Wednesday, July 9, 2014

DAY 22 – 7 July 2014; Hami to Turpan

It was panic in the morning when I tried to power up the laptop. It stubbornly refused to boot up. Fortunately I had a backup. But all the data was in the HP Mini I have been using for the past many years. I was worried more for the expense and driving records that were vital. Fortunately, after many attempts it sparked to life. I decided against taking another chance and transferred required data to the backup laptop. Even though the Dell machine is not as compact as the HP Mini I had something to work on for the rest of the journey.

Breakfast in the Garden Holiday Inn Hotel in Hami was later than normal – 8.30 am. That gave us all additional time to recover from the previous night. I had boiled eggs, Kwaza (a kind of baked rice flour bun, a variation of the Mantou), fried rice and vegetables. They also had something of a cross between a dosa and poori, made of wheat flour. It was quite good with pickled cucumber. The drive on the G30 was superb. We left around 9.30 am and got into Turpan by around 1.15 pm covering nearly 420 kms. The landscape was bare; but, as warned by road signs at various locations, many stretches of the road to Turpan had to be carefully negotiated. Buffeting winds sway the car, sometimes uncontrollably. The direction of the sway cannot be predicted. At high speeds, especially if you are driving beside another big vehicle on the adjacent lane, special skills and concentration are called for to keep the vehicle steady.

On the way we took a short detour to admire the ‘Flaming Mountain’ from a distance. The odd geological feature is a red sandstone ridge about 500 meters high that stretches for over 100 kms. It is considered one of the hottest places in China with ground surface temperature going up to 80 degrees Celsius. It is said that eggs buried in the ground gets cooked in a short time during the peak summer month of August. The heat radiating from the red sandstone gives the impression that the mountain is on fire, and hence, the name of the mountain. It was so hot even at the time of our visit that we decided to admire her features from the confines of the car! The ridge was popularized in the book ‘Travel to the West’, which describes the journey of a monk (Hueng Tsang) to India. It is a popular TV serial too.

We decided to drive through to the hotel in Turpan rather than stop at the other attractions to visit in the city since it was oppressively hot. Turpan is one of the lowest points in China, where the bottom of a lake is -150 meters below MSL. The city falls in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Province of China, which is the largest administrative division in China spanning over 1.6 million square kms. Urumqi, pronounced urumuchi, is the capital city of the Region.  Despite its size only less than 5% off the area is fit for human habitation and the population of the region is less than 3 lakhs. It is a Muslim majority area and has borders with 8 countries – something very unique for a Province. The region has a documented history of habitation for over 2500 years. The physical features of people are entirely different from the Hans and the Tibetans. The Uyghurs have more Caucasian features. The climatic conditions are extremely harsh ranging from the extreme heat of Summer (48 degrees C) to snowy conditions in Winter (-20 degrees C). However, the dry heat combined with the ancient system of irrigation makes the region an abundant producer of fruits and vegetables. The fruits produced here have high sucrose content. The region also produces the best grapes in the country; there are thousands of grape drying chambers all over the city and on the mountain side. Raisin from the region is considered among the best in the world by connoisseurs. Also available in the region is dry fruits like walnut. We did see many places on the way to the city where oil exploration was in progress. The Province is China’s largest natural gas producer. But what riveted me was the use of solar panels on roofs of houses. The houses are so located that the solar panels can be remotely manipulated to take advantage of the position of the Sun at varying times of the day.

We got a very good deal, through Yingchu of course, in the Transportation Hotel in Turpan. The hotel had private parking and WiFi in the lobby. With breakfast included the rate of Yuan 180 was very affordable. After checking in and keeping the luggage in the room Yingchu took us to a local restaurant for lunch. Portions of beef chilly, fried fish and rice came first. The beef chilly was quite good. The fish was bland and tasteless, I felt. A corn dish was also ordered. When it arrived it was closer to a dessert than to an accompaniment to rice. After the meal it had to be rest indoors. It was searingly hot. I utilised the time to do some washing. It is said that clothes dry the fastest in Turpan due to the dryness in the air.

After 5.30 pm we ventured out to explore the Karez underground water system and the Yar City. First it was the Karez Paradise. The ancient irrigation system is a combination of vertical shafts, underground channels, open channels and ponds taking advantage of gravitational flows. The underground channel prevented evaporation and contamination of water. The system was so designed as to take maximum advantage of availability of water without disturbing its flow. At its peak the irrigation system is supposed to have extended 5000 kms and was referred to as the “Underground Great Wall”. The Karez dates back to the 2nd century BC and is the very life source of Turpan.  Even now more than 400 Karezes are operational in Turpan. The Karez which we visited was so cool underground that it felt like natural air conditioning which gave relief from the oppressive heat outside. The complex showcases the method of construction of a karez, the implements used and the science behind the system. It was fascinating to learn methods employed by man in the early ages to survive and flourish. There are many stalls in the complex to but souvenirs and mementoes. I picked up a few egg shaped coloured stones, while Lal picked up a reclining Buddha carved out of Grape root. Pashmina shawls, fox skin stoles, brightly coloured stoles and old newspapers were available for bargain.

The ancient city of Jiaohe is situated in Yar Town, a few kms west of Turpan. We visited there after the Karez Paradise. The city was first built around 2000 years ago and was one of the 36 kingdoms of the Western Region. The 36.5 hectare city was built up on an island surrounded by two rivers, which gave the city its name; Jaiohe means “the confluence of two Rivers”. The city was about 30 meters above the river which gave the inhabitants of the city a command view of the surrounding areas. The city gained prominence during the Tang dynasty between the 7th and 9th centuries. Temples, pagodas, streets, government buildings and houses are easily identifiable in this well preserved site. Many Buddhist relics were unearthed from the site during restoration. Walking around the site gives an idea of the kind of life the people then must have led. Loud speakers at vantage locations exhort tourists not to stray from the well laid out walkway to ensure that the ancient site is not destroyed by wanton behavior.

It had to be the Night Market for dinner. It was just a short stroll from the Hotel. Immediately after parking the car, on return from the Yar City, the smells emanating from the food stalls were too much to even think of freshening up in the room before dinner. Yingchu took us around the stalls where kebabs, noodles, dumplings, grilled chicken and many other local delicacies were being prepared. The vendors competed with each other to attract customers. Seating is common to all the stalls; it is expected that you order first from the stall in front of which you choose your seat. Thus, the initial order was mutton and beef kebabs to accompany the beer. Then came my order of a full clay pot of meats, vegetables, Tofu and noodle soup. It was glorious. A plate of spiced grilled chicken kept us till past 11 pm. That sounds quite late, but twilight lingered from past 9 pm to 10 pm!

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