Traveling towards China’s Wild West along the silk road, there is a major oasis in the desert – called Turpan. Here we stopped to see various archaeological sites and stunning sceneries. In China – as elsewhere on the world – you need to pay for access to all the attractions. But the Chinese sometimes go a step further. So they do with the beautiful “Flaming mountains” (red sandstone hills in the Tian Shan mountains who have eroded over time). They are visible from almost everywhere along the highway around Turpan and we got plenty of scenic shots while visiting other sites nearby.
However, officially the visit to these mountains consists of being taken to a fenced-off location where a ramp leads tour buses into a large pit. There, about 5m below the flat desert surface, the parking lot is surrounded by souvenir shops and – most importantly – a ticket booth with an entrance gate to an upstairs platform next to the highway. I almost peed in my pants laughing so hard upon seeing this absurdity. And yes, there are definitely tourists paying the entrance fee instead of backing up the entrance ramp to take a picture from the mountains.
Another impressive sight are the Karez, an important Uyghur invention of water wells that are dug horizontally and are linked together by canals. This is quite ingenious and worth a visit – although the site has become a major tourist attraction containing a small amusement park next to it. Near Turpan, there are also the locations of Gaochang and Jiaohe, silk road ruins. Gaochang burned down in the 14th century, while Jiaohe was destroyed by the Mongolians in the 13th century. Both sites are quite impressive and it took Thomas and me the better part of the day to explore these ruins.
The Turpan Depression had actually nothing to do with our mood. It’s simply the area’s name, which is on an altitude of 154m below sea level – the second lowest after the Dead Sea. The region is very dry, very hot and sand storms are very common here. The heavy roadworks downtown do not help that situation. Winds are blowing sand from unfinished construction sites into any direction and having two showers a day was definitely the absolute minimum for us.
Nevertheless, some areas of the city are finished, featuring grapevine trellises in pedestrian areas where it is hard to resist just sitting down a whole afternoon drinking some tea and eating Uyghur food. We can perfectly imagine how Turpan will look like in a couple of years and I might be back again in that city.
If it wasn’t for the Chinese signs everywhere in Turpan, one would think being somewhere in Central Asia. And I have no troubles to communicate in Uyghur, a language with a lot of resemblance to Uzbek and Kazach. Most shops and road signs actually are bilingual in Arabic and Chinese. So, here I am, walking around with a big smile on my face, because this is the break from “Chinese overload” that I was looking forward to.
Rediscovering good food, such as Laghman (spicy Uzbek noodle soup) and Manti (actually “Manta” in Uyghur for dumplings the Central Asian way) made my day. And seeing again Shashlik Gigar (skewered liver) was the icing on the cake – this probably comes as a surprise for mum, since back home I despise liver. Thomas prefers Chinese and both of us are craving sometimes for Western style food. Needless to say that we have a lot of variation in meals which is absolutely perfect. But despite three hot meals every day we keep on loosing weight. I used to close my belt at the outermost hole when starting the trip. Now I am at “hole number five”. Same goes for Thomas. We might therefore shop for some new belts on the Turpan night market…