A Silk Road Travel segment in Xinjiang Province, China
01.12.2008 - 19.12.2008
I started my Chinese silk route travel west of Kashgar near the Pakistan border and headed east passing the ancient Uyghur towns of Kashgar and Urumqi. Turpan, a key stop on the Silk Road, was easily accessible from Urumqi by road, driving alongside the “Flaming Mountains” so named for its baked reddish orange appearance. Turpan was once one of the crossroads of central Asia. Historically, it was a strategic stop on the overland trade route linking China with India, Persia, and Rome.
My visit was primarily to observe and understand the cultural changes brought about by the Silk Road in a distant land by Buddhism and to visualize its spread and later that of Islam
Turpan lies in the second deepest inland depression in the world, with more than 4,000 sq. kilometers of land situated below sea level( 153 mts). Anciently called, 'Land of Fire,' it has recorded some of the hottest summer days in China, with temperatures as high as 130 degrees F. The basin surrounding Turpan has been the long-time haunt of the Uyghur’s (a mixed Turkic-Mongol ethnic group that is the majority in Xinjiang Provence). The Turpan area is also historically significant because nearby Gaochang City (World Heritage Site)) was once the Uyghur capital and an important staging area on the Silk Road. It was destroyed in the 14th century by the hordes of Timor Lane (see Photo) after surviving 1600 years.
Culture and religion also moved along the Silk Road. Before Islam established a firm grip on central Asia, the Uyghur’s practiced Buddhism, Manichaeism, Nestorian Christianity, and other religions. Buddhism came north from India across the Karakoram Range. Extraordinary examples of this culture were found in caves at Bezeklik, near modern-day Turpan (see Photo. All three cultures were extinguished from central Asia by the tidal wave of Islam, with Tamerlane driving the final nail in their coffin in the 14th century.
One of the major obstacles along the Silk Road was the Taklimakan Desert, which has one of the world's most inhospitable climates. Caravans skirted this oval-shaped impediment by going around either the northern or southern edges. Turpan was located on the northern route. My journey skirted the northern route along the Taklimakan and enroute I could not help but admire the massive Wind Turbine farm, the largest in the world, near Turpan. Its output capacity of 2 million KW is a good comparison with the 1million KW output by the Three Mile Island nuclear reactors in the USA.
Turpan's greenery owes its existence to the underground channels called ‘karezes’. The Silk Route was dependent for both its existence and survival upon a line of strategically situated oases which hugged the perimeter of the Taklimakan Desert. In turn, these oases depended for their survival upon the glacier-fed rivers flowing down from the vast mountain ranges which form a horse-shoe around three sides of the great desert. As the Silk Road traffic increased, these oases began to rank as important trading centers in their own right and no longer merely staging and refueling posts for the caravans passing through them.
Approaching the city I was surprised to see an explosion of verdant farms all around in the midst of a very harsh land. Mile after mile there were melon farms and grape vineyards everywhere punctuated with unique towers to dry the grapes using the harsh mid day heat as an oven. (see photo)
It is said that over 80 varieties of raisins are grown here. My guide and I visited several farms and enjoyed the hospitality of the locals. In at least two instances we were invited inside their homes and seated on a huge pedestal that was well cushioned with carpets and served as their living space and bedroom. Plates of grapes and tea were served and in one case some oven baked meat turnovers. The Islamic cultures are in general known for hospitality to strangers and the Uyghur’s of Xinjiang were no exception, I felt that warm hospitality everywhere. After some small talk and the customary group photo with me, which they all relished despite the fact that they were never going to see it always intrigued me, I was shown the farms, the drying towers and storehouses with tons of raisins.
I also had the good fortune to visit the regional Karez museum to understand how the system works. Akin to a high school project several clay models explained how the system worked. Visitors to the museum can actually visit one of these underground “mother Canals” in order to really understand this fascinating technology. These underground tunnels rate as one Asia's more intriguing and historic public works activities Uyghur and Chinese versions of karez technology date back over 2,000 years ago. The Karez underground canal is a manifold that conveys water from aquifers in the alluvial slopes of the mountains (ancient glacier water) to lower elevation farmlands. Each farm digs a well to tap into the canal every 500 mts or so. The farmers are responsible to keep the underground canal from clogging by entering the well and manually cleaning out fallen muck. Such cooperative farming was a necessity in the harsh corner of the Taklimakan desert.
The world is discovering this area and visiting backpackers can now stay in a farm and sleep under the grape vines and get treated daily to some wholesome Uyghur cuisine.
Mildred Cable and Francesca French, two intrepid missionaries who spent many months in the region during the 1920s and '30s, describe the oasis vividly in their book The Gobi Desert (1942) “ Turfan lies like a green island in a sandy wilderness, its shores lapped by grit and gravel instead of ocean waters, for the division between arid desert and fertile land is as definite as that between shore and ocean. Its fertility is amazing, and the effect on the traveler, when he steps from the sterility and desiccation into the luxuriance of Turfan is overwhelming.”
Personally, I was attracted to this area after reading Peter Hopkirk’s “Foreign Devils on the Silk Road. The Search for the Lost Treasures of Central Asia”. It was such a fascinating read and soon thereafter I set off to Xinjiang with the same passion as the treasure hunters of yore. The Amazon excerpt of the book reads ” The Silk Road, which linked imperial Rome and distant China, was once the greatest thoroughfare on earth. Along it travelled precious cargoes of silk, gold and ivory, as well as revolutionary new ideas. Its oasis towns blossomed into thriving centers of Buddhist art and learning. In time it began to decline. The traffic slowed, the merchants left and finally its towns vanished beneath the desert sands to be forgotten for many centuries. But legends grew up of lost cities filled with treasures and guarded by demons. In the early years of the last century foreign explorers began to investigate these legends, and very soon an international race began for the art treasures of the Silk Road. Huge wall paintings, sculptures and priceless manuscripts were carried away, literally by the ton, and are today scattered through the museums of a dozen countries. Peter Hopkirk tells the story of the intrepid men who, at great personal risk, led these long-range archaeological raids, incurring the undying wrath of the Chinese.
After visiting the fascinating oases I set about to visit the spectacular World Heritage site of ‘Bezeklik Caves” which was the victim of two German archeologists, as described by Hopkirk. In 1900 these state-sponsored treasure hunters not only removed the scrolls and paintings but stripped the wall murals painted on an earthen base by cutting them into nice squares with German precision to eventually transfer them to The Museum of Indian Art in Berlin where they are now displayed. I visited the site to see a few of the 77 cave galleries now open to the public. Paintings from the time when Buddhism entered Chinese Turkistan in the 1st century AD until the end of the Tang Dynasty in the 8th Century AD were simply removed and whisked away . The distant Chinese government in Beijing never really had a strong control over this are during the Qing dynasty and the province itself( Sinkiang) was under the watchful eyes of British India and Tsarist Russia waiting for an opportunity to relieve China of this land.
With so much history in this area to discuss about, I will leave it for the reader to follow up on the Bezeklik caves, the Karez irrigation system and the Gaochang, the ancient capital of the Uighars.