Unlike the hazy, cloudy day that greeted us yesterday in Turpan, today, as I draw the curtains across and peep outside, blue skies smile back. I can see the bazaar from here – but despite it being 8AM, the shops and the market, restaurants are all shut. I puzzle over this. In Chengdu, even at 7AM, the streets would be abuzz. Restaurants would be buzzing ready to serve the fried doughnut sticks, soya milk or congee that forms the Chinese breakfast. Part of it, I must say apart from the ubiquitous noodles. And then the puzzle resolves itself. 8AM on my watch is Beijing time. Officially, Xinjiang runs on Beijing time. By that, I mean buses and trains. The rest of Xinjiang prefers to simply ignore it. 8AM here is just 6AM in Turpan. I wake the others, and before long we are sitting in one of the restaurants I saw across the street. By now, it’s open, and we have a quick bowl of noodles while awaiting the driver from yesterday who is to take us on a day long tour of Turpan’s 8 sights. That’s what the Chinese tour guides tout, but several of the 8 sights are not worth seeing, Frommers assures me. And considering that the singular malaise of touring China are the dreaded entrance tickets, I am hoping that I figure out soon which of the sights are not worth seeing. Turpan is China’s hottest place in the summer, but as the driver informs us, it can be pretty cold in summer. Evidence of that in the snow-capped mountains that surround the city. And the desert that lies in front of it, mocking the mountains. Desertification is a serious problem in China – Beijing is often buffeted by massive sand storms – and the encroaching Gobi desert threatens to wreak more havoc on China’s economy than any desert. It’s here that the twain meet – mountain and desert. The mountains won’t move. The desert will.
We soon reach the hotel where the two German girls from yesterday are staying. It helped cut costs by asking them to come along, and Jorg is always too pleased to have pretty women accompany him. 🙂 One of the first stops is the village of Tuyoq – a lovely little Uighur settlement, the guidebooks promise us. It’s Uighur alright. In the sullenness that greets us at the entrance and their refusal to accept our student IDs. Having a Chinese student identification entitles you to discounts of as much as 50% on entrance tickets. We had used it successfully to reduce the Emei Shan entrance tickets from 180 yuan to 90 yuan. But I had read on online forums that it doesn’t quite work that way in Xinjiang. The people here refuse to lower the 80 yuan entrance fee. The Chinese student ID discount is only for Chinese students, they say, not for foreign students. Of course, we think, despite having a Chinese-government issued student card that is the same as issued for any other student, including the Chinese. Outside the ticket office, there is a sign explaining that tourists belonging to special categories – seniors, army personnel, students, or handicapped are entitled to a discount. But the men at the entrance are not to be convinced. “You are lying,” they tell us, in broken Chinese when we say we have used it everywhere else, and that people HAVE given us discounts. And that’s when we decide not to enter Tuyoq. The principle of the thing, et al. It was a nice drive getting here, spectacular views of the desert, and we decided we weren’t going to pay 80 yuan for their village. We walk outside…the German girls also sportingly agree to protest, and I spot some grape fields. We take a little narrow path, get down to the grape fields, and pluck some grapes. Turpan is famous for its grapes, of course. There are grape valleys all over, all requiring a hefty entrance fee of course. But then Frommers makes sense for once. There are grapes all over Turpan, free, luscious and plentiful. Don’t pay to enter the over-priced grape valleys outside Turpan and see the same thing, it warns. Well, we didn’t pay here definitely. The grapes though, were delicious despite everything!
The next stop should have been the Flaming Mountains. Imagine this. You can see the red-stone hills from the road, it’s the same view for the ones who pay 90 yuan to enter. The only difference? You can pose next to a “giant, tacky thermometer” and strut around on a camel for an additional fee. Camels or thermometers don’t interest us much. The Flaming Mountains are so-called because the red stone starts to reflect the midday heat of the Turpan sun, and in that shimmering heat, it looks like it is flaming. On fire. We are a bit early – the mountains haven’t started to flame yet, we laugh. Still, stepping outside, the heat is already evident. It’s dry searing heat – the kind that can wrinkle your skin in an instant, and the kind that can kill. It’s wise not to step out at this hour, and we decide to have lunch instead.
“Take us to a Uighur restaurant for lunch,” we ask the driver. He acquiesces. The restaurant we enter is crowded. Stares greet us as we enter. Pilaf. That’s what we would like to have. I have seen a huge mound of it already near the entrance. With meat, of course. Go through the vegetarian drill. Driver nods. Goes to the kitchen. After 40 minutes, the pilaf arrives. One of the German girls is also vegetarian. It arrives with the meat, of course. Most of the meat has been removed to comply with our request for vegetarian. “But we can’t eat any meat,” I try to explain. Jorg jumps in. “If they eat meat, they will die,” he says, making a dramatic gesture that involves pinching his forearm, and then collapsing. The driver smiles, but irritation is evident on his face. Back to the kitchen again. Back again. This time he says that it’s impossible. You cannot have pilaf without meat. Maybe, they might make noodles for us without meat. Tired, hungry and by now irritated too, we agree. Pilaf, I tell Birdy, is nothing new to us. Forget trying to have it here – they make the pilaf mixed already with meat, as I saw near the entrance, and they will not make it afresh just for us. Just for 3 people. Not here, not in Xinjiang. The noodles were filling enough – spagghetti-like in texture, with some peppers sprinkled to compensate for the miserable lack of meat.
After some ice cream from a stall next door (China must have the cheapest ice creams!), it was onwards to the Jiaohe Ruins. Situated around an hour’s drive from Turpan, it is sizzling hot when we reach. The ticket office here is run by the Han Chinese, and well, we obtain 20% discounts on our student IDs. No nonsense of being foreign students. “Look,” he says, pointing to a seal inside our student cards. “As long as you have this seal, you can obtain discounts anywhere,” he smiles. I am trying not be prejudiced. I am trying not to turn against the Uighurs. But they are not doing their cause any good with the kind of hostility they show. And definitely, not by cheating students and not giving them what they are entitled to. The ruins are well worth the 33Yuan we paid. It’s hard to believe that thousands of years ago, people walked this same earth. That an entire city flourished here. An entire city that flourished on this the Silk Route. My umbrella offers me little protection against the by now scorching sun. The German girls are already wilting, and they turn back. We walk on – history fascinates all three of us. And the history here is palpable. We stop in front of a sign that says here more than 400 infants were found buried. No one knows why. Who killed them? Why? For a while, the bleakness of the past stares at us. “It’s a bit creepy,” Birdy says. And it is. The ruins are enormous, and we are often completely alone. Alone in the ruined Buddhist monasteries. Alone amidst a huge stupa. Alone as we walk along the walls, touching them, feeling the collapsible weight of history caressing our palms.
Yet, even history has to bow to the relentless heat. We start to walk back…and just in time, as a horde of Chinese tourists descend, yellow caps, and flags waving, shattering the desolate calm of the place. As I walk back, I glance at the ruins, and I realize that the lack of calm is in me. The ruins themselves are still, quiet…ready to witness Time as they have been doing these past few centuries.