Nomological Net

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


faults in the clouds of delusion

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.


Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

I'm just very conflicted over the whole Eastern artifacts carted away by Western explorers thing.

On the one hand I was really really glad that a substantial portion of Assyrian and Mesopotamian relics were in the British Museum when the Americans were bombing Baghdad and large scale looting of the National Museum took place.

On the other hand I get really annoyed by the pig-headedness of the Brits in refusing to return things like the Parthenon marbles which that thief Elgin literally ripped off that monument.

8/20/2007 1:19 AM  
Blogger J. Alfred Prufrock said...

You start this post almost lyrically. Somehow it fits the desert.

More photos, please.


8/20/2007 5:04 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

8/20/2007 5:12 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Sorry, I deleted my earlier comment because I wanted to give you a better link to a food gallery where you might recognize many of the dishes :)

8/20/2007 5:18 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

re: the conflict, i know exactly what you're talking about. i had an identical moment today (possibly around the same time you were typing this!) at the museum of fine arts in boston. we'd gone to see the hopper exhibit after which i made a beeline for the chinese galleries, and i found the indignation rising up as i walked past statue after stele after engraving featuring placards that made no mention of where they had been lifted from.

re: the food - thanks! waves of homesickness wash over me. and a feeling of superiority at the size of the chunks in that yangrou paoma. those pieces are so huge they give away the philistine nature of the model. a sophisticated person crumbles them into *small* pieces.

thanks. yes, more photos coming up. by rough estimate i've posted about 60 so far, and i'm only halfway through the 900+ that are in the can.

8/20/2007 11:48 AM  

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