2017
04.25

WOMAN WORKING ON A TYPICAL UIGHUR BENCH IN TUYUK

SYNOPSIS:  About Uighur culture and Karez constructions.  About exploring the area with my new Uighur friend.  About a traditional Uighur village.  And about an ancient cemetery.

Yesterday, when I sat down at one of the far-flung parts of the Jiaohe Plateau, a young man entered the scene.  We exchanged a few words about the site and it became apparent that he knew a lot about local history.  He had been at Jiaohe three times already and had come back again.  Before long I asked him if he wanted to join me on my next excursion.  Every tourist here pretty much has the same or at least similar one or two day itineraries.  After some hesitation — he later confessed that he thought I was a spy! — he agreed.  And so I will have a travel companion today who can bridge the language gap and whom I hopefully can ask a lot of questions.  I will just call him a Uighur man from Urumqi who speaks English!  Who knows?  Perhaps, there are spies who would cause him harm. 

But first today came Achmed, my driver, who messed up everything.  The Uighur man (U-man for short) and I had made a great plan.  I would visit a few local sites first so he could have his morning, and then Achmed would call him to join us for the long-distance part of the tour. Long story short, Achmed refused to take me to the local sites but I did not know why.  When I finally got him going, he stood up the U-man whom he had ordered to meet us way before the agreed time.  It was a mess.  It was not so much a language problem (that, too), but that Achmed was simply a very stubborn man set in his way.  You could see that in his driving style.  Super slow and unforgiving.

In order to make up for it I sped through the local “Karez Paradise” which, as everything else around here, was unprepared for visitors but rather in full swing of remodeling.  Are all the tourists gone already, or do they come to roast here in the middle of August?

Karez are super cool ancient marvels of engineering which I have encountered in Iran.  There, they are called Ghanat or Quanat.  From a source, often a mountain far away, hundreds of channels are dug, often through deserts or dry terrain, to provide far-flung places with water.  These water channels transport crystal clear drinking water.  Some have been in use for thousands of years.  In this area, many of these channels have dried up due to neglect.  But many are still in use.  Both the Karez Paradise and a small Karez museum provide insight into the making of these structures.  Above ground, you can follow the path of the Karez by looking for small round earth mounds dotting the landscape.  When I was on the road with my self-appointed taxi driver coming to Turfan, I passed many of them.  I should have followed a tried and proven travel rule:  If you want something and you see it, get it then and there.  Do not wait!  Well, I thought I would have more opportunities.  Not so far…

Not all was well in Karez Paradise.  Ground workers had carelessly dumped some of their construction waste into the channels, and brown, contaminated, dirty water was flowing down the “drinking water” lane.  I was about to photograph both the sign and the dirty water flowing right next to it, but a guard sprang into action preventing me from doing so… 

Eventually, we fetched distressed Uighur man, and were on our way.  Tuyuk, a traditional Uighur village in the Flaming Mountains was our destination.  There was finally a village to my heart’s content.  Traditional one-storied adobe homes were lining the U-shaped village.  Each of them was equipped with beautifully carved and painted doors, some of them fading, showing their graceful aging.  Between the two roads, a valley was filled with fruit trees and vineyards.  A large waterfall at the entrance to the village brought the water, much needed in this desert landscape.  This was a 100% Uighur village, except for the newly erected police box which uglified the scenery. 

In our culture the doors are always open, U-man instructed me.  He was right.  Even in this village, filled with several dozen visitors from near and far, the doors were open, allowing glimpses into the daily life of the locals.  The immediate space behind the doors always seemed to be a sizable courtyard.  Some had cars parked, tools perched on wooden benches, or laundry strung across the space.  Kids were playing, adults dozing off in the heat of the day or working.  Private rooms were on either side of the court or in the back. 

Inside the courtyards and even out on the street a peculiar piece of furniture caught my eyes.  It is a low-standing bench-table, deep enough to hold up to 8 people in a circle and large enough to provide work-spaces for all sorts of activities.  I have encountered it in Uzbekistan before.  And for that matter, the shape of the bread in the market, and the colorful designs of the silks worn by the women reminded me of Uzbekistan as well.  Of course! U-man exclaimed.  We are descendants of the Uzbeks.  And another history lesson followed.  It was way over my head and information overload, since all of this is new to me.  But I felt so vindicated that my art-historical, visual observations were bearing out in school-book history.  Thumbs up for the visual arts!  They do speak volumes.

As open as the doors were in the village, the other attraction, over 40 Buddhist Caves, some of them considered the oldest in the region, were all closed.  Supposedly, for restoration.  Only nine of them have some traces of frescoes left.  After I saw Bezeklik yesterday, I was not as disappointed as I otherwise would have been.   There was a shrine in town, U-man had read about.  It meant a lot to him.  Supposedly, it was the tomb of one of Mohammed’s companions, a local saint, who in the days had spread Islam to this Silk-Road corner of the world. 

Well, the locals know how to make a buck.  There was an entrance fee to the “scenic village” and now there was a special ticket to visit the shrine.  Muslims only!  The ticket man pointed to me and shook his head.  I can become a Muslima in no time.  I whispered to U-man.  He did not seem to object.   I signed my name in Arabic letters into the guest book, took out my scarf and made a hijab.  Off to ablution.  U-man showed me just how many and in which order I had to proceed.  So glad nobody was watching.  I would have been called out as a fake immediately.  I practiced the Shahada with U-man, just in case I had to pass a test with the Uighur men in charge of the shrine.  He had already eyed me with lots of misgivings. 

But without further scrutiny, we were able to enter the shrine, a typical square shaped, domed cell lined with prayer rugs.  The shrine imam performed a prayer.  By now we were four men and two women.  I just followed suit. 

U-man and I were the first to enter the main attraction:  the cave in which the saint is not buried, but believed to still reside (at least in spirit).  U-man was movably impressed.  He recited some more prayers in beautiful Arabic.  And I snatched a picture of him (with his permission).  Well, saint or not, this was an interesting experience. 

U-man and I got into a long discussion about Islam after that and how everyone interprets things differently.  He did not think that non-Muslims should be barred from the shrine.  Says who?  Obviously, he also does not agree with a lot of the strict Salafi interpretation of Islamic scripture.  But then, who decides who is right?  That is the million dollar question.

And since we can not solve all the world’s problems in a single day,   I will say good night for now.

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  1. We thought the channels bringing water from the mountains in the distance to the community were an amazing engineering accomplishment and find it hard to imagine digging them.

    • Yes! Those low-tech, yet complex marvels of engineering are among my favorites. They had them in Iran as well, even “air conditioning” accomplished through nothing else but channeling air through adobe shafts.