Sunday, 8 January 2012

Travels with Li Dongni – Xinjiang, China (October 2011), part 3

Buddhists, grottoes and mosques

Xinjiang is well served with religious archaeological sites – in particular Buddhist caves, with which the Heaven mountains are quite literally riddled.  This post, the final one looking at my trip to the province, will focus on the Buddhist and Muslim sites we visited.

Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves

The Beziklik caves are located near Turpan and the Flaming mountains, at the north-eastern edge of the Taklamakan desert (see my first Xinjiang travel post for these).  The 77 caves were created during the 5th to the 9th Centuries and consist of man-shaped caverns with rounded ceilings containing Buddhist paintings in various degrees of survival.  The damage to the paintings is a cause of controversy as although some deterioration is no doubt natural, deliberate damage was done by the later Muslim population and then by Europeans in the 19th Century.  This latter removal of frescoes for European encyclopaedic museums is ingrained on the minds of the Chinese populace.  Sadly, the murals from Bezeklik were mostly taken by a German (with the rather fantastic name of Albert von Le Coq) and were destroyed during the Second World War when Berlin was bombed.  Other murals still survive in St Petersburg, Tokyo, Korea and India.

A mistrust of foreigners is still present today, and I personally didn’t enjoy visiting Bezeklik because of the close attention that the attendant staff member provided – following me into every cave, and repeatedly saying ‘no photographs’ even though my camera never came close to being raised.  I suppose I’m just used to being trusted when visiting heritage sites, but the constant hovering of the local made me feel intensely uncomfortable.  I have no problem with photography not being allowed in the caves, I just like to think that I only need telling once, and I don’t appreciate having my own personal stalker!

As it is, despite the fame of Bezeklik, I didn’t find the surviving paintings all that impressive, and thought that the setting of the caves was far more attractive.

Emin Ta Pagoda (Su Gong Ta)

Emin Ta is a mosque located near to Turpan, and is one of the largest in Xinjiang.  It is most famous for its gorgeous 144’ (44m) high minaret, and the story of its construction.  Emin Ta was built in 1777 in honour of the Turpan General Emin Khoja, a supporter of the Chinese Qing dynasty, by his son Suleman.

We actually visited Emin Ta twice, the first time at about 6 o’clock in the evening after a long day of touring around sites.  We arrived to find that the local villagers had set up a toll on the road to the mosque (I’m never sure how legal this is, but it seems to happen quite a bit in Xinjiang, and is tolerated by local officials so there’s nothing you can do).  Our driver paid the toll and we proceeded up the road to the mosque – only to find that it had just closed!  We headed back out again, and our driver had a rather heated argument with the local lads, who seemed to think that they had no reason to refund the money, saying that they wouldn’t charge us when we came back to visit again.  Thankfully, our driver managed to get them to refund the toll and we also stopped a number of other drivers from paying – they weren’t too impressed by the local’s dishonesty either.

We went back the next morning and got in without incident, despite the time it takes to move past the array of souvenir and food stalls outside when every stallholder is intent on showing you every single item of the wares.  Emin Ta also sticks in my memory as one of the great examples of a local thinking that all foreigners are somehow careless with money, and trying to sell things for stupid prices – in this case it was a little leather box of no real age, the haggling over which began at 800RMB (£80) and ended with me buying it at 50RMB (£5)…

In the end, I’m actually very glad that we got to go back and see the site at our leisure against the backdrop of a clear blue sky rather than rushing around it in 10 minutes in the near dark, as the architecture of the mosque is very pretty indeed.

Kizil Caves

Kizil Caves are located near to the town of Kucha (which we also visited), and are some of the most famous Buddhist caves in China.  They are also probably the earliest, dating back to the 3rd Century.  They are set within a dramatic cliffside, though the modern interventions to formalise the cave fronts and insert stairways do little for the attractiveness of the monument.

Kizil Caves is another site, like Bezeklik (see above), that has seen damage to its frescoes through the action of 19th Century westerners, and it is another site at which photography is not allowed.  In this case, photographs are not even allowed on the hillside, even when facing away from the caves towards the attractive open countryside.  However, as usual, a policy which would have been fine was undermined by inconsistent application.  I was made to leave my camera in a locker at the base of the cliff and was even told off when I got my phone out of my pocket in case I tried to take photographs, yet when coming back down was passed by Chinese tourists very openly carrying cameras, and with the staff not bothered at all.  Very annoying, and sadly one has to wonder if the application of the rules is deliberately racist.

The site is well aware of commercial opportunity, however, and although there is an entrance fee, that didn’t provide entry into all of the caves.  The best surviving cave is only viewable for a separate payment of an astonishing £50 per person.  Needless to say we did what I imagine most visitors do and left it alone.

'The closed grotto'

The reason for the strange name for this grotto is that I have no idea what it is called!  It is a site that we were privileged to see as it is not yet open to the public.  It is situated very close to the Kezikalahan war signalling station (link), and when we visited the builders were there constructing staircases and site buildings.  Our driver managed to get us shown into a few of the caves, though we had to leave our cameras in the van.  After picking our way across the building site (including crossing some rather rickety planks that I’m sure wouldn’t pass British health and safety), we were shown into a couple of caves that had the best surviving cave paintings we’d yet seen – far surpassing the more famous grottoes mentioned above, and ones that will surely become famous with tourists when the site opens.  I’m pleased to say that I was able to see them without having to fight with tour groups!

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