Getting to China from the Kazakhstan capital, Almaty, takes a mere 31 hours. Piece of cake compared with our three day odyssey from Russia to Uzbekistan. This time is filled by attempting to make conversation with the woman and her two children sharing our cabin as well as the train dropping us off in the middle of nowhere and disappearing for three hours to change its wheels for entry into China (at least we had a restaurant to potter in), plus Chinese border guards congregating around us to practice their English once they’d checked our bags, computer and phones.
Then after queuing for an hour at Urumqi station (where we arrive in China) to buy tickets to Turpan (where we want to be) it finally receives us in its hot, dusty glory, all 40+ degrees of it. This region is the hottest place in China, and the third lowest place in the world after the Dead Sea and Lake Assal in Djibouti.
Bordering Kazakhstan, China’s ‘Death Valley’ autonomous province of Xinjiang is a fascinating study in culture collision and the perfect transition for us after five weeks in Central Asia. With smoky shazhlyk stands and fresh nan vendors lining the streets, snapped up by skullcapped men and headscarved women, it seems little has changed from the Stans. The strong Uighur culture that is an ethnic minority in China is alive and well – indeed it is the beating heart of this area where signs are not just in Chinese but Arabic too and there as many mosques as temples.
Wandering Turpan to witness the fusion of Uighur and Chinese cultures in everyday life is one of the delights of being here, despite the brain-frying heat. Staying at the Dap Hostel places you at the centre of a series of old town style, dusty streets; some under the sacred shelter of the ubiquitous grape vines, where locals sit, gossip or sleep on topchan day beds in true Uighur style.
Day or night, the food is hot off the street
This cultural fusion is most evident in Turpan’s food, and the city’s central night market, in front of the China Post building and the central fountain square, is the perfect place to get stuck in. The market isn’t huge, but it’s busy enough to be appropriately atmospheric, with steam from the stalls rising up into the fairy lights giving it a magical aura. You can stroll down the middle lane to observe what’s on offer before making your choice and settling on a plastic stool to scoff it all down accompanied by free tea.
We watch dumplings being expertly rolled and filled by hand. Meanwhile, shish kebabs of all kinds are sizzling away, spicy soups bubbling, chickens roasting, and skewer selections of meat and vegetables that look like candy are lightly fried in a vat of oil. Men with large knives slice sinister looking coils of sheep intestine and bricks of quivering yellow fat, and whole fried fish with blank stares sit on counters waiting to be eaten.
The market echoes with the hubbub of people eating and chatting as well as vendors promoting their wares, and despite its simplicity, it takes on a theatre-like quality. Once we’re done we stroll to the fountain, where the individual water streams seem to be dancing to a mix of opera and pop music!
Smaller markets also spring up in the evening around various neighbourhoods, like plastic mushrooms on the side of the street, so you are never far from fresh food and gossiping locals. Lone street vendors also churn out specialties like fresh egg rolls filled with vegetable and spicy corn grain pancakes, handcrafting each one as if it’s their first.
Despite the similarities to Central Asia, it is mindblowing to have such a whole new world of food opened up to us, after over four weeks of eating the same Stan classics on repeat!
Day tripping to the Bezaklik Caves, Flaming Mountain and Jia0he ancient ruins
Turpan is a central point for day trips into the scorching countryside, so we slip, slop, slapped it up to brave half a day of sightseeing in the heat. At Dap Hostel we were able to build our own pick and mix itinerary off the menu they had up on the wall, with our driver then costed up accordingly, including waiting time. To visit three of the area’s top sights over four hours it was 250RMB or around $US40.
The Bezaklik Caves are intriguing early homages to Buddha, despite some of the works having been stolen and either lost forever or on display in the British Museum. You aren’t supposed to take pictures inside but we snapped a cheeky one while the guards were preoccupied with controlling a large Chinese tour group (which, even in China, are everywhere!) The drive out there is equally fascinating – a hot, heady vista of dry rocky towering mountains that sweep past you like hissing rattlesnakes. The drive also takes you past a heritage centre and its artworks which again you aren’t supposed to take photos of (but in the car who will know?!).
When you come out of the caves, you can either take a camel ride up a sun-coloured desert hill or trudge up there yourself, negotiating the flimsy sand in flip flops as we of course did. The view helps you take in just how stark and thirsty the landscape is, with 50 shades of yellow and brown in all directions you looks, as if you are standing in the middle of the cinders of a giant inferno.
The Flaming Mountain juts out of the road, the scars climbing up its sides resembling rising tongues of fire, doing justice to its name. We decide not to pay the entry fee and admire it from the roadside (the entry fee takes you into a fenced area right in front of the mountain and lets you take pictures in front a of a statue too).
The 2,000 year old Jia0he ruins are a fascinating maze of crumbling residences, temples, courtyards and halls, perched on a high plateau surrounded by old city walls and a sheer drop all round. The neat footpath takes you past gaping cave openings and old pillars so weather beaten they resemble chewed down corn cobs. With the 40 degree heat radiating at you in all directions, you could start to hallucinate what life must have been like in these times.
Cross-cultural Turpan has eased us into life in China, so now it’s time to embark on our next 31 hour train journey to Beijing. The iconic capital awaits!