Tracing a vague southern parallel to the Tian Shan mountain range, the road from Dunhuang, in western Gansu, to Turpan covers some of the harshest terrain in all of China – little water ever reaches this area of scorching depressions, which was dreaded by the Silk Road traders as one of the most hazardous sections of the entire cross-Asia trip.
The first major city you’ll hit on crossing from Gansu is Hami. Known across China for its melons (and to readers of Marco Polo, evidently happy with being given “temporary wives” here), this is a bit of a nonentity, although there are hourly departures from its bus station into the Tian Shan mountains – after an hour or so, you’ll be in the midst of superb alpine scenery, the valleys dotted with small tent communities. Next comes Turpan, famed for its grapes and for being the hottest city in the country; despite the heat it can be one of the most relaxing and enjoyable places in all China. The route then skirts along the Tarim Basin to the wealthy but dull town of Korla, though Kuqa just beyond is more deserving of a stopover, thanks to its traditional feel and the low-key Silk Road relics in the surrounding deserts. There’s then a long journey to Kashgar, via Aksu – the scene of a major terrorist bombing in 2010.
The road is in fairly good condition all the way, though given the vast distances involved, it makes much more sense to travel by train. Note that east of Turpan (itself rather far from its attendant station), there are only a couple of services per day in either direction.
The small oasis town of TURPAN (吐鲁番, tùlŭfān) is an absolute must-see if you’re in Xinjiang. Long a Silk Road outpost, it has been a favourite with adventurous travellers for some time, and before the travails of 2008 this little place had seen its stock rise considerably. Residents covered many streets and walkways with vine trellises, converting them into shady green tunnels (partly for the benefit of tourists), but have also managed to retain a relatively easy-going manner even in the heady economic climate of modern China.
The town is located in a depression 80m below sea level, which accounts for its extreme climate – well above 40°C in summer and well below freezing in winter. In summer the dry heat is so soporific that there is little call to do anything but sleep or sip cool drinks in outdoor cafés with other tourists or the friendly locals. To ease the consciences of the indolent there are a number of ruined cities and Buddhist caves worth visiting in the countryside around the city, testimony to its past role as an important Silk Road stopover. Rather surprisingly, despite its bone-dry surroundings, Turpan is an agricultural centre of note, famed across China for its grapes. Today, virtually every household in the town has a hand in the business, both in cultivating the vine, and in drying the grapes at the end of the season (a Grape Festival is held at the end of August). Note that if you come out of season (Nov–March), Turpan is cold and uninspiring, with the vines cut back and most businesses closed – the surrounding sights, however, remain interesting, and at these times are almost devoid of other tourists.
Turpan is a largely Uyghur-populated area and, in Chinese terms, an obscure backwater, but it has not always been so. As early as the Han dynasty, the Turpan oasis was a crucial point along the Northern Silk Road, and the cities of Jiaohe, and later Gaochang (both of whose ruins can be visited from Turpan), were important and wealthy centres of power. On his way to India, Xuanzang spent more time than he had planned here, when the king virtually kidnapped him in order to have him preach to his subjects. This same king later turned his hand to robbing Silk Road traffic, and had his kingdom annexed by China in 640 as a result. From the ninth to the thirteenth century, a rich intellectual and artistic culture developed in Gaochang, resulting from a fusion between the original Indo-European inhabitants and the (pre-Islamic) Uyghurs. It was not until the fourteenth century that the Uyghurs of Turpan converted to Islam.
Xuanzang and the Journey to the West
Xuanzang and the Journey to the West
Trade goods were not the only things to travel along the Silk Road; it was along this route that Buddhism first arrived in China at some point in the first century AD. Cities along the way became bastions of the religion (which in part explains their abandonment and desecration following the introduction of Islam after 1000), and from early on, Chinese pilgrims visited India and brought back a varied bag of Buddhist teachings. The most famous was the Tang-dynasty monk Xuanzang, unique for the depth of his learning and the exhaustive quantity of material with which he returned after a seventeen-year journey from the then capital of China, Chang’an (Xi’an), to India.
Born near Luoyang in 602, Xuanzang favoured Mahayana Buddhism, which depicts the world as an illusion produced by our senses. Having studied in Luoyang, Chengdu and Chang’an, he became confused by often contradictory teachings, and in 629 he decided to visit India to study Buddhism at its source. China’s new Tang rulers had forbidden foreign travel, so Xuanzang went without official permission, narrowly avoiding arrest in western Gansu. He almost died of thirst before reaching Hami and then Turpan, at the foot of the Flaming Mountains. Turpan’s king detained him for a month to hear him preach but eventually provided a large retinue, money and passports for safe passage through other kingdoms. Xuanzang reached Kuqa unharmed, and spent two months waiting for the passes north over the Tian Shan to thaw – even so, a great number of his party died traversing the mountains. On the far side in modern Kyrgyzstan, Xuanzang’s religious knowledge greatly impressed the Khan of the Western Turks, before he continued, via the great central Asian city of Samarkand, through modern-day Afghanistan, over the Hindu Kush and so down into India, arriving about a year after he set out. Xuanzang spent fifteen years in India visiting holy sites, including the Ganges and places from Buddha’s life. He also studied Buddhism in major and esoteric forms, lectured, and entered debates – which he often won – with famous teachers on aspects of religious thought.
If he hoped to find ultimate clarity he was probably disappointed, as the interpretation of Buddhist lore in India was even more varied than in China. However, he did manage to acquire a vast collection of Buddhist statues, relics and texts, and in 644 decided that it was his responsibility to return to China with this trove of knowledge. Given an elephant to carry his luggage by the powerful north Indian king Harsha, Xuanzang recrossed the Kush and turned east to travel over the Pamirs to Tashkurgan (near where the elephant unfortunately drowned) before heading up to Kashgar – then, as now, an outpost of the Chinese empire. From here he turned southeast to the silk and jade emporium of Khotan, whose king claimed Indian ancestry and where there were a hundred Buddhist monasteries. Xuanzang spent eight months here, waiting for replacements of Buddhist texts lost in northern India and a reply from the Tang emperor Taizong, to whom he had written requesting permission to re-enter China. When it came, permission was enthusiastic, and Xuanzang lost little time in returning to Chang’an via Niya, Miran, Loulan and Dunhuang, arriving in the Chinese capital in 645. He had left unknown, alone and almost as a fugitive; he returned to find tens of thousands of spectators crowding the road to Chang’an. The emperor became his patron, and he spent the last twenty years of his life translating part of the collection of Buddhist texts acquired on his travels.
Xuanzang wrote a biography, but highly coloured accounts of his travels also passed into folklore, becoming the subject of plays and the sixteenth-century novel Journey to the West, still a popular tale in China. In it, Xuanzang (known as Tripitaka) is depicted as terminally naïve, hopelessly dismayed by the various disasters that beset him. Fortunately, he’s aided by the Bodhisattva of Mercy, Guanyin, who sends him spirits to protect him in his quest: the vague character of Sandy; the greedy and lecherous Pigsy; and Sun Wu Kong, the brilliant Monkey King. As many of the novel’s episodes are similar, varying only in which particular demon has captured Tripitaka, the best parts are the lively exchanges between Pigsy and Monkey, as they endeavour to rescue their master. A good abridgement in English is Arthur Waley’s Monkey.