Heatbath in Turpan

Turpan, when I arrived, was steeped in its typical continental summer heat. At least, thanks to the torrid climate of the Tarim basin, delicious melons and water melons abound everywhere, and then the grapes and the raisins, another staple for which Turpan is famous. Their sweet concentrated juices are a delight to the palate.

I went in search of the museum with the Taiwanese girl, but after a long walk around town, we had to conclude that my 7 year old city map is not accurate anymore. The museum has relocated to a new building, and we found it closed on a Monday.

My friend holds a green train ticket to Kashgar starting in the afternoon. This is a non air-conditioned, slow train that will take 36 hour to travel the 1,500 km to the south. She has not found a sleeper, but only a hard seat. I promise myself that never will I submit to such an ordeal.

In the late afternoon I hire a bike and have a lovely ride along a street that skirts dainty farmhouses just outside the town. You would believe yourself in the countryside. There are brick structures, probably barns; the open doors reveal shady courtyards in a corner of which a raised platform serves as a settee. A few modern mosques with a colourful tiled façade are the expression of the popular religious credo of the Uyghurs.

The ethnic as well as the physical landscape has changed. That can be seen in the market, for instance, where the food is evidence to a different lifestyle. However, it is surprising that many probably uneducated Uyghurs only speak very basic Chinese, which makes the rift between the peoples living in this province even more patent.

I have not been able to join a group to visit the surroundings, so I make the decision to leave tomorrow to Kashgar. The lady at the ticket office drops a bombshell saying that only hard seat tickets are available on tomorrow’s green train, the one I had sworn to myself I’d never buy. After some consideration, I take the plunge and emerge from the shop with the ticket, rather more tickled by the sense of adventure than disappointed. Tomorrow’s journey is going to be truly epic.

The next morning I get up at 7 and hire a bike to reach Jiaohe, a very interesting archaeological area. The ride on the highway flanked by vineyards, in the cool morning breeze, is a treat. I am in rapture observing the landscape, the crops, the valley where the river flows and leaves a desert ship-shaped island surrounded by green fields next to the water. Here once was an important centre, now lying abandoned for several centuries. Since the buildings were dug into the rock rather that built on it, the ruins of the basements are still well visible. There are the remains of two Buddhist monasteries and the so-called “stupa forest” with a central shrine surrounded by a grid of smaller ones. This was before the region converted to Islam.

The museum looked promising yesterday, so I squeeze it into my morning before catching the train. The exhibits retrace the cultural and trading exchanges that have taken place on these routes since the rise of civilisation. The word of conclusion by the museum curator smacks of political propaganda in underlining the continual presence of the Western Territories within the Chinese Empire.

My take is that the various nationalities settled on this open area changed their allegiance to various powers, but were rather loosely connected to one central government, in line with a former conception of borders and the State. They maintained their relative independence within China over centuries. But since the advent of the People’s Republic this is now national soil. The administrative colonisation has paralleled the mass immigration of the Han Chinese driven by demographic pressure in other provinces to the effect of diluting the Uyghur concentration.

Last night I talked to a Nanjing builder who has worked here for more than 4 years. You talk to the Han residents, and all remember a far-away laojia, or ancestral home. This huge province criss-crossed by ancient trade routes is now in the fist of China. After decades of Sinicisation brought about by political clout and population movements, the cities have a clear-cut Mainland look. This No man’s land that belonged to everybody is now well in China to stay.