Nomological Net

Stray thoughts from here and there. The occasional concern for construct validity. No more logic. Fish.


faults in the clouds of delusion

Friday, August 31, 2007

The Silk Road Chronicles (Day 7, Part 2)

Our plane to Kashgar was due to leave at 9 and the Xinjiang museum closed at 7, but they stopped selling tickets at 6. Given the 1 ½ hour drive back to Urumqi from Heaven Lake, that meant we had about half an hour in hand to make it to the museum. We did, comfortably. The museum had three galleries. The first of these was devoted to depictions of the various minorities in Xinjiang – two dozen of them. Life-sized models dressed in ethnic costumes stood and sat around in mock-ups of their natural habitat with accompanying artifacts, each tableau featuring a short write-up about demographics and lifestyle. I walked through this in about ten minutes, but TPB – on a trip of “I will not be rushed” – dawdled (to the extent that I lapped her before she was halfway). She refused to be rushed and I didn’t want to split up in a large, nearly-empty museum, so it was past 6 by the time we reached the second hall – a chronological display of archaeological finds from all over the province. This was absolutely fascinating -– just as an example of its completeness, TPB found a photo of the mural she’d fallen so heavily for on the flight from Xi’an to Dunhuang! Unfortunately, walking round the exhibits we’d only managed to get as far as the Tang Dynasty (7th – 9th century) where we stood entranced in front of several marvelously preserved and colorful two-foot high animal sculptures that had been excavated from the Astana tombs we’d seen the previous day, when Lily materialized and told us that there was only half an hour left till closing time so she strongly recommended we go upstairs to the third and last gallery – the piece de resistance of the museum.

TPB didn’t want to break off from the Tang dynasty exhibits but I insisted, and Lily said we could come back down if there was time at the end. I’m glad we went. The third gallery had mummies on display -– just like the ones we’d seen at Astana, but several more. In fact, there was even the mummy of a general, all of six feet tall, whose tomb we’d been inside at Astana. (That had been the second tomb we’d visited, the one with paintings of ducks inside that Lily had told us was that of a nobleman, and she’d been wrong.) There were six mummies in that gallery, ranging in time from that of the general all the way *back* to the 4000 year old lady known as the Loulan Beauty – buried beside a 3800 year old child who had died when he was four. There they lay, side by side, hair, nails, teeth all perfectly preserved, even large fragments of the clothes that they had been wearing, patterns perfectly visible and clear. I had not expected to see this, and I have never ever seen anything like it.

The English-speaking museum guide who Lily had dug up for us for this gallery was very sweet and well-informed. She explained to us that three of the mummies found at one site, called Qizilchoqa, were buried knees-up since this allowed more bodies to fit inside a single grave. These mummies were fascinating – they were three thousand years old, and clearly Caucasian, with blonde and light brown hair. The guide told us that the textile patterns seen in their tombs were very similar to those found at sites in Ukraine and Central Europe! The possibilities were mind-boggling. Of course, due to the time constraints, we weren’t able to linger over them. She went really fast from exhibit to exhibit, not allowing us to dawdle in the least, and despite that it was past 6:50 by the time we stepped out into the museum store and bookshop. These too looked very large and interesting. TPB as usual went off to look at picture postcards, and before we knew it, it was past 7 and we hadn’t had the time to look around the bookshop or store.

Still, the mummies had been so totally worth it. All you need from something like this, I sometimes feel, is for the spark of knowledge to seed the curiosity within you. The search can continue for long after.

We emerged from the museum into another minor wonder - it was raining! Our driver, who had joined us in the mummy gallery, ran through the downpour to get the van and soon we were stuck in a traffic jam on the way to the airport. There was no time to grab dinner in the city, which meant that TPB would have to try her vegetarian luck either at the airport or in-flight. After checking in, we asked Lily where the airport restaurant was. She said there was nothing on the other side of the security check and instead pointed us upstairs to a "fast food" café. She then walked us there and helped us order from the limited (but English!) menu – tomato noodle soup for TPB and Zhajiang noodles for me. Then, to our surprise, she picked up a magazine from a rack and sat down, back to us, at a different table. I went over to tell her that it was okay and we could take care of ourselves now, to which she replied (a little despairingly, I thought), “But I cannot leave! It’s my job!” I tried to say we could just pretend that she had done her job, but she only smiled wisely and patted me on my arm and said you go eat. So we did, while she waited us out. I ordered a glass of Red Label just because it was available. Yes, I have drunk industrialized scotch in interior China. The flight was at 9 but by 8:15 Lily had seen us through security and waved us good-bye. She would receive us on our way back from Kashgar.

We found the gate listed on our boarding passes and sat down, but it just seemed awfully deserted for a gate that was supposedly hosting a soon-to-depart flight. Just to recheck I went off to take a look at the monitors. Thankfully the Urumqi airport is brand spanking new and all the information was readily available – it took me no time to figure out the updated gate number, and we were there having scarcely missed a beat. The flight was uneventful, except for a Han gentleman sitting next to us who insisted on trying to practice his English on us. Poor guy – much of it consisted of him clenching his eyes shut in frustration while looking for a word, and ending up saying, “My English is bad”. His wife works in Kashgar, and he, a major in the Chinese army, has been based all over the place. Anyway, after a bit he gave up trying to communicate, and soon we were walking across the tarmac at Kashgar airport, away from the solitary plane parked near the terminal. This was it – the last major stop on our cross-country voyage.

I found my preferred location near the head of the baggage carousel but as it started up I found it was going in the opposite direction to that I'd anticipated so I ended up being at the tail instead (a consequence of the Arabic script going the other way?) TPB mock-commiserated with my frustration “at losing out on 15 important seconds of my life”. It was more than 15 – I timed it. It was 45.

On the plane we’d laid a bet about whether our guide here would be Chinese or minority, and male or female. TPB had said Chinese male, so of course I’d gone with minority female. Past the carousel, past the guards checking baggage tags, out into the reception area, we met Abdulwali. A slim, athletic, clean-shaven young man with Turkish features and slightly elongated eyes – slim-fitted light blue formal shirt hanging outside formal grey trousers. “In case my name is too long you can call me ‘Ali’,” he said in excellent American-accented English with a slight recurring dash of Borat, “You know, like Mohammad Ali?” I indicated I was familiar with the name.

Inside the sleek black Hyundai Elantra, Abdul gave us a brief overview of the vital statistics of Kashgar – population 450,000, oldest, largest, most important city on the Silk Road, etc. He didn’t hold back in his positivity, every thing that he said was a superlative of some sort. He even cracked a joke or two. As we checked in at the Bangchen Hotel (naturally, by far Kashgar’s best hotel), he asked what time we wanted to start for Lake Karakuli the next day. “We have a small car, it’s fast, it will take a little more than three hours to reach the lake.” He suggested 10 or 10:30. Having had a full week of 7:30 and 8 am starts, this seemed a little lackadaisical to us. But then we hadn’t factored in the fact that Kashgar, the furthest west we’ve been so far, would run far more stringently on Xinjiang Time. Anyway we asked why we couldn’t leave a little earlier, say, 9:30? He agreed reluctantly, suggesting in part that the driver, the jolly Mr. Ma Xiao, would have preferred something after 10. They didn’t seem all that put out, and after all our time was quite limited, so I didn’t give any ground. I shook hands with the two of them – both smiled broadly as we said good night. We stepped towards the lift. Abdul called us back. He’d forgotten to give us his card and a couple of local maps. With these in hand, we followed the bellhop up to our room.

TPB was first into the allotted room and she immediately said – this room smells of cigarette smoke. I want to change the room, she told the bell-hop. The guy didn’t understand a word. She mimed a cigarette. The guy looked at her. I tipped him and let him go. TPB said – I’m going to get them to change the room. I said – let’s call Abdul and ask him to translate; he couldn’t have gone too far anyway. She said no, and called the front desk. A minute and brief conversation later she put the phone down and said, they’re sending housekeeping over. I asked – what’s housekeeping going to do? One look from her silenced me. Housekeeping showed up, a sweet simple-looking middle-aged Uyghur lady. TPB went through her first-spoken-then-mimed routine again, with as much success this time as well. Housekeeping decided it was best to call the front desk. I said, let’s just go down. Another look, relapse into silence.

We went down behind housekeeping. A more refined, self-assured lady walked up. TPB started explaining; she interrupted and said yes yes yes we have your problem under control, then started walking towards a nearby cafeteria. I followed, muttering: she’s going to give you a pack of cigarettes. TPB wheeled round and hissed, “Listen…” so I quickly shut up again. Behind the counter of the cafeteria, a lady had already opened a drawer and was displaying cartons of cigarettes (I wish I had noted which brands). TPB finally cracked. She turned in desperation to the manager and said, “No! No! I want a non-smoking room! The smell *bothers* me!” The manager smiled sweetly and said, “I understand,” and walked away to the front desk. Wonder of wonders, within seconds we were given the key to a different room. Housekeeping, the manager, and the two of us went up to the old room. We got our luggage and went up a floor to the new room which lay right at the corner, at the end of the corridor. TPB’s spirits lifted (like evaporating alcohol?) the moment the door closed. We slowly deposited our materials and started to unwind on our again separate beds. I spent some time trying to write. She watched local TV again, an Anil Kapoor-Sridevi movie dubbed in Uyghur except for the songs.

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Silk Road Chronicles (Day 7, Part 1)

The same boring breakfast of eggs and sausage done with, I was in a hurry to leave. However, our checkout was abruptly interrupted by the front desk’s claim that the room maid had reported that I had actually *used* the condom in the bathroom. Lily translated for us: “I don’t know how to say this but when you have sex…” The surprise probably showed on my face. I denied any association with the condom. TPB helpfully added that she’d *moved* it and used the dish to put a bar of soap on. We stood there waiting for a resolution to this, and a couple of minutes later a sheepishly-smiling Uyghur lady stepped out of the lift with the offending package. Yes, the box was open. We vehemently protested our innocence. They let us go. Good morning.

The road to Urumqi was empty. It was barely 8 am, 6 o’clock on the unofficial local clock, and Turpan was just about waking up. After an hour’s drive along an open, straight road we stopped at a gas station that featured an incredibly foul men’s room. I muttered “poisonous” to TPB as I came out, and she was on her way in to the women’s. Luckily for her that one was acceptable – suggesting at the gender ratio amongst travelers on these parts. We drove on towards the Bogda mountains, the arid Gobi desert stretching out on both sides. It wasn’t the sandy expanse of the Taklamakan that we’d seen in Dunhuang, but rather a stony, rocky, bare surface dotted with the occasional little scrub. As we neared the mountains, the slopes began to reveal spots of moss and lichen. The rock faces were absolutely magnificent, and we could see snowy peaks in the distance directly ahead. TPB snoozed; I looked out the windows. As we crossed through the mountains, it was incredible how all at once going from south to north the desert landscape changed to grassland, livestock peacefully grazing, impervious to the barrenness on the other side.

We drove into Urumqi about an hour later, around 11. The skyline was visible from afar (what else would one expect?!), a typical “Manhattan” dropped incongruously in amongst the desert and mountains. Urumqi is a fairly recent city – only about 150 years old – and therefore not a part of the original Silk Road. However it was a central point of the intrigues during the early 20th century when the entire region was unstable and could have gone any which way, and for a few short years Russia tried its very bets to make it the center of Asian thrust. However that didn’t work out, as we all know, and the Chinese took it over and in the 1950s and 60s made it the foundation of *their* Central Asian strategy. This they did by counter-weighting the vastly dominant local Uyghur population by encouraging the immigration to Urumqi of ethnic Hans from the east. So today Urumqi is a “modern” city of 2 million, over 80% of whom are Han, and the remainder a mixture of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kirghiz, Tajiks, and Russians. This stands in stark contrast to the rest of Xinjiang, where Uyghurs alone constitute over 70% of the population, and where the second-largest city, Kashgar, has a population of 400,000 – not having been the focus of any such directed migrations. The word “Urumqi” means something like “pleasant meadows”. We had been warned that that was a complete misnomer, and indeed it was. It was just like any other “Chinese” city: roads, bridges, hoardings, buses, traffic.

Our destination was the Erdaoqiao bazaar. Now, we’d heard it described in several places as a tourist trap so I was none too keen to visit the place, and we’d told Lily as much. Actually, we’d couched it somewhat differently. Urumqi being the capital, the Xinjiang provincial museum was located here. And while the old museum apparently hadn’t been very extensive or interesting, we’d just got to know that they’d added a couple of new galleries. So we’d asked Lily to try and factor the museum into our day with the proviso that we wouldn’t mind spending less time at Erdaoqiao. A little to my surprise she’d been quite approving of that plan and had even said that the bazaar was indeed very touristy, and the bazaar at Kashgar was the real thing, and since we were going to Kashgar we could easily skip the Erdaoqiao if we didn’t have the time. I’d happily said yes, skip the bazaar, but some way into the drive her conscience had kicked in and she’d had second thoughts (oh, this sense of duty!) and said that since it was on the way to Heaven Lake, we should stop by for a bit en route. And so we did.

The bazaar is largely contained inside a four storey building, with a little spillover of stalls onto a concreted-over public space outside. We went up and down the escalators past shops displaying heaps of knives, dried fruit and nuts, clothes from a dozen different traditions, and so on. I entered a carpet shop in the basement and had the young guy inside show me a few rugs. This was my first exposure at close range to silk carpets and their wonderful property of changing appearance depending on which side they’re viewed from. TPB stopped by a hat shop and bought a traditional Uyghur hat – white base with fine black needlework. It turned out to be a men’s hat and so I got to wear it for the rest of the trip, attracting attention wherever I went.

We were out of the bazaar in ten minutes, and, before getting back into the van I asked to use a restroom somewhere. Lily immediately directed me to one that turned out to be inside a KRC on the other side of the square. Pissing on American property, I thought. On the way back to the van, passing a bunch of the stalls TPB decided she wanted to buy raisins and nuts. So into an open stall they went; I hung around outside with my camera. Ten minutes of sampling (by TPB) and bargaining (by Lily) later, we had two packets of 250 grams of black tart raisins (85 per kilo bargained down to 40) and two packets of 250 grams of fragrant almond-like nuts (85 per kilo bargained down to 44). The two of them joined the shopkeeper and his lackey in a complicated dance of weighing and portioning out across plastic bags; when it finished as we left I said “Rehmet” (Thanks, in Uyghur) to the sidekick at the stall, and watched his sullen face transform with pleasure.

A little note about those nuts. They were absolutely amazing. Inside the car, I took about six in my left hand, and held them there while I cracked the shells and ate the insides one by one as we drove. Not only were they delicious, to my intense surprise just holding them there for those few minutes caused my hand to smell of sweet buttery almond cake – a smell that stayed all day. Indeed, we brought some of those nuts back to the US, and the smell remained as intense even a few weeks after the purchase. What were they? Well, according to the guy we bought them from, those ‘nuts’ were apricot seeds. I had no idea. I wish we had some left.

HEAVEN LAKE – Tian Chi – is an hour and a half east of Urumqi. The landscape remained pleasant and green, the buildings ending abruptly as we left the city. As we neared the lake it became increasingly apparent that we were now in Kazakh territory – yurts, horses, and people wearing round felt hats appearing around every bend in the road. The restaurant we stopped at for lunch was Uyghur, though, but the servers were Han and the next table consisted of a Japanese group featuring one middle aged man, one old man, and six old women, including one who could not have been less than 80. The food again was pleasant, and again too much even though we sent all the rice back. The standout dishes for me were laghman, a meat dish that I learned later was yak (my first taste of yak – not very different from lean beef), and chicken.

The entrance to Heaven Lake was a few minutes on from the restaurant. We stopped at a crowded parking lot and walked fifteen minutes through throngs of people going both up and downhill. The reason for the crowd was that it was Sunday, and Heaven Lake, far from the idyllic layaway featured in Vikram Seth’s book, is today *the* go-to day trip spot for Urumqi’s 2-million strong population. There is even a cable car to get to the lake, and we dutifully lined up at the ticket counter. The cars seat two each and are open on the front and sides so that was fun. The views however weren’t spectacular since we were going up a mountainside rather than between peaks – in many places we were barely a few meters above ground level, criss-crossing a smooth two-lane road that ran up the side of the mountain. I found it more fun to look at the faces in the cars going back down.

The lake, when we arrived, was stunningly beautiful but teeming with tourists. SO much so that it took dollops of patience and not a little skill to get a picture that did not include a dozen heads sticking up at various points. Notwithstanding the crowds, the view was magnificent. The mountains provided a perfect backdrop for the cool blue-green waters. Lily led us to the second of two boat-ride companies, and we were the last on board a boat that was to take a 15 minute trip round the lake. My attention was drawn to a Kazakh family sitting at the other end of the boat – the effervescent mother of the family had the most high-pitched voice I’d ever seen! However, the prettiness of the surroundings was drowned the moment the engine started, and that in turn was washed away by a local guide who took up station two feet away from us. Megaphone in hand, she didn’t stop screeching till about a minute before the boat did its round and finally pulled in. It was so bad that TPB suggested we pay her ten bucks to shut up. Stop telling us how beautiful the place is – we *get* the point!

We got off the boat and requested Lily for some time to walk around by ourselves. She thought for a moment, calculating distances and time, then gave us an hour till 3:45. We started off along the paved brick path that ran round by the side of the lake. It quickly narrowed and became wooden, and soon we were climbing up and down flights of steps along the sheer lake face, ducking below overhanging branches. Every once in a while we’d pass a group going the other way – mostly Han or Uyghur although we did see one Caucasian couple. The most remarkable of these was one middle-aged Uyghur group who came upon us round a steep corner – as we stood by to let them pass, a lady in the group saw us and said, “Photo! Photo!” So they took a picture with us. Then I raised my camera and said, “Photo!” So they stayed in formation while I swapped places with their photographer, and as I raised my camera I saw TPB also stepping out of the group. So I waved her back saying, “You go!” Amused, the group repeated after me, “You go!” Later TPB told me that they probably thought I’d said, “Uyghur!” Funny.

We found a stone was to sit on, nicely placed between two protruding cliff faces, forming a broad U shape. The mountainside behind us was decorated with pretty blue flowers. Luckily the traffic of walkers thinned out just then, so we sat alone for a few long stretches – just us, the mountain, and the lake ahead with the occasional boat throbbing by towards the quays off to the right. A video I tried to take of the tranquility of the moment was punctuated by the Tarzan yells of a group coming round the bend – the silence evidently proving too strenuous for their frazzled city nerves.

We got a little lost heading back and found ourselves a little breathless (not surprising in retrospect, Heaven Lake is at an altitude of about 2000 meters, and we’d woke up that morning in Turpan which is below sea level) and somewhat higher up on the mountain than where we needed to be. We’d decided to catch an electric cart back since we’d dawdled a bit, snatching every extra moment we could by the lake. The carts when we found them were crowded and I had to signal an old man to make room for me. Back at the cable car station Lily appeared and said that there was already a huge line so it would be best for us to take a bus downhill. TPB sloped off to buy postcards from a souvenir shop but the prices were too high. Stepping back to the bus stop we found no sign of Lily. Two worried moments later she reappeared carrying a bag full of freshly baked nan bread. We got into a minibus along with a dozen highly-outfitted Chinese campers and their gear, and soon were back at the base of the hill, using the surprisingly clean port-a-potties, and then in the van headed to Urumqi.

I leave you with a few images from the lake. As always, you can click on any image if you'd like to see it enlarged.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Silk Road Chronicles (Day 6, Part 2)

From the unflaming mountains, we drove to Turpan’s Grape Valley tourist center. Our schedule hadn’t really said that it was a tourist center – I’d been laboring under the impression that it was a grape production business. Instead the purpose of the place seemed more to farm tourists than grapes. The approach from outside was nice enough, but I guess that should have warned us. The road to the main entrance, all the way from the turning from the highway, was framed with wooden trellises covered with vines. It was all very picturesque, and, in retrospect, artificial. (But then, who’s to say what’s artificial? Later that evening strolling in town we saw—in corroboration of what our guidebook written two years previously had predicted—that there were pedestrian malls in this town that had had similar trellises built over them. When you live in a city where the temperature goes to 49 C, such acts can get pretty close to the apotheosis of good governance.)

We walked in past the usual curious stares and mutters of “Yindestan? Pakistan?” Away to the left was a row of stalls which, instead of the usual souvenirs, for a change flaunted rows and rows and heaps and heaps of raisins in various shapes and colors. We followed Lily beneath more trellised paths to a little hut outside which sat an old man flanked by two women in traditional Uyghur dress. Lily said: “This man is a hundred years old. Do you want a photo?” We said no. We walked past him into the hut—it had been set out for display. It seemed to me just like a two room hut. Thirty seconds later we were back outside. The inner walls of the compound had been painted with stories depicting a local hero; a witty character called Afanti who habitually outsmarted crooked rich men and stupid princes. He reminded me of something, so on impulse, I tried to see if he was called Nasruddin. Turned out to be the case -- the local Mullah 'Nasredin', aka Effendi. The Uyghur ladies repeated their offer of a photo op; again I refused. TPB asked me if I was sure, I said I was. My suspicion was confirmed half an hour later as we drove away from the place -- *she* had wanted a picture since “he looked like such a sweet old man”.

We walked some more around the place, along the pathways under the trellises, looking at the grapes and the signs that said it was forbidden to touch them. Souvenir stalls appeared round every other corner. We passed on, and then out.

Lunch was at the “Muslim restaurant” back at the hotel. This should be interesting, since it was our first full Uyghur meal. Well, the first thing we noticed was that the restaurant was empty – just the two of us at one table, with Lily and the driver sitting by themselves a few tables away, separated from us by a pillar. They finished much before us and Lily came over and excused herself, telling us she’d see us in the lobby at 5 (Beijing time, making it 3 local time). The custom in Turpan is to spend a long afternoon napping. The other thing that became apparent was that the service was unsmiling. The food, however, was decent – including among other things my first exposure to laghman – Uyghur style noodles topped with mutton curry and a subtle clear soup that looked unprepossessing but I couldn't seem to get enough of. There was again too much of everything despite the fact that we’d specifically asked for small portions.

As we left the restaurant and walked along the path leading back to our room in the main wing of the hotel, we heard a woman call out from behind. Turning around, we saw the head waitress, a middle aged matron of not inconsiderable presence, charging down the path towards us. My momentary alarm was soon supplanted by the sight of the bottle of water in her hand – TPB had forgotten it at the table. She returned it to us: the first and only time we saw this lady smile. Rather sweetly, I thought.

I’d planned to spend the afternoon interval updating the log but the night’s train journey finally got to me and I crashed almost as soon as we were back in the room, only waking when TPB informed me that it was 4:45. (Like in Jiayuguan, this hotel room too had separate beds. A pattern?) We met Lily downstairs, and in no time were at Suleiman’s minaret. This is a late Middle Ages structure was almost deserted at that hour. Even the souvenir stalls were unmanned, and, in the spirit of the moment, the turnstile at the entrance refused to accept one of our two tickets. After some negotiation Lily had to leave her official guide ID with the boffin at the gate.

We walked around the base and then went inside, and upstairs. The views and the structure were definitely worth seeing, but probably not to linger over. The mud brick structures set off nicely against the greenery of the oasis all round; more vinyards everywhere. It wasn’t that long though before we were off to the next stop – the Karez irrigation system. Now the Chinese count this right up there with the Great Wall among the achievements of their civilization, but it gets a lot less press than what one might have thought. It is basically an ancient underground irrigation system that funnels snow water from the mountains a hundred miles to the north of Turpan, along underground canals that run beneath the desert. It is a pretty ingenious system, consisting of a network of canals punctuated by wells that are dug not to bring water up but to let people down in order to facilitate maintenance. However, the showpiece Karez display site turned out to be another over-touristy gimmick, much like the Grape Valley we’d visited earlier in the day. After Lily sort-of explained the system to us with the aid of a large 3-D exhibit, we took a walk along a token underground canal populated by statues of miners in angsty mining poses. I really thought it might have been a fascinating exhibit if it had been explained better and/or I had properly understood exactly what the deal was. Either way, I was somewhat underwhelmed and we were out of the place in twenty minutes heading back to the hotel for a brief rest since the night market where we were going to have dinner didn’t open till 8.


We came downstairs at 8:30 to go to the night market. As I walked out of the hotel, a few steps behind Lily and TPB, a young lady in a black very mini skirt asked me, “Massage, sir? No? Foot massage?” So now I knew what the condom in the room was for. Two minutes later on the street I realized I’d left my money belt in the room (a big hurrah here for Victorinox – I wore this belt next to my skin right through for ten days with not a single problem. A great product.), and we’d just complained about the air-conditioning which meant that someone would probably be there soon, so I had to go back up to get it. Two extra trips past this lady, two more questions from her. Wordless, this time. Later that evening I got an excellent shot in when I casually mentioned to TPB that this woman hadn’t looked *that* bad after all. TPB’s eyes widened substantially, and stayed that way until I slipped in the deftly-timed punchline: “She may even be the Number-four Prostitute in Tulufan.”

That round, I won :-D

Returning from the room with my money back safely against my midriff, I caught up with TPB and L sitting by the side of the street. Somehow someone for some reason had given them a bunch of grapes for free. We walked the couple of minutes to the market. It wasn’t a very large market – a dozen odd stalls set up along the outer sides of an open square at the intersection of two large roads, benches and tables laid out on the inside. L led us to the farthest stall on the road that was perpendicular to the one we’d approached on. A lady was making ma la choi – spicy Sichuan vegetables. TPB pointed and chose the vegetables she wanted, all of 7 bucks worth. I went a couple of stalls back to a large Uyghur man who I’d just turned down a couple of minutes back while we were walking there, and got me two skewers of lamb for two bucks each. Within a couple of minutes everything was delivered to the bench where we sat. We dug in, Lily declined every offer, and finally, as we neared the end, she excused herself. It had been a really long day for her.

We finished and went and got ourselves a bottle of sickly-sweet tea which TPB took one sip of and then gave to me, saying “You’ll like this.” Deciding to take a walk, we went back to the intersection and crossed our road, going in the opposite direction to where we were. Everyone we passed stared at us. A little kid stamped in a small roadside puddle and got slapped on the arm by his mother – he stared blankly in shock before bursting into tears. Unlike Jiayuguan, which had a road for cars and a separate side lane for cyclists, Turpan’s shaded side lanes were meant for pedestrians. At least, this one that we were on was. It was very pleasant indeed. After about five minutes we came up on another intersection where to the left the entire street appeared to be a trellised walkway. How could we refuse? We crossed the road and entered the walkway.

The first ten minutes or so on that walkway it seemed as if we’d just missed catching a bonanza promotion for the Arman milk products brand. Everyone we passed was wearing the same light green branded t-shirt, and packing up some stall or the other. One stall even had three basketball hoops (again) pegged at heights going from 4 feet to 8 feet. We strolled past families taking walks – a little man taking some of his first steps grinned ecstatically at us, we smiled back and turned to see his father grinning as broadly -- at us, his offspring, and anything else that happened to be in the vicinity. A pure human moment. Men squatting by the side played at cards and dice. All was friendly and relaxed. Far from the maddening souvenir stalls, this was the real Turpan.

TPB had been threatening all day that given a chance she would “taste every single type of raisin”. Unfortunately for her, the night market had boasted not a single variety – suggesting to me that the locals probably got their raisins somewhere other than those colorful carts we’d seen at the Grape Valley. But raisins were on her mind, and suddenly she cut across my tracks and made a beeline for a pile of melons she’d spotted lying outside a shop away to the left. The seller was a Han Chinese woman sitting nearby. With a lot of smiling and gesturing, TPB communicated to her that she only wanted half a melon. The lady obligingly fetched a knife and halved one, then on request sliced up one half. TPB pulled out her wallet and realized that she hadn’t quite asked what the price was. So she asked. The lady said some number. We didn’t understand. She repeated, then showed one finger. I took out a 1 RMB note. The lady half laughed, half snorted in disgust. A 7-8 year old kid who’d been standing around – her son we gathered – stepped up in front of her. He looked gravely up at me then started to declaim: “ONE TWO THREE FOUR FIVE SIX SEVEN EIGHT NINE TEN. TEN!” His mother nodded emphatically as he finished, putting her hands proudly on his skinny shoulders. “Ten?” TPB said in dismay. We’d paid half that for a full melon back in Anxi, outside Dunhuang. But she realized that now, having had the melon sliced up, she was in no position to bargain. I prepared to pony up.

It was then that our guardian angel appeared. A voice from beside me piped up: “Hello, I am a new student of English.” Half disbelieving, I turned to see a young woman of about 20, very pretty, Uyghur features, fair, straight nose, dark hair tied back, dressed in a white Western top and black capris, holding a well-thumbed soft cover book. Without missing a beat, she stepped in and proceeded to act as interpreter, telling us that the price was “warry expansiwe” but that the woman was adding on charges for cutting the melon, and berating the woman for her shamelessness for overcharging like this, telling her that she should at least have the decency to give us the other half of the melon as well.

The girl took us back to a rickety metal table that sat across the street from the walkway we’d come on. We invited her to sit and eat with us, then realized we had nothing to put the melon on or scrape the seeds off with. In a flash she was back at the Chinese lady’s shop. I followed her in – it was a small dark grocery shop much like those I remembered from my childhood in Delhi. However, the first two things to catch me eye were a shelf full of local alcohol, and a large bright tube of Crest. Standing there, I asked the girl her name. I heard “Riha”, actually it was “Reyihan”. She asked mine and to my surprise pronounced it perfectly. The lady got us a knife and tray which we went back outside with. Another, slighltly older young lady appeared at our table. Reyihan introduced her as her friend, Aigul. This one spoke no English, though, and therefore did not say very much. But she had intelligent eyes and right through I felt she was pretty much following the conversation that ensued.

We shared out slices of the melon while chatting. Reyihan showed us her English book. She was in college, and studying English with an eye most likely to becoming a guide. She told us that she was a great fan of Hindi movies, which they show, dubbed, in theaters in Turpan. Her favorite? “Sharekh Khan”. We asked which movie of his she liked the best, but the name was mangled in translation and linguistic inadequacies -- we got no further than "flower". However, she was *extremely* impressed when I told her that I have a friend who knows The Man – a few minutes later she got a call on her cellphone, and we heard her chattering excitedly using the words “Sharekh Khan” and “dost”. We nodded excitedly, saying, dost, dost! It was all very happening. We talked about how Uyghur and Hindi have words in common. She blushed and cracked up when she heard that I have a nephew called Reyhan. For some reason that struck her as the funniest thing on earth. Then she told us that we’re “very seriously”. When we said we didn’t quite get her meaning, she amended it to we look “very happy”. I acted out “seriously” for her and both she and Aigul laughed and agreed that wasn’t what she had meant. She also asked if we had a time. That was another one we didn’t get – although later TPB speculated that she might have meant, “Did you have a nice time?”

As the half-melon finished and dusk approached, we got ready to leave. I took a photo of the three of them sitting at that table and TPB said she’d mail them a copy. In the attempt to convey that particular message I took a chance on the word “khat”. Turned out they had it too. Reyihan tore out a half-sheet from the back of her well-used notebook and Aigul wrote down Reyihan’s address in Chinese for us, then R wrote it again below, in Uyghur (Arabic script) this time. We parted ways with them, everyone all smiles and waves, promising to write “khat” and “letter”. Several onlookers watched the entire scene from a discrete distance – I wondered how unusual this whole encounter might have been in those parts, and a small part of me couldn’t help but feel happy at the fact that it was a young woman who’d acted so forward in this little Muslim oasis town.

On the way back to the hotel, TPB and I were on a high. We took a detour through a large public garden that lay on the other side of the walkway from where we had been sitting. A system of paths studded with benches ran amongst high hedges and trees encircling little spots of green lawn. The whole area had just been hosed down and was delightfully cool and fragrant. Back amongst concrete, nearer our hotel we passed a “traditional Uyghur music performance” venue that was leaking out effervescent sounds of drums and music; looking in from outside we saw a bunch of people dressed in traditional threads standing around on a stage, loudly encouraging an old white guy who was jumping up and down amongst them. About three people were sitting in the audience and watching. We walked on, past the lady in her black miniskirt who was now sitting in the middle of a group of her more normally dressed friends, of both genders as it were. It was almost 11 at night—almost completely dark now. Back in the room we made preparations for the next morning’s 7:30 am departure to Urumqi and Tian Chi - the Heaven Lake of lore.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Silk Road Chronicles (Day 6, Part 1)

Mr. Zhang, a great bear of a man who we later realized looked exactly like the mean kid from the Far Side comic strip, hoisted our suitcase and we set off behind him. We overtook our two mates from the train compartment near the station exit, where an inspector gravely tore our tickets right across the bar code. Stepping out into the dark emptiness of Turpan, I gave the tickets to Lily and told her that our guide in Jiayuguan had strictly instructed us to give them to her. She had no idea. Ghosts of parked cars loomed up ahead of us, people standing in front of them, some of the people dressed in long white shirts, flaunting long black beards, unlike any China we'd seen till then.

We got into a Chinese-made 10-seater van, a “Jin Bei”, and set off as dawn gathered around us. Lily, to my surprise, sat up front with the driver – stolidly refusing my request to come in back with us as Louis had done in Xi’an. Funnily enough, she turned quite chatty once she was in front—at least, as chatty as one can get when it’s 5:30 in the morning. (Slight digression to talk about the time. All of China is officially on one time zone. Yes, that entire vast expanse is on “Beijing time”. So, in Xinjiang, which at its westernmost has borders with Afghanistan and Tajikistan, they follow two different time systems. Official events follow Beijing time, and unofficially they live on Xinjiang time, which lags by two hours. So in effect we’d arrived in Turpan at 3:30 am. No wonder it was dark.) At one point she turned around and quipped that rain had been forecast for that day in Turpan, so she and Mr. Z should get lottery tickets given how rare that event was—“Turpan only gets “16” of rain every year”. Since we didn’t know what unit to denominate “16” in, we took it from the tone of her voice (and the fact that it was plumb spang in the desert) that this was an impressively low number. Sure enough, we did get a few drops—-more about the weather anon.

After half an hour or so we turned off the highway and parked in front of a long low building. Lily skipped out and tripped with surprising agility towards the single lit counter. This was apparently an online ticket booking counter for the various spots we were to visit – one could tickets for all of them at one go over here. She skipped back in a bit, and about 45 minutes after departing the train station, we found ourselves pulling up at the Turpan Desert Oasis Hotel. Lily had told us that it was touch and go for a room to be available at that time of day, but we were in luck, so we got an hour to freshen up in peace before breakfast. Rarely have I been so grateful for a tooth-brushing—-explicable given the excitement that early morning had already seen--but then again I was a little shaken by the presence of the artistically placed condom (with a label saying 10 Yuan), arranged by the side of the artificial rose in front of the bathroom mirror. TPB took a nap, ostensibly for 15 minutes, closer to 25 I say.

Breakfast downstairs was our first disappointing meal of the entire trip till date. Two poached eggs, two triangles of flaky toast, a sausage with a funny cut perforated edge, apricot juice, and water and slices of honeydew melon. The coffee was good—did this mean that we were getting spoiled by the diet; an uncomfortable presaging of times to come? A group of old French people chattered away at the two tables next to us, the only other travelers in sight.

We set out for the Gaochang Ancient City at 8. The idea was that Turpan being a really hot town (it’s set in a depression in the desert, 400 meters below sea level, the maximum daily temperature in July reaches 49 C), it made sense to get as much done as possible as early as possible. People crawled indoors through the long afternoon hours, staying cool to stay alive, and sane. A 45 minute drive took us past fields and clusters of interesting looking mud-brick houses dotted with hollow red-cross shaped windows – the appearance of a completely different world only broken by a stray sight of urchins playing basketball in a red courtyard. We drew up at a cluster of low buildings arranged on either side of a recessed gateway – the entrance to the site. TPB and I waited near the ticket window while Lily went inside to validate her online entry tickets. While waiting, we looked around. Our first real meeting with Uyghur people: for some reason, all looking very anxiously at us, even the gatekeepers. Was it due to the lovely Uyghur hat that I was wearing, one of a pair that Lily had gifted us? Some cautiously ventured to ask, “Yindestan?” I replied, “Hah” – which our guidebook had said meant yes. I tried not to say it the Hindi way – I’m not sure why. Others said, “Pakistan,” to them I said, “Yindestan”.

Inside the gates, the operators of a dozen-odd donkey carts set up a clamor for our business. We looked around, and up at the unnaturally mild skies, and decided to walk the 20 minutes to the center of the old town. Gaochang, also known as Karakhoja, was the center of a flourishing kingdom for almost a millennium and a half, till the 13th century when Genghis Khan pillaged it leaving few survivors, if any. In an instant, life just stopped, and has stayed that way till today. Imagine an entire modern town of a few hundred thousand people suddenly having the life sucked out of it – that’s how the place looked. For centuries, the buildings just stood there and disintegrated. Locals from nearby villages, believing that the mud brick walls contained fertile matter, have spent the last few hundred years carrying parts away to spread on their fields. All that is left are vestiges of buildings – amorphous mud shapes that hint at pillars, walls, and structures that may barely be guessed at, stretching over an area of several square kilometers. I felt an immediate, overpowering sense of “shit. people lived right here.” We walked towards the inner city compound where Lily said there was some stuff to be seen. Struggling to cope with the scale of the place, I had a feeling that I could have used a wide-angle. My photographs reflect this –I took several, but the quality in the set improves dramatically towards the latter half.

The three of us walked along, completely by ourselves. At times I fell back to inspect some rock, some crevice, so camera angle; at other times TPB did the same. The scale was such that the others could become like ants on the landscape, but it would still feel as if they were right there. This was a very different kind of desolation to what we’d experienced at Yangguan and Dunhuang. This had the dash of human inadequacy to add to the flavor of the experience. Lily made a little desultory PC, talking about Hong Kong.

However, it was only when we reached the inner city wall and turned into the temple complex that the fullest sense of the history of the place hit me. Our old friend Xuan Tsang had passed through this city en route to India, and had stopped here to give a few lectures. The king had liked him so much that he’d refused to let him leave. So much so that the honorable monk had had to go on hunger strike to be allowed to leave. We walked into the ruins of the old temple complex. Lily took us into a chamber off to the right. She pointed at a section of the wall. A two thousand year old piece of wall. Xuan Tsang had sat RIGHT THERE.

I held my breath.

And the moment was spoiled. A group of Uyghur ladies in traditional costume had tracked us, the first tourists of the day on donkey-cart, and on arrival at the temple besieged us with requests for us to take photos with them. For a fee, naturally. These ladies were closely followed by a couple of Chinese tour groups that arrived and arrested their attention with new custom and megaphone-wielding guides. We moved on, pausing to relieve ourselves in an incredibly malodorous open-air shack, and walked in a direction leading further away from the main entrance. A couple of donkey-cart men had now arrived and were parked outside the temple complex. They started yelling to us. Mostly, they were soliciting us – a most brazenly inefficient way of soliciting custom *I* thought, but maybe that’s their way of doing it. Then one of them changed his tune and said that we weren’t allowed to go too far in that direction. Lily claimed that she’d just been there recently so we kept on moving. But sure enough, a few minutes later a security guard yelled us back. So we turned and walked back.

The sun had not fully risen and a decent breeze had sprung up, so it had the feeling of taking a really nice morning walk in the summer – just as the ancients might have done. Lily rebutted this claim, saying this isn’t the way the weather usually is! I had to admit the truth in that. We swung round towards the city walls that embraced the entire site. Walking by them, it struck me that seven hundred years ago groups of terrified citizens would have amassed in these very spots, listening to the sounds of the Mongol horses as they thundered closer. How must it have felt, I wondered, to know that the Mongols had sacked every city they’d come across, not leaving many to tell the tale? It was the Mongols who killed this city. Right from where we were walking.


With that sobering thought hanging over me, we walked all the way out of the Gaochang City ruins and drove down to the Astana Tombs. These were the burial grounds for the good folk from Gaochang. Today three of the tombs are open for viewing. The first one we walked into, down a 40 meter long incline that led underground, blew my mind. I had *not* expected to see mummies. Two people, man and woman, completely recognizable in all their features, lay in their coffins to the left and the right of us; mouths open, hair and nails intact. We learned that the combination of intense heat and desert dryness causes corpses to mummify very quickly and effectively – a macabre local analog to flash-freezing. Something snapped within me – I could have spent an hour there just standing and staring.

The next tomb, Lily told us, as that of a businessman. As we walked down the approach ramp we heard a strange chanting sound emanating from inside. It was a little creepy. Turned out to be an old Japanese gentleman, all alone, standing inside the tomb and praying out loud. The three of us stood quietly outside, waiting for him to finish. I made out the words Om, Maitreya, and, several times towards the end, Arigato. A few minutes passed. A Chinese guide with two accompanying tourists elbowed roughly past us and went and stood by the old man who was still praying, and started on his spiel. I thought that was *extremely* rude – but then I’d forgotten about the average Chinese person’s sentiment towards the Japanese.

This tomb, being that of a somewhat richer person, contained two little vaults by the entrance where burial goods had been stored. It was similar to the Wei-Jin tomb back in Jiayuguan in that regard. There were, however, no mummies in here. Inside, the front wall was decorated with a large painting featuring several ducks. That seemed a touch out of place, then Lily explained. It was an old custom for people to be buried in their hometowns. However, Turpan was so far from the east that it would have been impossible to transport this particular person all the way back. So when he had died, his children had merely had scenes from his hometown painted inside his tomb – there are no ducks in the desert. That also explained why these particular ducks didn’t look particularly duck-like.

The third tomb we saw was that of a nobleman. Again, it was empty save for the paintings – of six “men” formed from different materials. Each one had an implication – a golden man represents X, a stone man means Y, and so on, where X and Y were things like loyal, or honest, or patriotic, and so on. More mainstream, for sure, and less interesting for me.


From the Astana tombs we made a little detour at my request and stopped by the Bezeklik caves. Bezeklik, which means “Place where there are paintings”, was another prominent grotto site. However Albert von le Coq, Aurel Stein, and the rest of the crowd had really gotten to work here and so nothing much remains here today. Lily said they’d be a big disappointment after Mogao. I, personally, just wanted to be there for a moment, look at the place from outside and breathe the air. How could I not, after coming so close? So we drove back from Astana towards Turpan and instead of turning left to head back into town made a right in towards these beautiful bare red mountains. It took us about five minutes to reach our destination – a small flat area surrounded by these enormous sheer red sand and stone cliff faces. We parked in the nearly empty lot and pulled out of the van, not paying the 30 buck entrance fee, just looking round at the 360 degree view. Incongruously, the parking lot too sported a basketball net at one end. Behind me, a single desultory vendor sold TPB a small metal bell following which she refused his hopeful offer of “English book”. It was still earlyish, and cloudyish, so these mountains – which are known as the Flaming Mountains – weren’t yet ablaze. We took a few photographs and rolled back into the van, pausing on the drive back to walk out at an overhang by the road – the intense red of the mountainsides all round ripped by the bright green lash of a stream that ran far, far underfoot. A magical place in a different world.

The next stop was at the *official* Flaming Mountains lookout spot. Now this was something altogether different. The entrance sloped into an open parking area constructed below ground level with walls on all sides. We walked past the usual glut of souvenir stalls into a long, dark, fancily lit and kitschily done up passageway, a little like a stereotypical house of ill repute, but featuring long murals on each side. These murals depicted events from local history, mythology, and legend. The passage opened out onto a circular space where the pride of place was occupied by a 3-D map of the region – one that demonstrated to me that Lily’s sense of direction left a lot to be desired. A dark chamber off to the right featured more displays, and surprisingly, statues of the major Silk Road explorers of the last century. I was happy to see Stein, von le Coq, Pelliot, Oldenberg, and the Japanese Count Otani – demonstrating that these people hadn’t completely been demonized in the Chinese telling of this incredible tale. From this gallery we emerged into daylight, into an open circular space with staircases running along both sides, rising up to the viewing area that was at ground level. A several-meters high thermostat planted in the middle of the space informed us that the temperature was 35 C. Lily had told us that up on the mountains the surface temperature can get up to 80 C at that time of the year. On a normal day, the temperature where we were should have been well above 40 C right then. But it wasn’t, and it wasn’t so sunny either, and so the Flaming Mountains that were said to normally burn so intensely that one could not bear to look square on at them, just stood around looking mildly livid.

A couple of camelwalas were waiting around to try their luck with the tourists and sure enough they found some over-hilarious types to climb up on the animals and pose for pictures – excited chatter and high-fiving all round when each new guy got off his two-minute mount. After our experience at the Singing Sands in Dunhuang we could only look down on these piddly jokers. A nearby camelwala’s bored expression captured the ennui of the moment perfectly – no sun, no flaming, pretence of a view, pretence of a ride. We left.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Silk Road Chronicles (Day 5, Part 2)

We arrived at the Jiayuguan train station at 6:15 pm, which meant we had an hour to kill, and to add to that it appeared as if our train was late. It was the overnight train to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, but we were due to get off at Turpan, another major oasis town, a couple of hours from the end of the line. There were two electronic notice boards that we could see, one of which was flashing our train’s number with the correct scheduled time, and the other saying 7:40, or half an hour late. So we didn’t quite know what to make of the situation. To add to that, Jessica was acting *very* jumpy. She saw us to the waiting room (to enter which we had to get our luggage scanned in a machine like those one has at airports), and then went back outside to wait for her “manager”. After about half an hour she came back in with a couple of tickets for us. I asked to look at them and saw they were tickets for the chair car, and I observed that they cost 109 bucks each. Anyway, we sat there, and TPB fiddled around with the camera trying to take clandestine pictures of the Muslim Hui minority family that was sitting to our left, all the while attracting ever the more attention to herself. At one point we realized that the main display board was off – it was only showing scheduled times. So our train was indeed late after all.

At around 7:30, J came in to the waiting room again, and soon they announced the train’s arrival. Immediately, there was a rush for the door of the waiting room. The three of us found our way out with the crowd, then through the underground tunnel up to the second of two platforms. It was all very India-like, yet different in ways I couldn’t put my finger on. The steps going up to the platform from the tunnel had a sloped path beside them for luggage to be dragged up on – very considerate, except that the concrete slope was completely broken, pockmarked, and bumpy. I dragged our suitcase up the incline and emerged on to the platform; one that was equally bumped up with broken concrete. These last images struck a contrast with the image I’d built up of Jiayuguan as a new, modern city.

J drew to a stop, and behind her so did we. She introduced us to a rotund, disheveled-looking middle aged man who she called her manager. The guy grunted back at me. With him was another geezer – an official looking sort. We stood around in companionable silence, and in a couple of minutes the train was upon us. As it approached, J took out her wallet and counted out four 100 RMB notes, and gave them to the official looking guy. She also gave him the two tickets she’d just bought. He looked at them and nodded. We looked on. People got off the train, others got on. A few officers in blue uniforms alighted, and checked the tickets of those entering. Then the attention turned to us. Another group, what looked like five NRCs or foreign-born Chinese, also wanted to get on to the train. There was a brief conversation following which three of the officers retreated to a side as if to confer amongst themselves. But the funny thing was, no one seemed to be saying anything. They just sort of stood there in silence, not really even looking at each other. I had NO IDEA what was going on. I just waited, like everyone else. But something must have happened because someone uttered a sound and Jessica sprang to life and said, “ok, ok, you’re on”. I dragged the suitcase up the narrow entrance into the carriage, past the people who’d also been standing there for whatever reason, and was maneuvering myself into the narrow corridor. From behind me J said “Compartment #3”. TPB was ahead of me, I relayed the message – 3. Then I heard Jessica sy, “Stop, stop.” So we stopped. As did my heart. (And TPB’s too, as I later learned.) There was a very brief conference again, and then we heard J say, “#5”. So to 5 we went.

A man and a *very* thin woman were sitting on the right side of compartment #5 as we entered – the man was on the lower bunk and the woman above. It was a 2-tier sleeper with all sorts of bed linen all over the place. I tried to fit the suitcase under the berth but it didn’t fit. Our watching companions gestured upwards – I realized there was a storage space up above the doorway through which I’d entered the compartment; essentially a little storage loft lying above the corridor running along one side of the carriage. I hoisted the bag up, the woman gave me a hand from above, and thankfully, it fit. Next thing I know J is at the door saying goodbye. I’d thought they weren’t allowing her onto the train, and so I’d thought I wouldn’t be able to do it, but I was glad I was able to say goodbye and thanks, and to slip her a tip.

She’d taken such good care of us for those three days in Dunhuang and Jiayuguan, she’d become like a friend. She was great.


We looked around the compartment. It appeared pretty much like an Indian Railways A/C 2-tier, except that the sides of the berths did not open onto the corridor, there was a wall along the side, and a lockable door in the wall. Also, there were no berths across the corridor, only windows. Inside the compartment, the previous occupant had left quite a mess. There were crumbs on our lower berth, TPB said there were oil stains on the sheets, and the sheets, pillows, and blankets (the latter two swathed in white linen) were all mussed up. TPB said she was sure they’d change them. So we sat there. Time went by, no one appeared. Our traveling companions weren’t too communicative either, although the man did once try to tell us something in Chinese. We sat quietly and looked out of the windows on either side – at the Jiayuguan fort and Great Wall we’d seen that morning through our window, and from the aisle side at the Qilian mountains.

About half an hour later an attendant finally appeared – with an armload of magazines! Our guy exchanged one he was reading for one of hers, and then she turned her attention to us. “Do you want water?” I said no. TPB said yes. The woman said, “Two wot-ter?” TPB said yes. The girl on the bunk opposite repeated under her breath, “Two wot-ter.” TPB then decided to try her luck. “Will you change the sheets?” she asked. No response. She tried again, this time grabbing the blanket covers and making appropriate pointing gestures, and without the superfluous “Will you”. The attendant said, “yes, yes!” and vanished. TPB looked triumphant. An hour later, with no returning attendant, that look had faded. She came to the conclusion that the sheets wouldn’t actually be changed, and I didn’t ask what else she may have been thinking. But they were – sort of. The attendant buzzed back in an hour later, and with maximum efficiency in a few flashing minutes changed the covers on the blankets. I guessed that they were much influenced by the exact specifics of TPB’s enactment of the Changing of the Sheets.

The other thing that we were stressing about was the tickets. The train had set forth well over an hour and we still had no tickets in hand. Now *that*, for someone who’d grown up on Indian railways, spelled “unusual”. When she’d gotten on the train, Jessica had given me some rushed but specific instructions. She had said that once the train starts, the attendant will come and give me a card. Before I get off at Turpan, they will come and replace the card with my new ticket. I was to MAKE SURE that I gave the new ticket to the guide in Turpan. I’d said okay, but now it had been over two hours and there was no sign of any ticket. At one point an attendant had stuck her head in to the compartment and asked for our tickets. The words had choked in the back of my throat as I’d said No. But she had immediately said Okay!, and pointed down the corridor in a gesture of understanding. I’d had no idea what that meant but I copied the gesture and nodded vigorously – that had been good enough for that particular interaction. Interestingly, just as that had happened, our compartment-mates had had a brief conversation, in Chinese, of which TPB managed to catch one keyword. According to her, based on her reading of the Lonely Planet whose Travel By Train section she’d been on just then, that word meant “upgrade”. She said that it is possible to get onto a train with any old ticket (such as our chair car), and upgrade en route. This little piece of circumstantial knowledge gave us some relief – we continued to look out of the windows at the endless passing barrenness, to read, to update the log.

The journey continued. The girl went off somewhere. The guy opened up a bowl of instant noodles and peeled a sausage into the bowl, slicing it with the tines of a plastic fork. It struck me for the first time that maybe they were traveling independently. TPB settled down to read her book and wage war on the sunflower seeds we had left over from the Dunhuang night market. One by one, all of them turned in. I was the last one out, a little after 11, making sure to lock the door – just because I could. I settled in under the blanket, my backpack squeezed in at the corner of the bunk above my head near the window, my money belt snug against my stomach.


I woke at 4. The train was not moving. Craning my neck, I parted the curtain and looked out the window. We were stopped at a deserted station, a coal train across the platform. A single halogen streetlamp cast a ghostly spotlight across an empty stretch of concrete. I desperately needed to go to the restroom. I had a sinking feeling – this was a sensation I could have done without.

My constitution is such that I need to take a crap within a very short period of waking. I had hoped that the rocking of the train – my first overnight journey in six years – would lull me to sleep for a reasonable length of time. At least seven hours: I had been optimistic. Given the time it was when I’d gone to sleep, I’d hoped that would take me through to near 7, which, according to our schedule, was our time of arrival in Turpan. The reason for my paranoia was that I’d seen the only toilet in our compartment – it was Chinese style, that’s similar to Indian style, and, although kind of clean, very wet all over. Urgent as the call was, I felt that was one experience I had to try my best to avoid.

However, I needed to take a leak anyway. I slid my shoes on and made my uncertain way down the corridor. Even at that hour there were three people forming a line at the end of the carriage. I tagged on. One guy had a large bandage all over his ear and the side of his head – that looked very eerie at that time and place. The middle-aged lady in front of me tried to strike up a conversation with me, entirely in Chinese. I tried to drag myself to it, but what with everything I just wasn’t feeling at the top of my game. Mercifully, just then the toilet door opened; it opened for her.

Soon after, it opened for me. I went in and took my leak, and on the way back to the compartment, I had the certain realization that wouldn’t be enough. Cursing Jessica’s incessant Sichuan food, I realized that I *really* needed to go. I eased myself back into our compartment and onto my bunk, and formulated a plan of action. This was no joke – back in the summer of ’87 my grandmother had tucked her entire travel budget away into her blouse as she entered the can… and watched it tumble away beneath her into the vast Indian hinterland. One needed to be prepared.

First I dug the rucksack out from under the bunk. A few moments later I cursed myself long and vehemently for having packed *both* rolls of toilet paper in as far as they would go. WHAT had I been thinking? I pulled one out, disturbing the equilibrium of the bag, and tore off two long thin strips. Folded and put them into the left pocket. Headed back down the corridor.

The loo was in use when I got back, so I had to stand there and wait. No one else in sight this time. For fifteen long minutes, from 4:30 to 4:45, I stood there all alone; my desperation growing. The next car was the smoking car – inside, attendants lay sprawled all over much like the clocks in the famous Dali painting. More pertinently, it had no restroom. I resumed my guard, thinking to myself that the only way I wouldn’t summarily murder the occupant when they exited was if they were a little old lady. I even swore OUT LOUD – louder than I expected – in fact so loud that a man stepping sleepily out of his compartment at the other end of the corridor looked up in alarm. Of course, when the occupant finally stepped out, it turned out to be a sweet middle aged lady.

Without going into the blow by blow details of what went on once I stepped inside, let’s just say that things passed better than I expected. It went well. Crisis averted. Garv se kaho hum Bharatvasi hain. And all that sort of stuff, you know.

I made my very relieved way back to the compartment, took off my shoes, and lay down to a well-deserved rest. I had, after all, had less than five hours of sleep till then. But what do you know, less than five minutes later there’s a knock and the door opens to reveal a real ticket checker, who brusquely checks the tickets of the other two people before turning her attention to me. I point weakly down the corridor (at the very least, we have a good ten hours of distance between us and Jiayuguan!) Wonder of wonders, she says, “Jiayuguan?” “Yes! Yes!” I say. She says, “Tulufan?” (That’s Chinese for Turpan.) “Yes!” I say. (I know, my Mandarin is limited, but my emotion may justifiably be excused.) She picks out four tickets and gives them to me. I take a look – these are our two old tickets which I’d last seen Jessica give that official looking guy, and two new ones. Meanwhile, the lady says: “Tulufan, thirty minutes”, and vanishes.

It takes a second or few to hit me. Did she just say *thirty* minutes? According to our schedule, Turpan’s supposed to arrive at 6:56! It’s now barely 5! The train that was twenty minutes late has now made up TWO hours? How does THAT happen?! I jumped up and shook TPB awake. Our companions too were showing signs of life. The girl was getting all dandied up – her micro mini shorts had suddenly become slim fit jeans, her high-heeled slip-ons replaced by sneakers. Both of them pulled their bags all out. I followed suit.

It didn’t take that long to get our stuff together, and then we sat and waited, talking in low tones. What happens now? The train is an hour and a half early, so will there be any interpreter / driver there to receive us? How does someone find out at 5 in the morning that the train they were expecting to arrive at 7 is in fact about to pull in? And what if there’s no one there – well that wasn’t a disaster; at worst we’d just have to squat there on the platform.

As soon as the station hove into sight, our companions were off down the corridor. We still had no official confirmation that it was indeed Turpan, so we did the next best thing – stuck our heads out into the corridor and asked a random passerby: “Tulufan?” He nodded assent. We joined the line behind him, the last ones out of the train.

I could hardly believe my eyes as, over TPB’s shoulder as she stepped down onto the first of three steps, I saw a short plump lady closing a folder that contained a sign inside with my name on it. TPB is pointing and nodding at her, and the lady is saying, “Hello, my name is Lily, and this is our driver Mr. Zhang. Welcome to Turd-pan.”

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Silk Road Chronicles (Day 5, Part 1)

Jiayuguan Fort

An 8 am start, half an hour earlier than usual. Still we were at breakfast early enough – an unremarkable buffet – and then off to Jiayuguan Fort. Incredibly, the driver got lost heading out of that little town, and he and Jessica had an entertaining little altercation about it – just like a married couple. This would turn out to be a recurring feature of the day.

A decent crowd milled around outside the entrance to the Jiayuguan Fort. J went off to get our tickets while TPB and I waited, standing around. A middle-aged lady – a local vendor – tried to strike up a conversation to get us to buy something. We smiled back and thanked her. When J arrived, it struck me to ask her what proportion of the tourists here she’d estimate to be non-Chinese. She looked around pretty carefully and thought to herself, and then carefully pronounced her opinion: she thought we were the only foreigners here. No Japanese, no Koreans, just us. That felt kinda weird.

For some strange reason, despite the number of people outside, we were the first people to enter the fort complex. The approach path to the fort curved around a picturesque reed-filled moat, forming a pretty picture with the fort to one side and the snow-capped Qilian mountains away in the distance on the other side. We walked the path by the lake, taking in the suddenly stunning scenery. As we neared the fort, we were overtaken by a couple of electric-cartloads of tourists. I felt sorry for them choosing to drive and missing out on that lovely morning walk – the sort of bonus that strikes you unawares even on the most perfect of trips, making them worth the while in the moment.

Jiayuguan Fort itself, made of rammed-earth, was of a dull light-brown color. It was nowhere near as magnificent a structure as Delhi’s Red Fort, for instance, but for sure it gets points for being *the* frontier outpost. Viewed in that sense, it is simply awesome. It stands "like a man", as J described, facing the Qilian mountains with arms spread to the east and the west. We entered through the eastern gate, from the side of Empire and Civilization, the sunlight low on our backs. The first thing that struck me was how well-maintained the structure was. But of course J immediately pointed out a length of wall to our right, which had been restored recently. She called it the doufu (tofu) section, because it was so flimsy and unreliable. We strolled up the inclined entranceway past the ramparts, and inside. A performance stage with Taoist murals also featured decorations showing Buddhists in an unfavorable light – that was funny. I found the interior defense system of the fort particularly interesting. The west gate, which is from where invaders would presumably enter, led via a long, narrow passage to a 10 x 10 courtyard with high sheer walls on all sides and another equally small doorway to the right. The idea was that invaders who galloped into the courtyard would have to rein their horses and look around to see which way to go next. In that time, the defenders of the fort could close the entrance behind them, thereby trapping them in this small area from where they could be fired upon at will from above.

We went up to the ramparts. On the way up one could either take the steps, like a commoner, or ride a horse up the adjacent “wheelchair access” slope like a general would. Walking along the southern front we had our first sight of the Great Wall, low, brown, and serpentine. J made us look for the “extra brick” in the fort. The story goes that the craftsman ordered to design this fort calculated that it would take 999,999 bricks. His supervisor, to be on the safe side, ordered a round million. The super-supervisor told the craftsman, “I’ll punish you if any materials are wasted.” Of course, when the construction was completed, there was exactly one brick left over. The crafty craftsman had it placed on an eave on the western tower – and got himself off the hook by saying that the structure would collapse if it were removed.

It wasn’t that hard to find.

We went out the western gate into the desolation beyond civilization. Way away to the far left, one could see three human figures. TPB, losing track of time for an instant, wondered aloud who those people were and how they had been allowed to get there. This was the gate about which it was said that outcasts, convicts, and lunatic travelers going west would turn and throw a pebble at as they left. If the pebble bounced back, it meant they would one day return to China.

Closer to us, at the end of the incline, a few camels and horsemen were sitting around waiting for the first tourists of the day. They saw us, and they pounced, causing me to lose the moment, only recapturing the romance some time later as I replayed the day’s events in my head, for the log. The first tour group had shown up right behind us, and the folk with the animals were headed right for them, and us. A little girl got very scared and started crying. We all headed back through the west gate – camels, horsemen, and tourists.

The Great Wall on the Cliff

Back in the car, feeling groovy, I asked J if they had any music. Local music, preferably. We heard a Xinjiang man sing of his love for Urumqi and the girl that he had there – or so we gathered from the occasional line that got translated. (That struck me as a little strange, btw, since Urumqi is the only city in Xinjiang that is not Uyghur-dominant – it is almost entirely a Chinese creation.) After that, the driver skipped a few tracks until he reached one that started with a standard modern dance beat. J turned around to look at me and asked – “Do you recognize that?” I was totally flummoxed. “It’s Indian.” Well the beat was totally formulaic – could have been from anywhere in this MTV age. When the vocals came on, we couldn’t even recognize the language. TPB thought it was Arabic; I went with Central-Asian-Soviet.

We were again the first to arrive at the Great Wall on the Cliff. This is a point on the Great Wall where, as advertised, it goes over a cliff. Supposed to be “the most spectacular point” along the entire length of the wall, at this point it’s also known as the “Hanging Wall” because of the 45 degree incline of the mountainside. As I got out of the car, something called to me to buy a cowboy hat from one of the (many fewer) vendors by the road. Maybe it was the lure of the lady who’d chatted us up at the entrance to the fort, who knows? At any rate, this was the Chinese Wild West, after all. Back at the fort, the price had been 35. Here, I picked one up at the stall, a brown felt cowboy hat with an attitudinal leather strap, and the lady said 45. I put the hat down and turned to go. The lady asked Jessica something; J turned to me and said – she wants to know what price is okay for you. I did my half-plus-a-bit and said 25 (“er-sheh-wu”:-). Miraculously, the lady said okay. I got my hat. Walking away, I asked J – why did she not bargain? J told me that it’s a superstition for Chinese people – never turn the morning sale down. I filed that away for future reference.

We climbed a set of steps up a faux battlement over a stream and were up on the wall. The Real Wall. Away to the right it dropped a little before it started rising – alarmingly steeply. At its maximum incline in the distance it did indeed seem to be 45 degrees if not more. TPB’s legs had still not healed, plus we had to check out of our hotel by 12, so we didn’t have the time to climb to the top anyway. But I didn’t really care – I wanted to go as far as I could. I ran ahead of the two of them till I got to the point where the incline turned to steps, and started climbing to see how far I could go. I took the steps two at a time at first as I normally do, but soon they became narrow, and broken, and irregularly steep. I stopped for breath at the first sign that I needed to catch my breath, and looked around. Up ahead the wall veered sharply to the right then continued climbing. There was a beacon tower at the top, this I knew from seeing it from below, but I couldn’t see it now. Both sides of the wall stretched pretty much nothingness, although to my imagination there seemed to be more of it to the right to the outside of the wall. TPB and J were little insects back behind me, and the first dinky car tour bus had just drawn up. I took a few photos and headed reluctantly back down – counting 94 steps on my careful descent. By my estimate, I’d gone probably a quarter of the way up.

Lunch Again

We drove back into town, about fifteen minutes, then went up to the room for 45 minutes to pack and check out. We showered again because that night we’d spend on a train. Probably. There had been a few signs from J that all may not be quite right with our tickets for that leg of our journey. However, we hadn’t been able to figure out quite what the problem was. J just repeated that her manager would come into town to handle it, and we shouldn’t worry. Hmm.

She and the driver got lost again while driving to the restaurant. She was taking us not to one of the standard tourist places that she took her regular parties to, but to a local Sichuan restaurant (again!) called “Village of Spice”, that she’d been to with her friends. It turned out to be a decent, modern-looking joint situated at the corner of a city block, with no debris of any sort on the floor or anywhere else apparent. We got a table, rectangular for once, close to the streetside window. Beside us, a middle-aged couple came and sat at a round table set for eight. They were carrying bags full of ice cream, cigarettes, and beer – about eight bottles of beer which they placed on the counter behind them. That prompted TPB and me to add some beer to our order. I said that I’d like some jam-pi, the ginger beer that Jessica had had the previous day, and not the regular Xiliang. TPB got inspired and asked for guo-pi, fruit beer that we’d learned about at the same time. J relayed the request to the waitress and got told that they were out of fruit beer. TPB pointed to the beer sitting right there on the counter. J got feisty and said yeah, what about that one? The waitress pointed to the couple alongside and said oh no, that’s theirs. They overheard and looked round. Realizing what was happening, they very magnanimously waved across a bottle of their fruit beer to us. We smiled and thanked them, and J bought them a ginger beer in exchange. More smiling happened. I took a clandestine picture of the couple with their beer. J called me a “snake” – Chinese for someone who does things in secret. I showed her the snake photo I’d taken of her and her cousin at the Dunhuang night market; quite a nice one really, the two of them looking away and smiling with Dustin Hoffman juggling skewers in the background.

We ordered dan-dan mian (at last!), stir fried pork and beef dishes, Sichuan-style grated potatoes, and another vegetable. The food was again good but not overwhelmingly great. Also, not fiery like the Sichuan food I was used to in Hong Kong. Weird. I knew that food gets less spicy the further west one goes, but we were now *east* of Dunhuang, and not all that far from Sichuan itself either. Anyway, before hitting the car again, TPB and J walked into a supermarket to stock up on water for the ride, and I used the opportunity to snoop around the wine shelf that ran all along one side of the store. I was quite surprised to see wine, actually. The wines were all local, mainly Cabernets (to be expected, I guess), and the most expensive cost about 80 bucks only – supply and demand or a reflection on quality?

The Wei Jin Tombs, and Kicking Around

Our next stop was the Wei and Jin dynasty tombs about half an hour out of town. These are almost 1700 years old now. Only one tomb is open to the public, however, a lonely hut in the middle of nowhere. Mounds of earth pockmark the barren earth at distances around it, signaling sites of other tombs, the mountains and smokestacks of Jiayuguan forming a faraway backdrop. We checked our camera again and walked the 54 steps down the slanting corridor into the tomb – ten meters underground. A conveniently placed thermometer at the end of the passage informed us that the temperature was 13 degrees Celsius – about twenty degrees lower than on the surface.

The tomb consisted of three rooms placed in sequence. The first, about eight feet square with a low ceiling to match, was meant to represent an outside courtyard. The bricks here were painted with motifs and scenes depicting interactions with animals – farming, slaughter, etc. Two tiny little cubbyholes off on either side represented the kitchen and the stable. Stooping through the four-foot high curved archway into the next vault, we found ourselves in the similarly sized “inner courtyard”. Here on one wall the bricks were painted with ladies and their activities, such as make-up, while the other side featured men hanging out, eating, and so on. And finally through to the innermost room where the coffins had originally lain. This room had a low, arched ceiling, and the far wall had once contained precious objects inlaid into it. Off to either side were spaces for more precious objects that the denizens could carry with them into the next world. Unfortunately, at some point down the centuries, tomb robbers had carried them off into this one.

~ A short digression on the topic of tomb robbers. In cave after cave and vault after vault that we visited, I found myself wondering *what* these people may have been thinking as they carried out their acts – maybe in the thick of night, by pale lantern light, often with huge images of people – holy people, divine people, semi-people, looking on at them; other times sneaking past real dead bodies, maybe cadavers that had been gone for a hundred years or more, lifting the ornaments off skeletons. What were they thinking? I would have been scared shitless. ~

We emerged from the tomb into the bright midday sun, but it was relatively cool due to a soft breeze blowing down from the snow-capped Qilian mountains. It was 2:30 pm and our train was at 7:15. For the first time since we left Hong Kong, we had time to kill. J suggested we sit around for a bit and then head to the tomb’s tiny museum. So we sat under the shed that lay beside the tomb, and chatted desultorily. She gave me the official evaluation form that the travel agency requires her to have filled out by the client, so I got to work on that. There really wasn’t anything to circle except the highest number on almost every count: this leg of the trip—Yangguan, Mogao, the camels, Jiayuguan fort—had been beyond belief, and she had gone completely out of her way to make sure that we appreciated “her” city. Funnily enough though she said that there was no need to seal the form, in direct contradiction to what was printed in bold letters on the form itself. Louis in Xi’an had also requested that I not seal the form “so that in case there’s some problem I know how to explain it”. Later, in the car, Jessica shyly asked if she could read my ratings and comments. I said sure, go ahead. She giggled like a little child allowed to watch a PG-13 flick and then pulled the envelope out of her stylish white handbag and read it very closely and tensely. I wondered why, since I’d scored her a 5 on everything except English, where I’d given her a 4, and I’d also written very nice things about her. But still, there was an edge to her voice when she couldn’t read my handwriting on a particular word.

We had the time so when we drove back into town I asked to go to an internet café. But first, J took us to a “black jade” factory. Jade factories are known tourist traps back east, but here she claimed that the black jade was a variety specific to this region, so it was a little different. We walked around the displays – some of the handiwork really was very fine – very very thin cups indeed. J explained that when you fill a cup with clear alcohol and put it in the moonlight, the surface shimmers and the greenish tint imparted by the jade makes it look like the surface of a lake. Plus the minerals in the jade make it healthy to drink from the cup. This was good sales talk; had TPB leafing through all the dozens of designs on display, followed by a lady holding a calculator with faded keys, who assiduously pointed out 80% of the display price of whatever item we picked up. I really wanted to buy a Chinese scroll painting but there just wasn’t one that either of us really liked. Either way, we ended up getting a few small jade shot glasses shaped like oil barrels, and one pair of larger, very thin, round glasses. I was happy. They even took credit card.

On to a cybercafé. TPB protested loudly and not only refused to accompany me, but also threatened grim consequences if I took longer than my self-imposed deadline of fifteen minutes. I paid 1 RMB for half an hour’s access and sat down at one of at least fifty-odd terminals lined up in a large store-space on the second storey of a shopping center. Most of the machines were unoccupied at that hour, but a dozen or more young men sat raptly tied to their online games. I logged onto my work email account and noted the messages with satisfaction, ignoring most of them and not doing anything about the others. That would be breaking the spell. In my gmail I replied to a couple, emailed parent-type people, and briefly chatted with a cousin who was online. Then, just before leaving, I thought I’d check out The machine hung for a long while, the indicator icon traveling back and forth, then returned an error message with a .cn address. BBC news is banned in China. I quietly got up and made my exit.

Back on the street, our VW Santana was not parked where I had left it. I walked up and down the street till I found it, but it was empty – no sign of either the ladies or the driver. So I decided to lean against the car and people-watch. After ten minutes or so, our driver appeared and led me to a nearby hotel where TPB and J were sitting in the cool of the lobby. I joined them in their conversation, one that somehow wended its way to birth control policies in China versus India. This is close to TPB’s area of work, so it was fascinating for me to watch the tentative interaction between the expert and the data source. J was delightedly surprised to learn that in India they tried to sew up the men. In China they’d gone for the women. She told us that since she was the third child in her family, her parents had had to go to Xinjiang to have her; they returned when she was forty days old. They were fined (“fired”) 600 RMB as well, which was a lot of money back then. Plus she didn’t get any official ID card until she was all of eight years old, at which point a new administration took over and there was a change in priorities. We listened raptly to this insight into the hidden heart of China, suddenly come alive with bare honesty in front of us.

At 5:30 we headed back to the previous day’s dumpling place for an early dinner (yes, it was *that* good). Four plates of 150 grams each – two lamb (one with celery and one with chili) and two veg (spinach with egg and leek with egg) along with a bottle of Xiliang came to 20 RMB and filled us three up nicely. The Xiliang was served in little plastic glasses that slipped into plastic holders, pick for the girls and blue for me. On the way out of the market, TPB got attracted to some roasted corn at an Uyghur merchant’s stall. I tried to read the name written in Chinese on the side -- I could follow "Baba", so I asked J whether the first bit was indeed "Ali". The merchant, hearing his name, got all excited and approached us in a hurry. J, for a lark, told him that we were from Xinjiang – that got him *really* excited. Day-dreaming, I missed my chance to flaunt my single-digit Uyghur vocabulary. *That* would really have been a hit, and I’ve been regretting it since (but I tried to not make the same mistake again as we ventured further west). Anyway, J bought TPB the corn, refusing to accept any money back from her, saying, “Forget! Forget!” We crossed the street and got into that Santana for the last time—making tracks for the railway station.