15/01/17 – Turfan: The Silk Road That Raiders Built

Emin Minaret – a nice contrast to the hundred of pre-Islamic sites in Xinjiang looted by German treasure-hunters and hacked to bits by Uighur villagers in the early 20th century.

My ability to post this week were a bit less frequent considering the crap internet access that Xinjiang provided, but it was definitely one of the greatest adventures of my life and completely validated the 36 hour train ride to get there. Francesca and I (and later Erin) were in Turfan for the last four days (now in Dunhuang heading to Tianshui tomorrow night) doing some site research on Buddhist cave-temples as far west as we could. Yu Laoshi, the woman we met in Xian, said that in order to write a proper paper we should sample everything and be able to visualize every Buddhist grotto in comparison to every other.

And the best time to get that base of knowledge, she said, was when we weren’t tied down by anything other than PhD research (and significant others – both of ours have been extremely tolerant of our constant gallivanting across the world).

As you’d expect a desert city to be, Turfan was cold, but I couldn’t have picked a worse accommodation to stay in to weather it. The hostel we stayed in (thanks, Francesca) had no central heating, it took me nearly a day to get my shower working, and the temperature in my room dipped below zero every night. I went into pure survival mode for three days, and my only bliss was a six-minute-a-day shower…that was mainly because the hot water tank could only hold six minutes of water until it went ice cold again.

Now, I’d call this #firstworldproblems, but most homes in Turfan have giant hearths so they don’t complain much about the cold (considering it’s the hottest place in China during the summer). Turfan is predominantly a Uighur city, as is much of Xinjiang, and with that you get some very unique traditional architecture in mud-brick and adobe, including a cool tradition of putting your wealth into buying a colorful door.

A number of the rural families in Turfan make their wealth from drying dates.
And spend their well-earned capital on some pimped out doors!

It’s really a world away from China in many ways, and that honestly adds to its charm: very little pollution, beautiful scenescapes, little to no urban sprawl, and a different religion. But now onto the day:

But first another door!

Our first stop on the Buddhist Grotto World Tour (besides for the 18th century mosque we went to shown above) was to Bezeklik, an 8th – 13th century pre-Islamic Uighur cave-temple site stretching across a stunning river valley 50km northeast of Turfan. Erin had come in the night before, so the three of us spent the better part of an hour exploring a site that we slowly realized was ridiculously inaccessible due to locked doors and bored security guards.

On the plus side, getting there was the first time I’ve ever hitchhiked anywhere in the world, and I got a bunch of solid photos of the ridge the grottoes were constructed upon:


Bezeklik from the North.



Bezeklik from the South – notice the domes, these are a cool transitional hybrid between Uighur Buddhist grottoes and later Islamic tombs.


The barrel-vaulted caves – a bit of an anomaly at Bezeklik that was only exposed because the rest of the cliff collapsed.
Two of the few caves that were actually photographable – mind you, there wasn’t much inside them but ancient plaster.

There wasn’t much to learn from the site because 90% of it was completely off-limits due to bureaucratic restrictions and unsafe cliffs (these cave-temples have a habit of collapsing every few years), but it was yet another site to eventually compare to our work in Rongxian later in the month. I’m currently building a 3D model from one of the stupas I photographed at the base of the hill from long-range, and I’ll be posting it in the next entry.

It’s sad what’s happened to many of these sites – they’re truly just skeletons of themselves, which is to be expected of cities and sanctuaries with wealth that were plundered over hundreds or thousands of years, but these ones truly were not destroyed until the early 20th century. A combination of two things occurred: first, German and British explorers of the geopolitical Great Game discovered these sites and stripped them of all their artistic worth manually, sawing off hundreds of wall-paintings and taking them back to collections in Europe; and second, now-Muslim Uighur populations who had never uncovered these caves saw the images that remained as idolatrous and took to them with pick-axes in a similar way to ISIS at Nineveh or the Taliban at Bamiyan (without the rocket launchers, of course). Most sites along the Silk Road, therefore, are irreparably broken, and are more ghostly reminders of both treasure-hunters and intolerance between religions than informative encyclopedias on past civilizations.

“In situ” at Bezeklik essentially means “woo they left some plaster behind!”

That said, Bezeklik ended up being the only cave-temple site we saw in our four days in Turfan – we were set to see one called Tuyugou the next day but recent excavations had created a risk of rock-slides in the valley – but Francesca and I have developed a sort of philosophy: never be idle. So after we only spent an hour at Bezeklik, we decide to marvel at the scenery around us and climb a mountain. I’ll let these fantastic panoramas speak for themselves:

The mountain/hill/sand dune(?) we climbed.
The Flaming Mountains – the really epic view is the one facing the new highway but it’s kicked up so much dust that it’s impossible to see anything.
The top of the mountain and the view below…aaaaah…
Close-up of the cliff face on the mountain across the valley – the bottom is a sand dune but I sure as hell wouldn’t want to fall down that to get to it.
The spot where the Monkey King supposedly put out the mountains – it’s kind of convenient he did it on an easily-accessible plateau…

The mountain range is called the Flaming Mountains, and the name comes from a tale within the Chinese fable “Journey to the West” where the Monkey King single-handedly puts out the fire that has been burning in these mountains since time immemorial. Hence, in exchange, they turned fiery red. And oh man were they beautiful…

The next day we visited the site of Gaocheng, which truly puts this “ghostly Silk Road” thesis into practice. Gaocheng, known to the ancients as Khara-khoja, was once one of the wealthiest oasis trade-sites between Samarkand and Chang’an during the 6th to 12th centuries, and measured between 5x7km within its imposing outer walls.


Once the richest city on the Silk Road from the 8th – 10th centuries, now a landscape of battered mud brick monoliths.
Battlements on the exterior of the Inner Wall.

Sadly, what you see above is really all that’s left. The German treasure-hunter Alfred von le Coq dismantled most of the site’s best frescoes (with the exception of one) and brought them back to Berlin, while Uighur farmers used much of the remaining mud-brick as fertilizer. The entire inner city was mowed down over the 20th century, and despite attempts by various Chinese teams to reconstruct one of the Buddhist monasteries, there’s very little that can be done but wait for the final vestiges of Gaocheng to crumble.

The crumbling interior of the largest stupa in Gaocheng.

While Tuyugou was a bit of a bust, besides for this wicked view of the old Uighur city on-site…

Isn’t it nice when the shots line up so symmetrically?

…our short-and-sweet visit to the Astana Graveyard (home of many of the famous Turfan Mummies) was really incredible. The graves were used between the 4th and 10th centuries to house various imperial officials, with most burials occurring during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 961 CE).

Entrance to the Lovers’ Tomb (Erin tell me if I got that wrong) – the inside fresco shows the gods Fuxi and Nuwa welcoming these two dead youngsters into the afterlife.

I can’t show you much because, like most things in caves in China, photography isn’t permitted inside, but the Mummies have been well-preserved in the Turfan Museum, a free museum in the modern city limits that is well-worth an hour in between other places. Here’s a few of the gooier specimens:

A Tang Dynasty burial from the Astana Graveyard.
I’ve seen living people look more dead…

But the complete and utter highlight of Turfan (for an archaeologist) was the citadel-fort of Jiaohe. Part ancient fort with dates from the 2nd century BCE – 10th century CE, part dense Buddhist sanctuary, and part MC Escher meets Salvador Dali, the site really reminded me of the dead land of Charn from the Narnia prequel The Magician’s Nephew. Especially from the lookout point, the mud-brick city is haunting and surreal at the same time, and has quickly become a close second to the Yungang Grottoes of all the places I’ve seen thus far in China in the last week-and-a-half.

The residential quarters.


The largest Buddhist temple in Jiaohe.
25×4 stupas and one big one make up this Forest of 101 Stupas.
Francesca recited Ozymandias standing up here.
And I just sat there and took in the view.

Just some travel tips on Xinjiang and Turfan before I wrap up and start on my entry on Dunhuang and the Mogao Caves: it is fairly pricey to book taxis that will take you around for the day (300 – 400 RMB), but they will take you wherever you want, no questions asked – we stopped along the road to Bezeklik on our way back from the Astana Graveyard to take a look at another set of Buddhist grottoes across the river (completely inaccessible of course, but nothing a zoom-lens can’t examine) and our driver just gave us a weird look and followed us up the valley.

If you’re feeling intrepid, the local charter buses and city numbered buses are actually quite pleasant and will take you almost anywhere you need to go. The 101 and 102 go to Jiaohe, and you can take a minibus to Gaocheng from the bus station in the center of town.

Second, lamb and mutton are their specialty in Xinjiang. In skewer form, in stews, in soups, or in noodles. This is no place for a vegetarian or vegan – you won’t win friends with salad. I personally had an awesome time eating meat for four days, but I know that doesn’t sit well with everyone so be prepared to eat a lot of eggs and bell peppers if you’re not eating meat. And for those who get cute lambs in their eyes thinking about it, they do good Han Chinese food alongside the Uighur, so expect lots of noodles, soups, and steamed buns.

Last, don’t get intimidated by the number of army vehicles on the road – they’re not after you (if you’re a lao-wai). I’ll post more on this in an entry where I actually have my VPN on, but Xinjiang is a little nerve-wracking to anyone who hasn’t dealt with martial law before. Turfan is mild compared to somewhere like Urumqi or Khotan where things go boom relatively commonly, so it shouldn’t be an issue. Just remember that the people are overall friendly and this isn’t your fight: it’s a Han vs. Uighur thing.

But it is an incredible place to travel, Turfan, and one very few Western tourists and adventurers (and even Han Chinese) ever get to. Even if the ruins are a little hollow and ghostly, they are an incredible reminder of the wealth that once flowed from city to city and caravan to caravan along the Silk Road. And the scenery is understatedly epic – one can only imagine traveling past the Flaming Mountains on the back of a camel in the 10th century on the way to Gaocheng, struck with awe and amazement at the towering red inferno in front of you – there’s a reason that Journey to the West highlights them, and I do too. Traveling and (somewhat) researching in Turfan has truly been four days I’ll never forget.


But if it wasn’t for these two Turfan would never have been so incredible. Plus, being fluent in Mandarin and semi-fluent in Uighur helps too.


Anyways, it ‘s the images that have slowed my posting down, so I’ll probably finally be able to put this online at some point when I’m in Tianshui – we’re visiting grottoes today at the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang that are often even off-limits to Chinese scholars, so I’m super pumped! More 3D models, photos, and stories to follow!

Eastward bound!

Andrew Harris

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