adventures in the people's republic of china and beyond

Friday, November 16, 2007


Kucha and the Subash Ruins

Note: Apparently, these ruins are sometimes called the "Subashi ruins"(transliteration from the Chinese name 苏巴什, which is a transliteration from the Uyghur name, which may not actually have an ending "i."(e.g. the Chinese "Ta-shi-ku-er-gan" for Tashkurgan) Our cab driver certainly didn't pronounce it with an ending "i", at least).

The Subash ruins.

Onboard the sleeper bus to Kucha, I read Uyghur for the Masses as the sun went down. I hadn't gotten very far by the time it was dark, but I felt confident enough to try out my Uyghur when we stopped at a little town in the middle of the night for a break. "Necche puul?" I asked, holding up a bottle of 维C可乐(Vitamin C Cola). The woman selling drinks responded "'shkoy"(three kuai). Success!

After arriving in Kucha and getting a hotel room, we walked out in search of something to eat. Kucha felt a lot less developed than Urumqi, with sandy streets, old one-floor brick buildings, and old men riding about on donkey carts. We found a street lined with vendors selling fresh fruit, meat, and yogurt, and spotted a bunch of people sitting around eating breakfast. We got the same thing they were having - a simple, tasty noodle soup with beef. After eating, I spotted a girl selling bottles filled with white fluid - could it be yogurt? There were some communication problems and lots of finger gestures, but in the end she poured a whole bottle into a bag and tied it up for me. Turned out to be milk, and I ended up spilling most of it in the attempt to pour the milk from the bag, but it was still good.

Outside of Kucha are two of its main attractions: the Kizil Buddhist caves and the Subash ruins. Rebecca was tired of seeing Buddhist caves, so we headed to the Subash ruins instead, paying a taxi to take us one-way - he only charged us 20 kuai!

The taxi dropped us off along the road in the middle of nowhere. Desert stretched out in all directions; in the distance were mountains and a small town. Before us was a cluster of unusual rock formations and a large shack with a sign. A Chinese family living in the shack were the gatekeepers; a fellow wearing military fatigues sold me a ticket.

The Subash ruins are remnants of the ancient Tocharian kingdom of Guici, an important stop along the silk road and the meeting-point of Indian, Central Asian, and Chinese culture. The monk Xuanzang was said to have rested here on his pilgrimage to India.

It was a windy, overcast day, and there were few others at the site besides ourselves. Many of the ruins were indistinguishable from large rocks, but there were a few structures that you could pick out, including a large two-story temple. I suppose it didn't help that tourists like ourselves were climbing all over them, but it was fun. Climbing up to the top of a big rock, we could see a high plateau in the distance across a swath of desert. On top of the plateau you could make out small structures that looked like ruins. A few miles down the road, we could see a little village covered in trees.

As we left, I asked the guy in the shack about the place across the desert. He happily informed me those were the eastern ruins, and that they were much better preserved than these ones (I guess because of their inaccessibility). I love walking to distant places, so off we went.

We walked up the road, passing a group of Uyghur workers who appeared to be quarrying stone. Further on, we entered the desert. The ground was cracked from the heat, but in certain areas was slightly muddy - apparently, this "desert" was actually a dried-up river. The distance was longer than expected, but it was a nice walk.

These ruins were absolutely deserted, and indeed better preserved than the western ruins. There was a very interesting-looking temple in the middle of the ruins you can see a picture of. Up on the plateau, there were nice views all around. I love places like this, so we spent some time here. There was a canyon splitting the plateau in two, and on the other side I could see yet more ruins.

Sitting up on the plateau, looking down, I spotted a youngish guy on a motorcycle driving out to the ruins! He parked in a canyon below us, and quickly scampered up the other side. He looked like a local to me. Hey, if I lived around ancient deserted ruins, I'd probably spend a lot of time around them too.

We climbed down, making our way towards the little town, but as we passed the canyon, my curiosity got the better of me and I climbed up to see the other ruins. I spotted the other guy on top of the plateau, who spotted me too, but we didn't say anything to each other. In the distance, I could see a lone building, strangely separated from the rest of the ruins. There was even a path of sorts leading to it, but Rebecca was waiting at the bottom and it would have taken too much time to get there and back. But at least there is still some mystery there for me.

You can see a temple at the end of this path.

See that little patch of green to the right? It's a town!

It was kind of hard to get down from the plateau. I ended up sliding down on my butt, causing a huge amount of dust and pebbles to slide down with me. Walking to the town took a long time. We were pretty hungry, and hoped to find some food there. When we arrived, we were surprised to find it was no ordinary town. I was expecting the usual shacks and shantyhouses, but the houses here seemed newly built, with pretty, albeit identical mosaiced gates. A large, faded sign depicting Hu Jintao in a square Uyghur cap posing with a bearded old Uyghur man graced the entrance to the town. Even the road was newly paved! Communist-themed posters hung on the walls. There were strangely few people about. In the middle of the paved road running through town was a large tree.

The People's Republic of China is committed to protecting the environment.

Further in, we saw a modern building - the town's Communisty Party headquarters, and across from it, the school. There were hardly any people about and nobody hawking food, so we decided to leave, heading toward the town gates. As we left, a wrinkled old Uyghur man with an impressively large beard who we had passed earlier suddenly called out to us.

Amazed that they spoke Chinese out in this desolate one-road town, I returned the Uyghur greeting yakhshim siz. He asked me a question. It was hard for me to understand his Chinese, and he had a hard time understanding me, but he was speaking Chinese alright! "Ni shi huizu haishi hanzu?" he asked me (are you Hui(Chinese Muslim) or Han?).
As I chatted with the old man, suddenly, the citizens of town started to appear around us, curious at the foreigners who had walked all the way to their little town. I talked with a 50ish man who spoke decent Mandarin, asking him what the name of the town was (I don't remember what it was called). I asked him if there was a place to eat, and he said there was a communal dining hall a couple kilometers up the road. Perhaps this town didn't realize the Cultural Revolution had ended thirty years ago?

I finished chatting with the man, saying goodbye to him - he thanked us for visiting the town! We waited around at the town gate for a while before a car passed by, giving us a ride back to Kucha.

Next: the great mosque of Kucha

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