Chinese Legends – Journey to the West

Here is Part 2 of our journey through the legendary Silk Route. You can read Part 1 here where we started from the ancient capital of Xi’an.

When I told my Chinese colleague that I was going to Xinjiang, he wasn’t too impressed. He said I was going to get killed by the Uygurs because I’m of Chinese ethnicity. Well, I survived and lived to write about this trip. We took the flight from Xian to Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang. Urumqi was one of the major hubs along the Silk Route and is the most remote city from any sea – 2,500km from the nearest coastline. Situated at 800m above sea level, the city is quite cooling at 25°C despite being summer in the desert. The flight time from Xian to Urumqi itself takes 3 hrs and it really gave me a sense of how large China is. For more about Xi’an, you can refer to my previous post.

After we landed in Urumqi, we were met by our guide cum driver, Mr Mominjan, who incidentally is an Uygur. I guess my Chinese colleague would have turned around and jumped on the next flight back to Xi’an if he was there. We did not stay in Urumqi for the day but instead drove to Turpan. The plan was to work our way backwards to Urumqi.

Turpan is the complete opposite of Urumqi. It’s located in the Turpan Depression, 154m below sea level. This is the second lowest point on Earth after the Dead Sea. Surrounded by deserts, the daytime temperatures here average 45°C in summer.

We passed by a massive wind farm along the way to Turpan. It just stretches for miles and miles.
We passed by a massive wind farm along the way to Turpan (Dabancheng). It just stretches for miles and miles and produces 500MW of electricity from more than 300 wind turbines.

We finally arrived in Turpan after a 2 hr drive from Urumqi. After checking in our hotel and making sure the air conditioning works (important especially when outside temperature is 45°C), we went out to explore this unique town.

One of the first things we noticed was the odd time zone. Physically, we are at GMT +5, but because the Chinese government mandates that the whole China has to follow Beijing time zone, so the time on clocks and watches is at GMT +8. This meant that the sun sets only around 11pm in summer.

The local bazaar next to our hotel. Its only 8.30pm but the sky is still very bright. Due to the hot weather, business activity only starts after 7pm when it's cooler.
The local bazaar next to our hotel. Its only 8.30pm but the sky is still very bright. Due to the hot weather, business activity only starts after 7pm when it’s cooler.
Fruits like melons and grapes are in season during the hot summer. The size of the melons here are huge!
Fruits like melons and grapes are in season during the hot summer. The size of the melons here are huge!
We didn't see many Chinese here. Mostly the Uygurs with Arabic or Persian looks.
We didn’t see many Chinese here. Mostly the Uygurs with Arabic or Persian looks.

Second thing we noticed that there were very few Chinese here. The majority of the population was Uygur. It was a surreal experience for me to see Chinese signboards and words around the town, using RMB for payment, speaking in Chinese, but most of the people that I interact with are not Chinese.

After walking around the area for while, it was already 10.30pm and the sun was finally setting. The town’s folks were all coming out to eat dinner only now.

The car park next to our hotel had been turned into an eating place at night. This so reminds me of Singapore in the old days before all these sanitized food courts came about and serving tasteless food.
The car park next to our hotel had been turned into an eating place at night. This so reminds me of Singapore in the old days before all these sanitized food courts came about and serving tasteless food.
It looks like some kind of claypot chicken stew, but I wasn't that adventurous to try it.
It looks like some kind of claypot chicken stew, but I wasn’t that adventurous to try it.

Incidentally, we also met a group of Singaporean undergraduate students from NUS on holiday here. Just fancy that, of all places in the world.

Mr Mominjan picked us the next morning for our trip into the desert. The first stop was his family vineyard where he grows grapes. He explained that during the low tourist season he would tend to his farm, but if there are tourists like us who engage his services, he will then let his family look after the farm. He plucked a few bunches of grapes for us and then we were off to the next stop.

Ripe succulent grapes at our guide's farm.
Ripe succulent grapes at our guide’s farm.
Just behind us was this oil well, one of many in the region. I can see why China wants to control this region despite all the political troubles and it being mostly a desert.
Just behind us was this oil well, one of many in the region. I can see why China wants to control this region despite all the political troubles and it being mostly a desert.
The Flaming Mountain, described in the Journey to the West as a mountain of fire.
The Flaming Mountain, described in the Journey to the West as a mountain of fire.

The Flaming Mountain really lives up to its name. Temperatures here can reach 50°C and though it was still morning, we could feel the heat building up. This mountain was made famous in the Chinese classic Journey to the West, whereby the route to recover Buddhist scriptures were blocked by a mountain of fire. We continued on our way taking the desert highway and skirted to the back of the mountain.

The desert highway that goes round to the back of the Flaming Mountains.
The desert highway that goes round to the back of the Flaming Mountains.

We made a stop where we could climb up the Flaming Mountain. The temperature outside was already 46°C. We were thinking long and hard whether to make the climb.

We could stop here to climb the Flaming Mountain.
We could stop here to climb the Flaming Mountain.
There is even a kitschy monument of the Monkey King and his companions from the Journey to the West epic. The Monkey King is seen here holding the magic fan that he used to extinguish the fires on the Flaming Mountain so that they could cross it.
There is even a kitschy monument of the Monkey King and his companions from the Journey to the West epic. The Monkey King is seen here holding the magic fan that he used to extinguish the fires on the Flaming Mountain so that they could cross it.
If the Monkey King could climb the mountain, so could we. And we did. The scenery up there is extremely beautiful in a rugged and harsh kind of way.
If the Monkey King could climb the mountain, so could we. And we did. The scenery up there is extremely beautiful in a rugged and harsh kind of way.
The mountains are colorful with many distinct layers of rock, sandstone, and sand.
The mountains are colorful with many distinct layers of rock, sandstone, and sand.

After the climb, we drove on to the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves which dates back to the 10th century.

The Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves. There is a river running beside it and forms an oasis in the desert.
The Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves. There is a river running beside it and forms an oasis in the desert.
A lot of the Buddha paintings have been removed or destroyed.
A lot of the Buddha paintings have been removed or destroyed during the past. Whatever that remains gives a hint of it’s past glory.
An enterprising old man who entertains you for some donations. You can play his musical instruments and take photos with him.
An enterprising old man who entertains you for some donations. You can play his musical instruments and take photos with him.

We continued on to a small village called Tuyuk which is more than 2,000 years old and a pilgrimage stop for Muslims. We also had our lunch of traditional Uygur food.

Uygur food seems to consist of spaghetti with meat and vegetables. Even the sauce is tomato based.
Uygur food seems to consist of spaghetti with meat and vegetables. Even the sauce is tomato based. Legend says that Marco Polo introduced spaghetti to the Italians from Asia and this could be true.
Our guide had bought melons from the local vendors. They were very sweet and juicy. Perfect in the hot weather.
Our guide had bought melons from the local vendors. They were very sweet and juicy. Perfect in the hot weather.
A view of Tuyuk village from our lunch point.
A view of Tuyuk village from our lunch point.
We took a short walk into the village. But the weather was really becoming unbearably hot.
We took a short walk into the village. But the weather was really becoming unbearably hot.

So our guide suggested the best thing to do. Go back to the hotel to rest for the whole afternoon. He will meet us again at 6pm when its cooler, after all the sun sets at 11pm during this time of year, so we would still have plenty of daylight to explore. We stopped at one of the roadside vendors who were selling the dried fruits and nuts. Besides melons, Turpan also produces a lot of grapes. The grapes here have high sugar content and are very sweet. Since the Uygurs are Muslims, they do not make wine out of the grapes, instead, the grapes are dried and made into raisins. I never knew there were so many grades of raisins.

Different grades of raisins being sold.
Different grades of raisins being sold.

After a good rest to recover from our heat exhaustion of the morning, we came out again at 6pm. It was still warm but not as oppressive as earlier in the day.

The big question is how does a desert area like Turpan get its water from to support its population and also grow crops? Well, the answer lies at the Turpan Water Museum. There is an underground system of canals and wells called Karez that brings water from the melting snow in the mountains to Turpan.  This was built more than 2,000 years ago and the network now extends more than 5,000km. The Karez canals are considered to be as grand a scale as the Great Wall of China in terms of engineering and scope. I can’t help but marvel at the ingenuity of the ancient people.

The Karez water system brings water from the mountains into the desert. The water is so clear and fresh that you can drink directly from it.
The Karez water system brings water from the mountains into the desert. The water is so clear and fresh that you can drink directly from it.
Fascinating walk through a grape vine trellis at the Turpan Water Museum.
Fascinating walk through a grape vine trellis at the Turpan Water Museum.

After this, we went to visit the ancient city of Jiaohe. The ruins of this city are more than 2,000 years old. It is an architectural wonder because it had no walls and all its buildings were made of earth. Although it was already almost 8pm when we got here, the wind blowing from the ruins was like coming out of a blast furnace.

Jiaohe had no need for city walls because it was protected from all sides by steep cliffs.
Jiaohe had no need for city walls because it was protected from all sides by steep cliffs.
Not much is left after eons of erosion.
Not much is left after eons of erosion.
When you stand alone and hear the wind blowing across the desert, It looks and feels like an alien landscape on another planet.
When you stand alone and hear the wind blowing across the desert, It looks and feels like an alien landscape on another planet.

We finally left the heat of Turpan and made our way back to Urumqi. Not far from Urumqi is the Heavenly Lake. This is a small glacier lake formed in the mountains. Tourists are not allowed to drive into the area so our guide had to leave us at the entrance where we bought tickets to board the internal buses that will ferry us to the lake area. After a winding journey of around 1 hr, we reached the lake.

Sunflower farm along the way to the Heavenly Lake. The seeds are used to make sunflower oil.
Sunflower farm along the way to the Heavenly Lake. The seeds are used to make sunflower oil.
Refreshing cool alpine scenery after baking in the desert.
Refreshing cool alpine scenery after baking in the desert.
There are boat rides out into the lake.
There are boat rides out into the lake.
It's just a short round trip with a couple of stops.
It’s just a short round trip with a couple of stops.
One of the stops where you can visit a temple.
One of the stops where you can visit a temple built on a mountain side.

The next day we went in a different direction to the Southern Pastures where the Kazakh people live.

Stopping for a photo along the way.
Stopping for a photo along the way.
Getting our horses ready for the ride to see the waterfall.
Getting our horses ready for the ride to see the waterfall.
We rode our horses for a few kilometers into the valley.
We rode our horses for a few kilometers into the valley.
Refreshing cool water from the melted snow.
Refreshing cool water from the melted snow.
A Kazakh family enjoying a picnic on top of a hill.
A Kazakh family enjoying a picnic on top of a hill.
These yurts are available for rent if you want to stay the night. There are no toilet and bath facilities though.
These yurts are available for rent if you want to stay the night. There are no toilet and bath facilities though.

So it was back to Urumqi after this, as we prepared to return home. Urumqi, with a population of 3 million is pretty small by Chinese standards. Even then, it still feels crowded.

The city square of Urumqi. People gather here every night for dancing and other social activities.
The city square of Urumqi. People gather here every night for dancing and other social activities.
The jade market. The little rocks in front are raw jade boulders.
The jade market. The little rocks in front are raw jade boulders.
The International Bazaar. Shopping, yay!
The International Bazaar. Shopping, yay!
Inside the International Bazaar, a very big place and you can shop for whatever you want from the region including Russian imported stuff.
Inside the International Bazaar, a very big place and you can shop for whatever you want from the region including Russian imported stuff.
The only sign of Chinese security was this bunch of soldiers, but they looked kind of scared. Maybe because there's only 8 of them to watch over a few hundred Uygurs praying at the nearby mosque. I had to take this photo discreetly as some Chinese tourists who took a photo of them were 'politely' asked to delete the photos.
The only sign of Chinese security was this bunch of soldiers, but they looked kind of scared. Maybe because there’s only 8 of them to watch over a few hundred Uygurs praying at the nearby mosque. I had to take this photo discreetly as some Chinese tourists who took a photo of them were ‘politely’ asked to delete the photos.
The melons look really good. We ate our lunch in the restaurant behind.
The melons look really good. We ate our lunch in the restaurant behind.
I just could not get enough of the lamb kebabs in Xinjiang.
I just could not get enough of the lamb kebabs in Xinjiang.

Thus, we ended our Journey to the West. But we had only seen a small part of the Silk Route. Xinjiang is an amazing place where you can be in a broiling desert today, and standing in a cool alpine forest the next day. The exotic mix of Buddhism and Islam, ancient history and legends also add to the mystique of this region.

Travel Tips for Xinjiang

I don’t have any specific tips and this region. It would be just like any part of China, except for the extreme weather. The best time to visit is in early autumn (October) with cool temperatures. The winters are extremely cold with below freezing temperatures. For summer heat, we dressed in light cotton long sleeves of light colors to reflect the heat and protect ourselves from the harsh sunlight. A wide rim hat is recommended to protect your head and face. As the desert is very dry, plenty of moisturizer is a must.

There are no direct flights from Singapore to Urumqi and you would have to transit somewhere in China to take a domestic flight. Alternatively there is now the railway that runs from Lanzhou to Turpan and Urumqi. Normal trains and bullet trains run along this rail network. It takes around 11 hours to complete the 1,800km long journey from Lanzhou to Urumqi but you get to see beautiful scenery along way than if you took plane.

You will see many shops selling the Uygur knives as souvenirs at the International Bazaar. I bought one but this was confiscated at the airport despite it being checked-in with the baggage. I guess the Chinese are very sensitive about Uygur knives going elsewhere in China. Most of the shops claim they can post the knives to you. As always, bargaining is required. You can buy other stuff like the local handicrafts, jewelry, lavender air fresheners, raisins and dried fruit.

We contacted our guide through the internet forums and it would be wise to choose one that is recommended by other travelers.  Mr Mominjan charged us RMB3,200 for 4 days (in 2011). This includes picking us at Urumqi airport and driving to Turpan, driving to the attractions (attraction fees not included), driving back to Urumqi again, and sending us to the airport for our return flight. This cost was shared between 3 persons including me.

Some of the attractions are quite far and off the main road where public transport does not have access. So a car would be the best form of transport. Getting stuck in the middle of the desert without transport is not a good situation to be in.

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