Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Aug 3 - Turpan to Urumqi

Breakfast was from 7 to 10. Internet at the hotel was from 8 am on at the Business Office. Carol came down before the office opened, and went to breakfast, but by the time Mike arrived at 8:10, there were two people online and one waiting. Luckily by 8:30 a computer opened up, and we were able to post successfully.

During breakfast, we learned that some of the group members in male only rooms had received calls and knocks on the door in the middle of the night offering "a massage." The time came to leave our hotel (10 am) once again into the HEAT of Turpan.

The first tourist attraction was JiaoHe (the intersection of rivers), a Unesco World Heritage site since 1986, a thousands of years old ancient city, last inhabited in the 1300s when it was sacked by the Mongols. It was in its prime in the Tang Dynasty era (7th - 10th century). This city was build in sandstone on a plateau, bounded by steep ravines, with rivers at the bottom sustaining crops and pasture. In the distance were snow covered peaks of the Tian Shan range.

The entrance is to the South. In the North are the Buddhist Temples, and further to the north are the stupas. The residential, government, and business areas were clearly delineated. There were elaborate gates which included watch towers. You couldn't get in if you were not wanted. Visiting these remains in August at 100 degree heat in the morning gives you some idea of how difficult it must have been to live here.

Next we went to the Karez. To the north of Turpan are mountains, which have snow and water. Early inhabitants built gravity driven waterways leading down to Turpan, an amazing feat of engineering the world should have learned about in history books, but never did. This almost surpasses the Roman aqueducts. But for the Karez, no one could grow anything in Turpan. With the water, you can grow some of the sweetest grapes, melons and fruit in the world. As we descended into the structure, cold water flowed through channels, and the temperature dropped markedly.

Turpan grapes are famous. As we left, Mike bought 200-250 gram bags of each of 14 different kinds of raisins. Total weight 3 - 3.5 kg. The store asked 250 RMB and Mike held to 150 RMB. In retrospect the fair price was probably 130-150 RMB. We now have enough raisins for the rest of the trip.

At the front of the museum, we tried the fresh squeezed grape juice (5 RMB for a small cup), incomparably delicious. 5 RMB for a pound of grapes inside. 5 RMB for 1 kg of grapes just outside. (The group shared some fresh grapes at lunch.) There was wine tasting of reds and whites of varying sweetness. The Chinese person in the group bought a fancy bottle of what he said was the best local vintage.

Finally, at about 1 pm, to the Emin Minaret, built in 1778 in honor of the builder's father. This is a mosque, used only for Friday afternoons and holidays, plus a single minaret, which is supposed to be very rare. The minaret had a beautiful brickwork pattern.

Back to town (Turpan) for lunch. Then at 2:30 or so, off for the 3 hour ride to Urumqi on a modern 4-lane interstate quality road. We were climbing steadily, passing the Bogda Feng mountain, a 5445 m mountain, which our guide had actually climbed, on a 3 day climb. As we passed the ancient town of DaBanChang, David Peng and his daughter led us in an old Chinese folksong about a local son who invited a local woman with beautiful long braids for marriage, and also asked her to bring along her younger sister.

At the rest break, the vendors were selling huge quantities of roasted flavored soy beans, the Chinese version of crispy snacks. Yum. However, the dried yogurt snack was yuck.

Throughout our long bus drives, the back of the bus crew had been working their way through several Will Shortz (of NPR fame) puzzle books - riddles, anagrams, and lots of laughs, as people competed to shout out the answer first.

Finally, into Urumqi, to check into the Xin Jiang Grand Hotel. We arranged a second night for $80 US.

The final dinner of the tour was at 8 pm, where we had plenty of bai jiu, white alcohol, and plenty of ganbei (empty your glass) toasts. We honored the first time eclipse viewers, the person who had viewed the most eclipses, the oldest, the youngest, the vegetarians, the person who rescued the one who fell into the latrine, the one who traveled farthest, etc. Lots of goodbyes all around.

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