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Unbearable Hotness of Being

Turpan, China


From Dunhuang it's a two-hour car ride to the train station in Liuyuan, which barely qualifies as a station - one platform, one major street, 2 'restaurants', and a hotel charging by hours for train travellers waiting for their departure.

Once on the train, I noticed that my fellow passengers look distinctly more ethnic, and compared to the train out of Beijing and Xi'an, definitively less sophisticated and more 'earthy' (it's the only description I can think of). It was rather late (11pm) so I climbed into my bunk and went straight to sleep. The train passed into Xinjiang province in the middle of the night; Xinjiang is the largest province in China, making up approximately 1/6 of the total area, but scarcely populated due to its remote location and terrain (jagged mountain ranges and the great Gobi desert). It is also the second most ethnially diverse province in China, with around 47 different ethnic groups co-existing, occasionally peacefully, for 2,000+ years. The province borders Russia, Kazakstan, Mongolia, and Pakistan, and produces abundence of various minerals, most importantly, oil.

As soon as I got off the train in Turpan I could tell I'm in a different world. Signs are in two languages (Chinese and Uighar, a type of Islamic). I could barely understand what people are saying, even though they're speaking Mandarin (but with a very thick accent). The train station is located about 30 miles from City Center, and I got in a cab with someone else in the front seat that I couldn't tell if he was a passenger or bodyguard or what. On the way we stopped off at a place to pick up more passengers. They were all speaking their dialect which I don't understand, and the first thought that came to my mind was that I'm a goner, but one-by-one the driver dropped them off, and I began chatting with the driver (he is a Hui, an ethnic minority that look just like Han in apperance, except they are Islams). He turned out to be very friendly and my worries were unwarranted.

Turpan is 200 meters below sea level and the hottest place in China (summer temperature can reach 122!). I came here to visit the Flaming Mountain, immortalized by the novel Journey to the West (starring the Monkey King - everything person in China knows it by heart). I was told the best thing to do is rent a cab for the day and visit the various attractions around Turpan. Fortunately, I met a fellow passenger in Dunhuang who was also staying at the same hotel in Turpan, so we split the cost and on we went.

The guide book cautions (strongly, in bold letters) not to visit the Flaming Mountain in the middle of the day, so we head out early around 10am, which is considered early here in Xinjiang. It was about 100 degree and I was told this is a very, very nice day. The mountain was glowing a reddish hue and I can imagine how it would look like firey tonuges when the wind blows in high noon, giving it the appropriate moniker. The scenery reminded me of the Grand Canyon in a smaller scale (I guess it's just canyon if it's not so 'grand'), and I can definitely see it as the place to revivie western films (maybe we can call it 'Noodle Western'?) We couldn't stay too long and risk heat stroke, so we continued on to several ancient ruins dating anywhere between 100 AD to 7th Century. Some were hardly recognizable pile of rocks while others were in better shape. My travel partner and I decided we've seen enough old ruins and it was time to escape to the cooler climes of the cave paintings and underground water system.

Compared to the caves in Mogao, the ones around Turpan were in a much smaller scale and have long being plundered by western 'explorers'. Nevertheless, these rustic, unpreserved caves have no tourist conveyer belt, so I could take my time visiting each, and actually see how they were made due to their poor shape. Essentially, a cave was dug first in the rock formation, then mud/straws/clay mixtures were applied to the surface (wall and ceiling), then painted over. Certain statues were then plastered into the clay surface and viola! The underground water system (Karez), on the other hand, was an engineering marvel from 2,000 years ago. Using nothing but gravity, the ancient people were able to divert the underground water from the nearby mountains to the villages far below for farming. These underground channels prevent evaporation and contamination, and totaled 5,000 kilometers!

Xinjinang is an 'autonomous region' and around Turpan it feels more like I was in Afghanistan or Kazastan. I couldn't tell if people I met were Han, Hui, Uighar, Kazaks, or other smaller minority groups I've never heard of. Outside information is scarce, and people I spoke with all wanted to know what America is like - they have the impression that China is about 50-60 years behind. I felt it was too hard to explain to them that in big cities like Beijing and Xi'an there are virutally no differences, and in the US we have Arkansas and West Virginia, so it's not all glitter and gold :). Clearly the influx of tourist, even in small amount, had changed the people here - at each location we visited there were vendors relentlessly peddling everything, from Hello Kitty keychains to commemorative plates bearing Chair Mao's image. The little kids would post for pictures in their traditional outfits, and blocked my path unless I give them money. I figured it is both their culture (they are traders fond of making deals) as well as the poor economy conditions. Nevertheless, it left a bad taste in my mouth especially after the wonderful experience I had in Dunhuang.

Having seen all the places I cared to see, I decided to leave for Urumqi instead of spending the night in Turpan. The plan was to catch a 3-hour bus ride to Urumqi, but wanting to get there as fast as I can, I decided to take a cab for Y65 instead of the Y40 bus fare, figuring that was a good deal. Well, while the cab I was in stopped to find another cab willing to take me the distance, another cab driver opened the door and tried to yank me out and put me in his cab, cab driver #1 pushed him away and a fight broke out in front of me. Then driver #1 got back in with 2 other men, and told me it usually costs Y360 for four to go to Urumqi, and since it's slow season, I was the only one and needed to pay Y180. I mustered the courage and told him forget it and just take me to the bus station. He kept lowering his price and I showed my resolve and finally he relented, and we agreed on Y100 (my sense of self-preservation told me it was the smart thing to do), and on we went with driver #3. I can certainly look back with a sense of humor now, but at the time I thought that was my near-death experience #2 in Turpan. Better leave as soon as possible.

Until next time...

permalink written by  Chihyau on June 27, 2010 from Turpan, China
from the travel blog: Backpacking in China
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good thing you left there! If we have to go save your ass choose a city not quite so hot!! Ive already been to a desert!!!

permalink written by  Robert on July 2, 2010

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Many of you have heard me wax poetic about the open plains and the nomadic life of Mongolia. Well, I'm finally getting off the couch and trekking to the edge of the world in search of my private Shangri-la.

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