in the nick of time: we hardly knew ya, Kashgar!!!

I woke up today to this article in one of my rss feeds and reading it saddens me to no end!

The Cradle of a culture, down in rubble !!!

I spent 3 wonderful days in Kashgar and surroundings back in November with 2 great friends of mine.. the city had history pouring out of the cracks in every building and road. The smells, sounds and colors had traveled through time, a reminder of times long gone and a heritage that will never be forgotten.

that said, it’s over and I’m really happy i saw it all before it got chaied… goodbye kashgar, we hardly knew ya but we will be missing ya..

THE Picture

On the last day of that the trip, as we were heading back from a sightly disappointing visit to the 1000 buddha caves outside of Turpan, we stumbled across this amazing little place that was not on an map, guide, website or whatsoever… a treasure lost in the middle of nowhere, forgotten or ignored by most… kinda like Xinjiang itself!

(click for full size)

The place itself was an mazing collection of REAL artifacts collected from locals all over the place, not to mention amazing reproductions of the buddha paintings from close-by caves. However bright and impressive those were, it was the outside that stole the show as far as i was concerned!

As you look at the picture above, follow the numbers to try and understand why I believe i got Xinjiang in a snap!

1- The temple and Siddharva:
Earliest influences in the region were decidedly related to Indian Buddhism, just like everywhere else in China. This little temple at the foot of the hill was beautifully accessorized with carvings and statues. It even had catacombs inside with more sculptures. The whole thing reminiscent of temples seen elsewhere.

2- The Mosque:
Built directly above the temple stood this mini replica of a mosque, much like the Arabian Muslim influence came in after the Indian Buddhism and supplanted it! The temple was literally the foundation of the mosque and was hidden from eyesight depending on the angle as if it was not there. Is that symbology or what?

3- The great Kingdom’s looking at you kid:
The Moslems and the early Buddhists struggled for while, with the formers seizing control of the area. As that was taking place, the Middle kingdom was looking from afar protected by its gates and sizing up the situation.

4- The infiltration:
After a number of years, with the muslims minorities distracted and fighting each other for control, the middle kingdom began infiltration via folklore as evidenced by the little piggy-demon over there. it feels like it was literally teleported from the middle of HAN-china and made to blend and stand out at the same time. It’s bigger than the sum of temple+mosque, standing away from it and retaining some of its color from the front!

6- The village:
As the cultural/religious icon took their place in the land, the village was there, witnessing the struggles, battled, wars, uprisings and declines that ensued. The Villagers just adapted to whatever came along, much like the mountains and deserts around them. They were part of the picture but didn’t care to be center stage.

7- the Trading post:

Standing on a hill, blending in the landscape yet managing to stick out! It fills the background of the picture much like the Silk Road stories fill the pages of history books, novels and imagination. Business keeps trudging along, a discrete witness to the flow of wars and caravans.

that is Xinjiang …

Silk Road thoughts

It’s been a little over 2 weeks that the silk road adventure finished and I’ve had a bit of time to sit down, take it all in and look back at that memorable journey. I must admit that it already feels like ages ago and yet it also feels like I was there just yesterday; sometimes, it’s also hard to believe that it ever happened but at least, I got the pictures and memories to prove it along with a bottle full of Taklamakan sand and a can of “red camel”

I never really got around to writing about day 9 and by now, it feels pointless to do so. The immediate impressions and feeling are pretty much washed away by the tides of life and the pictures can’t always express it all.

That said, the journey was memorable for many reasons:

1- The amplitude:
we spent 10 days trekking through the region and taking in as much as possible. Still, I’m sure I could go back for another 20 days and still not see everything there is to see in that side of the world.

2- Past, present, future:
I love History with a capital H and that region holds so much of it: As you’re traveling from city to city, going from dead kingdom to dead kingdom and reading about the events that took place in the past and the importance of the region, there is a sense of self-irrelevance! All the might and wonder is naught but dust and more dust now. Yet, there was a time where that part of central asia was a cornerstone in communication and world events.

3- The culture!!! The culture!!!!
Yes, we were in China! No, we were not in China. It’s hard to explain unless one goes there but depending on the time of the day, we were in Pakistan, Iran, Morocco, egypt, Turkey, Russia etc…. The facial features, the clothing, the food, the sounds, the smells, the colors and everything else that comes along!
The excitement and curiosity rivaled those i had when i first set foot in the middle kingdom… they might even have exceeded that initial level. I’ve covered quite a few chunks of China by now and I’ve seen the temples, I’ve had the food and I’ve walked the streets. I’ve walked the fields, climbed the mountains and drank the ales. However, all of it somewhat fell into a sort of mold with minor visual differences. Xinjiang helped relieve me of that “blase” feeling, that jadedness that I’ve developed after the Nth monument.

3- The landscape:
It is soooo bloody varied! Northern mountains, southern mountains, moving sands desert, arid desert, grass, trees, emptiness, warmth, cold….. there was just so much to take in.

4- Timing:

We were there in early November and I can’t say I regret that choice! yes, we “missed out” on the whole touristy side of things with the dancing and the tourist traps but you know what? couldn’t care less!
Being up in the middle of the ruins of a dead city or an ancient kingdom without having to deal with a horde of tourists is freaking priceless!!!! you can actually sit down, stare at the horizons and picture how it must have been like ages ago in silence, a silence befitting that kind of place!
Going up to Karakul lake and seeing it like that, in its natural state of beauty without an army of cars/buses playing the part of visual pollution is an experience on its own!!!
I think I can speak for my companions and myself when I say that it was definitely worth it and we came out of it feeling we got the REAL DEAL!!!!!

Silk Road day 8: Turpan

We were pretty worn out the previous night from an extended day rushing around Khotan, rushing to make our flight on time and the 3+ hour drive from Urumqi to Turpan. We didn’t really get to do much other than grab a bite and crash.
We stayed at the Turpan Hotel in the Princess Building. The place was highly recommended online for its charm and combination of style, comfort and affordability. The interior was quite reminiscent of the Seman Hotel in Kashgar:

The hotel itself was quite big and had regular shows, presentations etc.. during high season as one can see on their layout map. However, around mid-november, just about everything was shut down except the hotel part. No food, no shows, no sauna ….

Turpan in daylight was quite a charming city, borderline quirky with the extent of “silk road style” decotation all over the place down to the streets themselves: Yes, that is just a common street

The day was exceptionally beautiful as we had not only daylight bathing us in warm rays of sunshine, but also the moon was quite visible around 10:00 a.m. Come to think of it, I had been noticing the moon during daytime since our stop in Yarkand.

We browsed around the streets for a bit seeking a place with food for some of the hungry stomachs and found one that looked remarkably non-xinjiangnese. Traditional beijing style cold dishes, baozi, tea and even porridge. Needless to say that I stuck to my coffee…

First stop of the day: The Kerez Center and Museum!

Having to deal with rough geographic location and harsh climate seems push mankind forward and enhance survival skills. That’s how the Kerez irrigation canals came about! They harness the water from the mountains and carry it all the way down to the valey through a complex system of underground/above ground canals.

The building was well designed with time pieces and reproductions accompanied by explanations in Uighur, Chinese and English.. they were quite thorough.

Turpan is grape central in China! I mean the city is filled with grapevines everywhere: hotels, streets, houses, farms and I skip some. Grapevines everywhere! While it must look outstanding and pretty in-season, it was all pretty much dried up while we were there:

We then proceeded to the Ancient city of Jiaohe which was a short drive away. It was an ancient stronghold in the region that somehow got destroyed/burned and subsequently deserted.

Most parts were still standing and you clearly see most outlines as well as the general layout from a certain height. One could however tell that it had seen its share of wear n tear n abuse by father time, constant stamping of shoes, elements and nature. It was strictly forbidden to stray of a path that had been laid-out in bricks. As you walk through the ruins, you can see the mountains around and the mini-valley separation the city from the surroundings. It’s easy to imagine guards standing watch on their towers, checking the horizon for any potential threats.

As I mentioned before, the buildings were all in various conditions with some slightly better off if the term can even be used to describe their condition like this average standard house located by the entry gate:

I have seen a few dead cities before but nothing like this. It was built to resist any invasion and be a stronghold. It was obviously clear considering there was only one access point and the choice of terrain. However, for some reason, once it was destroyed, it stayed abandoned. There was also a story of dozens of infant bodies buried within the confines of the old city-hall for no apparent reason.

Alas, just one more of the region’s many secrets that will forever remain buried under the weight of time, sand, mud and history.

Our next stop was The Emin Tower, a remarkably well-preserved treasure of uighur architecture. It was built long ago by the Turpan Prefect to as a commemoration of his father who had dedicated his life to preserving the unification of China and the union between Uighurs and Chinese, Muslim and Buddhist. It had the tower, prayer hall, grapevine and everything else we came to expect in such a monument:

Right next to it stood the residence of said prefect which was somehow well kept down to the original frescoes on the walls and sleeping mats:

Mission accomplished as far as the Turpan vicinity goes. We then readied to head for Hami and stop on the way to see the Flaming Mountain and the ruins of ancient Gaochang.

Besides being quite imposing on its own merit (it’s huge and temperatures can reach 48 deg. celsius ), flaming mountain was made famous by a novel telling stories of the Monkey king in the novel “Journey to the west” which I gotta go and find.

That was a really fun part of the day as we rode camels, drove a donkey cart and even got a history lesson. As you prepare to get into the mountain compound, there is a tunnel lined with carvings taken from the novel ( English and chinese commentary was also available)

Each block on both sides was nicely illustrated:

Past tunnel was another exhibition of paintings and statues dealing with lost/stolen relics of the silk road. reproductions of statues and painting currently sitting in European or Japanese museums were on display next to statues of the main culprits. There was also a giant thermometer to showcase how hot the ground could get.

We couldn’t resist the attraction of getting on a donkey cart and riding around for a while! We had seen so many of them throughout the trip and it just felt like the thing to do…. until we got on the darn thing! Every bone, joint and fragment of our bodies was shaken up and down for the 3km we were on board… Jee.. didn’t think anything on a road could shake worse than the chicken bus we rode to Yarkand.. the donkey proved that theory wrong:p

Having had enough donkey and came business, we got back on the road heading towards the Ancient city of Gaocheng.

Gaocheng was a cultural and economical capital in the area for 1400 years until it was burned down to the ground during some war. It was about 5 times the size of Jiaohe! We got there on time for the sunset and proceeded to walk in.

Interestingly enough, there wasn’t much protection given to Gaocheng when compared to Jiaohe. The area was littered with plastic bottles and there were donkey cart tracks all over the ruins.

I did a weird experiment on this one shooting it while covering the lens with my sunglasses.

The city was mostly in really bad shape and there wasn’t much left except huge chunks of the wall that used to be 10m thick. However, once we got deeper into the center, we came across a whole section being renovated which was quite surprising:

It looked like they were trying to recreate the palace or the temple judging by the size and the extent of the refurbishing. Thing is the parts that were new looked like they belonged just fine and that in itself was impressive… I can just picture going back there next year and finding it completely rebuilt and renamed as the gaocheng attraction park or smtg like that.

By the time we finished, it was too late to head for Hami which was almost 400km away. There was just no point in going there and then having to drive back 750+ km the next day. We decided to go back to Turpan and take a more extensive look at what the area had to offer the next day.

We checked back into the Turpan hotel then went for a quick snack at the night market:

quick snack, huge dinner, crappy wine, UNO and then ZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzz…..

Silk Road day 7: Khotan – Urumqi – Turpan

Ah.. it’s Friday morning! usually, it’s a good morning cuz it’s the last day before the weekend hits, bringing along all kinds of fun (at least wishful thinking). This friday is a bit different though! We’re definitely not looking forward to the weekend as it is a clear signal that our trip is nearing its end; it’s also strange because we’re in the weirdest city we’ve been to so far in terms of interaction with locals.
Other than the taxi driver we used the previous evening and we hired for the day, most people looked positively freaked out by our mere presence.. heck, some looked like they were scared of their shadow.

By now, we’re used to a customary 30mn delay in the mornings except that this particular day. it was our driver that was missing. He eventually showed up after a bt, just before we turned into icicles and we set out for the Khotan museum.
The place was barely opening when we got there and was home to a decent mini-selection of goodies from all over the region, mainly from a cultural/religious perspective. It housed a map that informed me for the first time of a little known fact: The silk road apparently started in Japan… and there I was under the impression that it was solely Chinese and central-asian:

Museum also housed two mummies from neighboring dead cities and one extremely well-preserved sarcophagus with great drawings and style:

THe museum was cute, free and instructional! definitely not a bad combination. we were done with it all in about 45mn. At that point, the streets started filling up with breakfast folks:

Next step, visiting a town on the outskirts to meet the last mulberry paper maker in China: Tohutibak. We arrived to his family house and knocked on the door. Then came out this little old man along with his wife:

He knew exactly what we came there for and brought out a whole selection of books, letters, magazine etc.. all written about him and his trade. As he picked each piece and showed it to us, there was a sparkle of pride on his eyes.

One of the pieces was a 1000 years old binder with verses form the Koran and muslim folklore (or so he claimed).. it definitely looked the part, down to some tear and wear that looks like it could have only come from the hand of time:

Tohutibak proceeded then to give us a speedy introduction to the art of paper-making as well as a small little demo. It all starts with the tree bark that get processed and after a few steps turn into paper:

I’m not gonna spend too much time on this right now because it’s worthy of its own post but suffice to say that the experience was humbling! There was something special about being able to shake the hand of such a man. At the end of it all, we bought a couple of Kg worth of paper, enough we hoped to last them for a bit and waved goodbye to the whole family:

S had one main objective: see, feel and hear the desert! And making that happen was our next step. We were gonna go for a little trip up the countryside into the taklamakan desert to the Imam Assim Tomb. Technically, the tomb is located 23km away from the city which we thought would take us 20 mn each way if not less… uhm.. uhm… unfortunately, that was one hell of bad estimation. the type of road we travelled on made it a 1 hour trip each way.. after crossing weird dirt roads, farms, oasis and what not, we finally saw it… the beginning of the desert:

what a feeling!!! my nomadic nature was in complete utter ecstasy over this. As we started our walk towards to tomb, it just got prettier and prettier with dunes, flowing sands, curving around on the landscape to infinity. There is no comment i can make that can do the desert justice.. if you’ve been lucky to see one, you know what i mean!

We spent a good chunk of time over in the area along with our taxi driver ( aka the SOLE friendly person in Khotan) just hanging out, walking around other buildings near by and even the standard mosque that is usually attached to each tomb/mausoleum.

Alas, most good things tend to end before we want them to and this was no exception. We had a 5:00 pm flight to Urumqi waiting for us and we were not about to miss that sucker. But we saw the Taklamakan!!!!
We made pretty decent time on the way to the airport and even had time for a quickie lunch at JiLi’s favorite restaurant:

one plane ride later, we were back in urumqi again. K’s relative picked us up from the airport and was gonna be with us throughout the WE while traveling through that side of the world. We had a rough time leaving the capital due to rush hour but we eventually did.

Once we got to Turpan, we were dealt another surprise.. the city was pretty much comatose… really!!! we drove across most main streets trying to grab a bite but to no avail.. only one spot seemed ok and we ate a decent meal to rabbit, beef soup, steamed bread etc…
finally, we got to the hotel…ZZZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzz………..