Sights, Sounds and Smells of the Silk Road

May 18th, 2008

Ever since we came to live in China, I had always wanted to go to that mysterious and romantic Silk Road, to experience its sights and sounds and also to compare it with places like Aleppo and Damascus of Syria. After all these two cities were also parts of the caravan route in the days gone by.

September 28

The Xinjiang Air from Shanghai was packed with passengers flying into Urumqi. After five hours from takeoff, the one-class tatty Russian plane landed quite smoothly on the runway – to our pleasant surprise. Although officially, we did not have to put back our watch, we had to adhere to the local time that is two hours behind Beijing standard time. That means our lunch was always at two p.m. instead of at noon.

Muktar or Ham, the local guide met us at the airport that was being renovated to accommodate more travelers. I asked and was told that the name Muktar means head of the village in Arabic (or Uygur rather).

Our group, consisting of TWENTY-SIX SEA members, checked in at the Holiday Inn after a thirteen-course Chinese meal. One of them was none other than the spicy barbecued mutton on skewers (kao yangrou). The dish is supposed to be very popular in the northwest. To accompany the meals, some of us drank local beer. Later we discovered that each place has its own beer that is quite refreshing when served cold.

Urumqi, with a population of 1.6 million is the capital of Xijniang Uygur Autonomous Region that was established in 1955. It is situated 900 m. above sea level just below the northern foothills of the Heavenly Mountains (Tianshan) and is the farthest city from the sea in the world, at a distance of 2,250 km. Since it is the center for industrial plants, the city is heavily polluted and is said to be the fourth most polluted city in China. The majority of the inhabitants are Han but there are also other minorities such as Hui, Uygur, Kazakh etc.

September 29

9.30 a.m. i.e. 7.30 a.m. local time, Muktar picked us up from the hotel for an excursion to Tian Chi (Heavenly Lake), a 2 hours’ drive from Urumqi. We were told that before the highway was completed in 1998, the same journey had taken four hours. Once out of smoggy and polluted Urumqi, the sky turned a lovely blue and the scenery was diversified and breathtaking, befitting the name “Urumqi” which in Mongolian means “Beautiful Pastures”.

From a distance we saw the Red Hill upon which perched a large pagoda and small pavilions. It is called the Red Hill because it comprises of red sand stones. When we visited it the next day, we were able to have a panoramic view of the city.

The contrast in the scenery was quite startling. On one side of the highway the reddish brown deserts, dotted by pretty pinkish red scrubs, stretched as far as the eye could see, while on the other the snow-capped mountains dominated the skyline. The limestone pinnacles rose majestically above the wind-ripple sand dunes. Muktar pointed out the chain of icy-jagged peaks. One of them was Bogda Peak that rises to about 5445 m. above sea level.

We took in the sights of the pine studded mountain pastures, the numerous small clear blue salt and fresh water lakes and the running brooks. The wealth of Xinjiang was apparent in the various oil refineries, coal mines, steel industries and hydroelectric power station that we saw along the highway. Because of its climatic conditions, the region was abounding with trees, green shrubs and fields of wheat and potatoes. We drove past many trucks heavily loaded with untreated coal. Xinjiang is well known for its vegetables and luscious fruits such as Hami melons, grapes as well as pomegranates. The market was full of them.

We stopped to take photographs of the yurts along the road. These large cloth round tents with wooden frame, used in the grasslands by the Kazakhs, are pitched in the summer when they graze their herds of horses, sheep and cattle. The friendly and smiling peasants invited us to take a look inside their home. After a sip of warm mare’s milk, Birgit Jahn declared it was quite “drinkable”.

Having passed through a narrow corridor called Stone Gate; the bus began to climb to about 2000 m. Finally we arrived at the Heavenly Lake. The expanse of the snow-capped mountains and the lovely emerald green lake met our eyes. Without the colorful costumed Kazakhs and the noise pollution, one could have easily mistaken it for Switzerland.

We took a boat ride on the lake and afterwards some of us went for a walk along the mountain paths. Walter and I sat in the warm sunshine, taking it all in.

Lunch over, we headed back to Urumqi, stopping shortly at a carpet factory.

In the evening dinner in a Russian-style restaurant. Wished the food and the smell would match the style.

September 30

9.30 a.m. we headed for the Nanshan or Southern pastures about seventy kilometers to the south of Urumqi. Driving through the numerous big and small valleys, we saw that they were densely covered with woods, grass and wild flowers. Steep cliffs, waterfalls and streams seem to dominate the entire area.

Getting off the bus, we walked through the green meadow surrounded by tall spruce trees and were ushered into one of the Kazakh yurts.

As it was customary, we took off our shoes and stepped onto a low platform covered with multi-color wool carpets and large rugs decorated with bold designs of dyed woolen thread. A charcoal stove was burning with a simple chimney leading up to the open skylight. The walls were decorated with beautifully embroidered blankets. I discovered, to my delight, that although the outside temperature was around one degree Celsius, the inside was cozy and warm. We were told that in winter the temperature could drop to about minus 25 to 30 degrees Celsius. The ground is covered with snow from December until the end of April.

Different “snacks” had been laid out on a long rectangular table covered with a red tablecloth. A Kazakh woman in a colorful costume served us warm milk tea. Naturally, she was paid for her pains. The cameras went clicking and whirring.

I noticed that although the inside of the yurt here was similar to the one we had seen the day before, there the similarity ended. The inside of the other yurt showed that it had actually been lived in, while the one we were ushered in on Nanshan pastures was a “showpiece” for tourists. The other yurt possessed everyday utensils such as a tea warmer, knitted out of lamb wool, gold and silver gilded trunks for storing the family’s belongings, and a well-worn dressing table with a broken mirror. A cleanly- polished kettle was boiling on a charcoal stove. A piece of mutton was being laid outside to dry in the sun. A Kazakh woman was carrying a baby in her arms and did not mind our photographing her.

The area immediately after the parking lot was full of small stalls, selling various kinds of goods. Bakers were baking their round flat breads (called nan) in their clay ovens, while the kebab vendors were grilling their skewered mutton on an open charcoal stove. Horse-drawn carts with carpets laid out for passengers as well as horses could be hired.

After dinner the previous evening, Muktar had a revolt on his hands. We all had had enough of the “M.R.E.” (Meals refused by Ethiopians) provided and requested for something different. Muktar had no other choice but to oblige. So when we got back from Nanshan pastures, we were taken to eat a “hot pot:” lunch in a restaurant across the road from the Holiday Inn.

In the afternoon after our return from the Red Hill Park, we gathered in the Caravan Bar of the Holiday Inn for the “Happy Hours”. Everyone had a drink – courtesy of Emil Schlumpf.

Before leaving for the airport for a late evening flight to Kashgar, we were taken for dinner at an Uygur restaurant. The food has a touch of spices in most of the dishes that consist of mutton, beef, vegetables, soup and cold noodles. No pork was served as the Uygurs are Moslem. It was quite different than the Chinese dishes we had so far. However, since I had already eaten the spicy hot pot at lunch, I feared I might have a stomach upset on the plane. Fortunately, this did not happen.

October 1

Since we checked in very late, our wake up call was only at 9.00 a.m. Qinwake is a two-star hotel that was built in 1890. It used to be the residence of Sir George Macartney who spent 26 years in Kashgar as the British consul general. According to Mohammed, the local guide, his mother was Chinese and therefore Macartney spoke Chinese fluently. Sir Francis Younghusband also stayed here during his journey to the Silk Road in early 1890s.

It was another beautiful day. Mohammed picked us up at around 10.15 for a walk through the great Kashgar Bazaar around Aizilaiti Lu, east of the Tuman River. I felt the atmosphere of high romance and dramatic history of Kashgar. We were jostled by mules and donkeys pulling carts amidst thousands of farmers and traders who flocked in from the countryside since it was a Sunday. The jingle of bells mingled with the loud cries of “posh posh” meaning “out of the way” could be heard above the din of human voices. Sheep, cattle, goats and horses were being paraded for sale. Near the river young boys were testing different mounts while older horsemen were showing off their riding skills.

The bazaar is divided into various sections. One can buy anything from saddles, bridles and rope to silk and cotton, knives, pots and pans to fresh vegetables and all kinds of fruit, notably figs and melons. The world ought to take Kashgar as their role model in recycling because nothing is thrown away but converted into other commodities.

There were stalls selling noodles, boiled mutton, sheep heads, freshly baked flat bread and many edibles unknown to the writer. One of us nearly got lost in the bazaar because she could not tear herself away from the spice shops which were everywhere. There were also rows upon rows of tiny shops selling headdress of various shapes and forms. Nearly all of us bought a cap, be it a furlined cap, prayer cap or skullcap. Several older Kashgari men dressed in their traditional “chapans” which comprised of three-quarter-length coats of striped cotton, embroidered dopas and knee-length leather boots. Younger men wore long sleeves and trousers, their heads adorned with caps. Although some young women were attired in modern clothes, the older ones could be seen walking around with long veils over their heads.

Uygur lunch over, Mohammed guided us through Jie Fang Bei Lu and the alleys that extend east and west of the Aidkah Mosque which is the heart of the city. Strolling along the busy and chaotic street was like a step back in time to the days of Abu Hassan in “Thousand and One Night”. Although the scene is rather different, yet the atmosphere of teeming people and traders is quite reminiscent to that of the bazaars in Aleppo and Damascus in Syria.

The street was choc-a-block with small restaurants and shops. The sight of barbers, shaving faces and scalps of old men with what looked like large knives and cleavers, somehow fascinated me. I could not help but stop, stare and take a lot of photographs. Merchants plied their trade in a haphazard fashion but alluring nevertheless. The smell of “kebab” exuded the air.

Boot makers, silversmiths, bakers and carpenters were working laboriously in front of teashops. Numerous stores sell jewellery, silk, handbags, wood-carved ornaments and lovely wooden chests overlaid with strips of tin. In one of the shops I saw curious looking wooden objects, which at first glance, looked like pipes hanging from strings. However, I was told that they were used in lieu of “pampers” for little boys and girls. Ah well.

Mohammed had had a difficult time, trying to get us all together, to take us to the Aidkah Mosque. We were enraptured with the scene in front of our eyes and wanted to linger. But we just did not have the time as we had to leave for Urumqi that very same evening. There was still much more to be seen. We should have stayed two nights in Kashgar instead of one.

There are about one hundred mosques in Kashgar but the Aidkah is the largest in China. It was built in 1442. Muslims come here to pray on Friday afternoons as well as before their religious festivals after the month of “Ramadan” (Fasting). The mosque can hold up to about 10,000 worshippers. It also has a burial ground. When buried they have their right side turning towards Mecca. A lot of men try to attend as many burials as possible, in the belief that when they die, they will also have as many or more people attend their funerals. However, the praying at mosques are confined to men only. No women allowed.

Unfortunately, we were not able to see the inside of the mosque as it was being renovated at the time of our visit.

The 5 kilometers road to the Abakh Khoja’s Tomb was thronged with farmers, traders and herdsmen driving their carts into Kashgar.

It is believed that the “mazar” or tomb is the holiest in Xinjiang. Because of its blue and white tiled gate that leads into the compound, which includes a small religious school and the Abakh Khoja family tomb, I had the feeling of “dejavu”. Though it is of a much smaller scale than the Blue Mosque in Isfahan in Iran, its style is very similar.

The mausoleum is dedicated to Abakh, head of the Baishan Muslim sect. Five generations of his family are buried here. The Tombs Hall contains various coffins bedecked in colored saddled cloths. In one corner a palanquin upon which the coffins were carried is on display. Legend has it that Abakh Khoja’s granddaughter who was the Fragrant Concubine of Emperor Qianlong is buried here. Hence the site is also known as “Xiang Fei” (Fragrant Concubine) Tomb.

Unfortunately, the place is in dire need of repairs.

On our return to Kashgar instead of dinner, we had tea and coffee and some pastries at the Caravan Café before leaving for the airport to fly back to Urumqi.

It was to be another late arrival at the Holiday Inn.

October 2

10.00 a.m. We left for Turpan that lies in one of the world’s greatest depressions. It was a very interesting three-hour journey. The contrast in the scenery was quite startling and fascinating at the same time. We passed an area full of windmills, the largest windmill power station in Asia. Snow-capped mountains stand majestically on one side, while on the other rocky mountains loom over the plane covered with scrawny reddish grass.

The first thing we noticed upon approaching the Oasis Hotel where we were going to spend a night, was a grape arbor. The sight of the streets trellised with grapevines had a cooling effect in the hot day sun. The difference in temperature between Urumqi and Turpan was noticeable.

The city lies about 80 meters below sea level and is known as a big furnace. The average temperature is around 40 degree Celsius in summer. Winter is cold and dry with the temperature of about minus fifteen degrees Celsius. Nearby Moon Lake at 154 meters below sea level, is the second lowest continental point in the world after the Dead Sea. However, I did not feel the pressure here the way I did while staying at the Dead Sea.

On the way to the ancient city of Gaochang, about 47 kilometers southeast of Turpan, we saw several traditional Uygur two-storied mud-brick houses. These are built with cellars in which the owners take refuge to avoid the hottest part of the day and also to store their produce. Attached to the house is a high open mud-brick room used for drying grapes.

We paid RMB 20 each for a donkey-drawn cart ride to see the ruins. Nothing remains of the glorious past of the city that used to be the capital of the Kingdom of Gaochang under the Han house of Qu. The city was destroyed around the 14th century during a warfare that lasted 40 years.

It was difficult for me to compare Gaochang to the ruins of Petra and Jerash in Jordan or to the ones in Persapolis in Iran for that matter because their artistic style as well as the materials used in construction were totally different.

The Astana Tombs of the Tang dynasty is only 5 minutes away from Gaochang. A number of well-preserved corpses as well as many ancient silks, brocades and embroideries have been unearthed. The ancients also placed paper slippers and hats in the tombs. Records of activities, ceremonies and official appointments have also been unearthed, the dry climate ensured that these documents are preserved in good condition. We were taken to see three of the tombs that are open to the public.

A steep, narrow passage leads down into a small dark chamber. One tomb contains faded, simple paintings and the other one contains four murals depicting Jade Man, Gold Man, Stone Man and Wooden Man. The third tomb contains the mummies of a woman and a man.

Not very far from the tombs, lies the Cave Temple at Bezeklik that was carved out of the cliff face above the Murtuk River in a desert setting. Muktar tried to show and explain to us the fine paintings that still remain inside. Unfortunately, the interior was too dark for us to really appreciate them. However, we enjoyed the view of the cliffs and the valley in the heart of the Flaming Mountains.Birgit and Detlef Jahn went for a camel ride while Christina and Karl Svensson went for a long walk up the sandy hill.

By the time we got to the Flaming Mountains, dusk was falling and I did not think it worthwhile taking a photograph. But I can just imagine how beautiful it must be when the sun’s rays beat down in the afternoons.

That evening at dinner we had a special treat. Everyone chipped in for a roasted lamb which most of us said it was very delicious. Having lived in the Middle East for nine years, the writer of this article had had to give it a rain check. I was glad that Walter was among those who did appreciate the meal. We opened a few bottles of wine to celebrate the occasion.

October 3

It was the day all of us had been waiting for – that trip to the Grape Valley. We stopped first at the Imin Minaret, situated only two kilometers from the Oasis Hotel. It is said that the Minaret is one of the architectural gems of the Silk Road. Built in 1777 by Imin Khoja, the ruler of Turpan and completed in 1778 by his son, Suleiman who was also called Su Gong (Prince Su), the Minaret is also sometimes referred to as Su Gong Minaret. It has a circular tower made of beautifully sun-dried brick, tapering skywards. We climbed up to the second floor of the Minaret for a bird’s eye view of the countryside.

Driving farther into the valley, we could see a lot of fruit trees, vegetables gardens and vineyards as well as mud-brick villages, small mosques, surrounded by fruit-drying houses. A clear stream runs parallel to the narrow road that leads to the Grape Valley. The whole area is well watered by the irrigation system known as “karez”. These underground channels carry water formed by the melting snow from the nearby mountains and prevent it from evaporating in the intense heat of the summer.

We walked through the narrow path lined with small shops selling souvenirs. The aroma of the freshly baked flat bread filled the air. It was so tempting that my traveling companions stopped to buy – some to quell their pang of hunger and some just to satisfy their cravings. At any rate, I also had a fair share of it.

After a performance of the traditional Uygur dance, we went inside an Uygur house to have a look. It was hard to tell if it was a typical Uygur home or just a showpiece for visitors. The place is spacious and decorated with utensils for every day use. A lovely wooden baby crib covered with colorful blanket was on display.

The wine area has trellised walkways overhung with bunches of grapes. In the patios tables and chairs were laid out for relaxing. Various kinds of raisins were placed on the tables to accompany the wine tasting. I found the red “Lou Lan’ quite enjoyable, albeit without the “body” of the red wine I have been accustomed to.

The morning flew by all too quickly. In my view, we should have been given more time here to really relax and drink in the atmosphere. Instead of another boring lunch at the hotel which nobody truly enjoyed, a piece of freshly baked bread to accompany the wine would have done very nicely. Thank you.

Before leaving for Urumqi, we said goodbye to Anke von Schroeder and Thomas Schoenenberg. They would be staying in Turpan for another couple of days before continuing their journey elsewhere.

Arriving at the Holiday Inn in Urumqi, some of us went to have dinner at five-star Hoi Tok Hotel. Although the services left a lot to be desired, everyone had a great time.

October 4

We were woken up at the crack of dawn for our last breakfast in Urumqi and the return flight to Shanghai. Another couple also said goodbye here to go back to Beijing. In spite of one or two minor inconveniences, I think all of us enjoyed the trip and found it fascinating. My special thanks go towards Birgit Jahn who did her best to make everyone happy. Keep up the good work, Birgit.