2017
04.26

GAOCHANG

ET WITH TANDEM AT GAOCHANG

SYNOPSIS:  MORE EXPLORATION WITH THE UIGHUR-MAN FROM URUMQI.  A FEW TOMBS, A FEW MUMMIES,  AND A DANCE IN THE PARK.

There was still time to see yet another ancient adobe city. It is located much farther than Jiaohe;  46km southeast of Turfan.   Like Jiaohe, it was founded in the 2nd century BC as a Chinese city.  It is located in the plains.   No natural protection is available and so, contrary to Jiaohe, it was fully walled in.  Xuanzang, a famous Buddhist monk, visited here in 7th century teaching Buddhism.  In the 9th century it was conquered by the Uighurs who at the time were Manichaeists.  A small Christian church at the site attests to the presence of yet another religion.  At one time, it seems all of them co-existed, most likely because the dominant religion was tolerant and non-violent Buddhism. The conquest by the Mongols in 13th century ended both Buddhism and coexistence. Fighting in the 17th century destroyed most of the Karez water system.  The city had to be abandoned.  That makes these ruins much younger than the ones at Jiaohe.  Yet, less is preserved.  In fact, most of the structures standing are the protective walls of rammed earth and a few Buddhist temples. 

Of course, U-man had been here before.  He wanted to do the site on foot, all XXX hectares.  It was midday and the sun was beating mercilessly.  I took one look at the enormous expanse of this city.  There was no way I would walk this.  But the go-cart did not seem a viable option either even though most visitors opt for that.  In 1/2 hour you will have been whisked through — not mine, and not U-man’s style of exploration.  We spotted a few bikes.  That was it!  First, we tried to just “steal” well, “borrow” one of them.  Nobody was around to even mind.  This site was utterly deserted.  But we could not get the brakes undone and had to resort to renting it the legal way. Best decision of the day!  With the bike we could stop where we wanted and explore on foot some of the areas we were curious about.  We even climbed (nobody was there to stop us), one of the corner walls for a better view.  What I had taken for the whole city turned out to be only half.  Behind the wall I had seen, a centrally located palace wall, there was just as much town as in front of it.  We would have died had we attempted this on foot.

This town even more than Jiaohe reminded me of a fun chance excursion to a desert town in Syria, near Palmyra.  I had met a most interesting character from New York at a local restaurant; the only person I know who has traveled to all (and that is all!) countries in the world.  His crowning prize:  Saudi Arabia, including Mecca; and that as a non-Muslim.   That is as daring as it gets.  In my off-the-beaten-path German art history book, I had read about this abandoned town beneath the desert sand.  He had never heard of it, but was up for the adventure.  It was a very special discovery. 

After another delicious Uighur noodle dish at a small family restaurant, we headed to the rather underwhelming site of Astana.  It must have been an archaeologist’s dream to dig there.  400 tombs revealed thousands of burial objects which now are on display in museums in Urumqi and Turfan.  Of those, 3 tombs are open to the public.  They are shaft tombs leading into the burial chamber on downward sloping ramps.  Two antechambers typically hold a husband and wife’s bodies.  The central chamber may be painted, and depending on the status and the wealth of the deceased, may have been filled with objects. A few more of these surreally well-preserved, grotesque mummies I had already seen at the Urumqi Museum, were on display in situ.  But that was all there was to be seen.  To beef up the site, the Chinese government had erected a completely out of place palace tower flanked by over-life size figures of the Chinese zodiac circling a huge public sculpture of two embracing goddesses.  Yes, these designs were loosely based on some of the objects found in the tombs, but the incongruity of the plain desert-grave yard and the red and marble structures just did not do it for me.  This stop could have been skipped, but we were in the neighborhood anyhow. 

This completed the day.  Once again, we had overstayed our welcome, but Achmed had something to make up to both of us for that messed-up morning. 

U-man took the night train back to Urumqi to be at his law firm the next morning.  He is a lawyer.  I might as well say that much.  I asked him many questions but he would only answer so much.  I think, back in his mind he still thinks I might be a spy.  And rightly so, he is on his guard.  In a country like this, the wrong word by the wrong person can get you behind bars.  He of all people knows that better than most.  Every day he is dealing with cases of people who ran afoul of somebody’s rules or ideas.  And he is part of a minority under suspicion.  I felt very lucky to have run into him.  This made my excursion into Uighur land that much more meaningful.

For the last night in town I went for another stroll under the vineyard alleys.  It was the weekend.  Locals had gathered at a park to do all sorts of things.  After the obligatory bag and passport check — each ID was actually swiped into a computer! — I was in.  Tai Chi was performed by one group; in another corner at least twenty people danced to the sound of a recorder playing traditional Uighur music.  I could tell that much, since Achmed had introduced me to a variety of Uighur sounds.  The dance movements are quite distinct.  With wide outstretched arms, people swirl and turn, and at certain beats they lift their shoulders for just a quick twitch.  It looks very cool.  Men danced with women, men with men, and women with women.  Some had dressed up for the occasion and others just came in their plain clothes.  Was this a recurring weekend, or perhaps even a daily event?  People truly enjoyed themselves. 

And with the music still ringing in my ears I headed back to my desolate hostel.  By now I hardly noticed the dirty floor.  I was just looking forward to a warm shower.  Even the hard bed could not prevent me from sleeping like a rock.  I am sure once again, I had managed about 10 km of walking, blisters or not.

And for just one more time, it is good night from Turfan, the old Silk Road hub.

4 comments so far

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  1. i meant going further EAST into China. You get turned around easily at my age. LOL

  2. It seems that Islam is ubiquitous…where have you not found it in all the countries you have visited? What will be interesting is to see how Islam and Muslims are treated as you go further West into China…apparently not so well or with open arms…though I wonder if Spencer sometimes exaggerates. Just sayin’…LOL
    Cool Pendentive…would be great to use in your class. It is very clear what it IS, if you know what I mean.

  3. It would be interesting to know what the Uighurs think about Islam.
    Check this out:
    https://www.jihadwatch.org/2017/04/china-bans-certain-islamic-names-in-muslim-dominated-region

    • It would be. But I did not want to put him on the spot. These people there live under Big Brother’s Big Eyes Watching. I think that not only certain names have been banned, but a certain beard style as well.