SYNOPSIS:  About 1000 Buddha Painting Caves and 100 Mud-Stupa Cities in Uighur country.  About VPNs and social media in China. 

My taxi driver Achmed, a local Uighur with a stoic face and no knowledge of English, showed up at the agreed hour.  He would drive me to the local sites over the next two days; there is no other way to see them unless you dare to drive yourself.  Not me!  Under luckier circumstances, I would have shared the taxi with other tourists, but there seemed to be none around.  We bonded over the nice Uighur music he played.  And all I could figure out is that he is married and has one child.  He also got us into some nice, cheap and tasty Uighur family restaurants that prepared delicious local food.  The good things about being the only customer is that I could set my own pace, which is quite slow.  What had been estimated to be a tour from 9:30 to 4:30 turned into a 9:30-8:30.  But Achmed did not seem to mind.  “Time is money” is a Western concept.  Distance is money.  That’s how this trip was calculated.

Turfan is situated near a breathtaking mountain range referred to as the Flaming Mountains. On a clear day, the mountains and the sand dunes are said to turn dark red when the late afternoon sun hits it. But it was rather hazy.  Bezeklik, an ancient Buddhist monastery in use between the 7th and 14th century , is nestled in the middle of some magnificently swooping sand dunes. It was my first stop.  Along a cliff, two terraces of Buddhist cave temples, 83 in all, had been carved to provide ancient Silk Road travelers the spiritual encouragement to venture on.  I can only imagine how daring a trip along the Silk Road would have been with all the dangers and the lack of all the modern technology which make traveling today a piece of cake.  Only the upper terrace is accessible and of the dozens of caves, only about a handful are open to visitors.  A group of school children had entered a minute before me.  They were in and out in 10 minutes as there was “nothing to see” at least nothing that would pique their interest.  I became their main attraction with some of the youngsters shouting a daring “hello” and a few of them snapping stealth pictures.  Finally, the teacher took charge and arranged for a group photo of her hoard and me.  Now they were happy.

Photography was strictly forbidden in the caves.  And that order was enforced by several eager-beaver guards who would not take their eyes off me.  I snatched one or two images and at one point almost had to open my camera to evidence that I had not broken the rule…    A few sad remains hint at the bygone glory of brightly painted caves.  The desert winds and the brittle mud on which the frescoes were painted are surely to blame for some of the damage, but to make matters worse, several Western archaeologists from Germany, France and Great Britain chiseled out images in the last century which they carted off to various museums around the world.  World War II took care of most of them…

At the site I ran into Tom from Great Britain, a teacher of English stationed in Shanghai.  He had just taken a few days off to visit the Western frontiers.  He told me about VPN to bypass the Chinese firewall blocking Google and all Western social media, including facebook and twitter.  China has of course developed its own take on all those things:  Their Google is called Baidu.  Their Facebook is called QQ.   And the equivalence of What’s App is  WeChat.  This is an interesting “middle path” between the completely media-isolated North Korea, and the internet-backwaters of Cuba.  Might I get the internet going after all?  I am just so inept in all these things.  I have to get with it for my next trip and prepare for these things ahead of time!

A stop along the road is labeled “Flaming Mountain” and I expected some nice viewpoint or perhaps a path up the mountain.  Wrong.  It was a street-side theme park and entertainment area which I could and should have skipped.  But I paid for it, so I snapped some pictures:  Do you fancy yourself riding on a camel?  Or would you prefer perhaps to be carried around like a Tang empress?  Or is a goat cart or a tank more to your liking?  Some dressed-up people walked around as cartoon characters ready to pose with you for a vacation snap shot.  A culturally redeeming feature of this circus was a Hall of History filled with reliefs depicting major battles and events along the Silk Road, and a Hall of Murals replicating some of the lost fresco of the area.

One of the highlights of the day was a visit to Emin Minaret built in 1777 by Emin Hoja, a local ruler and finished by his son.  According to an unsubstantiated Chinese belief, a Muslim should circle Emin Minaret first, before embarking on the journey of the Hajj.  Emin is considered the third most holy Muslim site in all of China.  That’s why this mosque and minaret are surrounded by a circumambulatory path that before Hajj season reportedly is crowded with pious Muslims.  That’s also why there is a cemetery on the grounds for the lucky few who could manage to be buried near this holy site.  But just like my hostel, the grounds were deserted and neglected. 

I loved this solemn, monochrome sandstone minaret built almost entirely of bricks.  With its circumference of 10 meters and its height of 54 meters it is an imposing structure. The hypostyle mosque inside was dim and quiet.  I was only one of perhaps 5 visitors at the entire site.  It came as no surprise that an armed guard was holding watch inside the mosque. 

But the main site was still ahead of us:  UNESCO protected Jiaohe.   It was started in the 2nd century by an independent local king who found the most amazing natural stone plateau sitting at 30 meters height, embraced by two arms of a river. He set up the capital of his kingdom up there, and did not even need to fortify it!  For 1500 years the town was in use until it was abandoned in the 13th century.  More amazing even,  that so much of the town is preserved today.  Jiaohe is considered the best and most completely preserved adobe city from that time, in the world.  No doubt a claim well deserved.  It was hot and sunny and I was there in my winter clothes…  A turban made from a scarf I bought at the many souvenir stalls, topped off my ridiculous outfit.  Who knew?  I actually did not even look so different from the locals, to whom this was the cool weather.  It is all relative.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Jiaohe sweltering in the afternoon heat.  As the shadows grew longer, the colors of the stone turned deeper, and it was hard to stop taking pictures.  One could almost feel the ghosts of the people who once lived here.  From their stupas, to their businesses, their homes and their grave yards, it was all preserved.  A fair number of visitors were here, but in the maze-like vastness of this city, they got lost.  I often found myself alone for long times in one corner or another of the town.  Time slowed down.  And as the day went on, temperatures dropped, and I could have spent a few more hours just taking it all in.  But everything has to come to an end.  I had already overstayed my tour schedule by three hours, and I could barely walk on my blisters anymore.  Time to call it a day.

A lone bowl of noodles at my dirty hostel put a rather mundane end to this sublime day. But I did not mind.  I am glad I came all the way out here.

Good night.