Turpan is a city both alert and alarmed. After a terror attack two years ago every hotel, government building, bank etc. has a sliding armed barrier you can’t pass without identification. The roads have regular road blocks and there are armed guards everywhere. There’s a different feel about the city. Not nearly as well presented and maintained and hot, very hot. Windows not cleaned, fountains not working, no beds of annuals, cracked and broken footpaths. Uygurs comprise 78% of the Turpan population. Our hotel room has a lovely old arched window and curved wooden chairs and in the lobby there is lavish gold decorative detail and a glittering chandelier. We are on a wonderful vehicle free colonnade hanging with ripening grapes, which stretches for several kilometres over the city. We enjoyed a fabulous lunch in a Uygur home under an expansive grape vine. Pilaf, home made noodles and vegetables, sweet melon and water melon, Uygur bread and kebabs. Memorable!
This is the largest grape growing region in China. Everywhere you look it’s grapes, grapes, grapes. Melons run a close second. The oases exist thanks to an ancient Persian type of irrigation called Karez. This is a system which captures snow water from the surrounding peaks and moves it by a series of overland and underground channels through the desert and around the city. It was constructed hundreds of years ago and there are 400 separate systems of channels through the city. The clay channels require yearly maintenance and the water appears crystal clear. An ancient man made triumph.
We haven’t seen properly clean sky for the entire trip and way out west dust storms take a serious toll on visibility. Not that there’s much to see apart from sand and gravel and the occasional wind farm and line of pylons.
Another of China’s top grade 5 tourist attractions is Yar. This is the ruins of a unique settlement constructed in 1BC from the top down, excavated into the clay. At one time there were 12,000 people living in this bustling city which was abandoned in the 14th century when the Mongols converted the Uygurs from Buddhism to the Muslim religion. It took us two hours to tour the temples, homes, stupas and entrance gates in the walled settlement. The wealthier residents had three storey homes with high ceilings and spacious rooms.
Leaving for the station we had to pass 4 checkpoints which included pat down, metal detectors, bag checks and identity checks. We surrendered our trusty fruit knife “Joyce” who has been on many trips with us over a long period of time. Alas into the bin she went. We are still clinging onto our bread knife which we use to spread vegemite. Jim was successfully able to argue it wasn’t sharp enough or pointy enough to stab anyone or warrant confiscation. Our plans to bring souvenir cooking knives back from Kyrgyzstan are looking shaky.
There are two main issues here. Firstly we are getting close to borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan and this area suffered bomb attacks from terrorists two years ago so security was stepped up. Secondly China is uneasy with the Uygur minority group which is in the majority in this region. And the Uygurs wouldn’t be entirely happy with the Chinese housing deal which goes like this. Uygur house demolished for 30,000y compensation. New house offered by Chinese government for 70,000 = Uygur family now 40,000y in debt to Chinese government. The oil and gas in Xinjiang qualifies it as a “treasure zone” which China will never part with but the Muslim culture here is one which China has difficulty identifying with.
Kashgar is even more under siege. We are told that most tour groups have eliminated Kashgar from their itineraries but as Intrepid is an ‘adventure’ tour company they are still stopping by. We are alert but not alarmed. We are advised to split into groups of two and three to make us less of a target and look out for pickpockets but we feel safe sitting in a local restaurant for pilaf and tea or having a lovely old toothless man cheerfully shine our shoes to perfection. We are surprised by the number of people we encounter here keen to practise their English with us. Here the Uygur population is 92%, even more reason for China to be wary. Most of the shops have metal grilles over the doors and entry is by invitation only. We see some tourists but no other Westerners. People take photos with us as if we are celebrities. Going clubbing has a different meaning here. China has provided self defence training for young people and very large wooden clubs which they take with them on patrols around the old city. Many of the shop keepers have the same clubs as they spruik business outside their doors. Security seems to be the biggest employer here. There are police, the swat team, armed guards, unarmed guards with big poking things, the army, the clubbers and jet aircraft flying over head which barely rate a look from the locals. Then there are the police vehicles parked at intersections with sirens left blaring for hours.
The animal market is a great event for the locals. The animals are in great condition and wait patiently with intersecting heads to be taken home by their new owner. Sheep, goats, cows, horses and donkeys turn up for the big day and despite warnings about animal cruelty we saw none. There was the usual Uygur food on offer from smoking grills or you could take freshly butchered meat home with you. The crowd was a mix of Uygur men 95% and tourists. After this we visit the Grand Bazaar where Jim is in his element amongst the socks and shoe cleaning equipment. We also buy up big on the nut and dried fruit stalls for our journey tomorrow.
This is the end of the China tour and our Chinese tour leader Dragon. Tomorrow we head to the border with Kyrgyzstan and pray we get there by 1.30. If we don’t it will be a 4 hour wait. While we’re at it we’ll be wishing for some clean air to breathe too.