Monday, August 6, 2007

Exploring the Gobi Desert, Part 1: Turpan

Turpan (which is "Tulufan" in Mandarin) is an oasis town in the middle of the Gobi Desert, about three hours by car from Urumqi. The day we drove there was cloudy and very windy-- we got out in the middle of the desert just to look at the vast flat nothing (not quite what I was picturing in my first real desert experience, but that came later) and feel the incredible wind blasting across the nothing at more nothing. On some days, it's considered dangerous to drive across that portion of the desert because the wind can knock your car over. Our guide said it even derailed a train a few years back. But on the day we drove across, we could just feel it pushing at our car, knocking it around like a boat. Our driver had experience with the conditions, though, and we arrived safely.

There was a wealth of things to do in Turpan, and we miraculously managed to squeeze them all in in the 36 hour period we stayed. The first place we went was to the ruins of a 2000 year old city set basically on an island in the middle of a split river. The city existed for hundreds of years before it was abandoned, mostly because its location, with water easily accessible and sheer cliffs on both sides acting as natural defenses against enemies, was so perfect. The city, called Jiahe, was really huge and quite remarkable to see-- the skeletons of limestone buildings, reminiscent of Hopi cliff dwellings, which had been carved down into the cliff rather than built up from its surface. Additionally, we visited at the end of a grey, achingly hot day, and other visitors were few and far between, a blessing in tourist-obsessed China (I have already had several opportunities to enumerate here my hatred for Chinese tourists). The silence was really powerful as we walked among the ruins, and our guide even took us out to the edge of the cliff (not a spot one is supposed to go to, given the delicacy of the ruins) where we could see verdant green blossoming out from where the river ran far below.

The ancient city of Jiahe

Approaching the Turpan oasis from the desert was very dramatic. My first thought was that the sudden wave of darkness extending toward the horizon was a large body of water, a lake, almost an inland sea. Not until we had travelled much closer did I realize that the darkness was comprised of trees, grass, and shrubs fit closely together, a remarkable contrast with the barren, sweeping lines and khaki colors of the desert. The oasis is something like one hundred square kilometers, very large, although the city itself only extends through a small portion of that. The rest is comprised of farmland, mostly vineyards. Turpan is very famous for its grapes and grape products-- wine and raisins, to be specific. We visited a winery and learned about how wine is made in the desert, did some tasting, and some exploring. I had some really interesting grape juice-- it was much milder than the grape juice I've had in America, almost like it had water in it (they assured me it didn't). We just don't get a real variety of grapes in America, I guess.

Turpan Grape trellises

The winery housed a large market selling Uighur and other trinkets and more types of raisins than you ever imagined to exist. We weren't really interested in buying things but we took a look around, anyway. As I stopped to glance at some dubious looking antiques, a man in the traditional Uighur Muslim skullcap came up to me and asked, "Ni shi shenme shaoshu minzu?" which means "What minority ethnic group are you from?" This is remarkable, because he did not ask "Ni shi cong shen me di fang lai de?" ("Where are you from?") and the former question (the one he actually asked) assumes that the person being asked is a native of China (the phrase "shaoshu minzu" specifically refers to minority groups in China). The man thought that I and my family were of one of the many ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, Kazakh or Russian! He thought we were native Chinese! And what's more, when I tried to explain that we were from America, he wouldn't believe me! It was a pretty remarkable thought, and made me feel pretty good about my Chinese skills. Definitely a high point in confidence there, and the situation also says a lot about the ethnic situation and the standards of who "looks Chinese" in that area.

From the winery we went to visit a site of a special kind of irrigation canal (whose name, which is Uighur, I can't remember) that's been around the area for 2000 years. Turpan is the second lowest point on earth (The true lowest point is the Dead Sea in Israel, meaning I've now gone to the top two!) and the ancestors of the people in Turpan engineered an irrigation system that guides snowmelt from the nearby Hindu-Kush mountains down the plain. Gravity was on their side, and so they've had clean, running water for 2000 years, which has allowed them an extraordinary quality of life as well as helped them carefully control the agriculture that keeps that life going. They also added some engineering craziness of an extreme ahead-of-their-time caliber to the system to avoid cave-ins in the canals, assure air circulation, and allow for tunnel upkeep. Many of the Uighurs in the area still make use of the canals, and the luckier ones have them running right through their houses.

A 2000 year old irrigation canal

The next day, our exploration of the desert around Turpan continued with a visit to some famous grottoes (although not as famous as the ones we would see in Dunhuang) where dramatic Buddhist cave paintings hundreds of years old can still be seen (although many of them have been defaced by Muslims from the area on Holy War.) The best part of this visit was the amazing desert scenery we passed through to get there. The weather had cleared up since the day before, and the sky was incredibly blue, the Flaming Mountains (so named because of their red color) dramatic. In fact, the famous/famously tacky Chinese movie "The Monkey King" (showed on both PBS and Chinese CCTV incessantly) was filmed in part there because of the "typical" desert scenery.

When we got to the grottoes, it turned out that there were a few people out front waiting for tourists to lure them into riding camels. But rather than in a tame little boring circle (like many of the services in the Turpan area), this particular group went on tours into the surrounding desert. My parents and I decided to try it out, donning hats and excessive quantities of sunscreen, and went out on camels for about an hour and a half. The ascent up the enormous dune/mountain in the back of the grottoes was fun and not particularly taxing: the camels walked steadily upward, and I hung onto the hump in front of me, which jiggled amusingly, to keep my balance. There was no one around anywhere as our Uighur guides led us into the open sand, roads in sight, just the enormity of sky, the valley stretching away into sandy haze. We came upon a few desert trees, just skeletons of vegetation that flourished as long as a thousand years ago. Our guide explained later that the Gobi Desert used to be a sea, and so in the interim between body of water and desert there was a good amount of plant life. This millenium, however, there's been so little moisture in the area that there are no bacteria around to decompose dead wood. And so a tree might have lived for 2 or 300 years in the desert; then it would take another hundred years to die. And then it would stand, slowly eroding, for as many as 5 or 600 years. Really remarkable.

On the way back down the dune, the cons of riding without a saddle (we were just resting on blankets between the two humps) became apparent. A camel's gate is fairly uneven, and staying on at a fairly severe angle going down the dune proved difficult/uncomfortable (as one had to clamp one's legs together painfully for long periods of time). Although they didn't understand English, I'm fairly sure that our guides could infer the meaning of my cries of "Oh my God, I'm going to fall off. No seriously, I'm going to fall off!", and they rerouted us to a less extreme route back. Needless to say, we all had a little trouble walking the next day.

My family on camels

Amazing desert landscapes

That night, before we caught an overnight train to Dunhuang, an old Silk Road trading point in Gansu Province, several hundred kilometers to the southeast, we took a drive through the Grape Valley, an area of much wealth where Uighurs make money hand over fist on raisins, wine, and cultivation of other fruit and nuts. Several of the families in the area run what are basically small restaurants in their houses, and so we were able to see the inside of a prosperous Uighur house (they were one of the lucky ones with an irrigation canal running right through their living room.) The house was very interesting-- open and airy with a roof of grape vines over many of the rooms-- and very little furniture, just stacks of hand-woven rugs to sleep on and a raised platform for entertaining guests.

The inside of the Uighur house where we ate dinner-- traditional noodles with lamb, fresh apricots and raisons, and almonds

Doors to Uighur houses are traditionally hand-painted

Our bellies filled, we set off for the train station, to catch the train that would take us to the last stop on our week-long exploration of the Silk Road.

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