China’s green Death Valley
Leaving the remote oasis town of Dūnhuáng, we took the sleeper bus – our first night bus in China – heading to Turpan (Tǔlǔfān in Mandarin) in Xīnjiāng province, China’s Wild West and homeland of the Turk folk of the Uighurs. The bus interior had more or less the same structure as the sleeper buses we encountered in Vietnam and Laos, with three lines of two story sleeping berths and two small walkways in between them, just that this one was far more chaotic than all the previous buses. The experience already started to turn a little when we were told by a barking attendant that we had to put all the big luggage on the bus, as it was forbidden to put it into the storeroom below. So when the bus departed, empty berths and the small walkways were packed with bags, suitcases and whatever other baggage the passengers carried – which made each toilet stop being a steeplechase.
Shortly after departure, when we had just left the city centre behind us and got into the surroundings, the bus suddenly stopped in a shabby warehouse area, where some more Chinese appeared pulling a chariot full of frozen bodies of some medium sized animal – probably sheep, maybe pigs. And suddenly we understood why no luggage had been put downstairs, as they started to load the frozen bodies into the cargo bay – which of course didn’t have any refrigeration facility, so no idea how they did it to keep them cool – while thousands of flies were flying around them and an intense smell of unfreezing meat was swirling around our noses (even though we can’t say for sure if it emerged from the thawing meat or the feet of our Chinese fellow travelers).
To get some orientation on the bus we were – again! – lucky to meet a English-and-Mandarin speaking couple of a German guy and a Taiwanese woman with their 8-month old daughter. Had some of our family members thought we were having an erratic life and being excessively adventurous: when we heard about the lifestyle of this couple we got the proof we are not even close to an extreme. They had met in Cuba, about two years ago, when both of them had already been traveling for several years in a row. They continued together, she got pregnant in Jamaica, continued traveling until the 7th month of pregnancy, when they reached Peru. Then they flew to Germany so her future parents-in-law would know her, then to Taiwan for the delivery of the child. After the birth they stayed for five months in Taiwan so the baby girl, Mia, would grow a little stronger. When she was five months old they decided now she was strong enough and they headed off again, in the aim of getting to Germany by land by her first birthday, through China, Kazakhstan and Russia. How did they finance their trip – we don’t know! He had been working as an Information Scientist in Germany for ten years, so maybe managed to save some Euros, but still a big mystery. Seeing them and their daughter we noticed that we were still being veeeery moderate and also that this extreme form of a traveler’s life was definitely not for us.
Disregarding their unconventional lifestyle and an air of craziness, they were nice people and she helped us getting off at the right point and to negotiate the ride into town with a taxi driver when we reached Turpan early morning. Similar to the case of the Tibetans, the relation between Han Chinese and Uighurs has been marked by tensions and mutual aggression ever since the Chinese conquered the region in 1949 under Kuomintang rule.
Only recently again the situation again was a hot topic in the news following knife attacks at Kunming railway station in Yunnan province in March, which left 29 people dead, and one week ago in Urumqi, the province’s capital, during a visit of China’s premier Xi. The government attributes both incidents Uighur religious separatist groups blaming the Chinese government for discriminating Uighurs both economically, by uneven regional development, and socially, by oppressing their culture, and fight for a separate state Xīnjiāng.
China responds to the increased risk of terrorism in its far West by “putting security first”, which in practice means continuously increasing internal security measures – we were struck by the stunning amount of heavily armed police presence – restructuring of the cities (as we would see more drastically in Kashgar) and flooding the majority Uighur areas inside the region with Han settlers pushing the traditional Uighur districts into the town’s periphery. In Northern Xīnjiāng, including Turpan as well as in the province’s capital Urumqi, Han have been the majority of the inhabitants for many decades, while in Southern Xīnjiāng, particularly the Uighur heartland of Kashgaria, demographic changes are more recent.
Han Chinese and Uighurs today still live highly segregated in the cities and as far as our uninitiated eye could perceive, their cultures don’t have much in common. Marked by Islam as majority religion, the Uighur lifestyle is essentially Central Asian and seems far more close to the Turks, Persians or the Arabic world – actually, their language belongs to the Turk language family and is written in Arabic letters.
Their cuisine is marked by different types of bread – which during our week’s visit in Xīnjiāng made us eat more of it than in one whole month in India – and mutton meat – be it in combination with pulled noodles, on a barbecue stick or inside a dough pocket. They exist in a smaller and larger version, the filling is mixed kleingehacktes mutton meat and mutton fat – while the proportion of meat and fat varies widely among the baking stalls we encountered – onions and different spices, and the larger version looks identical to a Chilean empanada – but is obviously not as tasty.
The baking technique is however very different, as they use a round adobe and stone oven, with a hole on the top and the fire on the ground, where they paste the formed bread dough on the side wall by moistening it with little water. May it be in the street bakeries or in front of the Uighur family houses in Turpan’s old city districts. And when you walk by, stop and look with interest at the sweaty bread baking process, people would be happy you are interested in their way of living, tell you to wait the 20 minutes until the bread is ready and give it to you as a present.
Turpan is China’s death valley, located at -154 meters sea level, on the edge of the Gobi. The town is famous for its grapes and walking through the old quarters into the surroundings, the landscape is marked by grapevines, standing in a beautiful contrast to the beige traditional adobe houses and warehouses. Unlike one would think as a Westerner, those grapes are not mainly used to produce wine – most Uighurs are conservative Muslims and so alcohol consumption is not that wide spread – but to produce raisins.
Life in the old parts of the city seems to remain very traditional, with people living in old style adobe houses and working as farmers in the grapevines or as merchants selling bread, meat, fruits or something else on Turpan’s huge and lively Uighur market (because there is also a very different Han Chinese counterpart in the new town).
Especially in the old town areas, people were extremely friendly with us – also, they are not used that much to seeing foreigners, as still relatively few visit the region – and everyone sitting in front of the houses would greet us “Hello” when we walked by, on our way to the Emin Minarett, and be as surprised as delighted when we asked the for a picture of them.
Situated on the borders of the Old Town districts, the Emin Minarett is a landmark of Uighur Turpan. Built in 1777 during the Qing Dynasty and was named after Emin Khoja, leader of the Uighur people then. It stands besides a mosque and is still used as a house of prayers today. Its location in the midst of grapevines and rock formation is spectacular and if one doesn’t happen to coincide with a rushing through Chinese tour group, the Minarett is entirely yours.
A particular highlight in Turpan was the hostel we stayed in, the White Camel, which is probably the only youth hostel existing in whole Turpan. It was taken over recently by a young Chinese student named “Cheng” (Western version), who speaks fair English but is one of the most motivated persons we’ve experienced so far in trying to make your stay as comfortable and pleasant as possible and help you in anything that you might need.
The hostel is located in a backyard, quite hidden from the main road and difficult to find (it took us 2 hours straying around the small city center of Turpan in order to find it), inside and old factory building. At first sight the place seems dusty and a little creepy, but after the first hours we spent there we felt like at home, due to the joyful and welcoming atmosphere the staff was able to create in it – without a lot of words or resources, only by their natural interest and hospitality.