I once said that Turpan was akin to living inside a pizza oven, and my most recent visit has only served to strengthen this particular belief. The sweltering climate’s only relief is its low humidity, but the urban legends about eggs boiling themselves on the ground don’t come from nothing, that’s all I’m saying. Worst for me is the fact that the Sun is a few hours behind the times (Beijing time, to be precise), so 2-5pm is actually the hottest period, when the Sun reaches its zenith. This means that it doesn’t start to cool off until very late at night – something my confused body simply cannot cope with.
I booked us Soft Seat tickets on the way to Karamay (like First Class, compared to Hard Seats/Second Class) since the difference was £3 each, but I deeply regretted not booking the same back to Ürümqi; Soft Seats came with leg room, Western loos, loo roll (!) and soap, glorious soap. The seats themselves were distinct. Hard seats are more like two or three-person benches (thankfully not true to the name ‘hard’), which quickly become crowded and (if people are sleeping) tangled with limbs.
Thus our situation returning to Xinjiang’s capital did not lend itself to sleep, which was exactly what the three of us needed most. Four hours passed in the blur of waking sleep with which I had become familiar on previous hard seat journeys, and then we had arrived. Back through Ürümqi station’s three identical iterations of security, to an overpriced cafe offering both polo and ban-mian, then to our gate. The afternoon Sun dipped and we boarded for Turpan.
I straight up slept the hour’s high-speed burst to Xinjiang’s live-in kiln. The police who stopped us on the way to DAP Hostel were keen to welcome us to Turpan; I wondered if this was Xinjiang’s attempt at tourism-friendliness. We had two: a regular checkpoint at the station, and makeshift one on a random city street, where they questioned us for ages – one deeply unimpressed trio, sat glowering in the taxi (meter still going).
DAP hadn’t changed since two Summers ago, bar the walk-through scanner which residents seemed to side-step most of the time. The hostel consists of a central courtyard, with bathrooms and laundry opposite the entrance, Uyghur-style raised platforms (fan-cooled) below grapevine-overhung terraces on which to lounge and eat strewn around the middle, and dorm doors around the edges. The sounds of city fade away, and it is possible to forget the outside world is even there as you relax into the cushions. Possibly my favourite hostel in China, but we had only one night there.
The next morning was when my body decided to protest at its recent sleep-starvation. I wasn’t in a state to sightsee, so I missed Turpan museum (free; recommended by Kirsten and Evie) but enjoyed the few extra hours dozing and reading below the vines on a leaf-dappled dais. The hostel dog padded over – one very good boy, constantly panting from the heat.
In the afternoon, we hired a driver to visit the Bezeklik Buddhist caves, an hour or so from the city. Along the way, we stopped in a familiar valley in the Flaming Mountains for photographs. We chose the hottest part of the day to be outside! The caves were mercifully cool, mostly with curved walls – the shape reminds me of WWII Anderson shelters, except dug into the dusty hillside and covered with the most intricate Buddha paintings (some in relief, too). The back walls regularly depicted narratives, some more historical, others mythological.
Many of the faces have been defaced – notably just the faces – gouged out or (to my surprise, I noticed) painted over with some cement-like substance. Not just wear and tear! Often entire sections of wall had been entirely removed, stolen by colonial European explorers (German and frequently British). I can only assume that they believed, in their arrogance, to be capable of better preserving the paintings – as though they hadn’t already survived over a thousand years of social and religious turmoil almost untarnished – but sadly, they failed to predict the Second World War, which none of the stolen artefacts survived (note – they would still be safe, had they been left alone). It was frankly humbling to see yet another destructive example of my country’s history in such a remote and distant part of the world.
A friendly old Uyghur man was playing a traditional instrument (the name of which I cannot find on the Internet) – the same man, in fact, who was there last time! He beckoned Evie and Kirsten over, placed hats on their heads and showed them each how to pluck a few notes in turn.
We had time back in Turpan to get dinner, before reaching the station for our overnight train to Jiayuguan. Turpan is definitely more relaxed than other parts of Xinjiang, but the same rules still apply, for which we had to allow extra time. I settled into my bottom bunk as we rose out of the Turpan depression and speeded away from Xinjiang. I almost expected to be re-awoken at the border. It is hard to express my excitement last Summer when we conceived of this trip, and I realised that I would be returning.
This time, I was honestly glad to go. No – not glad. Relieved. ‘Damage limitation’ comes closest to how I felt: two years of hype, for my friends to follow me into this changed province. I want to go back, but not for a long time; not before the bittersweet memories, irreparably soured, have mellowed. It’s not just our experiences, it’s what we heard – the whispers of insidiousness below the cracks in the new roads, new stations; new society. We can leave, and so we did – just like everyone else who possesses that choice. But here I come to a suitable place to stop writing, I think.