The Silk Road, China

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

The Northern Silk Road to Xian - Tian Chi & Turpan

Within a week of Helen (my sister) arriving, I had experience a number of firsts for the trip so far: gin & tonic; rose wine (Chinese, not recommended); red wine (better, but nothing to write home about) and a night in a four star hotel. As someone who appreciates travelling in style (as well as being happy to rough it I should add), Helen is the perfect travel companion to begin the transition from Central Asian simplicity to East Chinese modernity.

The quality and variety of food continues to improve as we head east, and while it remains possible to to pick up a bowl of noodles for a dollar or so, the gap with more expensive restaurants is widening.
Street markets are now the exception rather than the norm, with shops now replacing them on the high streets - increasingly with price tags and familiar western brands.

But first, so that we could compress the entire transition into two weeks, we spent Helen's first day in China heading for the Kazakh border in order to spend a night in a yurt. The wonderful thing about Xinjiang is that it has absorbed so much of Central Asia. Billo and I found a taste of Tajikistan in Tashkurgan (en route to Pakistan) and Helen and I were to find a taste of Kazazhstan in the north of the province with the Kazakh shepherds who live around Tian Chi - the 'Heavenly Lake' - set among steep, tree lined hills with snow capped mountains in the distance at an altitude of 2000m.

The Kazazh yurts

Idyllic as it may look, this was indeed roughing it: our beds the floor of the yurt and there were no such luxuries as electricity or running water. For food we were offered plov (rice fried in ripe mutton fat, mixed with pieces of ripe mutton) and noodle soup - the Central Asian staple diet. These proved less appealing for Helen when it transpired that the 'vegetarian' version of plov is involves simply picking the mutton out!

It would also be misleading to describe Tian Chi as a little corner of Kazakstan. Parts of it were most certainly Chinese. And, we are rapidly coming to discover, (to quote from the film Borat) "the cultural differences are vaaaaast." It seems that the Chinese tourists' idea of appreciation of one of the most stunning mountain lakes I have ever seen is exorbitant entrance fees, a circus of shops and loud music blaring from speakers, tour boats (complete with air horns despite there being just three of them) and visiting a two year old 'temple' with no apparent raison d'etre other than revenue generation.

I would like to briefly explain what I mean by 'exorbitant' entrance fees. At 100 Yuan (13.5 dollars, excluding transfer from the car park and entrance to the temple which increases the price by a further 50%) this is completely out of kilter with other prices in China. Indexing this to the cost of a cheap meal in China, this is like charging 100 pounds to go around Kew Gardens. The price appears to be the same for locals, making tourism totally unaffordable for the vast majority of Chinese people. Nevertheless, the site is packed, showing just how important China's 'mass affluent' population already are.

Once you are in, it is carnage. The noise is unbearable and a scrum of people jostle for position, posing for a snapshot which invariably involves a V sign, a flexed arm muscle or both arms raised towards the sky. Around the lake is a catalogue of overkill: a two lane tarmac road stretches much too far around it, while concrete 'toadstools' (to sit on) and giant 'leaves' (to shelter under) adorn the largely unnecessary concrete stepped walkway.

Fortunately, we have discovered that the horror is inversely proportional to the distance in metres (in particular vertical metres) from the entrance at which everyone is dropped off by their vehicles. Our yurts, at the far end of the lake, were situated in total tranquility with just a handful of other foreign tourists besides ourselves.

Tian Chi - peace at last

The following day we walked around the other side of the lake and sat, quite alone, at the top of hill overlooking the lake as the eagles circled around us, ridingthe thermals. The lake can indeed live up to its name, but very much in spite of the best efforts of the tourist industry.


Next we travelled to Turpan, an oasis town on the Northern Silk Road (I had cut north from the Southern Silk Road in order to meet Helen) which - at 80m below sea level is the hottest place in China. However, in the same way as I have seen in Iran and Pakistan, an extensive irrigation system has transformed the surrounding area in a green land of plenty, famed for its Delicious grapes and sweet water melon.

Sitting under the vines that have even been extended to the main pedestrian street in Turpan eating fruit proved to be an extremely pleasant way to pass the time in the sweltering 40 degree heat. We once ventured out on bikes to explore the town, but we driven back into the shade within a couple of hours.

The vine trellises of Turpan

But we did spend an interesting day visiting two towns nearby Turpan. The first was Jioahe, a 2000 year old former garrison town, perched on top of a steep sided plateau that had been created by a fork in the river. Amazingly intact considering its age, it is possible to walk around what were clearly once streets and see the exact layout of the town.

The ancient desert city of Jiaohe

The second town, Tuyoq, bore an incredible resemblance to Jiaohe but remains inhabited by a devout Muslim population who seem determined to maintain their traditional way of life. The town contains a temple which is believed to be a religious site mentioned in the Koran and is therefore a site of pilgrimage.


Beyond the village, we chanced upon some caves set into the cliffs containing Buddhist wall paintings. We had the place to ourselves (apart from their elderly minder who enthusiastically opened them up for us), making them very atmospheric in the solitude. Sadly, the faces of every Buddha had been systemically destroyed by the Red Guards of Mao's Cultural Revolution of the late sixties, in which he instructed China's youths to destroy all evidence of 'bourgeois thought,' which included cultural heritage.

That evening we sat on the sand dunes just outside Turpan (it was a relief to find desert 'proper' after the flatness of the Taklakaman) and watched the sunset before sleeping out under the stars outside our Uighar guesthouse. The contrast from the freezing cold evening at Tian Chi could not have been more marked.

JM & HM (co written on the train)

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