This past week we visited three classic Silk Road cities in China: Dunhuang, Turpan and Kashgar. For the five hour train ride from Jiayuguan to Dunhuang we had hard seats which wasn’t as bad as it sounds. It was more comfortable than expected.
On the first station after leaving Jiayuguan some dance/singing group on their way to Dunhuang entered our carriage and immediately we became much photographed celebrities. Over half the ladies of the group wanted their picture taken with us, often several times.
Luckily after the first excitement had waned we were left to ourselves again while the train traveled through arid lunarlike landscape dotted with hundreds of wind turbines (China is going green) that only changed to more fertile scenery as we approached Dunhuang. This oasis town was once a remote but important outpost on the Silk Road and is home to two of the most famous sites in western China: the Mogao Caves and the Singing Sand Dunes.
The Mogao Caves are regarded as one of the largest repositories in the world of Buddhist art. We had asked the hotel we were staying at to reserve tickets for us, as these sell out weeks in advance and can only be bought online if you have a Chinese bank account. When we arrived they clearly had forgotten, but luckily the English language tours for foreigners don’t sell out quickly, so this was no problem.
Almost 500 caves have been uncovered here but only a few are open to the public during a compulsory guided tour (including two movies, one of which is about the caves you may or may not get to see). The very expensive ticket gave us access to twelve caves in total. The statues and paintings of Buddhas, apsaras and other figures were amazing, but regretfully photography was prohibited. Grrrr.
Singing Sand Dunes
In the afternoon we climbed the huge sand dunes close to the city. It was already crowded at the Mogao Caves and modern Chinese tourism reared its ugly head at the dunes. The caravans of the 21st century consisted of hundreds of camels walking single file taking Chinese tourists wearing bright orange shoe covers for a short walk along the dunes.
Other activities that were offered included ‘happy’ sand boarding, dune buggy rides, sand kart rides (‘for lovers’), helicopter rides and ultralight flights. The dunes were beautiful, but with the cacophony of noise it was sometimes hard to really appreciate this. Climbing to the top of Mingsha Mountain, at 1.715 meters the highest dune in the national park, took about an hour and gave some respite from the circus below.
One of the things we noticed in Dunhuang was how quiet it was in the city center. Scooters are almost all electric now, as are most of the taxis and many private cars as well. It was a bit eerie to see all the traffic but without much of the usual soundtrack accompanying it. We found it a bit dangerous at times too, not hearing scooters or cars approaching until they beep their horns.
From Dunhuang a six hour bus-high speed train combo brought us to Turpan in Xinjiang province, where the Chinese rather don’t like to see individual western travelers go. When we applied for our visa we omitted going in this direction and presented a completely different itinerary with hotel bookings (which are necessary for the application) that we could easily cancel once we had received our visa.
Xinjiang is the homeland of the Uighur people who are ethnically and culturally more related to the people in central Asia or even the Middle East than the Chinese. A few decades ago the Uighur formed ninety percent of the population in Xinjiang, but through the influx of mostly Han Chinese work migrants they now number less than fifty percent. Not all Uighur are happy with that resulting in protest or even armed attacks now and then, most recently in 2014.
Because of this security is tight in on public transport in China and in Xinjiang in particular. We also experienced this in Turpan when we hired a taxi with driver for the day through the hostel we stayed at to visit some of the major the sights that are spread out through and around the city. We passed several barricaded police check points. As soon as they saw we were foreigners we were waved on most of the time, however. We only had to produce our passports once.
Time is also an issue here. Because all of China is officially on Beijing time sun goes up and down fairly late here 3.000+ kilometers to the west. So you have to deal with two times here: official Beijing time and local Xinjiang time, where most people live by. If agreeing on a time for a transfer for example you always have to check which time they mean though.
The ancient Silk Road city of Turpan is located on the second lowest point on earth, 154 meters below sea level. Temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius are normal in summer and can even rise above 50 degrees Celsius. We were lucky. Temperatures were lower than normal, ‘only’ reaching 35 degrees Celsius during our visit.
Some of the sights we visited were rather underwhelming, like the Bezeklik Caves (there’s not much left of the Buddhist cave art) and Karez well system (again not much to see and overrun by tour groups). Some other sights were great, like the Flaming Mountains, the mountains glowing a fiery red in the midafternoon sun.
In a green valley fringed by the Flaming Mountains the village of Tuyoq offered a glimpse of traditional Uighur village life and architecture. The best thing was that there we hardly any other visitors when we were there (rare in China).
Also nice were the Jioahé ruins, once one of the largest and oldest cities in the world. Without a guide it was sometimes hard to get the right perspective about the place, but it was impressive nonetheless.
Going to Kashgar
Our driver dropped us off at Turpan train station (which is 50 kilometers outside of the city!) for the 15 hour night train ride to Kashgar, located in the westernmost part of China. Soft sleepers were a lot more expensive than we remembered from ten years ago, but at least it got us fairly well rested to Kashgar the next morning.
Here security proved even more tight than in Turpan (where we managed to ‘smuggle’ deodorants and shaving cream past security once again). We first noticed this on arrival at the train station where we were awaited by armed policeman in riot gear and men with Central Asian features were taken apart for questioning.
Later on we saw the same thing happening several times on the square in front of the Id Kah mosque where groups of three or four policeman were marching around the square randomly stopping men with Central Asian looks demanding their cell phones and ID’s. Later they would question groups of 10-15 of the men stopped in the corner of the square ordering them to unlock their phones so they could check messages.
Police presence was huge anyway, even our hostel had always three policeman in front of it, with security checks everywhere you go: into a market, a shopping mall and even underground passages. It left somewhat of a bad feeling behind for what is mostly a very pleasant and interesting city, despite the old town having been mostly restored the Chinese way (ie, with all the life taken out of it).
The main reason however for visiting Kashgar was animal market on Sunday, one of the biggest in Central Asia with thousands of goats and sheep, many cows as well as donkeys, yaks, horses and camels being traded. Around noon we literally got stuck between livestock and traders. It’s no place for animal lovers though.
Below are some more pics of Kashgar and the animal market.
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