If Kashgar still felt very much like Central Asia, the trip to Urumqi finally forced us to bid our farewells. The capital of the Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region is sadly not Uighur anymore — the Uighurs comprise a wee 12% of the population, squeezed out by waves of Han Chinese immigration. Urumqi is now a standard big Chinese city with everything that characterises one: high-rise glass buildings, hectic traffic, spitting people, and even the token park with a pet pagoda, like in every other city in this country.
Our hostel, another one in the chain of youth hostels which are also very much alike across China, was a very agreeable place to stay. Located next to a branch of Carrefour, the French department store, and surrounded by a green park, it was a place to get stuck and unwind for a few days — so we did. Every evening a wonderfully colorful traditional food market was taking place right outside the monstrous Carrefour building, almost as a sign of defiance to Western influence: rows of stands offering every imaginable kind of food, some of it still alive and crawling. There was even seafood, despite the fact that Urumqi, as it happens, is the farthest place from sea on the planet: more than 2500 km separate it from the nearest shore. Around the stalls were tables where the purchased food could be immediately consumed. We spent our days divided between East and West: in the morning we joined throngs of Chinese, content and smiling in anticipation of a delightful shopping experience, and got our fix of freshly ground coffee and pastries in the Western-style bakery of Carrefour; in the evening we went in the same direction and sampled whatever we could at the night market.
There wasn’t much sightseeing to do — in fact the only place we went to see outside the hostel and Carrefour was the Xinjiang regional museum. It is similar to most other history museums, but with a notable Chinese twist. One of the first things proclaimed in large type on the explanation plaques is that “Xinjiang has always been a part of the Chinese empires through the ages”. The fact that they took care to state that so prominently makes it very suspicious indeed. The rest of the displays are designed to prove that statement through historic artefacts and their interpretation. This part was actually quite interesting, since a lot of Silk Road history is presented there, including actual pieces of silk from that period, as well as examples of painting and calligraphy. There is also an ethnographical section representing national minorities; the final room contained about a dozen mannequins, dressed in the minorities’ various traditional clothes, standing together in a semi-circle, smiling and pointing their arms forward to their common bright future, accompanied by a matching text praising the brotherhood of nations that is China.
Time came to leave Urumqi, but alas, the flocks of migrating Chinese students were still on the wing. Or rather, perched quite comfortably on the bunks of the sleeper carriages which they had booked well in advance. Again, no train tickets were available, so we took another sleeper bus, pressing on eastwards. The bus rolled slowly through endless desert, passing immense fields of wind turbines — I was surprised to find out that China is actually investing in renewable energy and not only building more coal power plants. After 20-odd hours the desert suddenly ended: we arrived at the oasis of Dunhuang.
Dunhuang’s only hostel was full, so we had to camp on its roof. We planned a stop in Dunhuang mostly as a break in a longer journey further to the east, but found Dunhuang to be a fascinating destination on its own, and spent a few days exploring the surroundings, before changing our plans altogether. But more on that later.
Our first visit was to the Mogao caves, a series of grottoes in a cliff above a river bed, which had been one of the most important centers of Buddhist studies in the world for a millennium. Half a thousand caves were carved into the cliff face during various periods, decorated with mind-blowing wall paintings and statues, including one of the biggest Buddhas in the world, towering at 34 meters. In one of those caves, hidden behind an innocent-looking painted wall, a monk found in 1900 a cache of tens of thousands of scrolls, which included paintings, historical records, calligraphy by some of the most renown names of this art, as well as Buddhist sutras and other religious texts in a multitude of languages, including even a page of “Slichot” prayer in Hebrew. The cache had been sealed one thousand years ago, and the oldest document in it dates to the 5th century. There have been few comparable finds in modern history. Unfortunately the majority of the scrolls wound up in the collections of European museums, and many even found their way into private hands, so the treasure is no more available as a whole. Some of the documents surviving in Chinese custody are displayed in a museum adjacent to the caves.
After getting back from the Mogao caves we sat at a cafe called John’s Information Cafe, a well-known focal point for foreigners traveling in the area. John opened his first cafe in Kashgar in 1988, and since then has expanded to five branches across western China; he manages to be present in all of them at once — every branch has a John who answers travelers’ questions and helps organizing whatever trips they require. The first question we directed to our John was about a destination we had been dreaming to visit, and have almost given up getting reliable information about: we asked whether Tibet was open to visitors. He said that it was. At this moment we decided we were not going east anymore; we were going to Tibet.
Independent travel is not allowed in Tibet, so John (actual name Wang) started organizing our permits along with a guide and a driver. While he was busy with that, we retained his brother’s taxi for a day and did a tour of a few other attractions around Dunhuang. The first one was Yadan National Park, a collection of wild wind-sculptured rock formations. It really is a beautiful landscape, but the only way to see it is by boarding the park’s minibus, which makes a short round inside the park, stopping at designated points where all the visitors pour out of the bus, take photos of the rocks and each other, and board back again. This ridiculous routine makes the experience rather worthless, even if somewhat amusing. Other destinations of the day included one of the earliest surviving pieces of the Chinese Great Wall, dating to 101 BC; the Jade Gate Pass, an important point on the Silk Road where it had split into its northern and southern routes; the ruins of a Silk-Road-era military post, and a full-scale model of the ancient Dunhuang city. This area is rich with Silk Road history and we saw a lot of it on that day.
In the evening we visited the sand dunes that are hugging the Dunhuang oasis from the south. These are some very impressive dunes, and they’ve been turned into a quite expensive theme park where all kinds of sand-related activities are organized: day-time and night-time camel treks, sandboarding, and even flights in a motorized glider. Tired, we returned for a day of rest and preparation for the big adventure ahead: tomorrow morning we’re leaving on a two-day journey to Lhasa.