Under the Gun in Urumqi

August 10, 2015 — Urumqi, Xinjiang Province

Urumqi is occupied territory.

That was clear the moment we stepped out of the train station in Xinjiang’s capital city.

Getting in or out required a turnstyle-style walk back and forth and back and forth through barricade-lined corridors. At increments, literal cages with up-swinging sides held glowering contingents of People’s Liberation Army soldiers, rifles at the ready, bayonets fixed — the only time I’ve seen it in all of China. At corners and intersections, machine gunners perched atop armored vehicles scanned the crowds shuffling along underneath their turrets.

The police were everywhere, yanking aside anyone with desert-darkened skin, black hair and especially the distinct green eyes or Muslim headscarves or four-cornered hats that really set the Uyghurs apart from Han Chinese. Which meant that what seemed like some 70 percent of everyone in the train station got pulled, bags to searched, ID to be scanned, and questions to be asked.

Ethnic relations are taut in Xinjiang.

Our train stopped in Turpan on the way to Urumqi. Xinjiang uses mostly Chinese and Uyghur script for its signs.

Our train stopped in Turpan on the way to Urumqi. Xinjiang uses mostly Chinese and Uyghur script for its signs.

At more than 1.6 million square kilometers and ringed by nigh-impassable deserts and mountains, the province is massive and isolated, which gave it the space to develop a unique culture, even though according to Wikipedia, only 4.3 percent of its land area is habitable.

Xinjiang, which means “new territory”, has a documented history that spans more than two and a half millennia, and although the Han Dynasty first pushed the Xiongnu empire out the region in 60 BC in order to secure the Silk Road, it wasn’t until the 18th century that Xinjiang was permanently — up to now, least — incorporated into China under the Qing after a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing.

In the interim, the region had traded hands between a succession of kingdoms, becoming Islamified beginning in the 9th century CE when Turkic Muslims invaded the Tarim Basin. It remains staunchly Muslim.

Today, about 45 percent of the population is Uyghur — a minority group Westerns scholars believe to be a mix of various other ethnic groups who either migrated to Xinjiang or were indigenous to it — 40 percent is Han, and the rest smaller is made up of ethnic groups. Northern Xinjiang is mostly Han, while southern Xinjiang is mostly Uyghur, and under the administration of the People’s Republic of China, development has mostly been uneven at the expense of the south. The discovery of massive oil and gas reserves has in recent years also flooded the province with Han workers, who are often better educated and better paid than their Uyghur counterparts. Economic hardships combined with fears of cultural dislocation and destruction have radicalized some Uyghur nationalists, who claim that Xinjiang is not part of China, and Xinjiang has become a frying pan of popping ethnic tensions which in recent years gone up in flames with increasing frequency.

Notably in 2008, men with purported ties to the Uyghur separatist movement attacked a group of jogging police officers in Kashgar, killing 16 of them just days before the Beijing Olympics. Then in 2009, Urumqi was the site of mass rioting by the Uyghur minority group that left some hundreds of people dead. Rumors of mass retaliation against Uyghurs followed, and the Chinese government shut off all telecommunications from the city for ten months afterward.

Ughyur separatists have also been blamed for a spate of terrorist attacks in China in the years following, including one in 2013 when members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement crashed a jeep into a crowd on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, killing five people (three of them in the car) and injuring 38 others when the vehicle burst into flames. Xinjiang militants also were blamed for a mass stabbing in Kunming in 2014 that left 29 civilians dead and 140 others injured.

Other attacks occur every few months within the province, and extremist groups have allied themselves with other terrorist organizations including al-Qaeda and ISIS.

The old adage long applied to Xinjiang that “the mountains are high and the emperor is far away” no longer seems to hold true.

That’s what we’d stepped into outside the Urumqi train station. We watched a heavyset officer, even thicker with his bulletproof vest (another novelty), scream at a crowd to move along as he jammed an old man from the sidewalk with a nearly-two-meter long heavy staff. Officers in helmets watched the crowd with stone faces behind riot shields.

The air stank of resentment, anger, and car emissions.

We got out of the station as quick as we could and went in search of something to eat. We learned quickly that even the malls of security checkpoints complete with bag scanners and metal detectors.

At last we found a mall that, empty and echoey atrium nonwithstanding, actually had some restaurants. After Matt’s recent noodle experience , we settled on pizza. The grease was so thick we could slurp it off. We barely finished a slice each.

Urumqi. It was time to get out of there.

Wrong to be Right at Mogao

August 9, 2015 — Dunhuang, Gansu Province

While I picked away at my yellow donkey-meat noodles, Matt stared into the bowl of steaming beef noodles that had just been placed on the wooden table in the back of the tiny Dunhuang restaurant crowded with musty vegetables and bottles of sauce.

He breathed in.

“These are the thing that finally makes me sick,” he said with a cheerful chuckle, then dug his chopsticks into the tangle.

He was right.

We got up early the next day, planning to go to the Mogao Grottoes. When I asked the hostel desk how to get there, however, they asked if we had reservations. Apparently we’d needed to book slots on an online reservation system some weeks before. Oops.

I told my friends. They were bummed. I said I’d fix it. We’d go out anyway. We’d figure it out.

Morning from our Dunhuang hostel balcony.

Morning from our Dunhuang hostel balcony.

We arrived at the caves, some 15 kilometers outside of town. I approached the ticket window while my friends leaned against a wall in the shade. Matt was looking a little funny.

I told the attendant we wanted three tickets.

“Do you have a reservation?”

“No, but …”

She cut me off.

“You need a reservation.”

“But my friends…”

“You need a reservation. You can try to join a group tomorrow.”

We had to leave that night. I went to the next window, right next to her. My friends glared at me, skeptical. Same story. This time I got some more words in, though.

“My friends, they’re here from America. They’re really interested in Chinese history. We didn’t know we needed a reservation and we have to leave tonight. They’re really disappointed. Is there anything you can do?”

“No,” she said. “You need a reservation. You can try to join a group tomorrow.”

“But they really like…”

She shook her head.

I went to the third window right next door and started the same story. “My friends … Chinese history … disappointed .. really interested …”. The lady from the first window strolled over.

“Come with me,” she sighed.

We went to a closed window. She sold us three tickets. We were in. Then the food poisoning hit.

Dave and I ate some rice and beef and drank some coffee – after replacing it due to expired, curdled creamers – in the café while Matt struggled with a disease of his own foretelling. After two trips to the bathroom, we walked out to the big line. I told one of the workers we had tickets. They were unmarked for either a time or group, so they just shoved us through the door.

We herded into a massive, planetarium-style theater that explained the history of the Mogao Caves, complete with 3D rendering of many of the place’s most impressive caves.

According to the legend, a monk named Le Zun stumbled into the Gansu desert sometime between 353 and 366 CE. Cresting a dune, he had a vision of a thousand Buddha’s bathed in golden light. That sign inspired him to dig a cave at the site that’s now the Mogao Grottoes.

My friend Aaron Hedge was born in the wrong era in the wrong region. He would’ve been a perfect wandering monk.

Somewhere over those hills, a thousand shining Buddhas shone.

Somewhere over those hills, a thousand shining Buddhas shone.

Over time, other monks joined Le Zun, and a community began to grow around the caves. By the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), more than 1,000 caves had been carved out of the desert walls, those in different areas reflecting the different Buddhas and art styles in fashion during different eras, most of them owned or funded by individual families who bought cave sites as worship sites and to demonstrate their wealth and prestige.

Also during the Tang, Dunhuang became a critical commercial and religious heart in the region. From the 4th until the 14th century, the region buzzed with construction as more and more caves were added to the five-story cliff walls. Scholars believe that at its peak, Mogao was home to more than 1,000 caves, although today only 492 cells have been opened, housing more than 2,000 sculptures and about 45,000 square meters of murals.

When the Silk Road was abandoned during the Ming Dynasty, Dunhuang slowly depopulated and the caves were largely abandoned and forgotten, fading into memory as the desert sands reclaimed them.

By the late 1800s, however, Western explorers began to explore the lost cities of Central Asia and to show archaeological interest in the ancient artifacts that would surface along the old Silk Road. By the turn of the century, a Chinese Taoist named Wang Yuanlu had become something of a self-appointed guardian of the Mogao site and had started to clear some of the caves blocked by the desert’s reclamation. In June of 1900, he unblocked one such cave and discovered a veritable motherlode of Buddhist texts and artifacts – more than 1,100 scrolls and 15,000 paper books, which had been walled off since the 11th century. He later sold them to western archaeologists, among the Aurel Stein, for a trivial sum of money.

Due to a lack of interest from Chinese authorities, many of the artifacts disappeared overseas or were stolen over the next decade. Some of the caves were further damaged in 1921 when they housed Russian loyalist soldiers fleeing the Russian Revolution, then again in 1939 when they housed Kuomingtang. Finally in 1961, the caves were declared a state cultural relics site, then earned UNESCO World Heritage status in the late 1980s. To this day, Mogao is an unfinished archaeological project. Seven hundred and thirty five caves exist today, the earliest dating back to 366 CE.

The film was beautifully made. All three of us fell asleep.

We took the shuttle bus an hour out to the caves. We sat next to a group of old Malaysian men who told us all about the glories of Malaysia, as well as just how impressed they were with the Chinese infrastructure, even in these far-flung towns.

Since we had no numbered tickets, we weren’t attached to any particular tour group, so when we arrived at the cave site, we weren’t sure exactly what to do. We bade goodbye to our Malay friends, then we walked from worker to worker, asking for some help, until someone finally set us up with a guide – a stick-thin, 22-year old college student. We were to be her first English-language tour. Just the three of us.

She took us from cave to cave, telling us the history and legends of each. Tours are somewhat random in that only certain caves are open only some of the time. Each cave was unique in its carvings, paintings, and more. Buddhas, most of them made of mud-covered wood, of varied sizes and colors generally dominated the center of the caves, while around them swirled Asparas, bodhisattvas, and other mythical beasts painted in oxidizing blues and reds and golds. Some caves told stories; some repeated their images in trippy, overlaying fashion. Some caves had crumbled, while others were near-pristine. In one, we looked up over the feet of a Buddha that stood 34.5 meters (113 feet) high. We squinted at others just two centimeters tall.

Some of the woodwork and murals are more than 1400 years old.

Some of the woodwork and murals are more than 1400 years old.

I was enchanted by all of it. Matt was dripping sweat and starting to sway.

We wrapped up our tour and walked along the outside of the caves, marveling at some of the woodwork which was original to the 6th or 7th centuries in some cases. Matt sat under a tree and tried to curl into himself.

Dave and I strolled the museum, which featured more of the history of the site, as well as some impressive reconstructions of some of the more unique caves which aren’t open to the public. Matt disappeared into the bathroom.

After another hour or so, we queued up under the desert sun to catch a shuttle bus back to the visitor center. The line wasn’t going anywhere fast. Matt had gone white. He swooned, keeping from the concrete only by falling onto Dave’s back.

“Dude, don’t vomit on me,” Dave said.

After a few moments to center himself, Matt stumbled off into the parking lot corner to projectile vomit. Now it was coming out of both ends.

A serious problem began to crystallize: Not only did we have the hour-long bus ride back to the visitor center, we had a 3.5-hour drive over ragged country roads after that. Our night train that would take us to Urumqi in Xinjiang left from a train station 130 kilometers from Dunhuang.

I could see the fear in Matt’s eyes as he eyed the tiny wastebasket in the center aisle of the shuttle bus.

We made it back to the visitor center without Matt having to do something horrible, then back to downtown Dunhuang, where we bought Matt some water and some medicine and left him on some steps outside a shop while Dave and I walked to the bus station to buy tickets to the train station. When we returned, Matt lay sleeping on the steps, while old men glared at him and muttered to each other.

Matt steeled himself for the final leg of the journey. Then, for three hours we bounced around the back of a minivan as it cruised a pockmarked two lane highway past donkey carts and tractors in tiny villages and empty stretches of desert, stopping once at a barren gas station to fill up and watch a crowd of half-naked men pound liquor and slap each other in the gathering twilight. Those hours may have been the longest hours of Matt’s life, but he held it together … or at least in.

It was a bad day to be right about the noodles.

The Singing Sands

August 8 2015 — Dunhuang, Gansu Province

The cold winds shriek out of the Himalayan Plateau and warm as they howl across the western deserts. When they wail across the golden dunes of Dunhuang, the sands sing.

The ancient city of Dunhuang sits in an oasis where it once commanded a crossroads of the southern Silk Road into India and the northern Silk Road into the Hexi Corridor, or the “throat” of China – a series of further oasis towns, jammed between the Tibetian Plateau and the Gobi desert, that led into imperial China’s heartland and its former capitals. The earliest human settlements around Dunhuang date to about 2,000 BC, but by the time the Qin Emperor had first unified central China in the 3rd century BC, the area was under control of nomadic horse tribes. The Han Dynasty conquered the area in 121 BC, bringing it into the Chinese fold within which it would thrive until the Ming Dynasty abandoned the Silk Road nearly 1500 years later.

Now, Dunhuang still enjoys its status as an oasis town at a crossroads, only now it’s a tourism oasis at the crossroads of the rails and roads that head south into Tibet, west into Xinjiang and Central Asia, and east into China’s central plains. And it was the next stop on our journey to the west.

We arrived at the central train station early, and decided to walk until we found our hostel. We had two days in Dunhuang so we planned to catch the two major sights: The Singing Sands Mountain – a vast expanse of sand dunes – and the Mogao Grottoes – one of the largest, best preserved, and most important Buddhist historical sites in the world. As our next train left the next evening and we wouldn’t have time to shower ourselves free of sand, we opted to head to the sand dunes first.

First we needed to figure out how to dodge the fences and the fee.

Singing Sand Mountain is a national park and carries a hefty 150 Yuan entry fee, and I’d heard it was something of a tourist trap without much to see or do except walk into the sand. So I poked around and learned that it’s possible to circumvent the closed-off park area and get into the sands for free behind one of the adjacent hostels.

We found the hostel, eventually, after stopping to buy some neck protection and shrugging off Dave’s incessant worries about “water” and “hot” and “sand” and “tired” and “shoes”. Standing in a concrete basketball court, we prepared to walk out into the wind-whipped oblivion just as the day’s temperature peaked in the high 90s. But there was the matter of the fence.

Equipped every few dozen meters with motion detecting cameras and lined with rusty barbed wire, the fence shouts robotic warnings at anyone who begins to approach its perimeter. We saw, however, a trail of sandy footprints running adjacent to it, then disappearing over a rise, and we assumed we could get around it that way.

About five steps up the sandy slope, the fence’s siren started to blare and that female voice started to shout. Five steps more, and Matt began to yowl.

As the baking sand slipped into my tennis shoes, my feet, covered with socks, began to heat as if I were standing on a wood stove. Matt, on the other hand, didn’t have any socks, and his pseudo-sandals had plenty of holes.

I turned to see him flee down the hill as fast as I’ve ever seen him run. Back on the concrete, he hopped around chanting curses and pulling at his shoes like some demented shaman offering sacrifices to an angry god.

Dave and I weren’t far behind.

Matt’s feet were actually burned. It looked like 10 steps were as far as we were going to get. We milled around defeated – well, Dave was pleased – and started at the shimmering sands.

We stared at the sands, defeated by their heat.

We stared at the sands, defeated by their heat.

Well, we decided, the park and its entrance fee had us, after all.

The main attraction, aside from the sand and the camel rides that take you into it, is the Crescent Lake – a natural oasis-turned-man-made lagoon which wraps around a recently built “temple”. In pictures it looks beautiful and remote. In person, the lagoon is more like a mud pit, and the city is just behind a moderately sized dune.

We walked the sandy path to the lake and were thoroughly underwhelmed. That entrance price was starting to grate. Ignoring more of Dave’s grumbling about “sand” and “looking stupid” we rented a few pairs of bright orange sand gaiters, and started the climb up to the top of the dunes.

For the first time all day, we’d done something worthwhile.

From the dune’s crest, the Crescent Lake looked its part – if you could ignore the dusty city sprawling behind it – a pool of vibrant life huddling amid a lifeless, alien sandscape. Turning 180 degrees, the dunes rolled out, endless in every direction, dotted by camel trains, glittering orange and gold in the blazing sun.

For some 50 generations, traders on camels just like those around us had trundled along those sands and listened to the wind’s song as it skipped across the ridges and warmed under the desert sun. For a moment, I lost myself in the waste. Then we bounded down.

We returned to our hostel in late afternoon, showered, then went to check out the downtown of the 170,000-person town, wandering among restaurants which spilled their tables out into bustling food streets, poking our heads into the town’s main mosque, and picking through a clothing market looking for good Chinglish t-shirts.

We stopped for some lamb skewers and a beer tower, then walked along the river as dusk turned to dark.

The riverfront, aglow, buzzed with people. We stopped to listen to a singer or two, before hopping across a river park on stepping stones that ran from concrete island to concrete island and stopped for a few minutes to marvel at the weirdness of a giant rubber duck foundering in the river’s drying muck.

Somewhere beyond, the ancient sands cooled in the evening breeze. The only thing missing was the singing.