Even though it was only a few hours from Gansu on the fast train, Turpan feels like we’ve been transported to the Middle East. The Islamic influence is obvious – in the bread and food, clothing, colour, architecture, street lights, doors and arches. There are donkeys and grapes everywhere! This is our first stop in the ‘Xinjiang Uyghur (not so) Autonomous Region’ of China. The security is full on. We got stopped and questioned by the police three times on the street , just on the first day – ‘passport’, ‘where are you going’, where did you come from’, ‘why are you here’ etc. etc. There are constant scans and police checkpoints. It’s the first time I’ve had to go through airport style security just to get into a youth hostel.
Despite the police harassment, Turpan is fascinating. An old city oasis on the Silk Road. It lies at the edge of the Turfan Depression, the third lowest place on earth at 154m below sea level. It’s proper desert all around but Turpan itself has an incredible ancient irrigation system that allows it to grow fruit, especially grapes.
Just outside of Turpan are the ruins of the 2300 year old ancient city of Yar. There’s nothing like a good set of ruins to get my pulse racing. These ruins are UNESCO World Heritage – the largest, oldest and most well preserved earthen city in the world. They are amazing. You can walk through the same streets as people did thousands of years ago and imagine living in the houses, going to the temples and the markets. You can still ‘feel’ the city around you.
Almost everything in Turpan seems to have risen up out of the earth. All of the buildings are earth-based, using a combination of mud brick, rammed earth and other earth building techniques. The Emin Minaret and attached mosque are such a beautiful example of this Uyghur style. Even the gravestones in the attached cemetery are made from clay.
Our next stop is Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. I’ve been looking at this name on a map for so long that I can’t believe we finally made it here. Urumqi is as cosmopolitan as befits a central Asian crossroads on the Silk Road. It looks and feels like a mixture of so many cultures – part Turkish/Persian, part old Russia and part Soviet/China. The economic centre is the Grand Bazaar which is overflowing with exotic and colourful things for sale – fresh and dried fruits, nuts, herbs and spices, carpets, jewels, musical instruments and food.
Our Urumqi experience was influenced by the amazing Uyghur hotel we stayed in. I think this is partly why I felt like we’d stepped back into Tsarist Russia. The hotel manager (Sulie) treated us like celebrities and even took us on a city tour. Oh the opulence! Sulie thought JH must be an actor because he looked like Liam Neeson. Even in this flash hotel we had a visit from the police, late at night, checking how many people were in our room (there was only us).
Leaving Urumqi, we took a daytime sleeper train for the long trip south-west across the desert to Kuqa. I love train travel. The click clack on the tracks and the gentle swaying motion. Along the way we saw so many hundreds of kilometres of wind turbines and solar farms. The desert, both in Xinjiang and in Gansu, is literally covered in power lines and the production of energy – of both the fossil fuel and the renewable kind. From what I saw, I think it’s safe to say that China is definitely transitioning to renewable energy on a massive scale.
I’d never heard of Kuqa (Kuche) before. Everything in this region has multiple different spellings in English. We really only decided to stop here because its halfway to Kashgar. I’m so glad we did. It’s an ancient Buddhist kingdom, on a branch of the Silk Road, at the edge of the Taklamakan desert. It was famous in old times for its music and dancing. The Taklamakan desert was called the ‘sea of death’ as the shifting sands meant that whole caravans would disappear when trying to cross.
There are two distinct and completely separate parts to Kuqa now. The old Uyghur town and the new Chinese town. The Chinese police and army presence is oppressive. No taxis would take us to our hotel from the train station, instead we had a police escort. No idea why. Maybe to check that we stayed where we said we would.
Throughout Xinjiang, the Chinese government are using colonial tactics to obliterate the Uyghur culture. This is the same as they are doing in Tibet and the same tactics that Israel uses against the Palestinians. It’s a calculated strategy of bullying and intimidation – constant surveillance, harassment and ‘disappearances’. There are an estimated 1-2 million Uyghur people currently being held as prisoners in ‘re-education’ (concentration) camps. The beautiful ancient Uyghur buildings are bulldozed and the people forcibly moved to alternative housing. Millions of Han Chinese ‘settlers’ are moved in and the local population becomes an ethnic minority under siege. This YouTube video gives a good 10 minute snapshot of the Uyghur situation.
There was no available daytime sleeper train to Kashgar, so we had to take the overnight train instead. What a completely different experience that turned out to be. Our four-bunk compartment contained a group of friendly but noisy Uyghur mamas and their unruly brood of young children. Forget about having a bed to myself, as soon as I got in everyone climbed on top.
Kashgar is everything I hoped it would be – exotic and spicy – the Silk Road city of my imagination. There are little nooks and crannies, secret pockets, arches, elaborate doors and windows, alleyways, balconies and hidden surprises. Around every corner is something even more beautiful. It’s a visual and sensory delight of the best kind.
The Uyghur are colourful people and very fond of bling. Our hotel is even more over-the top dramatic opulence than the one in Urumqi. It’s totally the grooviest hotel I’ve ever stayed in.
The Uyghur are also very fond of music and dancing. Musicians still gather to play in the traditional tea houses and artisans still practice their crafts in the old alleys. Sadly, so many of the old neighbourhoods are being destroyed which is a huge loss to the world.
We’d read that it was possible to cross into Kyrgyzstan from Kashgar, so on the last day of our 30 day visa we set off to give it a go. There are no buses or trains going that way and we realised we’d have to take a series of taxis. Taxis are very reluctant to go to the border but we managed to get one. He picked us up as early as we could convince him to but we got stopped at a checkpoint at the bus station, when getting the paperwork, before we even got out of the city. Our driver got sent one way and us the other. It took us ages to find him again but eventually we were on our way.
The first taxi was to take us to the Chinese immigration post 96km away at Uluqqat which is as far as they’re allowed to go. We got stopped at a checkpoint before that and spent many hours being cross-questioned and interrogated, full body scans, our luggage pulled apart and thoroughly searched. Every single electronic device was searched (even the iPod) and they looked at all of our photos and asked questions. They wanted evidence that we were ‘married’ which of course we don’t have (because we’re not). Finally, they let us go and we were so relieved that the taxi driver was still waiting.
Our taxi dropped us off at the actual immigration post at Uluqqat but alas it was too late. Even though it was not yet lunch time we were told we’d have to wait four hours until they reopened after lunch. Off we went to the nearby truck stop, where the lovely people made us the worst veggie stew I’ve ever had in my life. At last, the checkpoint opened and we were through. We got a lift in a car to a huge shed where we we were told to wait for a very long time. There were no other people trying to cross at any of these places, apart from a few Uzbek truck drivers at the truck stop one. While we were waiting at the big shed we were rounded up and told to get our phones out. They took photos of us looking at our phones and eventually we realised they were making an advertisement. So surreal. If you come this way you might see us on the customs billboards. One girl took my water bottle and I thought she was confiscating it but she brought it back full of hot water. Not exactly what I wanted but bless her. Next there were more scans – luggage and us – and finally we had our exit stamp from China.
A taxi driver had approached us while we were waiting and offered to take us the 140km to the Irkeshtam Pass (3800m elevation) where we could cross into Kyrgyzstan. The taxi driver was getting really nervous now because the Kyrgyzstan border was going to close and we’d be stuck in no-persons-land. What followed was our amazing driver disconnecting the speed control device and doing a Speedy Gonzales up the mountains. At each checkpoint, he would grab our passports and run to the guards, gesticulate wildly and then jump back into the car and race to the next one. At one checkpoint we had to get out and be scanned again but the scanner wasn’t working, so we had to run to another building to get scanned and then back into our racing car.
We arrived at a lonely outpost on the top of the mountain where our driver pushed us out and under the closed barrier and told us to run. The single guard watched us head down the hill for a km or so and then must’ve decided we weren’t going to make it and led us on a shortcut straight down the side of the steep mountain. I was slipping and sliding and could barely get myself down, let alone my pack. Poor JH had to carry them both. We arrived gasping for breath at a closed checkpoint, ducked under the barrier and then had no idea where we were or what to do next.
I saw an official looking gate down the hill that turned out to be an army base. A soldier phoned up the Kyrgyzstan immigration and told us someone was coming to get us. The wonderful Shamurat from the home stay we’d booked in Sary Tash, the village just over the border, came to get us and drove us down to the immigration. It was actually closed but he said he’d begged them to stay open and let us through “because we’re not young and just like his parents”. There was a smiling welcoming committee at the border. Welcome to Kyrgyzstan! Welcome to freedom!