An overnight stop in Urumqi (there’s even a Holiday Inn) gives a chance to see the museum there at leisure. Especially the famous mummies, perfectly preserved by the dry desert air in the tombs of the region, and the variety of grave goods, textiles and designs in the tombs that testify to the mixing of races and cultures that took place in Central Asia.
Surrounded by a harsh landscape, the oasis town of Turpan (or Turfan) is easily accessible by road or rail and is on most tourist itineraries. The seventh-century monk Xuan Zang stopped there, on his way to India, and found the king’s hospitality impossible to refuse. He had to go on hunger strike to be allowed to continue his journey.
Turpan stands in the midst of a basin which boasts the second lowest spot on earth: 154 meters below sea level, hence the extremes of temperature (-15 to 40 C).
Vineyards and orchards give Turpan its charm. It has remained verdant throughout the centuries thanks to an underground water system of wells and channels called karez (a Persian word) which cover some 1,600 km and are fed by the glaciers of the Tianshan Mountains. Grapes, introduced 2,000 years ago, are still dried in open brickwork towers dotted amid the trellises. Wine making has been practiced here since the technique was passed on to the Chinese during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Marco Polo in the 13th century found the local wine “excellent”; today’s overpriced product is undistinguished.
The Turpan Hotel and the Oasis are the best places to stay, though the massive new wing at the Turpan Hotel is no improvement on the old rooms.
The drive from Turpan to the Bezeklik Buddhist caves passes through the sandstone-red Flaming Mountains where Monkey in “Journey to the West” got burned. (Hence his red bottom!) Bezeklik’s murals (fourth-14th centuries) suffered at the hands of German archaeologist von Le Cocq and Muslim vandals, but the remaining fragments as well as the site itself are beautiful and make the excursion worthwhile.
The Astana tombs are important. Dated seventh to ninth centuries, they contained perfectly preserved mummies, some apparently with Caucasian genetic links. The bodies, wrapped in silk, were buried with food offerings, statuettes and Persian coins. The tomb contents are mostly in the Urumqi Museum but the murals depicting auspicious birds and Confucian virtues left in situ are of some interest.
Other trips outside Turpan include the ruins of the ancient cities of Jiaohe and Gaochang, both founded in the second century B.C. during the Han Dynasty. Gaochang was an important center at various periods in its history. When the Uighurs made it their capital in the ninth century, they introduced Manichaeism, which flourished alongside Buddhism and Nestorian Christianity. The scale of the ruins (reached by donkey cart) evokes the importance of a complex multicultural society. After their conversion to Islam in the 10th century the Uighurs were less tolerant and Buddhist sites such as Bezeklik were vandalized. At the end of the road, the caves, nestling in a green valley, offer a welcome respite, as they must have done to Silk Road travelers in the past.
From Turpan, the overnight train takes you in comfort to Dunhuang and the nearby Mogao Caves, the world’s greatest collection of Buddhist art with some 45,000 murals and 2,000 statues, spanning a thousand years (fourth to 14th centuries). Le Coq never got there but other “foreign devils” did — Sir Aurel Stein in 1907, Paul Pelliot a year later and Count Otani in 1911. They were drawn to the site by the discovery in cave 17 of more than 50,000 manuscripts hidden away from invaders in the 11th century. They bought hundreds of unique documents from Abbot Wang, the Taoist priest who had found the cache and who used the money for some rather garish restoration work.
Today about 500 caves survive but access is strictly limited. Only 30 are open to the general public and included in most tours (a yearly list is published every April). Another dozen “special caves” can be visited by paying a separate entrance fee which differs according to the age and quality of the paintings (3,000 yen for cave 285, dated 538) or their rarity (5,000 yen, top price, for the erotic scenes in cave 465, Yuan Dynasty [1279-1368]).
The fees may be steep but the art is superb and visiting selected caves without the crowds is like having the Sistine Chapel to oneself. It all started in 336 when a monk, Lie Zun, consecrated the first cave after seeing a vision of a thousand golden Buddhas shining over the Mogao cliffs. Over the centuries, pilgrims about to embark on the perilous journey across the desert followed his example and dedicated votive murals and statues. The art of every period is well represented and since different caves are open each year, one has to enjoy what is on offer.
Most hotels are in Dunhuang itself, but 3 km out of town, close to the Mingshan sand dunes and the Crescent Lake, the Silk Road Dunhuang Hotel (not to be confused with the Silk Road Hotel in town) offers unparalleled location, style and affordable luxury, if booked in an all-inclusive tour. A Chinese fort on the outside, the rooms inside are tastefully decorated in natural wood, brick and slate. To appeal to Japanese clientele, some bathrooms have a cedar o-furo (which doesn’t empty easily — nothing is perfect!). The restaurant, better than average, opens to an inner courtyard where traditional dances and music take place. From the top terraces, the sunset over the desert offers the perfect conclusion to a stay in Dunhuang.