Monday, 2 January 2012

Travels with Li Dongni – Xinjiang, China (October 2011), part 2

Ancient cities, temples and towers

Gaochang city

Gaochang, located near to the modern city of Turpan (or Tulufan), was originally constructed in the 1st Century BC – an oasis in the Taklamakan desert (see my first Xinjiang travel post) for travellers and traders on the Silk Road.  It now exists as an expansive ruined site, with the mud-built walls and buildings serving as impressive and ghostly remains of a once great settlement.

The best way to see the site is by donkey cart, and there are plenty of locals at the entrance ready to haggle with (though when we were there they were seemingly led by some twelve year old gangster-kid who was busy bossing everybody around and strutting rather too much).  Our transport was provided by a friendly old chap with a slightly moody donkey, who took us to the centre of the ruins and then back again once we had wandered around for a while.

While exploring the ruins, we came across a one of the local inhabitants – a sand boa, which was halfway through devouring a bird when we came across it.  A local guy (who we think worked at Gaochang though it was hard to tell) started playing with the snake with a stick, and it soon abandoned its meal.  It slithered away but we came across it about an hour later cooling itself down behind a rock.

Sanpu temple

This was one of those sites that makes me remember why we travel independently and not with travel groups, as it’s not open to the public yet but our driver knew some of the locals working on the site and they let us in for a wander around.  The temple is close to Gaochang, and part of the wider city remains.  It’s actually pretty easy to climb over the low boundary walls though, and we soon had a group of local kids following us, wanting to have their photos taken by the foreigners.

The site is currently having wooden platforms installed, and will soon have interpretation.  As it stands, it’s an impressive temple monument that will surely be a feature on the local tourist map and bring some revenue to the local community.

Astana cemetery

Astana was the cemetery site for the city of Gaochang, and the source of the well preserved mummies now on display at Urumqi museum (see my blog post here).  The cemetery contained people from all walks of life and social classes and was used from AD273 to AD778.  It covers over 10,000 square kilometres and houses over 1,000 burials, though only about half of these have ever been excavated.

The site now is a strangely desolate landscape, but a handful of the underground tombs are unearthed and visitable via long staircases.  Photography is forbidden inside the tombs, so I’m sadly unable to share the wall paintings inside, but suffice to say they are fascinating examples of Buddhist art.  One tomb even has a mummy in situ, but it is in a very old display case and in drastic need of some TLC.  I fear that the mummy might not last much longer without some curatorial intervention, and it exists in stark contrast to the condition of the mummies in Urumqi museum, where this one should undoubtedly also be.

The site also has a rather intrusive modern reconstruction of a platform over a tomb, Chinese zodiac statues, and a large statue of Fuxi and Nuwa, the Chinese mythological creator deities, with serpent tails entwined.

Jiaohe city

Jiaohe is one of those fantastic archaeological sites that, because of its setting, is never forgotten.  When I first saw a model of Jiaohe in Urumqi museum, I instantly related it to the Jewish fortress of Masada (taken by the Romans in AD72).  Jiaohe sits atop a sheer 30 metre cliff-top, with a river running around each side of it, as the site map below shows.

Jiaohe was an important place on the Silk Route, and between 108BC and AD450 it was the capital of the Anterior Jushi kingdom.  It continued to be an important site under various Dynasties until its abandonment after it was destroyed by Genghis Khan’s Mongols in the 13th Century.

The natural defences meant that Jiaohe didn’t need walls, though it had large gates protecting the routes up the cliffs.  The city had an organised layout with eastern and western residential districts, and a northern district reserved for Buddhist temples.

Kezikalahan war signalling station

When you go travelling, sometimes it’s the small sites that you’d never heard of that leave the biggest impression on you – often far more than the famous sites do.  It’s one reason why we prefer to travel independently rather than with organised groups and tours.  This mud and timber signalling tower dates back to the Han Dynasty (206BC-AD220), and is apparently the best surviving example of the many such military structures built in Xinjiang.  It sits in a rather featureless piece of open, sandy landscape close to the edge of a cliff (at the base of which a road seems to be in the early stages of being constructed).  It’s a plain structure with the remains of a wooden platform still visible on top (though the wood could be any age), but it stands so prominently in the landscape that you can’t help but be impressed by it – and feel sorry for any soldiers stationed on the top of it for any length of time!


Subash (sometimes seen written as ‘subashi’) is a difficult site to label, but I suppose ‘monastic city’ is as good a title as any.  It was originally constructed in the 1st Century (Han Dynasty), but continued in use until the 13th and 14th Centuries, when the rise of Islam saw its decline.  It reached its zenith in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), and the monk Xuanzang (of ‘Journey to the West’ fame), stayed at the site for 2 months.  At its height it was home to 10,000 monks and exists today as an open site with well preserved ruins, which are fantastic for exploring.

When we visited, there was a rather eccentric old lady there who I suppose was acting as a sort of site warden, but basically just sat at the entrance and was keen to sell us things when we were ready to leave!  The gods on offer were in a series of backrooms which seemed to double as store cupboards, and heaven knows where most of the stuff had come from (though she kept claiming that things were much older than they obviously were, no doubt assuming that all westerners are gullible fools)

One rather nice touch was a small alcove inside one of the temples which has become a makeshift shrine for tourists, and is now full of incense, candles and money left as offerings

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