Ruins And More Ruins

11th September 2017

Monk Xuanzang 602-664ADWe have a long day today as we do not catch our train until nearly 11pm but, luckily, we do not have to check out of our hotel until 2pm Beijing time. Local time is 2 hours different and whilst the ‘official’ concerns (e.g. trains & planes) stick to Beijing time, local businesses do use local time. This is the case for the rest of our organised trip so we frequently found ourselves queued outside the hotel restaurant waiting for breakfast to start.

Aerial photo of Yar Old TownIn the morning, we have a trip to Yar Old Town otherwise known as Jiaohe which was originally the capital city of the Jushi People, back in the 2nd Century. The tour began with the usual introductory museum to explain what we are about to see then the “bus” ride to the actual site, as this reduces the air pollution which could increase the deterioration rate of the ruins.

Old Town Panorama

This is apparently the largest, oldest and best preserved earthen architectural site in the world. It covers 220,000 sq metres, includes two cemeteries and was abandoned in the 14th Century after being in numerous wars including against the Mongols. It was declared part of the UNESCO Silk Road sites in 2014. End of crib from the signs in the museum and time to go and see what it is all about.

Walkway and viewpointThe little open sided bus headed off along the river below the ruined town on the top of a plateau, very scenic and lots of the little huts for drying grapes. We stopped at a modern looking set of steps to walk up to the top of an old water tower. From the top we were able to look across at the plateau and the ruins to get an overview of the size of the town. It reminded me a bit of Sigiriya in Sri Lanka with the rock rising from the plains and remains of a previous civilisation still evident on the top.

Yet more ruins in Old TownIt is then time to go and walk around, again avoiding the ever present Chinese tourists. We try to shelter from the heat in an old ruin to hear our guides explanations but are soon competing with a louder Chinese group. As ever, a few steps off the main thoroughfare and we have the place to ourselves. I was surprised than none of the buildings had been restored/rebuilt to show what a complete house would have looked like.

Forest of StupaTo the North of the Temple zone went to see “The Forest of Stupa”, which comprised of 101 Buddhist Pagodas, of which only two have been explored and partly restored. This was built around the 5th Century to store monks’ relics. To me this was the most interesting part but we had left the other tour groups far behind. The heat was sapping but I had not come this far to stay by the souvenir stalls in the shade.

Similar to a truckers cafeHaving checked out of the hotel we went to a true local restaurant to try laghman noodles accompanied with bread to share. Very tasty and also popular with the locals and tradesmen, always a good sign of cheap hearty food and as ever we are the only Westerners. We really appreciated eating in such places to get a feel of local life and simple daily fare, rather than eating in the posher or more touristy places.

Emin Minaret and MosqueWith the long afternoon and evening ahead of us we had time to visit a more modern attraction, the 18th Century Emin Minaret built in Afghani style, this is similar to places we visited on the Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan sections of the Silk Road. Standing at 44m high it is the tallest Minaret in China. This has been restored along with the Uyghur Mosque and many tombs surrounding it, which looked like long rows of concrete sausages.

Restored tombsAnother tourist site in town is the Karat Irrigation system, which although still in use, part of one has been turned into a museum and tourist attraction. It is a series of underground canals where the tunnels were hand excavated and approx. 1.5m high and 0.6m wide extending anywhere from 5km to 20km long. There were 1,784 such channels in Xinjiang Province spreading some 5,272km and carrying 858 million cubic metres of water a year. Now there are only about 1/3 left.

Karat Irrigation system The best part of our visit was the freshly squeezed grape juice, made from apparently the best grapes in China. A machine on a market stall using local water is the sort of thing tourists are told to avoid on hygiene grounds, but no bad consequences occurred! Refreshed, we continued with our tour to discover how water was collected from the melting snow in the surrounding mountains and channelled from the surrounding hillside into the town to provide a fresh water supply.

Heathily squeezed grapesThere was still a fair while to wait until our overnight train, so after a number of phone calls to the driver’s boss, the guide’s boss, and I expect a number of other interested parties too, we headed out of town to visit the ancient village of Tugoq. However, we never got there as the bus developed a “fault” just as we passed the entrance to Gaochang, another ruined village, so we visited there instead.

Old City wall at GaochangBy this time, it was quite late in the afternoon and we had the place to ourselves. We all boarded the now familiar open sided tourist bus and headed down a deserted track in a big loop around the ruins. The route took us past various partly restored buildings and we felt a bit rushed not knowing how long the tour would take and how much time was available for each stop. This made it difficult to appreciate what we were seeing and the consensus was that we would have liked more time.

Look carefully and you see remains of paintingsMost buildings were in ruins but, as ever, it is more about what you cannot see and what it would have been like in its heyday. Still, always a good photo opportunity and so we tried to find those winning shots. Walking around the back of one such building we were able to see remains of paintings in a series of niches.

Sun going down on Silk Road city remainsOn the return coach ride we passed the Flaming Mountains which as the name implies where quite spectacular rock formations and colours, no time to stop. Driving into what seemed to be the middle of nowhere when, suddenly, the train station just appeared in the dessert. We were now used to the routine of finding our bunks;  storing our luggage; exchanging our ticket for a plastic card with the conductor; and climbing into bed ready to be lulled to sleep as the train heads off through the now pitch black desert.

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