(Go to Chapter 1)
The next morning we met Ahmad and Mr. Chou at the breakfast buffet (Ahmad had melon, Mr. Chou a bowl of “gruel”), then checked out of our hotel on schedule at 9am and piled into the minivan. “After dinner Mr. Chou spent two hours last night in line at the only open gas station in Turpan right now,” Ahmad explained. “This is one more thing that frustrates me: Xinjiang provides China with 35% of it’s oil and natural gas, and yet the people of Xinjiang benefit very little from it.”
We turned onto the main highway and headed east away from Turpan back into the desert with the Flaming Mountains to our left glowing in the early morning sun. Half an hour later we turned left and headed into gap in the mountains, winding our way up the back sides until we stopped in a newly built but empty parking lot. We were handed tickets, presented them to bored attendants (who had been playing basketball when we pulled up), went through the turnstiles (“Sheh sheh.”) and then followed Ahmad down a stairway. After descending for a few minutes we came around a sharp turn and saw a series of caves up and down the hillside with stairs leading to each one from a main plaza.
These were the Thousand Budda Caves, the “thousand” referring to the number of Buddas painted onto the ceilings of many caves; in fact there are 77 caves themselves. Only a few are open at a time (to prevent traffic overload?), and as we walked into the first open cave Ahmad recited three paragraphs for us. They had first appeared in the 5th century AD, built by a group of Buddist monks who inhabited the Moutou river valley below us. They seemed to be carved into the mountain side then decorated in painted frescos of Budda figures as well as portraits of different monks. Many of the frescos have been removed (by German archeologists in the nineteenth century) or damaged (by Cultural Revolutionary gangs), but what remains still gives you a sense of what had been created, and who might have created these fascinating caves.
The most interesting aspect of the paintings are that the monk and Budda figures all haloed, very much like medieval portraits of saints. When I check Janson on those western images of religious figures, most Christian icons with this imagery begin showing up in the 10th – 11th century AD. The earliest Christian mosaics are from the Byzantine era in the 6th century AD. IS IT POSSIBLE, I ask myself while gazing at vaulted ceilings covered with 1000 halo-ed Budda figures, that this Silk Road thing spread and ‘standardize’ religious imagery throughout Europe and Asia as well as spices, fabric, and tea? I’m sure this is not a new insight, but it’s too juicy not to mention…
From the Budda Caves we drove out of the Flaming Mountains back to the main highway where we were pulled over at yet another (our second this morning) checkpoint. This time, however it was the black uniformed, “S.W.A.T” badge wearing, machine gun toting, largely Han national police (instead of the camo wearing local militias made up of Uygar and Han recruits). After a few tense moments with both Mr. Chou and Ahmad taken into the office they return and we’re off to the Astana burial tombs in the desert south of Flaming Mountain village.
The tombs held bodies from the region buried between 200 and 800AD. Everything is incredibly well preserved because of the arid climate, and little was looted before it was discovered by scholars so there were clothes, personal possessions, and interesting artwork as well as the mummified remains of commoners and generals alike.
As we drove back through the village on the way to the highway we saw all kinds of activity, primarily the winnowing of raisins, separating the dried fruit from the stems and leaves that had been attached to them. The winnowing machines were large boxes that shook the raisins in front of a fan, allowing the raisins to fall into sacks on one side of the machine, and the rest to fly out of the other side of the machine, much like blueberry or dry bean winnowers still in use in Maine.
Within a mile of getting back on the highway we were stopped at another checkpoint, this time by a local militia group, which wasn’t so scary. But for the first time, after Mr. Chou and Ahmad were interrogated and their paperwork checked, we were asked to exit the car and stand in front of the checkpoint captain.
“Where are you from?” He asked us in English.
“USA” we said.
“Where are you going?”
“Touring, we are tourists.” I said. “Tuyuk village” Ahmad added in English.
The captain paused, and with a serious face he re-inspected Ahmad’s Tour Guild license and Mr. Chou’s registration and identity card, then he looked up at us and instructed us, “Have a Good Day!”
We smiled, and after we got back in the minivan and started driving away, Mr. Chou and Ahmad burst out laughing and spoke rapidly back and forth in Mandarin to each other. Then Ahmad turned to us and said, “that guy just wanted to impress his soldiers by showing them he can speak English! There’s no reason you needed to get out of the car!”
We headed back into the mountains, this time farther east. We arrived at a parking lot without turnstiles and guards this time. Ahmad led us down a dirt road into a village that straddled a stream that ran down a hillside. His three paragraph introduction explained that the village was kept as it was by the government in exchange for allowing tourists to visit.
The village was surrounded by vineyards, and across the valley it overlooked three domes on the rocky hillside to the south where, according to loosely attributed passages in the Koran, early Islamist pilgrims took shelter from the heathen authorities, fell asleep, and then woke up 100 years later. All but a few of the buildings like the central Mosque, for example were built from mud bricks and sticks in an adobe-like method. Some of them straddled the dirt roads and walkways that wound through the village. As we walked up the hill we found that the stream had been diverted through a series of man-made channels that clearly allowed it to be diverted into different surrounding vineyards, which accounted for this explosion of green in the mist of dry rock and sand.
According to a paper published in the Journal of the Anhui Normal University in China, “Exploiting tourist resources of ancient villages contributes greatly to their sustainable development.” This accurately describes the state of a few of the ‘tourist sites’ we visited. In this case we walked through a primitive village that was clearly lived in — there were animals penned behind homes, the vineyards were well tended, school children sat on the stoop of their schoolhouse while the teacher tried to lecture to them. At the same time plaques were posted outside some of the homes, and in front of the mosque, explaining in Chinese characters and in English what we were looking at.
Ahmad explained that these people were paid a small amount to keep the village “traditional.” These funds are supposed to come from the money collected at the entrance to the village from tourists like us. It cost us 50 RMB each — that’s about $8. Ahmad said that it’s obvious that the Government hands over very little of what it collects, although we were the only visitors to the village we saw during our two hour stay.
Because it’s a tourist site, the locals are allowed to develop home businesses. A few of them were selling raisins and other dried fruit, but nothing like the bazaars we found at the Karez museum or the Emin Mosque. Many people simply invite tourists into their homes, cook them a meal, and then ask for payment. Ahmad had been here many times before and knew where we would get the best meal, so he arranged for our lunch in a family’s home before we started walking through the village, so that it would be ready after our tour.
There were many more motorcycles than donkey carts moving through the narrow village streets, but other than that the village appeared from the outside much the way it must have for the last thousand plus years. Apparently it was electrified, as we occasionally heard the sound of a TV from inside the homes we walked past, but water came from the stream, people used outhouses, and life appeared to focus on the grapes surrounding the earthen structures.
We commented to Ahmad that we found the lack of chickens or any poultry a little odd. “Ecch,” he scoffed. “Chickens are very dirty — most Uighurs avoid keeping them or eating them. I heard that it’s possible to eat them, but you need to lock it up and feed it vinegar for three days before you kill it.”
Our lunch spot was back toward the village entrance. Ahmad lead us through a door into a courtyard covered by grape vines overhead, but otherwise open to the sky. Occupied rooms surrounded two sides of the courtyard, and their barn filled the opposite corner. We peeked in the barn and saw a few sheep, a few cows, and a donkey in pens. On top of the roofs of the pens were tall stacks of brush and greens — fodder for the coming winter, according to Ahmad.
We were seated on a raised platform to one side of the courtyard above a cast iron wood stove that was stoked and being used to cook the meal. The special threaded deep-fried naan we had seen elsewhere was in the middle of the table, and small plates of nuts, candies, and fresh and dried fruit surrounded it. Our host, an older gentleman Ahmad appeared familiar with, poured water from a pot to a basin so we could wash our hands, then we slipped off our shoes and crawled to a place at the table.
Alison first excused herself to take pictures of the family (daughters and one son, it appeared, of the older man) prepared the noodles and sauce for Lagman by hand. Ahmad took this opportunity to being to quiz me about our life in the United States, quickly honing in on how much money we earned. I tried to answer obliquely by saying that since Alison was an artist, and I made cheese, it varied. But he then wanted to know how much it cost to buy a painting of Alison’s, and how much I sold my cheese for. Patrick had warned us that the Chinese were fixated on money and thought nothing of asking people how much they earned, and here was an example.
The Lagman appeared at the table one bowl at a time, since they stretched and cooked the noodles in small batches. It was very good and fresh tasting; I expected the noodles to be thicker than we found them at the restaurant the night before, but they were just as thin owing to the skill of the cooks. There was a bottle of black vinegar on the table, but I didn’t think to add any at all because it tasted very well seasoned. Once we had all been served, Ahmad asked for another bowl of the noodle broth, which he sipped like tea. The family cleaned up the cooking area and then retreated into their house, and it was just Ahmad, Alison, and me (Mr. Chou had headed out for a smoke) enjoying a delicious meal under the dappled sun under the grape arbor in this quiet little Silk Road village 30 KM from Turpan. We were quite a ways from Monroe, Maine.
As we drove out of the parking lot Ahmad asked Mr. Chou to turn on the air conditioning in his Honda Odyssey mini-van. We turned onto the major highway and began cruising around 100 kph for about 10 minutes, and then Mr. Chou pulled the car over, turned off the engine, got out and opened the hood. Since we were alone on this stretch of highway with empty desert all around us, Ahmad and Alison headed in opposite directions to take advantage of a bathroom break. When they got back, Ahmad spoke to Mr. Chou and then to us. “Mr. Chou apologizes, but we won’t be able to use the air conditioning — it is broken.” I was a bit concerned about being stuck in the desert and asked if we could at least make it back to Turpan. “Oh, we’ll make it all the way to Urumqi, to the airport,” — we were due to fly to Kashgar that evening — “we will have to open some windows to cool off.”
And not only did we make it to the Urumqi with plenty of time to spare, but Mr. Chou was able to stop just outside Turpan to buy three big boxes stuffed full of fresh grapes being sold at a road side stand. They fit perfectly behind our seats, and he gave us each a large cluster of grapes to eat as we continued across the desert, into the mountains to the west, and then up into the highlands where Urumqi rose from the empty grasslands like Dallas or Houston, full of new glassy high rise buildings. We even had time to stop at a restaurant outside of the airport to get a quick meal of mutton kebab, noodle soup, and naan bread.