Driving towards Turpan, our truck had a scheduled stop so we could check out the Jiaohe ruins. Seems like every other bloody tour bus in China thought the same thing. Good thing was, it was such a vast complex of ancient city maze threads running through some barren desert, it was actually pretty easy to get away from the crowds.
The ruins are what used to be a fascinating town that blossomed during the Han dynasty. It’s (according to China) one of the world’s largest, oldest and ‘best-preserved’ ancient cities. To be fair, it has an amazing historical atmosphere, and the eroded landscape looks like something straight out of Henry Moore’s sketchbook, with large scale sculpture mother-and-child forms gazing down at you, exuding history and ambience. Like, yeah. I’ve lived through that.
There was little comprehensible information from the museum due to the Chinglish nonsense, but as far as I could make out the people that lived there were nothing like the Han or Uyghur that live there now, and more like Russians with that light hair blue eyes thing going on. An article here suggests that they enjoyed some cheeky mary-jane too, so also has a relaxed vibe about the place. Sun, sand and zero water. The worst place to be when a hangover hits.
The people there made houses by carving and digging away at the land already there, so it was a pretty simple way to keep everything really cool. I had a lovely chat walking around the place with this guy called Tommy who was travelling with his wife Lynn. He happened to be an artist, so we filled our time chatting intensely about our practices and the restraints that the 21st Century bought upon them, and how we felt about it from opposite ends of the age spectrum (he was roughly 60). The sun and the sights were an inspirational backdrop.
The girl in the pink wanted a photo with us. All smiles.
Next came the caves. On the way to Turpan, Suzanna, Carme and I persuaded our tour leader to stop off at the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves. Carme had already done the silk route before, so she suggested our culture-blind tour leader needed a shove up the bottom to take us round this spectacular place. You know when you try and work your mum and dad round to something by suggesting it over and over because they’re totally not bothered by you (or it), and then finally they just do it to shut you up? That’s what happened. As she stood waiting at the gates, munching on her Chinese snacks we were allowed time to explore.
They were super cool. Unfortunately, you can’t take photos due to copyright/preservation of the caves but inside were the most beautifully painted, ornate walls I’d ever seen.
If anyone asks, my GoPro accidentally was recording when I went in, accidentally.
They gave me shivers. I can only remember once being absolutely astounded when witnessing something as historically grand as this, and that was when I was about 8 I saw King Ramses II mummified body, which was 3,300 years old ish and I couldn’t quite get my head around the fact that that thing used to be a living, breathing soul.
Unfortunately, a lot of these caves were destroyed during religion clashes as the years went on, and most of the eyes have been gouged out of the paintings. Even a teensy glimpse of a corner from what’s left of a tile gives you an idea of the glory it might have held. These are re-constructions of what they would have looked like, had we been a little earlier in time.
These Bezeklik caves are the less popular ones, nestled in next to the flaming mountains. The Flaming Mountains get their name because at certain points of the day they look like they are on FIRE. They literally are. In fact, the highest land temp on MOTHER EARTH was recorded here, with a temp of 66.8°C.
You can actually burn your skin on that, I googled it.
Flaming Mountains are a series of peaks that stretch around 100km from the Turpan basin. I believe that it is the hottest place in China, although there is no official weather station there so...
The story of the flaming mountains comes from the Chinese novel: The Journey to the West, by Wi Cheng’en. In the story the Monkey King was having a right faf over someone else cooking up a bunch of immortality in the oven, so he kicked over the stove and it spilt from heaven onto the mountain range, hence the heat.
Driving along from the Bezeklik caves we came to the Mogao Grottoes. Now these were the popular ones because these little caves have paintings in them from 400AD. Although in parts it was decorated clearly for the sake of tourists, they have actually done a lot to preserve the paintings that deserve their UNESCO status. Before going to the caves we had x2 30 minute movies we had to watch about the history of the place and one was an IMAX thing. Damn barren China, back at it again with the technology.
We were then accompanied by a sweet, but brutal tour guide with below average English that just vomited facts.
She also nailed a few put downs if anyone tried to chip in with more of what they thought was their own accurate info. You can’t go in without a specialised guide, and our one had been studying the caves her whole life so she knew her shit. Turns out this was a strategic point along the Silk Route, so the 492 caves were a sanctuary of crossroads for religion and culture.
Our stopover in Turpan meant that we had some free time to explore the Oasis city of Gaochang too. A well-known trading point for camels, fyi.
This extremely informative sign (below) talks of its ‘wonderfulness, distinctiveness, boundlessness, mysteriousness and ancientness.’
Suzanna and I learned the hard way that walking up sand dunes is gnikcuf hard work. All the Chinese tourists bought these orange shoe covers which we loled at, until we realised that we had to empty out our shoes at least 5 times before reaching the top, otherwise there would be more sand than foot in the shoe.
To finish off Turpan, there was actually a fascinating water irrigation system museum that we dragged ourselves through, but everything was made out of playdoh and my mind strangely lost interest..