Sunday, December 31, 2017


We didn't have a lot of time left in Urumqi after we visited the museum because we had to catch a plane to Kazakhstan, but there was enough time to spend an hour in the "International Grand Bazaar Urumqi." Opened in 2003, it has lots of booths and stalls selling clothing, jewelry, pottery, nuts, fruit, local cuisine, rugs, musical instruments, and just about everything you can imagine, so an hour was not nearly enough time, especially because Bob was On A Mission to find and eat some horse meat.

There are some very distinct things about this market that set it apart from other Asian markets we've been to. The first and most obvious is the Islamic architecture.

There is a grand entrance that includes a huge tower and a mosque.

First, the mosque. It was beautiful and extremely photogenic, but unfortunately we didn't have time to go inside:

The tower near the entrance looks like some of the centuries-old minarets we had seen in other places, but it's only fourteen years old. Tourists can pay $7-$8 to climb the stairs to the observation deck at the top, but unfortunately we didn't have time to go inside:

Saturday, December 30, 2017


Our last stop in China before we headed off to the Stans was Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region and a major stop on the Silk Road. Another HUGE city by U.S. standards, it has a population of about 3.5 million, which makes it the largest city in Central Asia. In the Untied States, only New York City and Los Angeles have larger populations, and yet I had never heard of Urumqi before we began getting ready for this trip. Perhaps part of the reason for its lack of recognition is that it is pretty darn remote. In fact, the Guinness Book of Records says at 1,600 miles from the nearest seaport, Urumqi is the most remote major city (at least in terms of distance from the sea) in the world.

Urumqi's location is marked by red in the map of China below. The Xinjiang Region is the orange area:
Map from Wikipedia

As hard as it is to get there, Urumqi has some amazing things to see. We spent a few hours at the Xinjiang Regional Museum, famous for its mummy collection (known in this museum as "dried corpses").

A limited number of guests are allowed in the museum at intervals throughout the day in an attempt to control the crowds.

There was plenty of English on the signage, but not all of it was intelligible, such as this sign that invites guest to a "Whirling dance at the fingertips skills contributing to a craftsmanship."

Sunday, December 17, 2017


We dreaded the three-hour drive from Turpan to our next destination, Urumqi. It looks like a tiny hop on the map below, but it is 120 miles on roads that wind up into the Tian Shan Mountains:

We weren't on a high speed train this time, but a regular Chinese bus:

However, we were fortunate to have Michael Wilcox, the lecturer brought along by our tour company, on board our bus. Michael earned a PhD from the University of Colorado and for many years taught at the LDS Institute of Religion at the University of Utah. This is the third tour we have taken with him as our lecturer (the first being a trip to Russia and cruise through the Baltic Sea, and the second being a trip to Israel and Egypt). On all three trips, I particularly appreciated how Michael encouraged us to look with new eyes at what we were seeing and to embrace the goodness of people, cultures, and doctrines in diverse places.

Thursday, December 14, 2017


Pre-Travel-to-Western-China-Me assumed that China is pretty much Buddhist Confucian, or Taoist, the latter two really being philosophies rather than religions. In reality, most Chinese are either non-religious or believe in a folk religion (no clergy or canonical scriptures, practices and beliefs handed down over time, etc.).

I was also surprised to learn that there is a strong Muslim community in Western China that makes up somewhere between 1-4% of the total population of the country, with most of the Chinese Muslims being Sunnis. In the autonomous region of Xinjiang where we spent the majority of our time when we were in China, most of the population is from the Turkic ethnic group Uyghur (pronounced wee-gur), and most of them are Muslims. When we continued our journey into the predominantly Muslim Stan countries later on this trip, it began to make sense why Western China, which borders many Muslim countries, has a strong Muslim population.

That said, I did not get the sense that it is a particularly devout Muslim population, probably due, at least in part, to the repressive Chinese government. Our guide AJ told us that he is Muslim, but that he doesn't practice, but maybe he will when he is old. Good ol' death-bed repentance--it bridges all faiths.

We stopped for a visit at the tallest minaret in China, the Emin Minaret. Built in a single year at about the time the Revolutionary War was ramping up in the United States (1777-1778), this architectural marvel stands 144 feet tall. Its base is 33 feet wide, and it tapers to an area about 10 feet wide topped by a small dome.

I would have loved to climb the interior stairs to the top, but the tower is closed to tourists.

We have seen many minarets gilded with precious metals and covered with tiles, but this is the first monochromatic minaret that I can recall seeing, and in some ways it is one of the most unique. A complex network of fifteen different geometric and floral shapes, occurring in bands that ring the tower, is created by carefully positioned clay bricks:

Monday, December 11, 2017


We followed our morning visit to the ruins of Gaochang with a visit to the ruins of the ancient Silk Road city of Jiaohe, also known as "Yar City" because of its location in the Yarnaz Valley. Like Gaochang, Jiaohe sprung up in about 100 BC and was deserted around 1400 AD. 

One of the things that makes Jiaohe so unique is its location on a plateau that rises 98 feet between two branches of a river. The best image I have of that is this map from the site:

The island is about 1,000 feet wide and a mile long. The river on each side provides a natural barrier, so Jiaohe is not enclosed in walls as are most ancient cities.

Paved walkways lead to the ruins:

. . . which are quite extensive and in varying states of preservation:

Tuesday, December 5, 2017


Before stopping for a bite to eat, our buses drove into the Flaming Mountains. I don't know if they got that name because of the red sandstone that forms them, or because this is the hottest spot in China, frequently reaching over 120℉ (but with a surface temperature of over 150℉), or because the eroded sandstone cliffs look like flames:

As we drove farther up the road, the landscape varied somewhat, but the absolute lack of vegetation did not:

We came to a large parking lot that appeared to be the end of the road. The scenery was very dramatic:

. . . and we were stunned to find a river running down a gorge lushly lined with trees. 

Saturday, December 2, 2017


Prior to visiting the Taklamakan Desert, I had never heard of it, even though at 130,000 square miles, it is slightly larger than the state of New Mexico and just a little smaller than the country of Germany. The old Silk Road split into a north road and a south road at the desert's edge, circumventing the extreme conditions that include temperatures as low as -15℉ in the winter and 110℉ in the summer. In addition to lack of water, a phenomenon known as "shifting sands," which is when wind-whipped sands cause dramatic landscape changes, further complicates a journey through this wasteland. Almost 85% of the Taklamakan Desert experiences shifting sands, making crossing its vast expanse especially treacherous.

It doesn't look too bad from the bus window:

. . . but the further we go, the drier it gets. I was glad it was October 3rd rather than August 3rd or January 3rd:

Our first stop was the ancient oasis city of Gaochang, located on the threshold of the Taklamakan Desert.

Waiting to greet us was our friend Xuanzang, the Chinese Buddhist monk who traveled to India, the heart of Buddhism, to acquire some Buddhist writings. (See previous post on the Great Wild Goose Pagoda.) When he passed through Gaochang in 628 AD, he stopped for a while to rest and lecture. Legend has it that the king grew so attached to him that he would not let him leave. Determined to continue his journey, Xuanzang went on a hunger strike. On the fourth day as he began to fail, the king finally released him to continue on his way.

I love his long, energetic stride. The combination of his flowing cloak and his backpack reminds me of wings:

A new visitors center prepares modern travelers for their stay in Gaochang: