adventures in the people's republic of china and beyond

Saturday, September 29, 2007


Tuyoq: Town in the Flaming Mountains

After the Bezeklik caves, we headed to Tuyoq, a small Uyghur grape-producing village nestled in a valley of the Flaming Mountains. Both Lonely Planet and my Chinese guidebook had raved about Tuyoq, claiming that it was little-visited by tourists and offered a truly “authentic” experience. But given so much positive press, I was expecting the place to be overrun by tackily-dressed Westerners and camera-happy Chinese by the time I’d gotten there.

As I bought student-discounted tickets to enter the town (it may sound silly that you have to buy tickets just to enter a town, but that’s how it works), the Uyghur fellow checking my student ID looked up and grinned. He was about my age and sported the infamous Uyghur mullet (more about this hairstyle later). “Ni ye shi 87 nian de?”(You’re born in ‘87 too?)

Much to my surprise, Tuyoq really was as serene and untouched as the guidebooks claimed. It was really one of the nicest places I’ve visited in Xinjiang. All the buildings in town were of traditional Uyghur mud-brick architecture, and you could see beds and sofas outside on porches or on the roof – the locals must sleep outside to keep cool at night. I felt a sense of indescribable pleasure just strolling around that town through the little streets. I could have walked around there for hours. It was a peaceful place.

There weren’t too many people walking about town in the afternoon sun, just a few locals, and nobody seemed to notice or mind our presence. The only thing I had regretted was not taking more pictures. The guy selling tickets had forbade me to take pictures in town. But it seems a little strict – I could understand not taking pictures of people, since it’s both rude and offensive to certain Islamic beliefs prohibiting photography, but why not buildings? I managed to sneak in a few shots of the town anyway, as you see, encouraged by the Uyghur tourists who started snapping pictures once nobody was around.

After strolling around a bit, we headed up on a hill overlooking the town, where we could see the mazaar (tomb), supposedly the tomb of the first Uyghur Muslim and an important pilgrimage site for local Muslims. We walked further and noticed a tractor with lots of baskets of green grapes! Turpan is famous for its green grapes, and is the center of grape production in China.

Just as I was looking around for someone to buy the grapes from, a youngish guy in his 20s emerged from the dense grape fields. I grinned, motioned towards the grapes and took out a couple kuai, assuming he didn’t speak any Chinese. He walked over, took up several bunches of grapes, blew the dust off of them, then gave the whole armful to me! I tried handing him the money, but he refused it. “Song gei de!”(it’s a gift), he said, in a thick accent. It was the first time we'd seen such striking contrast - lush, green grapefields surrounded by miles of empty, barren desert. From what I've read, desert soil is actually very rich, it's just that it has no water - so if you can get water to it, it can be very productive.

We walked off down a canyon enjoying our grapes, which were enough to quench our thirst despite forgetting to bring extra water – they say water is plentiful in Xinjiang, after all, it’s just that it takes the form of grapes and melons. Further up along the canyon wall were the Buddhist caves of Tuyoq. There are lots of Buddhist cave sites around Xinjiang, remnants of the Buddhist kingdoms that reigned in the area before the arrival of Islam. Buddhism itself came to China (and eventually the rest of East Asia) through Xinjiang along the Silk Road.

If you're anything like me, getting to explore forgotten Buddhist caves in the desert make you feel tingly all over.

Climbing up to the caves!

Rebecca was a bit too tired to climb up to the caves, but I generally get intrigued by 1)deserts 2)caves 3)ruins 4)any combination of the above, so I eagerly climbed up the rickety old wooden stairs. The place seemed deserted, so I was surprised to find a fellow at the top who checked my ticket and opened up the caves to me to take a look. They were a bit small, and much of the art had been vandalized centuries ago by religious zealots, but it was a nice little place nonetheless.

Tuyoq is a spot of green in the middle of miles of barren desert.

Walking back to the town, we bought some water from a pretty Uyghur girl near the entrance who looked exactly like the “traditional” Uyghur girls you see in pictures of minorities – big brown eyes, long braids, wearing a brightly colored, patterned dress and a square cap on her head. I put traditional in quotes because I’ve never actually seen anyone dressing like that apart from at tourist sites – Uyghur women seem to prefer tying bandanas or scarves around their hair (and braids seem quite unpopular too). She spoke some of the best Mandarin I’ve heard from locals of that region, inviting us to sit down and enjoy our water in the shade. As we sat, she directed the little electric fan at us, lamenting the hot weather and offering us even more grapes, although we’d eaten quite enough already.

We climbed up some stairs towards the mazaar we’d seen earlier. A sign said you could pay 25 kuai to visit the mazar, but I had no urge to pay for the privilege of bothering people at a religious site, so we went on further up, meeting the road (I think you could easily enter the town from here without paying anything) and took the photo below, as well as the one at the very top.

Muslim tombs at the base of the Flaming Mountains.

Finally, we decided we were ready to go and went back to find our driver, who was relaxing in the shade with the ticket selling guy. As Rebecca went to use the bathroom, I had a chat with the ticket seller, who seemed quite curious about me and spoke decent Mandarin.
“What does your dad do?”
”He’s an engineer.”
Here I used the word gongchengshi to refer to engineer, which the guy didn’t know, so our driver(who was Uyghur) translated into Uyghur: ingenir. Perhaps Uyghur wouldn’t be too difficult to learn after all…
“How much does he make?”(this is a common question in China and not considered impolite)
“Uh, he does alright.”
Gongzi hen gao ba!”(His salary must be really high!) the guy laughed.

After Rebecca returned, we had lunch with a local family, who served us some laghman, a staple of Uyghur cooking. Laghman(a loanword from Chinese “lamian”) are pulled noodles made fresh, topped with a tomato-based sauce made with meat and peppers. I chatted with the driver a bit and learned another word in Uyghur: rahmat, meaning “thank you”, which I eagerly tried on our non-Chinese-speaking hosts. After lunch our driver suggested I slip a 20 to our host, who gratefully accepted after the obligatory “no, I won’t take it” “no, you must take it” business.

To be continued…

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