Deal Of The Trip

12th September 2017

Samsas cooking in the ovenIt’s another early morning train arrival – though fortunately the last of our trip – and so we are bleary eyed as we pull in to Kuqa (Kucha) and manoeuvre the bags out of the train. As ever, the immediate priority is breakfast and above all coffee and so (after meeting Sadiq, our new guide, who will be with us for the rest of the trip) we head to our hotel where we can have an early check in and breakfast. Well, it would be breakfast if you’re Chinese. Whilst there is a massive buffet, it is squarely aimed at Chinese tastes and what little there is for Westerners is poor – e.g. tough, rubbery bacon. And as for the coffee, the less said the better.

Deserted ruins of SubashiThe town of Kuqa is one of the oldest Buddhist cities on the Silk Road dating back to the Han dynasty (4th Century) and is located on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert (west of the Gobi Desert). One of the reasons that we are here is to see the ruins of the Subashi Buddhist complex that is a little way outside of town. The immediate comparison is with the ruins we visited yesterday afternoon – sandstone brick buildings in a very dilapidated state with only remnants of walls, some of which have cutouts for doors and windows.

Ruined buildings and mountainsHere there are fewer ruins than at Gaochang (if you ignore the eastern complex on the other side of the Kuqa river) but at least here we can walk around. We’ve often complained about tourist sites being over-restored and here we see the consequences of leaving historical sites untouched – its hard to get a sense of what they once looked like. Perhaps the best was contrasting the ruins against the rugged mountains in the background. At least we couldn’t complain about the (non-existent) crowds of tourists!

Making the next batch of samsasIf breakfast was disappointing, lunch was the exact opposite. A real treat, very tasty and costing buttons. We are driving back in to town from Subashi and Laura spots a small local restaurant (café?) baking their own samsas – the local equivalent of empanadas – and so we decided to stop and have an early lunch. Great call, these samsas were very tasty and only about 1RMB each and a few of them paired nicely with some bread from a nearby stall. While we were eating we could watch more samsas being made and being cooked stuck to the inside of a big earthenware oven. The only awkward moment came when we were presented with a ridiculously small bill, particularly as in some places it is illegal for restaurants to accept tips. We were eventually able to talk the bill up to 100RMB (£11) for the 12 of us – but only by accepting watermelon and grapes freshly cut off the vine.

Colours & textures in the pillars of the mosqueIn the afternoon, we head for Kuqa old town, but first stopping off to admire Kuqa mosque. This is a 1930s rebuild of a 16th century mosque (renovated after an earthquake in 1998) and is notable for being the second largest mosque (after that in Kashgar) in China. Whilst the hall can hold 3,000 people for prayer, I was more interested in the textures, colours and shapes in the wooden pillars ringing the courtyard. There was also a small museum attached to the mosque where the only exhibit seemed to be a set of leather straps used for inflicting sharia law punishments. Hmm!

Now that's a shopfront!From the mosque, we have a walk around the old town starting with the back streets of a residential area. Looking back having visited Beijing, I suspect that the local term for the alleys would be hutong. Our guide explains that districts like this are being redeveloped with the traditional buildings being pulled down and replaced by apartment blocks. Whilst not exactly picturesque, there was a quiet peacefulness about the streets with just the odd local going about their business. You would think that China doesn’t need any more apartment blocks. We have seen so many of them in rows or grids on the outskirts of all the cities we’ve visited.

Proud of his breadAs we get through the back streets on to the main road we get to see the doorways shop fronts all colourfully decorated. In some cases, we weren’t exactly sure what they were selling – though the man with the array of freshly baked bread was clearly and exception. In any case, those who like photographs of brightly painted doors (and I wasn’t the only one) had a field day!

Happy traders at the market

As curious about us as we were with him!The main road led to the local market which, although small by the standards of some we’ve seen this trip, was outdoors and so lent itself to photography. The displays of brightly coloured fruits and peppers also helped, as did the locals in their colourful clothes. Some of the locals were even happy to pose for a picture – especially as Laura is always willing to stump up to try the local food. The fresh figs were tasty enough, but we drew the line at the sheep heads bubbling away in a big pot.

Fancy setting for the restaurantFortunately, our food was of the more traditional type that evening even if the setting was a ridiculous faux belle-epoque restaurant. Whilst the decoration was over the top lavish, the food was exactly in line with what we were expecting. We do like our Chinese food and it is even better when you can also have a kebab to get your meat fix. What we do struggle with though is the attitude to alcohol here. Although the restaurants have bottles of beer and spirits on display, they don’t like to sell alcohol and the bottles are mostly for show. What they do tend to have is a selection of non-alcoholic cocktails and it is easy enough to settle for them – and even better to know that tonight we’re in a hotel and not on a train!

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