News: China- Forgotten Cities of the Silk Road

Posted: 5 October 2017

My introduction to the province of Xinjiang was from the window of my aircraft seat, as I gazed down onto the Tian Shan Mountains below. They were awash with brilliant sunshine and the canyons, cliffs and rock faces were a relief of glorious detail in golden, grey, brown and green hues; it was hard to tear my eyes away, even at the prospect of landing after my journey.

My guide and driver were waiting for me and we drove the twenty or so minutes into the centre of Kashgar, with the temperature still at 28C at 5.30pm.The streets are wide and clean and the closer we drew to the centre, the more tree lined they became. The hotel we use in Kashgar is the rather imposing “Qinibagh”, which has good sized rooms and all the niceties you would expect from a five star hotel. Feeling it to be a little grand, I was soon to learn that government restrictions on where “foreigners” are allowed to stay, limit the choice to such properties. It proved to be a good option with an excellent location, as when I wanted to go for a walk around, my guide Abdul pointed across the road, and there was an entrance to the Old Town.

As I strolled around it was all very engaging. Although the Chinese government has been systematically demolishing original buildings and replacing them with others less in keeping with the area, the Old Town has nevertheless retained an air of perpetuity, and an intriguing sense of following in many footsteps. There are lovely houses and shopfronts, with windows and balconies adorned with flowers, engendering the feeling of a place that is cherished by its residents. These same residents present a compelling mix of features, dress and styles, and it was hard to adhere to the childhood admonishment of “Don’t stare, it’s rude”.

On that first evening it was impossible not to be struck by the high level of security; doubtless an irritant to the locals, it was nonetheless rather reassuring. I encountered a silent hazard in the form of electric scooters which glide up silently behind; highly popular, they are favoured by young and old alike. Thinking I should get some sleep I was surprised to see that it was after 10pm as it was still daylight.  

The following morning, having met my guide at the hotel, we set off for my keenly anticipated introduction to Kashgar. Our first visit was to the revered mausoleum of Abakh Hojla, a delight of tiled perfection and an important Muslim pilgrimage site. As it approached late morning Abdul advised me that it was a good time to head for the Sunday livestock market, as the farmers from further afield, some as far as 200/300 kms away, would be arriving. As we travelled towards the site of the market (17 kms from Kashgar), the procession of vehicles grew, some with only one or two animals, others with a number, but all representing the hopes of their owners for that day.

The initial impressions were of noise, activity, and the number of animals. As with markets everywhere the aim was to entice buyers, and the animals were displayed to best effect- last minute trimming and combing were in evidence all around. Each type of animal was displayed in different areas; the cows were loud and spirited as they were led around, breaking into runs and dragging their owners along with them; the sheep and goats were meek and artistically arranged in huddled groups; in addition there were horses, donkeys, yaks, camels and loudly braying mules. Vehicles of all descriptions were constantly moving around transporting animals and goods. Added to this were stalls selling saddles and other horse related items, jewellery, bells, clothing… There were also a number of makeshift dining areas doing brisk business.  As arresting was the opportunity to watch the people and their interactions, as they bargained and traded between themselves. We left via the fruit and vegetable market which was also selling large stones and pieces of rock, and made our way back to the city.

In a complete change of tempo we arrived at the Id Kah Mosque, the largest in China; decorated in yellow tiles its gardens are large and peaceful, in contrast to the busy square in which it is situated. We took lunch in a Uighur restaurant filled with families dining together, and accompanied by traditional musicians performing the Om Ikki Muqam, much beloved by the local people.

In the afternoon we walked through the old town taking in the shops, restaurants and tea shops and into the marvellous Grand Bazaar. Teeming with activity it offered a huge variety of items, with the air full of the smells of spices. Sadly, there are some less pleasant exhibits, such as animal skins, some from species that are under threat.  

We moved onto the Ancient Town which is still home to many people, visiting the workshops of two pottery makers, and finished with a photo opportunity at the gate to old Kashgar City.The day ended perfectly with a visit to the home of a local family where THE most delicious Uighur meal was served.

The next day we were due to travel along the Karakorum Highway and what a journey…… We left Kashgar and after an hour or so the panorama began, as we entered the valley of the River Getz- the road is narrow and the mountains rise above it, dark but strangely unmenacing with incredible shapes. Having negotiated a 3.5 km tunnel we emerged into...Glory! Known as one of the most dramatic roads in the world it did not disappoint. Words cannot always do justice to an experience and while I can say it was stunningly beautiful, uplifting, and inspiring, it was all of those, but much more. The combination of glaciated plains, carved mountains with snow- capped peaks, the rushing river and fluffy white clouds floating in an achingly blue sky, was exhilarating beyond measure.

Some 35kms along the Highway we came to Bungkol- a gorgeous expanse of turquoise blue water fringed by improbable golden sand dunes, with a backdrop of snow fringed mountains. It is hard to believe that this lovely spot is what remains of a failed hydro- electric scheme…

And then to Lake Karakul- with Kungur at 7790m guarding the approach with its cap of cloud, and Muzthazata at 7546m overlooking the lake, it is breath-taking. Even the camels at the lake shore look incredible. We enjoyed lunch in one of the yurts that stand by the lake looking onto the clear waters and spectacular views. The final destination was Tashkurgan, a small town of  historical significance in a beautiful setting, which serves as a stopping point for the night before returning to Kashgar, or continuing on to Pakistan for the more adventurous (or foolhardy).

The main point of interest there is the Fort of Stone which is well worth inspecting, but at 3000m can present a challenge in terms of altitude, and I walked round slowly. Below it is a rather lovely area of wetland known as the “Golden Grasslands” which has wooden platforms to allow people to stroll across it. We stayed at the very comfortable “Crown Inn” which serves delicious Chinese food for dinner, and the following morning provided a wonderful breakfast buffet, with what would prove to be the best coffee of my visit (unfortunately the norm is a powdered premix which includes milk and sugar). Tea is definitely the beverage of choice among the local people.  

The itinerary for the next day was a return to Kashgar, and in terms of the weather, it was an impossibly perfect day. The brilliant sunshine emphasised the detail of the mountains, and this time I was able to stop at Shubash Pass in its lonely splendour, as it had been hidden the previous day. Even Kungur was cloud free (very unusual) and totally magnificent against the azure sky.

After lunch in Kashgar I was transferred to the clamour of the railway station, to board my overnight train for Turpan. The soft sleeper carriage had two upper and two lower berths and was pretty comfortable. A fellow occupant had an app on his phone for English translation and I was questioned on a number of subjects, with an emphasis on the British Royal Family. I moved to the Cafeteria car from where I watched as we glided through the changing landscapes; golden mountains, vast expanses of grassland, arid desert- like plains with a covering of salt on the ground resembling snow.

On arrival in Turpan the following morning around 9am, the temperature was already 28C- not much of a surprise as it is the hottest place in China. The city is an hour long drive from the station, and our first visit was to the Jiaohe Ruins, where the well preserved and fascinating remains of the former garrison town, have a wonderful setting with beautiful Poplar trees. The entry point is the South Gate and the road winds past the houses and buildings, leading to the monastery, which still carries an air of other worldliness.

We continued into town and the Kerez System Museum which illustrates the highly effective irrigation system which is unique to this part of the world, and carries water down from the mountains. They also serve freshly squeezed grape juice at the entrance which is delicious. As the temperatures soared we took shelter for lunch, and in the afternoon retreated to the lovely Grape Valley; here people stroll under vines with the sun filtering through, to the sound of rushing water from the river alongside, with a man-made waterfall providing photo opportunities. There is also a small pond with very green water and very large ducks.  The day finished at the Emin Minaret with its striking tower and simple, but attractive, adjoining mosque. We retired to Huozhou Hotel for the night with the welcome air conditioning.

Thursday morning began with a visit to the ruins of Gaochang, the ancient Uighur capital which is a much larger site than Jiaohe, and motorised buggies transport visitors around. A sizeable section of the city walls are still visible, and the remaining structures convey a sense of its former glory. We moved onto the Astana Graves, two of which contain some lovely paintings, and have a poignant tale to tell.

After lunch we drove out to the Bezeklik Caves which still contain some of the original paintings. It has a spectacular setting among impressive dunes and striking mountains; it was hot enough for eggs to be placed in the sand to cook. There was also some deliciously cool water melon, and it was blissful eating it while sitting in the shade, enjoying the view.   

My final journey was the following day to Urumqi; the road crosses a vast, exposed, windy plain, which explains the presence of an enormous windmill farm with thousands of them spinning hypnotically.  On reaching the city we continued on through it for 100 kms to Tian Chi or Heavenly Lake. The lake itself is reached by two shuttles through quite rugged mountain scenery and is extremely pretty; it is also incredibly busy with large numbers of Chinese tourists posing for photos and selfies.

An early flight the next morning meant that on arriving back into the city there was only time for a stroll around before an early night.

Xinjiang is very different to other places in China that I have visited, and I wholeheartedly recommend its beautiful landscapes, ancient Uighur culture, centuries’ old sites and monuments, and the romantic overtones of the old Silk Road.

Please contact us for details about our fourteen day group tour "Forgotten Cities of the Silk Road"; we also offer private and tailor made tours.

Linda Maguire - August 2017


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