Sidetracked in Shanshan

And then the time will come for you to leave Turpan. Like awakening from a dream, the cheery villages and vineyards dry up around you and the freezing desert compasses you about once more. I left the oasis of Turpan by wandering along the foot of the Flaming Mountains to Pichan (Shanshan, 鄯善), a journey which should only take a day or two but ended up taking four or five, due to a series of interesting things that I kept stumbling on and wandering off to investigate.

I arrived in Tuyuq (Tuyugou, 吐峪沟) in the middle of the night and was promptly invited in by a very friendly and interesting Uyghur chap, who sat me down by the stove in his living room and told me strange tales of weapons testing in the desert to the south, how his father told him stories of the first nuclear tests and how everyone was told to hide inside that day, how there were places in the Taklimakan now where you could go and pick up unexploded mines and hand grenades out of the sand. Up at the head of the village, he told me, were some ancient houses that tourists often went to, along with some shrines and Buddhist caves.

That morning I wandered up there, where a river flowed out of a canyon in the Flaming Mountains, and the ancient town of Tuyuq sits on hillsides before the cliffs.

The place receives a trickle of tourists; for an entry ticket of twenty kuai you can wander in, down through winding streets to the mosque and up onto the hillsides beyond.

Street in Tuyuq

Street in Tuyuq

Above the town, accessable by a flight of stairs that climbs up through old graveyards, is the large green dome of the Khojam Mazar.

The Khojam Mazar at Tuyuq

Within the Mazar (tomb) is legendarily contained the bones of one Yemunaiha (叶木乃哈, presumably a transliteration of something in Arabic, but I’m not sure what). According to the explanatory material at the shrine itself and corroborated by the Baidu Encyclopedia (sort of the Chinese Wikipedia, from such do I get my information,) Yemunaiha was a early 8th century Yemeni missionary who traveled with seven disciples to Xinjiang. After enduring many hardships, they at last arrived at Tuyuq and made their first convert, a local shepherd. Here they and their new flock settled down, the first Muslims in Xinjiang, and their bodies are interred beneath the green dome of the shrine. According to a chap I met beneath the shrine, they are not dead but sleeping, someday to awake. It is one of the most holy places in Central Asia, and pilgrims travel to the place from all around Xinjiang, the ‘Stans, and Islamic China.

A few carloads of devotees showed up while I was there and climbed up to the little arched antechamber of the shrine, men in skullcaps and beards, women wrapped in skirts and severe headscarves. While I watched curiously from the hillside above, they slaughtered a chicken and then settled themselves into a westward facing room and began to pray. There was something faintly eerie, faintly fantastical about the place, with the queer little tumuli lying all around it, above it the huge red cliffs, beneath the crumbling alleys of Tuyuq. The sacrificed chicken, the scraps of votive cloth tied along the walls of the shrine enclosure, and the presence of ancient Buddhist grottoes (now closed to the public) just up the valley made it hard to believe that this place was holy only because of the Islamic saints supposedly buried there. On the wind was a palpable sense of oldness, of strangeness. The shrine itself was locked. I walked down thoughtfully.

I went across the desert at the foot of the mountains for a while until I got to some oil wells and then hitched to a town called Lukchen to spend the night, then hitched back to where I’d left off the next morning. Walking out along the highway that led to Pichan, I could see the snowy dunes of the Kumtagh desert rising off to the south. The Kumtagh (库木塔格 I think, in Uyghur it just means “Sand Mountains”) is a massive field of dunes, perhaps 120 kilometers across, that pushes up against the base of the Flaming Mountains to the north and dead ends into the desert flatness of the Taklimakan to the south. Liking the idea of climbing up some sand dunes, I made my way over to the edge of the dunes and wandered up.

The Kum Tagh desert

I didn’t end up finding my exhausted way out again until four or five that afternoon, having at first wound deeper into the desert than I’d quite realized. I camped out in a hidden flat surrounded by sand dunes that night, and when I awoke the desert was glowing pink in the soft dawn light, glittering with frost.

frosty dawn in the Kum Tagh desert

Frosty morning in the Kum Tagh

That day a wind was blowing and and my hands ached with coldness all day. Fourteen kilometers away from Pichan city I spotted niches carved into a cliffside. At this moment my good friend and former Trans-Asia-trekking buddie Avi chose to drunk-dial his lady friend in Beijing and got my number instead, so we had a talk while I headed for the cliffs. I crossed the river and made my way through a little Uyghur village to the foot of a graveyard there. A man out playing with some children assured me that I could go up if I liked, it was, he said, simply a place where the dead were put. Above, accessed by little switchbacking paths that ran across the slope beneath the cliff face, were a series of queer little niches. Some of them had obviously been sealed up and used as graves; recent dates were printed on them. Others seemed a bit more ambiguous. Little scraps of prayer cloth fluttered in the chilly wind. I had seen these before: It is one of the oldest traditions of Central Asia to tie scraps of cloth at holy sites. Three or four times in my travels, in remote places in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan and Xinjiang I’d seen trees hung with white scraps, usually over holy springs. Like many ancient Central Asian things, the practice survives best in a slightly mutated form in Tibet, in the form of prayer flags.

Around this point my phone ran out of batteries and my impromptu heart-to-heart with Avi came to an end, standing high up on the frigid slope, overlooking the tombs, the little village beneath, wreathed in hearthsmoke, the whole wide valley of houses and dry vineyards, the dunes of the Kumtagh spilling down towards the river, and beyond, grizzled desert hills, white winter sky. Down below the niches on the cliff face was a little shrine of white, chalky clay. The base of the dome was adorned with ram skulls, another characteristic mark of old holy places in Central Asia.

exterior of a shrine in Shanshan

Inside a small enclosure was a flagpole tied with more scraps and a door that led in, blocked by boards and a carpet hung over the door. It was possible to move the carpet aside a bit to get a view of the little shrine room inside, carpeted, facing Mecca.

interior of a shrine in Shanshan

That afternoon I walked into the town of Pichan and was given a hotel room with a computer in it for 120 kuai, where I wrote these last three blog posts. Beyond the oasis of Pichan there is three hundred and fifty kilometers of desert to Qumul (Hami, 哈密), the last city in Central Asia, and beyond it another four hundred or so kilometers of empty Gobi to Dunhuang (敦煌), the first town in China and the gateway to northern Tibet. The only way to get there is to walk down the highway. I have a month’s walking time left; tomorrow morning I’m going to drop everything I can out of my pack, stove, tent, snowshoes, spare clothes, books, and see if I can make it in one marathon push to Dunhuang by mid February. I can see the end of Central Asia from here – and I’m feeling lucky. God willing, the next post will be from Dunhuang!


  • Sha Lei
    February 1, 2012 - 2:24 pm | Permalink

    Поздравляю! Далеко ты уже дошел. Смотрю на твои фотки и завидую. Поговорил с китаянкой своей, в следующий раз пойдешь вот так куда-нибудь, нас зови. Постараюсь пойти. А то жизнь проживу, так ничего и не увижу)))

  • Avi
    February 2, 2012 - 2:59 am | Permalink

    For the record, I was not intoxicated – just confused and delighted to talk to you.

  • Joan
    February 16, 2012 - 4:11 am | Permalink

    hey there, it really hits my nerves when readying your stories~
    where are you now? on the road or back to US?
    I’ll visit Beijing next week for two days, if you are there, maybe we can meet up?
    take care!

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