Posts Tagged ‘Travelogue


Day 36: The Ruins of Turpan

Jiaohe Ruins: The first stop on today’s visit to this desert oasis is the Jiaohe (“Jeeow-huh”) Ruins. Built in the second century B.C., the ruins are some of- wait. That can’t be right. Second century B.C.? *reads sign closely* Yep. Second century B.C. Astounding. This entire area was an important stop on the Silk Road, the trade route connecting the Orient with Europe, because the natural snowmelt from the nearby mountains provided much needed nourishment for travelers. Turpan spent centuries prospering in this oasis by somehow channeling underground rivers to the surface using wells and dams and other things I don’t understand. In the end, Turpan is a real life mirage in the middle of harsh Chinese desert.

The ruins, old as they are, are understandably un-maintained. The surrounding land has reverted back to dry desert, presumably because water has been directed to the more modern city of Turpan. But the skeletal structures of ancient earthen buildings rise stubbornly from the ground. There is a sense that since they have been here for this long, they will never fall.



Before starting our stroll through the ruins, Sam and I stop for a potty break and we each come out grinning and clutching our cameras, eager to show the other the sign we saw inside. In all this time spent traveling, we seem to have settled on the same wavelength: Butchered English and pee jokes.

Sign above the urinal in the men’s restroom:

Step forward, reflecting civilization

Sign above the toilet in the women’s restroom:

As easy as lifting one’ s finger Be civilized

Then we settled down, faked a modicum of propriety, and wondered the ancient city.


The ruins are incredibly cool. Stone shapes hint at the former glory of individual buildings, while a wider gaze reveals the true wonder: this city was huge. And thousands of years later, there is still so much of it to see. Walking through these neighborhoods (and living rooms, maybe) was like legitimate time traveling.


Wider Gaze



The temple was by far the most impressive building, with four protective pillars surrounding a central column. A nearby sign provides some helpful information: “The layout of the temple is full of characteristics .”


Temple. Notice the characteristics.



Gaochang Ruins: Next on the list of ruins to see in Turpan are the other ruins that are in Turpan: Goachang.  Yeah, yeah, built in 200 B.C. been there, done that. But this time…YOU GET TO RIDE DONKEY CARTS!!!!


boys and their donkey carts...


Red Mountains



These ruins were maintained (read: rebuilt) more effectively than Jiaohe, so really this means some of the structures that are more recognizable as, well, structures, are probably only like fifteen hundred years old instead of two thousand. Harumph. Still, the donkey carts make up for being cheated out of 500 years of decay.



Fertile Valley Dinner: As we left the flat desert and drove into a large valley sandwiched between mountains, the real value of the snow runoff became noticeable. The red and orange of desert transformed gloriously into vibrant greens of vines and watermelons, purples of swollen grapes. We hid from the sun as the road continued under the shadow of trees and trellises burdened with climbing fruit. Sam asked the taxi driver if any of the restaurants spotting the side of road were good, so he took us to his friend’s place. An outdoor patio is naturally shaded by grape vines covering the trellis arching overhead. Bunches of heavy grapes test the strength of their vines as they reach down from above.

We sit and watch someone climb up the trellis and pick some of the bunches we were just looking at and just plop them down on the table. So we munched while the owner grilled us the second-best chuanr in China.


Grapes Overhead

barbecuing under the grapes

Grilling the Second Best Chuanr in China

You might recall my description of the best chuanr in China, which was at the Ali Baba grill at the beer festival in Qingdao ( That one was big chunks of meat with a piece of fat attached to one end.  You could pull the meat right off the stick and the fat would stay put.  The Turpan chuanr is smaller strips of meat with delicious seasoning, but still with easily avoidable fat. It is so good.

A plate of truly delicious chow mein rounds out the meal and we go to bed stuffed and satisfied.


Day 34: I Don’t Love You, by My Kyrgyz Romance

Day 34 finds us driving through more spectacular mountain roads, where the air is cold and hard to breathe, and, illogically, makes you feel more alive.
road to karakul

Road to Karakul

We are going to Karakul, a lake that nestles at the knees of a snowy mountain.  The mountain is a steam engine, with snowy bursts blowing off its stack.  It looks like a cloud machine, with its stream of cirrus flowing from the peak.


Sam and the Lake

I feel like we’ve entered an alien world.  Sure, we recognize the things we are seeing, yurt, lake, yak; but we have no real concept of these things as they would exist as a part of these people’s lives.  “The yurts are where herders live until the weather really comes down from the mountain.”  Just some interesting words while I pause to take a picture.  It is hard, maybe impossible, to understand it as part of a real life without living it yourself.
yak herding

Yak Herders

mountain yurts

Mountain Yurts

There is a boardwalk that runs along part of the lake, so we stroll, mountain wind playing in our hair.  We pause with magnanimity to allow some goats to cross in front of us in search of grazing grounds.  This can’t be real.




We reach a building that may or may not be a restaurant.  We circle the building twice, looking for restrooms, and finally spot some structures away up on a hill behind it.

Why would they put the restrooms so far away, I wonder.

Oh, that’s why, I answer myself as I stand looking down into a cement pit of human waste.  The heroically brave of heart (or maybe just incredibly desperate) traverse out over the pit and squat while standing on two thin, wobbly planks of wood, suspended over disaster.  Flashes of Slumdog Millionaire.  So I praise everything that is good and true for the small mercy that I only have to pee, I stand well back and let fly.  Get the hell out of there as fast as possible.  I don’t want to think about what Sam had to do.

A horseback ride around the rest of the lake seems to fit the bill nicely, so Sam and I and two young Kyrgyz horseguides are on our way.  My horse (Kenny) is sweet and two sizes too small for me.  My guide (Hrrrrbembic [?????]) is friendly and smiles at me.  He offers to wear my backpack as he walks beside the horse.  He smiles again.  He offers his gloves so my hands don’t get scratched on the saddle horn.  More smiling.  I feel like I’m being courted.

As we leave the path he, still smiling, puts his hand on my thigh.  Oh, I think.  That’s friendly.  Now I REALLY feel like I’m being courted.  But then his hand moves to the saddle horn and he swings himself up behind me.  I guess that makes sense, so they don’t have to walk the entire way.  Explains why he took my backpack, too.  I offer his gloves back to him, but he refuses.  The courtship continues.

He is not large, so his arms stretch tight around me to grab the reins as he brings Kenny up to a gallop.  He hums softly and deeply.  All we need is a sunset to ride off into.  Sam cackles with unrestrained mirth behind me.

Halfway around the lake, the boys tell us, through Sam’s best translation of their attempts at Mandarin, that they need to scare off a herd of horses they see up ahead because the males will try to fight our horses.  Ok, sure.  Go to it, boys.  So they take off at full gallop, wearing our backpacks which contain our money and passports.  Leaving us on the far side of a mountain lake, near Afghanistan.  It is times like these when a more reasonable person would probably get concerned.  But I find it thrilling.  (Remind me to tell you about the time I was stranded by my plane on a grass airstrip in Costa Rica!)

So we watch as our belongings become small dots obscured by a twin trail of dust.  The boys disappear behind a hill.  But then we see a herd of horses racing across the grass toward the mountains, our guides galloping behind them, standing in their saddles with arms waving.  It was a stunning display.  And our guides speed back, heroic, with triumph on their faces.
wild horses

Shining heroes on the left, chasing the wild horses into the mountains.  Praise be!


riding hard

Sam’s Rider Returns

As we proceed around the lake, Hrrrrbembic continues to woo me, giggling as he uses my body to shield him from the gusting wind, laughing as we gallop at huge yak bulls and herd them for fun.  It is like a romcom montage.  The Dirty Dancing soundtrack swells in the background.  He is falling in love with me and I think, Oh no, I’ve gone and done it again.  (Remind me to tell you about the time a young Croatian girl whose house we stayed in for one night wrote a love note filled with teenage confusion and ardor, and some hilarious Butchered English, in my journal.)

And just as I have decided to tip him well because he has been friendly and very entertaining, he tries to screw us over.  Arguing we were riding for three hours when I know it was one and a half.

Hrrrrbembic, I think.  How could you??!  Was none of it real?!?  Was it all just an act?  What about the gloves, Hrrrrbembic?  The gloves!!!!!  Didn’t the gloves mean anything to you?!?!?  (This is the middle part of the romantic comedy, where the hero learns of the main character’s deception, thus creating a seemingly insurmountable chasm between them that will miraculously be bridged within the next thirty-five minutes.)  But this isn’t a movie, is it?  It is all over for Hrrrrbembic and I.  Never again!

In Kashgar we eat dinner at a really awesome farmhouse restaurant/compound.  Swollen grapes hang from overhead trellises.  There are several small outbuildings with large windows, curtains blowing gently, cushions on the floor, where private meals can be arranged.  I kinda want to live in one of them.


Day 32: This Little Piggy Went to the Market, pt.3

Non-Market #1: Lunch
We kill some time by eating lunch at a local favorite restaurant and try the delicious spicy chicken soup that we were hearing is so delicious and spicy. We spend a few hours of decadence back at our fancy, resort-like hotel (thank you, off season!) drinking a few beers on the upper patio, watching the sand duneyness of the sand dunes, reading novels, writing in our journals.  Spoiled.

Non-Market #2: Apakh Hoja Tomb
A few miles outside of the city is a tomb compound for some seventeenth century rulers of Kashgar. Gorgeous, vivid ceramic tiles abound. The most interesting tomb, for both aesthetic and comedic reasons, belongs to Yiparhan, whose name translates to “Fragrant Maid.” The tomb, dubbed “The Fragrant Concubine Tomb” (or, as the sign actually reads, ‘The Fregrant Comcubine Tomb,’) describes the history: “. . . in fact Fragranf Concub-ine is a true lady in history who was called fragrant maid, Apakh Hojia’ sgreat grandneice for her exceptional bodily aroma since her childhood.” So, I guess “exceptional bodily aroma” is something they celebrated back then.

apakh hoja mazar

Vivid and Decaying.  Love it.

apakh hoja

Decay and Doors.  Love it.

Fragrant  Concubine Tomb

Looooove it.

apakh hoja

Moody Columns

apakh hoja

Tile Palette

abakh khoja tomb

Tile Perspective

apakh hoja

Domes and Crescents

apakh hoja tomb

Haunted Tomb

Market #3: Occurring at Night
Smoke from sidewalk barbecues wafts away to reveal backlit tables crowded with locals eating dinner along the streets. The chicken kabobs are delicious; the lamb kabobs, not so much. We find some frozen yogurt that doesn’t suck entirely.

kashgar night market

Like a capture from a Hitchcock movie.

night market

Dinner Table

outside id kah

Id Kah Square

Outside the Id Kah mosque square sit Cinderella princess carriages, souvenir booths, and sharply dressed camels. When we walk by, the men are surely disappointed that we do not want to take pictures. After all, we are their target audience. Actually, I do want to take pictures, but this is one of those times when the self-righteous, experienced world traveler inside me drowns out the inner child shouting “Look! CAMELS!!!!” and so I refuse to fill that tourist stereotype.

tourist trap

I really want to climb up on that sophisticated camel and get a picture, but we have plans to see more camels soon enough.  So I shall wait.


Day 32: This Little Piggy Went to the Market, pt.2

Market #2: Of the Sunday Variety
Outdoors it is like a huge swap meet where you can sort through mountains of mismatched shoes at your leisure, and inside are aisles and aisles of booths selling spices, nuts, brass lamps, wooden boxes, scarves, and bolts of vivid, wild traditional fabric. Sam and I decide we need to buy even more scarves, so we spend quite a bit of time allowing a cute little Uyghur salesboy try to charm us with his smile while his zipper is down.

kashgar sunday market

See him standing on the right?  His zipper is down.

sunday market

Outside Market

old man at the sunday market

Man Outside the Market


Boys Inside the Market (once again, they loved to see their pictures on the review screen)

uyghur fabric

Traditional Uyghur Fabric

uyghur fabric

More Fabric

kashgar sunday market

Nut Booth

There is a pretty heinous bathroom at this market.  I stoop down really low to get under a rope holding a curtain and sort of side-step-scootch through a doorway, but in the process I can not avoid scraping my backpack and side against the filthy wall.  UGH.

There is not enough Purell to make me feel clean again.

Only time can heal this wound.


Day 32: This Little Piggy Went to the Market, pt.1

Market #1: Of and Concerning Animals
The animal market is acres of dirt filled with fur, hooves, and stench.  Donkeys, goats, horses, sheep, camels, cows, bulls; buying low, and selling high.

We learn that when a bunch of men try to “coax” an angry bull down from a tall truck bed by yanking on the bull’s ropes and dragging it forward, its hooves scraping desperately against the feces-covered metal surface, there is a moment before the bull’s forelegs hit the ground when you would swear it is going to flip forward and break it own neck; but instead it finds its footing, takes a beleaguered breath, and rampages in such a way that fear for our lives seems like the appropriate response.
animal market

animal market

I imagine the headline: “American Man, Reflexes Slowed by Life of Luxury and Excess, Gored by Livestock; Look of Embarrassment at Soiling Himself Frozen on Face.”

old man and donkey


When they aren’t looking and sounding ridiculous, there is something about donkeys that I find to be wise, handsome, and classy.







old beyond his years

(What sound does a camel make?)

(Plus, how much character does that little boy’s face have?)

jingle bells

Neigh (and Jingle)

animal market

“Come . . . ON, you . . . little . . . pieces of- . . . UNGH!”


Day 31: Walking Around Kashgar, and Taking Pictures of Self-Absorbed Uyghur Children

Breakfast is modest buffet of dumplings, peanuts, vegetables, egg stew with tomatoes.  It is well-nigh impossible to tell which dumplings are the delicious ones with pork inside and which dumplings are the pasty, glutinous ones with pasty gluten inside.  Thankfully, there is no shortage of hot orange tang with which to wash down the wet cement not-pork travesties.  Anyway, the boring dumplings make the delicious meaty ones taste SO much more delicious and meaty.



Day 30: Needle Stabbings in Urumqi

watching the planes

Watching the Planes at the Urumqi Airport

Day: 30.
City: Urumqi
(City Pronunciation: oo-roo-moo-chee)
Location: Airport
Headlines: “Urumqi Riots Leave 140 Dead”; “10,000 Protest Needle Stabbings in Urumqi”
Resolution: To thank Buddha that the airport is ten miles away from the city proper, to not set foot outside of said airport, and to feel lucky that we are only here to change planes on our way to Kashgar. Also, to not tell my mom about this until I am safely home. If at all.
Digression: We knew there was rioting in Western China and that we would have to be careful. But needle stabbings in the streets? That is just about the creepiest thing I have ever heard. There aren’t reports of any horrifying diseases being spread, so at least that’s good. Still, the stabbings alone, even if they were done with sterilized syringes, (which I seriously doubt), sound pretty heinous.

So Sam and I wander the small airport, sup on buckets of noodles and dessert on ice cream with that flat wooden spoon, feel encouraged and comforted by the presence of the European couple also going to Kashgar, and feel impressive and adventurous at the surprise of the couple’s Chinese tour guide when she learned we weren’t meeting up with a tour but were rather braving this dangerous and unpredictable world on our own. Interesting how quickly I have transitioned from “Needle Stabbings?!? What the hell have we gotten ourselves into?!?!” to “Yeah, we ARE pretty awesome, aren’t we?”
Conclusion: Yeah, we are pretty awesome, aren’t we?

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