Traveling from the edges of Kyrgyzstan to the western frontier of China is for those looking for beautiful scenery and unique experiences. Flying is just too easy. But, be aware. There is a mental and physical price to pay. Many foreign passport holders are still required to hire a private escort to take them through the area south of the border and then on to Kashgar, The journey usually requires a long wait at the top of a chilly mountain and a possibility that a truck full of uranium could be sitting next to your car the whole time. Start the journey from Naryn before dawn, bring some snacks, maybe a face mask and a whole lot of patience. Border guards usually have no knowledge about what’s going on and take a large break at lunch time. Remember, this border is primarily used for shipping goods back and forth between the two countries. No warm welcome here.
Of course, there are rewards to all the aches and pains. Endless views of barren pastures featuring packs of wandering wild horses, playful yaks, remains of ancient Caravanserai’s and occasional sightings of a local family packing up their yurt as the sun comes up. This is probably one of the best ways to experience this part of the ancient Silk Road. Now, it’s really all about the journey.
There’s only one road to get to the Afaq Khola Mausoleum after getting off bus no. 20 and it’s a dusty one. Walking would be pleasant if it wasn’t for the all the dust made by vehicles operated by senseless drivers. Getting a ride in a horse and buggy can be a good but budget busting alternative.
A large pomegranate fruit sits in the middle of Kashgar’s Old City just behind the refurbished Id Kah Mosque. The Chinese have long believed that this fruit symbolizes fertility and those consuming it will have a long life and possibly chance at immortality. In ancient Egypt, the fruit represented ambition and prosperity. The consumption of these fruity seeds by Persian warrior made him invincible. The pomegranate will hopefully offer such gifts and more to the Uighurs here in Kashgar.
Animals usually travel to and from Kashgar’s Livestock Market on the backs of trucks, inside the trunks and back seats of cars, or packed inside trailers pulled either by a motor bike, horse or donkey. Sheep and lamb are usually tossed in and out like bails of hay, while agitated cows, camels, horses and donkeys get pulled and lifted into and out of the backs of trucks. Visitors will find it hard not to marvel at a group of men collectively pushing a few stressed out cows up and on to a truck bed by using all means necessary. The best maneuver that afternoon was something that can only be described as the tail twister. Check out this video by stefhoffer on YouTube for a better look.
Scenes from Kashgar’s Sunday Livestock Market in China’s Xinjiang Province are more typical of neighboring Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan then of the Motherland itself. How big your flock is, how well they cared for and their appearance is a reflection on the owner and his family. A respectfully dressed sheep and a nice knife are a sign of wealth and taste here in Kashgar.
We decided since we got sidetracked in Dunhuang that we had to at least travel to Turpan during our extended layover in Urumqi. It is unfortunate that it’s the worst time to visit the “Death Valley” of China but we’re here and not sure if we will be in this part of the world anytime soon.
Bus to China’s Death Valley
The bus from the long distance bus terminal in Nianzigou easiest and cheapest way to get to Turpan. Public bus No. 51 drops off passengers in front of the station and across the street from the Urumqi Water Park. The public bus costs 1 RMB and you pay when you get off. A one way ticket to Turpan is currently 20 RMB per person. The VIP is in name only. The buses have some miles on them, the seats are a little rickedy and there’s a bucket sitting in the middle of the aisle which I gathered was for trash? At least the ticket is cheap and the ride isn’t really that long. Travelers should get an early start to secure a front seat on a direct bus that takes about 2 1/2 – 3 hours. Tickets are assigned to a seat number, and if someone is sitting in yours don’t hesitate to politely give them the boot.
Desert Transition from China to Central Asia
Turpan is officially in China but has more of a Central Asian feel to it. The landscape, the street food, and the diversity of the local people are just a few of the first things that can be seen just a few steps from the bus terminal. The haggling for everything from hotel room price to the cost of a car for the day begins here. Bargain hard.
Turpan is second lowest depression in the world and holds the title of being China’s furthest point away from any ocean. During the end of July, standing outside in the middle of the day in Turpan pretty much feels as if I am standing in front of an open convection oven. So yes, it’s HOT and probably the most uncomfortable time to be here. The one advantage we have is lesser amounts of package tour hordes to deal with at the sites themselves. The sites are slowly being reconstructed by the Chinese Government making less authentic and turning into more like theme park attractions. There is still much to see, but they work fast here. So, there is no doubt that what remains somewhat authentic today could be literally gone tomorrow.
To Book a Room Ahead or not?
Turpan is a sort of town where getting a room on arrival is doable. The town can easily be visited in a couple of days depending on the person. The rates are negotiable upon arrival. Booking on the spot will lower the higher rack rate and it’s always good to see the room before making a commitment.
We had a hit list of options and started with the best option location wise. Our first choice was the Transportation Hotel located in the bus station. It gets good reviews on Trip Advisor and is new. The hotel is nice, but I would probably try out the Turpan Hotel. John’s Cafe on the property serves great food under a grapevine terrace, cold beer, wi-fi is available and the staff are very friendly. The hotel is a bit dated, but other travelers we met said they were happy with the hotel. Despite what the LP Guide says, John’s Cafe does provide travelers with travel information and can arrange car services to the area sites.
Dunhuang is different things to the various travelers who either arrive by private car, bus, train or plane into this “City of Sand”. Some come here seeking to concur the Gobi Desert by camel and others are simply looking to view what’s left of the ancient Silk Road. There is enough here to please both groups.
The Mogao Caves
Dunhuang is currently one of China’s top domestic tourist destinations and currently under construction. The Mogao Thousand Buddha Grottoes just outside of town is getting a complete makeover, like much of China’s top tourist sites and cities these days. According to our tour guide, the ancient Buddhist caves dating back to the 5th century. A.D. get up to 6,000 visitors a day during the high summer season. Carbon dioxide has been taking a toll on the interior paintings that have been open to the public since the 1980’s. The damaged cave doors will soon close when the brand new Mogao Caves Museum opens in a year or so giving the public a shiny new camera friendly scene to witness.
The current ticket price to tour the caves is ¥160 + another ¥20 for a guide for Non-Chinese. Was it worth it? Yes, now it is even though no pictures are allowed. In the long run, the site will get a rest and hopefully will be properly preserved. At least some will be may happy with the change. I’m sure many welcome the chance to be able to take pictures despite the fact that they aren’t the real thing.
The Yardung Geological Park
To some, the desert areas that make up the Yardung Geological Park west of Dunhuang is just a bunch of rocks shaped supposedly like Chinese mythological creatures and leftovers from the good old days of when this area was the gateway of the Silk Road. It was once the area where dinosaurs roamed, a very large lake once stood. Centuries later, trade masters, maybe even Marco Polo, lead their camels through the Jade Gate. It was a place to refuel and pay taxes before continuing west to Central Asia and east towards Chang’an. Little has been left behind but there is still much to see here in the Gobi Desert even if it’s a rock shaped like a Phoenix.
The Buzzing Sands
The dunes resting next to fruit tree groves at the western edge of town where once a place where travels could rest and enjoy a sunset while listening to the wind pass through the orange sandy hills. They have long been known as Mingsha Shan or the “Echoing Sand Mountain”. Today, the luxury Silk Road Hotel Resort, cranes and workers building more resorts, thousands of camels and all types of recreation vehicles all can be found in amongst the dune landscape. The buzz of paragliders drowns out any singing going on here.
A ticket ¥180 gets visitors though the gates, into a rented a pair of orange booties and away off to explore the dunes on the back of a camel or inside of a less than safe looking paragliders. Many visitors can skip all of that. There are roads that lead into the apricot groves and end where the desert is less crowded. It is still possible to see the dunes minus the tour groups and hubbub of the theme park it has become.