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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After the climb, we drove on to the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves which dates back to the 10th century.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The next day we went in a different direction to the Southern Pastures where the Kazakh people live.
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.
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.