I will never take a sleeper bus again unless absolutely necessary – words I later ate in a double-size meal. I spent the twelve-hour ride to Turpan either getting tossed by the bus bumping along unfinished roads, or fitfully turning and trying strange positions for my legs, which were at least a foot too long for the small space you are allowed below the next person’s seat-bed. As this bus ride was the passage from Gansu Province into the considerably more restive Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, we were boarded twice by police who checked our IDs; they had a scanner for the Chinese IDs but they just glanced at my passport and continued on.
I arrived at the Tulufan Bingguan as recommended in Lonely Planet at 8 in the morning, where Arnab had arrived the night before. I took a freezing cold shower and we met a guide he spent time with the night before. We agreed to a slightly inflated price (I think) of 100 kuai per person for just us touring because we were too late to catch the minibus tour. However this turned out well because even though we went to the traditional karez irrigation works and the Buddha Caves, these were things we didn’t want to pay to see.
We wanted to eat a tasty Uighur breakfast, but we had the not-so-good fortune of landing in Xinjiang during Ramadan so proper Uighur places were closed until Eid on September 10th, nine days later. Our driver took us to a pretty crappy Chinese breakfast, including salty milk tea, at the jiaotong bingguan (bus station motel) for 10 kuai. He then took us to the Buddha caves and past the “Flaming Mountains” where we did not pay to enter the “official viewing area” to see. The Flaming Mountains are a bit over-hyped although they look cool, like Mars; but we saw them in the morning and I’ll bet they look best as the Sun sets.
Next we went to the Grape Valley, which was my favorite part of the day. Our driver took us in the back way, so we drove through the whole grape-growing neighborhood, which was devoid of tourists because they all enter through the pay-60-kuai entrance. (Our driver wound up extracting 30 kuai each from us for the benefit of taking this better tour). We drove right to his friend’s small grove/restaurant. I wish we had gotten out and walked a bit, but it was still beautiful to sit in the shade of the grapevines. At the restaurant we were invited to cut our own grapes from the ceiling vines (for free!) and we sat down to those and some fresh watermelon, rounding it out with a massive pot of Central Asian chai tea and a tasty mutton dish with peppers and home-made noodles.
We relaxed with the powerful copper-colored chai and the numerous grapes in the comfort of the vine shade until we were ready to visit Jiaohe Ancient City. It cost 40 kuai to get in but it’s a pretty well-preserved ( in ruinous terms ) ancient Silk Road desert city dating from the Han period. The Chinese predictably congregated only 1/3 of the way up the 1.5 km path through numerous ruins to take pictures at the touristy “scenic spot” with fake costumed Han desert women. Arnab and I continued on up to the end of the path, even though the Sun was awfully punishing and there was almost no shade. Our reward was a most interesting and totally tourist-free (save us) stay in the ruined Great Buddhist Temple, which still had some weathered Buddha statues in its prayer place.
Then we went by the karez irrigation works but decided we didn’t want to pay 40 kuai to see it. Subsequently we went to photograph the Emin Minaret from the outside since entry costs 50 kuai. That evening at our hotel I encountered a loud group of American exchange students and talked with a girl studying at UIBE who did not know that foreigners could join groups, whether at the University or in the city.
We wanted to leave Turpan by train, but we were forced settle for a sleeper bus since no train tickets were available for days. Twenty-four hours across the Taklamakan Desert to Hotan was to begin at 13:00 the following afternoon That night we went to a waterfront restaurant whith great food and good tea. We enjoyed huge kebab and da pan ji. We sat for a while and listened to the music the Chinese danced to, then we went to bed. The next morning we ate some beef noodles and got on the bus to Hotan.
A lot of Uighurs were conscious of the Iraq “war mission” ending right at that time. Our Turpan taxi driver, the guy who sold coffee at the hotel, and a man on the bus to Hotan all mentioned the Iraq pullout and asked if I liked Obama. I think the Uighurs on the bus to Hotan spoke in their language about how some people in the US think Obama is a Muslim.
All of my photos from Turpan can be found here.