Turpan turns the tide

I’m definitely ready for a warm welcome in Turpan, not least because as the lowest town in China it’s not coincidentally the hottest. But first the unforced transportation errors incurred in part by the distractions of the last few days but mostly by the (not unreasonable) assumption that Turpan railway station would be in, well, Turpan, and that Turpan North might be located, well, north of Turpan. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact Turpan station is located in some hell-hole 40 kilometers north of Turpan and I never will find out where south of Turpan oh-so-convenient Turpan North is.

So here I am on the overnight train from Kuqe to Urumqi that will actually pass through the Turpan hell-hole en route to Urumqi yet also in possession of a ticket from Urumqi to said hell-hole that in total will add 4 hours onto the journey. Fortunately the vagaries of time in Xinjiang (railways run on Beijing time whereas the ever recalcitrant population doesn’t) kicks in to make it all work out: In the outward direction I get a couple of extra hours sleep – infinitely preferable to ending up miles away from anywhere at 4am (6am Beijing time) and I can theoretically enjoy the scenery as we return to Turpan-hell-hole in the daylight.

She soon warmed up to me, but not so much to mom who has seemingly brought her on a 4 hour trip without any toys or books, and then even refuses to surrender her cell phone. We make do with foreign coins. The scenery wasn’t up to much anyway.

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Turpan Station ‘security’ are bitterly apologetic they can make neither head nor tail of  the instructions Kuqe has sent on about what to do with me. An executive decision is made: ‘Bye Bye’ they say cheerily and ‘Thank you for your co-operation!’ in surprising Portuguese on their  GT.  I even manage to find a cheap taxi into town.

The Dap International Youth Hostel lives up to its Internet hype: the welcome is warm, the beds are hard and the beer is cheap and more to the point cold. Best of all the usual constellation of intrepid Aussies and various European hangers-on – the first Westerners I’ve seen in weeks – are all up for a good time. Among this crowd travel destinations not hair color is the currency, so I play my ace card, Burma, and I’m in. Off we go for dinner (the usual minced lamb that can be wrapped up as dumplings or samosas or, in this breathtaking innovation, pizza) and rent a minibus to see the sights.

This bed, perched on a concrete platform, is precisely as uncomfortable as it looks. Also, what’s with the flannel sheets? Even though its still theoretically winter its at least 80 inside.

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The neighborhood. Never figured out what this was selling

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The crew. For Aussies we have a chef and his NPR podcaster brother and a couple of teachers from somewhere in the bush.  Spot the Portuguese economists (no doubt the inspiration for the train station security GT). The redoubtable Anna (Australia by way of Hong Kong and now Shanghai) provides exuberant if fractured Chinese translation. What a great crowd. Poor things are headed for Kashgar next week.

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First on the agenda (actually second but I think we get the Thousand-Buddha drift at this point, and in any case Le Coq got there first) are the ruins of Karakhoja on the edge of the Lop desert. Originally built as a garrison town by the Han empire in the 1st century BCE  it developed into a major commercial hub. The sheer immensity of the site even though it is pretty much in ruins brings it home how the Silk Road wasn’t just lonely camels pacing off into the moonlight but rather a multinational commercial enterprise with a vast infrastructure of support.

Despite many attempts my inadequate iPhone 6 (and its handler) are unable to convey the sheer immensity of the site. But when we have finished circumnavigating the walls it tells me we have walked nearly 6 miles.

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Apparently Karakhoja, like many Silk Road metropolises fell off the map in the 14th century because of  glacier retreat in mountains we can’t even see. Cue the locals swooping in and hustling off all the building materials they could carry. Final stop is to the village of Turoq to admire what good use they made of them. Here Uighurs are allowed to do their thing largely unassailed provided they let hordes of tourists cough up $5 to stick cameras into their stoic faces.

Scenes from village life, spot the antique bricks

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Someone dreams of Van Gogh

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Such careful poses

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But these guys haven’t quite got it down yet

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Unassailed, but not necessarily unsurveilled

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Later we venture into the neighborhood for dinner.

Madame of the sheep’s-rump fat (tastily grilled). Dinner for eight 158Y  (about $26). Later, beer for eight 40Y ($7).

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Bidding my own Bye Bye to Xinjiang tomorrow – Gansu province here we come!

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