A Travellerspoint blog

July 2012

Along the Taklimakan Desert to the Turpan Oasis

A Silk Road Travel segment in Xinjiang Province, China



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.

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 15:55 Archived in China Tagged desert buddhism road silk xinjiang turpan uyghur taklimakan Comments (3)

Life, Death and Salvation along the Water's Edge: India

Experiences along the Ganges River in Varanasi, India

sunny 95 °F


The ancient city of Varanasi (Kasi) has been the ultimate pilgrimage spot for Hindus for ages. Varanasi is the oldest living city in the world. These few lines by Mark Twain say it all: "Benares( a British corruption of Varanasi) is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together". Hindus believe that dying along the Ganges in Kasi would enable the soul to attain Moksha (liberation) from the cycle of birth and re-birth. The river Ganges according to Hindu mythology flows from the hair of Lord Shiva seated in the Himalayas.

Born a Hindu, I have always had a special place for Kasi( Varanasi )in my heart. Growing up in a traditional Brahmin family, I often heard of tales about men and women leaving their family lives to spend the reminder of their life in Kasi seeking spirituality, self-reflection, meditation and atonement. Like a visit to Mecca most Hindus would like to bathe in its waters at least once in their lifetime.

My short trip to Kasi in 1998 was interesting but not eventful due to heavy rains that submerged most of the bathing Ghats( steps leading to the river). Coincidently on the day I was being rowed along the river banks where cremations were conducted, my mother’s only sister passed away, and I was thinking of her!. In 2011 I set out seek out the “real” Kasi where learned men once wandered in their loin cloths, where devotees by the thousands traveled for miles to bathe in the sacred waters of the Dashwamedh Ghat, to watch the burning pyres of the Manikarnika Ghats or simply revel in the joy and reverie of pilgrims enjoying themselves in the holy city. As a traveler I was trying to see through my mind’s eye the concept of Kasi, a land of spirituality. Those with no knowledge of its history will only witness a dirty and polluted river city with hordes of people.


Early western visitors to this place were so fascinated that they waxed eloquent for many years about the greatness of India. George Harrison did his bit too!. India like the rest of the world is changing fast, leaving behind age old traditions, facing corruption and seeking a more material existence. In this scenario I am attempting here to focus on three important events experienced during my three day stay that were amazing and thought provoking.

My sister Ranee, brother-in-law Dave and I were staying at a wonderful haveli( nobleman’s home) on the banks of the Asi Ghats. This hotel, Ganges View, is very well known amongst the literati where small classic music concerts are common place daily . While we were enjoying the broad river view from our second floor terrace, there was a commotion and there arrived a man with a flowing beard , penetrating eyes and wearing the handloom outfit of a cultured man. He was followed by an entourage of bureaucrats, policemen and the like trying to appease him. Later that evening I stopped the gentleman as he was passing by and inquired about all the fuss over him. It turned out that he was 80 years old, was an IAS( elite Indian Administrative Service) officer from the Uttar Pradesh cadre, a former Cabinet secretary and “Minister” at the Indian High Commission in London. He mentioned that he was visiting with his family to do the annual rites for his parents who lived and died by the river Ganges for over 50 years. He continued that he was from a well to do Brahmin family from South India and after he had graduated from college and the IAS his parents decided that their only son was in a good station in life and they removed themselves from the material world and retired to an ashram, where they meditated, studied and did charitable work until mother Ganges took them into their fold. What makes it more interesting is that this gentleman’s one son is the Editor of a major US weekly magazine and an ex NYU professor, his American wife a contributor to Wall Street Journal and the other son is the Editor of India’s oldest National Newspaper,both educated in Oxford University, were all there with their families. He was also thankful that he served India when corruption was not an issue and politics did not prevent progress. It is a great story of an illustrous family connected deeply to Varanasi and the river ganges.

The second experience was absolutely surreal. We were walking along a quiet section of Asi Ghat at night . The Ghats are very busy during the day with pilgrims and vendors but at night it quiets down only with an occasional stray dog barking, or a small group of elders discussing the rotten state of politics or a group of young men laughing and lollygagging. Near the river bank in a dark obscure corner we saw a man sitting in the lotus position completely covered from head to toe in white cloth with a clean copper bowl of Ganges water next to him. We observed him for some time and realized that he was in deep meditation. I later read that “Covering the whole body above the crown chakra( skull) activates, what the yogis call the sarasu and it is from here that the soul is said to descend into the child at birth or leave when cremated.. Sarasu is also a huge energy field. By covering the head, the energy is retained to help the inner fire build.”
We were completely blown by this sight. One needs to be there to understand the gravity of the moment and not being an Indian did not deter Dave from appreciating the moment. The next morning I was up by 5:30 AM ,a time of intense activity amongst the ritualists and the purists along the banks of the river and there I saw the same slender figure in white cloth saying his morning prayers under the Peepal tree to Lord Siva. (see the picture of a slender figure doing Puja under a tree)


The last experience that I am about to write was one of extreme sadness and raised the question of belief over propriety. It was around 11:00 Am as we approached Dashwamedh Ghat after a long walk along the 80 or so bathing Ghats on the river bank. The sun was shining bright and the temperature was hovering around 95 F. Close to the water the activities were numerous: pilgrims performing ritual dips, families taking a plunge fully clothed, local children playing, an occasional dog or monkey trying to grab some food offerings to the river, Brahmin priests conducting family prayers, barbers shaving heads of pilgrims who have vowed that as a sacrifice to Ganga. Amidst all these activities was a very old man, quite infirm, curled up on the steps writhing gently with very little sound coming out of him. Each lap of a wave would briefly inundate him with water. I realized that he was dying and was left there to die. We were distraught and did not know what to do and ended up inquiring about his condition to a nearby vendor of religious articles. He mentioned that many poor people leave their very old and infirm to die here since they have no money to cremate them and hope that the river will consume him . While we were shocked, all the activities around him were going on as though nothing happened. Full of guilt we walked away so as not to interfere with this cruel form of euthanasia. Filled with curiosity we came back an hour later to realize that he was not there anymore. We only hoped that one of the many volunteer /NGO took care of him. I searched the web for articles similar to what we had seen and found none.


The water’s edge of Varanasi, where Buddha preached and Tulsi Das composed the Hindu epic Ramayana is still a place filled with wonderment; of life, of meditation, of sacrifices, of learning and the corruption of the body and its aftermath. It brings out emotions of love, sympathy, empathy, devotion, agony ,grief and misery.


Posted by Ramdas Iyer 14:15 Archived in India Tagged ganges varanasi ganga kasi beneras Comments (4)

The Funeral Masquerade Dance of the Dogon, Mali

A vanishing tradition of a fascinating people by Ramdas Iyer


Any visitor to our house will appreciate my large collection of African art: especially that of the Dogon people. West Africa is such a rich cultural place that rapid Islamization, past Christian conversions and pressures of a modern world, I imagine, will soon dilute this richness. Self ordained as a world traveler I was searching hard to find an untouched part of Africa to travel to and decided on Mali, home to the Bambara, Dogon, Bobo, Bozo, Songhai and Arabic tribes like the Tuaregs. My biggest fear was to obtain permission for Arjuna to miss school for 2 weeks in order undertake this adventure: the Principal at Randolph High acquiesced.

The Dogon live on the Bandigara Escarpment, a sandstone cliff up to 1640 ft high stretching 90 miles on the Sahel desert. A world heritage site for its unique cultural achievements, the escarpment is 500 miles from Bamako, the capital. These villages were established around 900 AD as a result of the collective refusal of the Dogon people to convert to Islam. The escarpment gave protection from frequent Islamic slave raids common in West Africa until the late 17th Century.

The 4X4 Toyota land Cruiser was well suited for the rough sandy tracks that led us to the escarpments. The scenery was absolutely stunning with semi arid grasslands, sandy desert, Baobab trees, rocky out crops with small villages amidst. Over the years the Dogon had descended from the escarpment and set up villages 50 miles around it. While they were still the Dogon, the real deal was awaiting us a few miles ahead. Mali is perhaps one of the poorest countries on Earth, yet the people express their joy of life through art found in everyday objects like knives, catapults, combs, seats, hoes, pots and pans. While my birth place India is culturally rich I do not see art in day to day implements and tools. I often wondered why this was the case and my conclusion is this: The Dogon has no centralized Government but live in villages composed of patrilineages and extended families whose head is the senior male descendent of the common ancestor. Having no kings or local warlords to hold the villagers in servitude and render them extremely poor like the villagers in India, social art blossomed to unparalleled levels. In fact cubism and modernism in art “invented” by Picasso, Kandinsky et al have been attributed to their exposure to West African art.
I can keep going on and on and will now come to the point of the “Funeral masquerade dance of the Dogon”. We were approaching the village of Yuga-Piri, set at about 500 feet above the ground. We were welcomed by the head man and a meal of goat and millets was arranged by our guide Mama Kona. Most of the masks in our home are those from this funeral dance. So I asked the headman if one such dance could be arranged. It was about 11:00 AM and he negotiated a price of $150 to be paid to the village and that it could only happen around 2:00 PM since all the dancers were working the fields below. So we had our meal and reed mats with dirty pillows were laid out under a makeshift roof for us to rest till the dance. This village was spectacular in beauty and cascaded down the cliff like a fairy tale land. Around 1:00 PM drummers stood in various corners of the cliff and started drumming to summon the field hands to the head mans hut. Within a matter of 45 minutes we could see all the elders wearing Indigo cloth come out of their abodes and stand in the “Navel”of the village, an area cleared for dance with a central rockpile built conically surrounded by trees with the high cliffs on one side and the endless Sahel desert below. (The Sahel is scrub desert that slowly becomes white sandy desert another 200 miles out. The Sahel supports more than 90% of the sub-Saharan people because of its ability to support some plants, trees and grass for livestock.). The drummers and the bell bearers started their unique trance inducing beat.
Soon the dancers numbering over 35 poured out on all sides. It was simply unbelievable that these great people would perform one of their sacred funeral rite dances for Arjuna and me. The village Ogon-shaman, blessed the site and blessed the dancers. A jury of a dozen elders stood in a straight line to ensure correctness of protocol and dance proceedings, with long sticks in hand. They could correct any errors made during the dance with a gentle tap of their sticks on the dancer. The dance began with ritual storytelling and more and more characters entering the arena. They were walking, shaking, hopping, swaying rhythmically that I was running around trying to photograph one of the greatest events I have ever witnessed. Arjuna was perched on a high rock enjoying with utter fascination. Men on stilts wearing wooden breasts, hunters, animals, spirits and forebears were all in the story. This Dama ritual essentially leads the souls of the departed to their final resting place. During a real funeral the masqueraders would dance on the deceased rooftops, throughout the village and the areas around the village to settle the spirits of the dead. Sometimes there are mock battles with the spirits who come to disturb the proceedings.
I cannot explain the joy I felt to be a part of this great ritual which was unfortunately being performed for a tourist. These dances are performed annually and the headman thanked me for giving them an opportunity to practice. The privilege of dancing is granted by a headman only if the dancer exhibits certain moral values. So becoming a dancer is one of the great social achievements of a Dogon Male. (There is a BBC documentary about a young man trying hard to be a Dogon dancer).
All the masks used were actually carved by each dancer. I wondered how they could fit snugly on their head during all their gyrations, but found out that they secured them with their teeth while dancing. These ritual masks are kept in caves located on the cliffs high above the village where their ancestors are placed. I also found out that prior to the dance, between11:00 AM and 2:00 PM the ritual ground was prepared for the dance with sacrifices and requests made to the spirits for their consent of this dance for Arjuna and me.
I was so taken by the whole event that I purchased a dance mask worn by one of them for $200, a large sum of money in Mali. The mask was so big that it would not fit in any of our soft duffels. That evening I had someone hacksaw it in half which I reassembled back home.

Hope the Dogon keeps their traditions. Islamic leaders want to rid them of their Pagan rituals. More Dogons are converting to Islam every day and these dances will soon only be found on the stages of Paris and New York. Arjuna and I are blessed.


Posted by Ramdas Iyer 08:58 Archived in Mali Tagged africa mali dogon ramdas iyer Comments (7)

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