Dawn was late.
We woke at 7am in the Huozhou Turpan hotel (“four star!” according to our tour guide) and it was still dark out, barely a hint of light in the eastern sky, where the sun didn’t appear until 8am. Our room overlooked the only lake in the Turpan region, an artificial pond surrounded by cement in a park in the center of the city. Dominating the skyline across the pond was the Tuha Petroleum Hotel, the only “five star” hotel in Turpan, and also the offices of the region’s largest commercial employer Sinopec.
Our room was pretty nice despite the rock hard beds (like barely padded plywood on top of some springs); it would compare well with any quality hotel room in the US, which thankfully meant a western pedestal toilet. (I think “four star” really means “private bathroom with shower and pedestal toilet.”) The buffet breakfast was Han Chinese — corn porridge (labeled “Gruel”), stir-fried vegetables and/or noodles, bao buns, and lots of sliced fruit — disappointing only because we had loved the Uygar dinner last night and looked forward to more of it. But that would come.
We arrived in Xinjiang with the merest of expectations or understanding of the place. We originally were looking for one thing: a long train ride. That had been accomplished. The day before we had stepped off of the Dahayan Train Station platform and into the crowd of taxi drivers and greeters with only the barest of itineraries:
- we would stay in Turpan on Friday night (four star hotel);
- we would be driven to the Urumqi airport on Saturday to catch a flight to Kashgar where we would stay two nights (four star hotel) while we toured the famous Sunday Market;
- then we would fly back to Urumqi on Monday, stay overnight in Urumqi (four star hotel) before flying back to Shanghai Tuesday morning.
We knew that Xinjiang was mostly desert and mountains, and we knew we “had to” see the 1000 Budda Caves, as well as the Kashgar Sunday Market according to the few people we met who had traveled in the region. From the train we had soaked in the desert scenery, and now we were eager to find out what else was on our agenda.
“You can call me either Abudullah, which is my father’s name, or Ahmad.” Our guide introduced himself to us when we met him outside the train station the previous afternoon. He took our bags and led us to our car.
“Are you the Abdullah I spoke to on the phone?” I asked.
“No, he’s the big boss…this is Mr. Chou who will drive us today and tomorrow.” He motioned to a smiling older man who shook my hand and then put our bags in the open trunk of a Honda minivan. We got into the back seats of the minivan while they got in the front, and we were quickly on the highway headed into the desert. I leaned back into my seat and exhaled: a big unknown in our trip had been answered, we were now in the hands of a tour company who promised to show us their region and we would only need to follow their lead until we boarded the plane to Shanghai in a few days. Whew.
Ahmad turned to us from his front seat. “We have just left Dahayen; Turpan is 50 kilometers southeast. It will take us about 30 minutes to get to Turpan, which has a population of 300,000 people. It is primarily known for it’s grapes and raisins, which are being harvested right now…” Clearly Ahmad had a introduction planned for the guests he greeted, and we heard much about the demographics and economic statistics of the Turpan region including, “…and the region is 70% Uygar and 20% Han, although in the city center there is a somewhat higher percentage of Han people. As we travel on this road I will need to tell you that we may be stopped by the police at one or more checkpoints. Don’t be alarmed, you don’t have to do anything — Mr. Chou and I will take care of it. But I will need to be honest with you both — this is a very troubling situation for me, and I may comment on my frustrations from time to time regarding this situation. I apologize in advance if this would trouble you.”
Our guide was very fluent in English, which meant that we would learn a lot about Turpan and Xinjiang in the next few days.
Alison quickly responded that we had read about the political situation in Xinjiang, that we understood that things may be difficult for the Uygar people right now, and we were worried that it might keep us from making this trip. Ahmad said, “you will be fine. The difficulties are for the Uygar people, and I worry about this a great deal.” At this point he explained that his wife was studying the Uygar language as a PhD student in the local universities, but there are no jobs for Uygar language study in China, so she had been applied for a position at a Canadian university and had been accepted and that they had been trying to get her a passport for over a year so that she could accept the position, and they expected to hear about that very soon…
Clearly this was a lot of personal information to be told in the first ten minutes of meeting a tour guide, but it also sprang from the mutual inquiry about the great political tensions in the area, and of the effects of those tensions on us, and on the people of Xinjiang.
And sure enough after twenty minutes of driving our car was pulled aside by a uniformed police officer after we went through a toll booth. The officer asked Mr. Chou to roll down his window, Ahmad leaned over and presented his tour guide license (which hung around his neck) for the officer to see, and then the officer looked back at us. “Uh oh…” I thought that foreigners would be less welcome because of the political tensions and thought we would cause more delays than would normally happen to residents. Instead the policeman froze, then waved us on without another word.
“They act better in front of foreigners,” Ahmad said as we drove past many other cars pulled over and their drivers asked to get out of the car. “All of this,” he waved his hand at the checkpoint, “as a result of July 17th. That’s why they have turned off our Internet, why there are more soldiers in the streets, and why it’s so hard to get around. I look forward to visiting a place without these kinds of restrictions some day…”
Just beyond the checkpoint we pulled into what looked like a rest stop just off the highway. “I will purchase our attraction tickets here, which is better than to purchase them when we arrive; I will be only a few minutes.” Ahmad explained, hopping out of the car and marching into the entrance. Mr. Chou smiled, got out of the car, and lit up a cigarette. We hopped out just to get back on our feet after riding in the train for two days. In the distance of the desert we could see an oil field of about 20 or 30 oil pumps with a tall flaming stack in the middle of them burning off the natural gas.
We saw the big buildings of Turpan on the horizon, and then all of a sudden the landscape turned from gray to dark green, just like a movie scene transforming from black and white to color. The Turpan avenues were wide and fairly newly built. The traffic was light, and in a few minutes we went from moonscape desert to a modern city with trees along some streets, and some streets covered in grape vines. In our conversation along the highway Alison asked if she would need to cover her head when she visited any of the sites in Turpan because she hadn’t thought to bring something. Ahmad said that she would need a scarf to visit the Emin Mosque later that day, so our first stop would be the central market. Mr. Chou dropped us off at the entrance, and Ahmad quick stepped into the market with us in tow. He led us right to several women selling clothing, including a selection of scarfs. Ahmad dove right into the scarves and began haggling with the ladies. The first set of scarves didn’t meet with his approval (I wasn’t sure if it was the price or the styles), but in the second set he pulled out a floral pattered scarf: “This would be good for you.” Alison laughed, but had to agree that she liked it. “Pay her 20 RMB,” he said — $3 — and then he took off again.
Before we left the market he stopped to buy us two bottles of water, plus a bag of assorted cookies to sample as we drove out of town to our first stop, the Jiaohe Ruins just outside the city.
Turpan is an “oasis city” built in a desert basin below sea level (only the Dead Sea is lower). It *NEVER* rains in Turpan, we were told, but gets its fresh water as run off from the Tian Shan mountain range to its north through an ingenious ancient system of underground aqueducts called Karez (more later) which allows it to produce crops, mainly grapes for fresh eating and, perhaps most importantly, for raisins (more later). Given it’s location along the Silk Road, and its ability to feed itself, Turpan has been a very important location for a long time. At several times in the history of Asia it had been the capital city of an empire or at least a district of an empire.
From the years 108 BC to 450 AD the city of Jiaohe was the capital of the Anterior Jushi Kingdom, and as such the king came under attack and needed to defend itself, and instead of building city with, they built a city on top of a unique geological site: an island with 100 foot tall cliffs formed between two river beds. Now it is a Tourist Site complete with parking lot and turnstyles and a gift arcade, plus brick walkways had been built through the archeological site. (This is better than pre-1980s when the site was completely unimproved and open to anyone who wanted to explore/climb/loot…) First we view a model of the site and hear Ahmad give us the three paragraphs he had memorized about it in order to pass the exam to become a licensed tour guide, and then we walked across a bridge to the actual site and up a brick path into it. Once we arrived on top amid the eerie ruins (most of which are roped off from the public) we had a great view of the river valleys on both sides of the ruins — most of which are dotted with the distinctive brick raisin drying houses — and the place all to ourselves.
Midway through the ruins we ran into two women dressed in brightly colored Uygar ceremonial costumes waiting to offer to pose for pictures with tourists…for 10 RMB a picture. Ahmad asked if we were interested in pictures, and we declined. Ahmad then gave them 10 RMB out of his own pocket, saying afterwards, “I usually remember to bring them a bottle of water or an ice cream when I visit, but this time I forgot.”
The ruins are about a mile long, and we saw only one other group (a French tour) the entire time we wandered up there. This was the case everywhere we visited in Xinjiang — very few or no other visitors in the sites, streets, or hotels. In addition to Internet access, the government had effectively turned the tap off of one of Xinjiang’s major source of revenue in response to the July 17th ‘disturbance.’ The ruins, and this demonstration of raw power, were impressive and spooky.
Our next stop was on the other side of Turpan: the Emin Mosque and Minaret. Again we pulled into a new parking lot, Ahmad presented our tickets to the bored attendants as we stepped through the turnstyles (which read a bar code on the ticket, beeped, then said, “Sheh sheh” (“Thank you” in Mandarin) in a robotic female voice), and then walked around the gift arcade (where bored gift sellers were watching TV). Ahmad instructed me to put away my camera, and then gave us his three paragraphs. The Mosque was built in 1778 and is rather plain, but it’s minaret (the tallest in China at 44 meters) is an impressive and beautiful mud-brick structure with geometric patterns formed by the brickwork. Access to the stairway inside the minaret was now limited to the imam, but we climbed up to the top of the mosque front gate for a nice view of the mosque plaza, gardens, and eastern Turpan around us. Again we saw the desert end abruptly around the edge of the city: rocks and sand to green crops and landscaping where water is available.
We headed back into town to the Karez Exhibit (parking lot, turnstyles, “Sheh sheh,” and gift arcade). As an oasis town, Turpan got its water from a series of underground aqueducts called “karez.” What’s remarkable about them is that they were constructed by hand beginning in 206BC! This involved digging a series of wells in a line stretching to Turpan the foot of the Tian Shan mountain range almost 20 miles to the north. Each well was then connected to the next by a tunnel, allowing the water to run (by gravity) to the city. Some of the wells needed to be hundreds of feet deep before they reached the water, and it works only because the soil composition allowed wells and tunnels to be constructed and maintained without fancy casing materials to keep them open. According to the signage in the Exhibit hundreds of these aqueducts were constructed, often by wealthy families who used the water and then sold the excess water. Although fewer than a hundred of them survived today, they were still a primary source of water for the city.
We left the Karez Exhibit and drove to the entrance of one of the prominent features in downtown Turpan: entire city streets enclosed by real grape vines. Clearly, grapes were in the soul of the city — the gates to one of the high schools downtown was a model of the distinctive wooden grape trellis supports — and raisins were its essence. After Ahmad gave us three paragraphs about grapes and raisins in Turpan we excitedly told him how we had already been enjoying Xinjiang raisins on our train trip — we had purchased a bag of them from a Uygar dried fruit stand in Shanghai before we left. He was very curious to see our raisins, and as we had a few of them left we gave him our bag. He emptied a few raisins into his palm, rubbed them, sniffed them, then he held them up to the light to inspect their color.
“These are OK,” he said in solemn judgment, handing us back our bag. “I will get you some of the very best raisins so that you will know what they *should* taste like,” he promised us.
Ahmad explained that although his father didn’t raise grapes, that others in his family did, as did his his father-in-law who he helped throughout the raisin season whenever he got the chance. “Most of the work with grapes is in the spring and the fall. Starting in a few weeks will take all the vines off their trellising, prune them back, and then bury them to protect them from the winter weather. In the spring, before they begin to leaf out, we will dig them up and tie them back onto the trellises.”
Then Ahmad paused, and frowned with knitted brows. “It really upsets me to stand in this fake grape trellis,” he told us. “Those red lanterns hanging from the trellis are NOT Uygar, they are NOT traditional. They are traditional Han decoration. Alison cringed a little hearing this because just a few minutes before when we walked into the arbor covered street she had said how pretty the lanterns looked, especially as the lights inside were turning on now that dusk was approaching.
Then Ahmad continued to lecture us on the proper way to make raisins. “Trellises should be no more than 1.3 meters off the ground.” This described the majority of the grape vineyards we had seen driving outside the city center. “You need to crawl under them to harvest the fruit.”I winced imagining someone crawling along the sand and gravel soil filled with sharp rocks. “When the grapes have been harvested, they should be hung in a drying house where they will stay until they have become the raisin. Some farmers cheat, they add chemicals to their grapes and raisins, and they dry them in the sun. This is very bad and makes poor raisins.” He looked into our eyes to make sure we understood. We nodded as if we already knew that, of course, you *never* want to dry a raisin grape in the sun. Of course not.
Next we checked into our hotel and freshened up before dinner. We met Ahmad in the hotel lobby where he was enjoying a plate of watermelon slices. “It is melon season,” he explained. “You will experience excellent melon on your visit!”
Ahmad took us to a restaurant on the other side of the artificial lake behind our hotel where we sat down in a mostly empty dining room. “Normally this restaurant would be filled with local people,” Ahmad said. “But Ramadan has just ended. During Ramadan there were no weddings celebration, and now that it has ended and it is Friday night, there are *many* weddings taking place around the city, and most of the local people are eating there tonight. OK?” I looked at us to make sure we understood. “Now, what would you like to eat?”
A single sheet of paper with Chinese and Arabic characters was on the table — we didn’t even try to figure it out. “We’d like to eat the local specialties,” we told Ahmad, putting our appetites in his hand. Soon after he consulted with a waitress things began appearing on the table. A rice dish with chunks of vegetables and meat came first: Pullo. “This is my favorite,” Ahmad announced. It came with a small salad of shredded carrots, and we took a helping of each onto our small plates. It was very much like a rich tasty rice pilaf made with lamb broth.
I asked, “what is this meat?” “Mutton,” Ahmad said. “Mutton? Or lamb?” I asked. “What is lamb?” Ahmad asked. I explained that in English, ‘lamb’ is meat from a sheep that’s slaughtered before it’s a year old, and mutton is meat from an older sheep. “Why would you slaughter a sheep before it’s a year old?” Ahmad asked. I took that to mean that his really was mutton. It was tender and not too gamy — nothing wrong with mutton.
Next a plate with four metal skewers through sizzling strips of meat. “Kebabs.” Ahmad announced, picked one up by its wooden handle, held the pointed end with his napkin, and bit the meat off directly. “Eat now,” he implored as we just watched how he did things, “before it cools off.” We followed his lead, and very much enjoyed the hot tender meat that was seasoned salt and spices. Later I noticed that kebabs were cooked very quickly, either over an open fire or inside a tandoor oven (requiring very long skewers). Because they used strips of meat instead of cubes of chunks, it cooked through very fast and were not chewy at all.
Next several bowls of noodles arrived on the table. “Lagman.” Ahmad announced as he and Mr. Chou dug into their bowls and began sucking noodles into their mouths. Alison and I shared a single bowl of noodles, serving the noodles and the light sauce of sliced fresh tomatoes with a bit of thin liquid. The noodles were thick and chewy, and the sauce was fresh and fruity with a bit of a bite. We noticed that Mr. Chou added a bit of black vinegar onto his noodles, and I followed suit which added to the sharp bite. They were addictive and Alison and I quickly made our way through the bowl we shared. “That was my favorite!” Alison declared.
We helped ourselves to seconds of everything else, plus a dish of what appeared to be stir-fried eggplant. All of this was accompanied by cups of weak but refreshing tea served in small bowls. By the time everything was gone, and plates of fresh cool grapes and sliced melon had been served, we were quite satisfied. Seeing this, Ahmad smiled as a fin. “You liked the food?” “Yes!” we both answered. “Good. We will go and meet my friend Osman.” He paid for the bill (all meals were included in our tour package), and we got up and wandered out onto the sidewalk. “Mr. Chou has to leave,” Ahmad explained, “so we will take taxis tonight, OK?” We said goodbye to Mr. Chou and started walking down the sidewalk and into the night.