Arriving in Turpan North train station at 6am, we discovered a “1001 Nights” architecture, putting us in a good mood to carry on our journey to the West. We struggled to find accommodation though. We first tried to go to a hostel in the old town, Dap Youth Hostel, but nobody was there and the door was closed. And it was freezing cold! We tried another hostel, also closed, knocked to one that was open but the Chinese lady at the reception simply looked at us like we were not welcomed. We asked her for a room and she ignored us until we left… We tried to our last chance, the Turpan Hotel which was well known according to our guidebook, but again we found the door closed. Finally a woman indicated us a gloomy hostel behind the Turpan Hotel and we took a room there with no other choice. It is crazy how all tourism stops when autumn and winter arrive. As far as we know, in summer Turpan is a lively oasis, with people selling melons, cherries. It is where the temperature is the highest in China, reaching 40°C! But in winter, it is the contrary, temperatures totally fall, no more tourists come and that is why all the hotels are closed… Anyway, even if there was no juicy and sweet watermelons to try, we had a good time in the lively market in the city centre. There, merchants were selling from carpets to mutton head soup!
Turpan (also called Tulufan) is in the Xinjiang province of China, the largest province of China, annexed a few centuries back. But the people in Turpan do not look like Chinese people at all, and so does not the architecture or the food. People here are Ouighours, they are Muslims and they look more like Central Asia people. To colonize the region, China has favorized the immigration of Han Chinese people which represent now 60% of the population, whereas Ouighour used to weight for 90% of the population. There are still a lot of tensions between Ouighour people and China, with regular attacks against China administrations from groups fighting for their independence. When arriving here, we were absolutely not aware of this. We talk a lot about Tibet, but what happened in Xinjiang is also a terrible aspect of China’s colonialist behaviour.
A few kilometers from Turpan is the Ancient City of Jiaohe. This city was a very famous one 1200 years ago. Entirely excavated from a cliff, it is amazingly well preserved. We can still see the shapes of houses, administrative buildings and temples. Its situation on the cliff is also incredibly impressive. And when wandering around, we could easily imagine the lively streets full of vendors and camels.
Our bad experience of the day was when trying to hitchhike to Jiaohe. We had heard Ouighour people are very friendly and that we could easily get a free ride to the ruins. We stopped a car on the road with a man and two old Ouighour ladies at the back, he did not speak English but we understood he was ok to give us a ride for the 5 km to reach Jiaohe. During the ride, I had a good time with the Ouighour ladies as one of them started to read aloud the Ouighour phrasebook in my Lonely Planet. But when the driver dropped us, we got off the car and he started to show us he wanted some money, we tried to explain to him that we did not expect to pay anything, but finally gave him 2Y as he insisted (which would have been the price of a ride by bus). But he nodded, so we thought he did not want the money and we started to leave. But actually he wanted more money! He wanted 20Y! We showed him it was 2 Y or nothing and he got off his car, starting to be aggressive with Alex. We stayed very calm, telling him we would not pay so much for such a small ride. The guard of the Jiaohe Museum was there, but did not seem to take things seriously, smiling at me, and showing me that we could go into the museum and that the driver was crazy. But the driver would not let us go, he grabbed Alex’s arm, I told him to take the 2Y and leave. He was so pissed of, he took my 2Y notes and tore them. It was enough for us and I think he was chocked by his own gesture. We left without looking back at him and entered the Museum. Hopefully when we left Jiaohe, we stopped another car. This time, there were Beijing businessmen inside, speaking English, and they totally welcomed us in the car for free and even drove us back to the city centre!
After that we had a good walk inside the old city with brick houses, until the Emin Minaret which is Afghan style.
It was 6pm and we were quite tired, but we decided to leave Turpan in the evening instead of staying one night there. So we packed quickly, managed to get a refund from the hostel and run to the bus station to get a bus to Turpan train station which was 50 km. It was 7pm, but there was no bus anymore! We were a bit desperate, but coming from nowhere a nice man leaded us to a shared taxi on which we jumped. We arrived at the train station at 8.30pm and our train was at 2am… Started a terrible wait, in the cold train station, sleeping on the stairs. The station was overcrowded with people carrying huge bags of goods. Hopefully, our train did not have any delay (and it was coming from Kunming, x km away !). Its last station was Kashgar, our final destination that it would reach at 8pm (making it a 18-hour trip), so we had a good night sleep. When we woke up, the train was riding in the middle of the desert, the Taklamakan desert, itself covered with snow! We were completely in another world!