fridge on the way back and adjourned to Wendy and Sarah’s room to partake of our feast.

I fell into bed feeling the most weary I have felt thus far on the trip.

Saturday the Karez system and ancient city of Jiaohe

We had a free morning so decided to visit the Turpan Museum. On the way we came across Jason who was is not only our Chinese guide but, during our long drives, has become our Mah Jong tutor. We have enjoyed the game so much that we asked him to give us some advice on the game equipment. Jason said he had identified a shop selling Mah Jong and it was en route to the museum. He has been extolling the virtues of the Mah Jong table, so we went along to view one. It was amazing! No committed Mah Jong player worth his salt would be without one! It is a table approximately two foot square with a hole in the middle. Instead of the ‘chore’ required of us fledgling types in mixing up the pieces prior to play, this beast swallows the pieces through the hole in the middle of the table, shuffles them and efficiently delivers them in suitable wall formation, ready for the next game!
Magic! Regrettably not magic enough for us to pay the £500 necessary to enable us to put Newark Cottage on the map as the Mah Jong Mecca in East Peckham….

The a Museum of Turpan was, like all the other museums we have visited in China, a very modern, well presented institution. It housed a number of interesting exhibits including some excellent dinasaurs from the Gobi Desert
and a number of mummified bodies with their associated artifacts found in local ancient burial caves. It was well worth the visit.

After lunch in the Turpan version of John’s cafe under cover of the sun deflecting grape vine, we set off for what was described as underground irrigation tunnels. Ho hum I thought. Not a riveting way to spend an afternoon, but I am up for most things. How wrong can you be.

The Karez irrigation system was introduced to the area 2000 years ago to
provide the water necessary to enable people to live in this parched desert environment. It is a system found in other parts of Asia. Turpan is surrounded by mountains where snow exists throughout the year. A Karez or head well was dug on high ground where snowmelt collects in the mountains and a long underground tunnel was then dug to conduct water down to the the village farmlands where it was desperately needed. A system of vertical wells were then dug every few metres along the path of the tunnel (there were many) where the water was required. The wells were fed by gravity. Each tunnel ended in a pond. Once the pond was full the wells filled. Because the water flowed through the underground tunnels it did not evaporate in the intense heat of the area. Turpan owes its existence to the the wells – originally there were many thousands, all constructed by hand. There are now 615 as electric wells were created in the 1950’s to support the increasing population. The Karez system is considered to be one of the three great ancient projects of China, along with the Great Wall and the county’s canal system. What a feat!

Our second and most challenging trip of the day was to the ancient city of
Jiaohe. Once again it was really interesting, but instead of being in cool underground tunnels we were out in the open in over 100 degree heat. Even the water we took to drink got really hot!!

Undaunted we set out to look at the ruins of Jiaohe, a city built by nomads who saw the potential of the location – an area of high ground 1.6 km long by 300 metres wide caused by a river dividing at the north end of the site. Here they dug out their city. First enclosed courtyards and then designed cave type houses within the courtyard. No courtyard opened out on to the main thoroughfares that are still visible today. There were the remains of temples and administrative buildings. There was a ‘forest’ of the roots of 100 stupas. The city originally housed 6,500 people. It was an awesome sight only eclipsed by the intense heat.

Who were these people who could not only exist but devise a house building system in this hostile, energy sapping environment?

We returned to base exhausted and remained close to barracks for dinner. The energy to go further afield had evaporated!1

Friday The road to Turpan

It was an early start. Up at 5.30 and on the road by 6.30. This is not a trip for the faint hearts!

Our route initially traversed sandy desert and it was not long before we passed the largest wind farm in the world. It went on for, literally, miles.
Over the day we were to see the desert itself change from the sand of our dune walking, to scrubland, to dark earth. Sometimes there were mountains in the distance and at others we seemed to be travelling through a corridor with rocky peaks on either side. Sometimes there were signs of some man powered activity and at others it was a vast expanse of nothing. Occasionally there were periods of fertile oasis but mainly it was desert. Earlier in the day there was more evidence of road building. Much later we saw derricks pumping. Later still and nearer to our destination we saw long low cement structures with holes in the side scattered over the landscape. Apparently, they put grapes inside them to dry to make raisins. Turpan is grape city.

Initially we continued on the Gansu Expressway which we had more or less been following since Lanzhou, but then we moved into Xinjiang county. We are now deemed to be in Central Asia and there were noticeable changes to what we saw around us. People have started to look different and there is Arabic writing in addition to the Chinese characters at service stations. The traffic is much less. Mainly just the enormous lorries.

We moved through a range of temperatures during our journey. Early on it was quite cool in the truck, later in the day it moved up to 104 degrees.

We eventually arrived in Turpan at 7.20. More or less the 13 hours on the road that was expected.

The area of Turpan is known as ‘Death Valley’. At 154 metres below sea level, it is the second lowest depression in the world and the hottest place in China. Despite this, it has water and is a fertile area. One of its most endearing features is that some of the streets are covered with grapevines to keep the sun off and we are here in the grape harvest season so the vines are heavy with bunches of white grapes. Something that is slightly more bizarre is that the area works on a different time zone. Beijing time is the official time of China. Here they operate on a time 2 hours behind Beijing time. Very odd!

After a quick turnaround whatever time it was, we left the hotel to get some food at the night market and some desperately needed cold beer. The food area was quite small compared to those we have experienced in other towns and some of the food was very different. There is definitely a bigger Muslim influence. We plumped for a chicken dish which I would describe as ‘interesting’ as opposed to delicious but the beer was great!

It was good to get back to our air conditioned room, despite the fact that the day has cooled down considerably. It is all relative.

Thursday Dunhuang and the Sand Dunes

With a free day ahead and the thought of a 13 hour truck drive to Turpan tomorrow, Keith and I decided exercise was required and thought it would be good to take a walk in the sand dunes.

Dunhuang is effectively a fertile oasis in the Gobi desert and has a long history of travellers passing through on their journey west. In its usual inimitable style, China has decided to make virtue of this by providing visitors with the opportunity to walk, camel ride, hang glide, sand buggy or helicopter ride over the amazing sand dunes at the southern end of the town, for a fee.

Taking the number 3 bus from outside our hotel, we travelled the 5 kilometres for 1 Yuen each (10p). On reaching the Singing Sand Mountains as it is called (I think the choir was out during our visit), we paid our fee to get into what is going to be, I think, the sandy equivalent of Centre Parks. We had read that sand overshoes were available for hire and in no time we were fully equipped in what every right minded sand walker is wearing this year – bright orange canvas over boots! Stylish or what!!

If you have not tried it, believe me, walking on sand is hard work. Walking on sand up a steep incline in the sun is a Lawrence of Arabia experience without the music. However, the commitment was rewarded and after about an hour’s walking uphill, we had scaled not only the first dune peak but had decided to tackle the next one. It was an amazing view back over Dunhuang. We watched the camel trains gracefully gliding along the lower sand ridges carrying colourful ‘bescarved’ and hatted Chinese ladies, while hang gliders buzzed overhead. Having scaled the second peak, our attempt to climb the next came to an abrupt halt when we got to the end of a ridge and found a sheer sand drop between us and it. Our descent, although less taxing, was equally precarious as the sand slipped away beneath our feet. Eventually we reached ‘terra firma’ but it took a bit of time to find our land legs.

After a drink to refuel and, looking back to where we had been, congratulate ourselves on our achievement, we decided to walk back to the hotel. This was much to the concern of every No. 3 bus driver who felt obliged to sound his horn as he passed to draw our attention to the opportunity to take the weight off our feet and travel by bus. It is a very frequent bus service…….. By the time we got back my nerves were in tatters!

We had heard of a roof top restaurant overlooking the dunes from which to watch the sunset. A small party was formed to try it out and the long suffering Jason was invited along. The rooftop terrace did exactly as it said and also served a mean gin and tonic. Although food is Keith’s domain, suffice it to say that we had a great evening and excellent meal but were rather surprised when the ‘egg rolls’ we ordered for starters turned out to be a sweet sponge cake reminiscent of a Swiss Roll. Mmmmm – no wonder the waitress looked a little bemused when we asked for it!

After watching the floor show that was supplied on one of the other terraces. – the restaurant was part of a rather nice hotel called the Silk Road Duhuang Hotel – once it was dark, we took a very jolly taxi back. It was universally agreed a good time had been had by all.

Wednesday the Mogao Caves

Keith did not do so well over night so passed on the Mogao Caves, so I sallied forth with the others to visit what is considered to be the best Buddhist art in China.

The caves are to be found a few kilometres outside of Dunhuang in the desert. At its peak, the site housed 18 monasteries and 1400 monks and nuns. It would seem that wealthy traders and important officials would fund the creating of the caves to pray or give thanks for a safe journey west or return on the Silk Road. The initial cutting of the caves started in circa 366 AD and was to continue for nearly a thousand years. Each cave was carved out of the rock. The larger figures were then carved out of the rock face, smaller ones were sculpted onto a wooden frame. Each cave originally had wooden doors to enclose it.

A guide is compulsory and ours was a pretty, young local Chinese girl who grew up in Dunhuang and learnt her excellent English at a local college and spoke with an American accent. She looked very smart in her black trouser suit, black gloves and large shades. She took us to our allotted temples. First two large Buddhas and then a reclining Buddha and then several lesser temples in terms of figures but special for the murals.

Some interesting facts that I found fascinating were that there was evidence of both Persian and Indian motives, that the colours used on the murals included lapis lazuli (not found in China but from Afghanistan) and the fact that there is evidence of the use of perspective in about 800 AD, far earlier than the Renaissance established the technique in the west.

Up until this point all was fine and dandy. Then we visited the library and another case of the English not covered in glory was revealed. It would appear that after the caves fell into disuse around 1200 AD they were not rediscovered until around 1900 when some foreign explorers came across them. Around about the same time the caretaker, one Abbot Wang Yuanlu – a Taoist priest – came across what is darkly known as Cave 17, The Library. In this cave were thousands of priceless ancient manuscripts. Apparently the Abbot Wang was a bit naive about their value and eventually agreed to sell some to one Sir Marc Stein, a British Hungarian. He took 24 crates of manuscripts for about £250.

These can now be found in the British Museum along with other contraband acquired under the guise of ‘we know best’. At least we weren’t alone – French, Japanese and Russian explorers also carried off some of the booty and an American took some of the murals off the walls of some of the caves….. A counter argument is they may not have survived the Cultural Revolution if the had stayed where they were.

It was an amazing place. Sadly photography was not allowed and the postcards did not cover the caves we visited but I think it will be a lasting memory of the trip.

On my return to the hotel, Keith had rallied although during the morning and adding to his miseries was the fact that at one stage the bathroom ceiling started raining water on him from floor above. It never rains but it pours!

As there was free time in the afternoon we decided to go and explore the market. It was down time for the majority of the stalls, but a nonetheless interesting stroll watching preparations being made for the evening trade. The market covers a wide area. The town of Dunhuang is very pleasant. Wide streets and wide pavements. It makes for very easy walking.

Our outing to see the acrobats, Dunhuang variety, did not depart until 8.00 so we went to Charley Johngs cafe next door to the hotel, where I had left a pile of laundry last night to see if the laundry was done and to see if anyone was about. It proved beneficial on both counts, the bag of laundry was ready and someone had tracked down a bottle of decent French wine! Nectar of the gods after nearly a month of Chinese beer! Keith made haste to buy another bottle (his decision not to have any alcohol today apparently did not include wine!) and we spent a happy hour chatting prior to the acrobats.

I really enjoyed the show, it was hysterically spectacular, with badly written English sub titles between each act to tell us what was going on. It was a bit too balletic for Keith. He much preferred the nerve racking feats of the Beijing performance. I was at least able to watch this without my hands over my eyes!

Supper was street food from the market which was a different place altogether after dark. It bubbled with activity although the karaoke left a lot to be desired!