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Xinjiang – Western China

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My friend and I had been in Beijing for about six months when we decided we wanted to escape the heat and visit a cooler region within China.  My friend did some research and we decided on Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.  My usual tour company of choice (Global Easy Tour) was contacted and they came back with a great four day personalised program which started off with us being picked up at our respective homes and taken to the airport – an easy way to start off a nice break.

The four hour flight from Beijing was uneventful and we landed at Urumqi airport around midnight on a Thursday and settled into our nice hotel, sleeping on what appeared to be the typical Chinese brick matress.

The next morning we were picked up by our tour guide and driver and travelled about two and a half hours to Turpan.  Unfortunately our idea of a break from the Beijing heat was so wrong, it was 0830 and already 41 degrees!!!

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Travelling through the Gobi Desert was very interesting and made more enjoyable by our lovely tour guide Anna who was incredibly informative and seriously sweet.  Views of snow capped mountains and thousands of wind turbines were a highlight.

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The full day at Turpan included a visit to the Asitana Ancient Tombs which are located some forty kilometres south of Turpan.  The tomb yard served as a public cemetery for Gaochang City residents from the Western Jin Dynasty (265-316) to the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and covers a land area of approximately ten square kilometres.

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The tomb group’s location is dry, with water located twenty metres below the surface and because the coffin chambers are situated three to five metres below ground level, most of the objects and corpses found in the tombs were kept intact.  Unfortunately photographing the corpses was forbidden.

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Flaming Mountains was our next stop.  The mountains are barren red sandstone hills in the Tian Shan (mountain) range set of Turpan.  it was interesting to hear the years of vocanic activity had caused molten lava to course down the mountainside giving the mountains a flaming appearance at certain times of the day.

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Our next stop was the Bezikrik Thousand Buddha Caves which like everything else we had seen in Xinjiang were very interesting.  The caves are located within a gorge in the Flaming Mountains between Turpan and Shanshan at the north-east of the Takiamakan Desert.

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There are seventy-seven rock-cut out grottos dating from the 5th to the 9th century.  Most have rectangular spaces with rounded arch ceilings often divided into four sections, each with a mural of Buddha.  The quality of the murals vary but the effect is of entire ceiling covers with hundreds of Buddha murals.  There are some very strong feelings locally about some of the murals having been cut away in the early 1900’s and taken to England and Germany.  A good time for us to be Australian!!

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We stopped for a late lunch at a fabulous outdoor restaurant with overhanging grape vines and enjoyed the sweet grapes of the Region along with many other delicious dishes.

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My friend enjoyed the local beef skewers and I had a very tasty eggplant dish – a real favourite of mine in China.  We then walked to Grape Valley to see the local grape vines and stopped to look at the local women preparing their handicrafts.

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After lunch we visited the Ermin Minaret in Turpan which was really beautiful but by this time the heat was overwhelming and without much shade around the Minaret, my friend stopped for an icy watermelon drink whilst I trudged up the stairs to the Minaret. Inside was under construction but definitely worth the visit.

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We then travelled to see the Turpan karez underground water system.  The Chinese claim the karez system as one of the three greatest projects of China, along with the Grand Canal and Great Wall.  There are over 5000km of underground tunnels bringing water from the mountains under the desert to Turpan.

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Our guide told us that the word karez means ‘well’ in the local Uyghur language and that Turpan’s well system was crucial in its development as an important oasis stopover on the ancient Silk Road skirting the barren and hostile Taklaman Desert.  Also that Turpan owes its prosperity to the water provided by its karez well system.

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Our final stop in Turpan was the Jiaohe Ruins which is an ancient Chinese archaeological site found in the Yarnaz Valley, ten kilometres west of Turpan.  There has been a joint works underway, since 1992 to preserve the ruins of the site.  We arrived at the ruins around 0830 which is definitely the best time to arrive.  By the time we left at 1000 there were hundreds of people and the sun was relentless.

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Then it was time to return to Urumuqi and on the way back we stopped to visit Tianchi Lake, which is the crater lake of Mount Baekdu. There is a tale about a monster who lives in the lake; my friend and I certainly saw some badly dressed Western tourists but I would not call them ‘monsters’.  We took a lovely half hour boat ride and saw the beautiful snow capped tips of Mount Baekdu – an incredible sight along with several weddings along the beach front and temples in the hills.

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The views down the mountain from the bus after our visit to the lake were also spectacular and in particular the sight of water running down the mountain was wonderful.

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Another late lunch at a local restaurant where my friend again enjoyed kebabs and I had another eggplant dish along with some great green beans and spicy tofu.

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Another restless night in Urumuqi on the ‘brick’ bed, followed in the morning by a tour of the Xinjiang Regional Museum which I believe is an absolute ‘must do’.  The museum has over 50,000 items in its collection and represents the ethnic lifestyle of the Region.

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The exhibition on folk customs was spectacular and included costumes, tools and everyday necessities.  The displays vividly illustrated for me the dress, lifestyle, religion, marriage customs, festivals and other aspects of the colourful life of the minorities that live in Xinjiang.  There were also some highly preserved 2000-4000 year old mummies and tomb relics and everything was explained to us by a very informative, English speaking museum guide.

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A trip to Er Dao Qiao Bazaar was our final stop in Urumuqi followed by some time relaxing in one of the local parks.

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Er Dao Qiao Bazaar, in the 7th year of Guang Xu in Qing Dynasty (1881), became the important business circle in Urumqi. For about 120 years, it has been the place where the ethnic commodities shop and gather.   Now it has also become a  booming commercial area in Urumqi.

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Our final (final) stop at the park in the middle of Urumuqi was very relaxing after a busy four days of sightseeing.  Complete with a view of the lake from our restaurant..pizza this time instead of our usual kebab and eggplant dishes.

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