Ten things to do in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region before you get to Kashgar

1. Try the food- Pilaf, handmade noodles, all the mutton.  So much dried fruit you won’t know what to do with yourself and the best pomegranate juice on the planet.

2.The ruins of ancient city of Jiao He in the Yarnaz Valley outside of Turpan- WHY DON”T WE LEARN ANYTHING ABOUT CHINA?*  I cannot get over exactly how much I do not know about the country where I have lived for the last three years. These ruins are larger and better preserved than Pompeii. Let me pause for effect.   We wandered through this 2000  year fortress city Eventually the river that protected the city dried up and the people were conquered.  Or absorbed.  I guess it all depends on your perspective.



3. Heavenly Lake- So I thought that I was going to die. This lake is about 2000 meters above sea level.  The rest of the parched area of Turpan is is around sea level so the climb is pretty dramatic. You also have to take a shuttle bus (it is a full sized bus) the last hour up the mountains.  This an evil twisted road that the driver’s hurtle up and down always a second from disaster.  The view at the top makes the insane ride worth it.

4. Karex Irrigation System- a 2000 year design that you can see from the air is basically the only reason that the city of Turpan exists.  There are over 3000 miles of tunnels carrying water still.  The lifeblood of the city.

5. Emin Minaret- This mosques looks so different from any others on the trip.  Is is rounded and made of sun dried bricks.

6. Erdaoqiao Market or International Bazaar-  You can buy anything under the sun.  But if you are planning on flying out of Urumqi leave the Uygur knifes.  You can’t bring it even in your checked luggage.  This region of China has the largest harvest of lavender outside of Provence.  I ended up with a ton of dried lavender and some essential oil.  There is also an essential oil made from desert rose.  Yup, I bought that,too.

7. Drive from Turpan to Urumqi- There is a vastness to the desert landscapes that make them timeless.  You can’t help wondering who has been there before you.

8. Uyghur Music- there are little stalls everywhere to buy instruments.  Some of them are beautiful works of art. 

9. The Bezeklik Caves- You can find these in the Flaming Mountains. I am actually serious.  You aren’t being sent on a quest to Mordor.  The mountains are actually called the Flaming Mountains. These are not as impressive as the MoGao Caves.  Most of the murals were destroyed by Muslim Red Guards in the 60’s or stolen away to a museum in Berlin where they were destroyed by allied bombing.  But the drive and the setting are enough.

10. Silk in Khotan-  You can actually watch silk being made.  They don’t sugar coat it and you should steel yourself to the sight of thousands of dead caterpillars.  I may have just been being overly sensitive.  It is loud and hot and you will totally be in the way.  I dare you not to buy something.

*answer: I suppose that the western bias against admitting that anyone else came up with anything despite all the evidence is the reason for this.

The Night Train: Continuing the Silk Road Journey


The Night train is an essential experience to have while travelling in China.  Or so I kept being told.  We sprung for hard sleeper cabins but the night train was still the part of our Silk Road trip that I was least looking forward to. And by least looking forward to I mean that I had an actual panic attack in the hotel in the morning before we packed up for the train. 

I have taken night trains before in Europe and they were not pretty there.  Bathrooms on trains are pretty horrific (easily clogged and the train is you know, moving) I was not looking forward to the Chinese version.  I could not imagine that the whole train toilet would be improve by making it a squat toilet.  We were also sharing the room.  Not with strangers than God, but I am enough of an introvert that this was a major point of stress.  Oh, my God what if I snore or something!  My brain sometimes does not know when to shut up.

Reality was much more forgiving than the nightmare that had been going on in my head.  There was a (pretty damn clean) western toilet and a separate room with three sink.  Tooth Brushing was possible!  There weren’t too many others in the carriage aside from us and there weren’t very many rooms either.  Huzzah!

We entertained ourselves for a couple of hours by coming up with as many idioms in English that have to do with body parts.  I recommend this highly as a say to pass time.  You can pretty much randomly name any boy part and find a corresponding phrase.  I wonder what this says about English…


I slept astonishingly well.  So much better than I had anticipated and I was shocked.  I think that it might have been the swaying motion or the soothing white noise of the train itself.  It helps that the journey was relatively short.  We got on the train about 9:30 and were off by 7 in the morning. 

Pretty sure that the sheets in hotels and on the night train in China are washed with that acid that the Joker fell into in the 1989 movie.  All of my skin hates me right now.  Now, your skin might be battle hardened and rough enough for sandpaper but I basically have the most sensitive skin on the planet.  You know those weird hothouse flowers that only thrive and bloom and annoyingly specific temperature, humidity, and ground conditions.  My skin is basically like that.  68/20 degrees, humid, and with absolutely absolutely no irritants is the only time that it is happy. Anyway, long story short I have hives.

Final verdict.  If you have to take the night train in China splurge on the soft sleeper.  The hard sleeper had six people in the same place as we had 4 (and it wasn’t a large space) and much more mankiness.  It wasn’t a super unique experience from other night trains so if you have it on your sis tans have done a sleeper train before then you already know the drill.

The Power of Turning of Your Camera: Exploring the Mo Gao Grottos

Mo gao grottos

It continually shocks me how much I do not know about China.  It is like a mountain.  However, many ridges you scale there is always at least one more.  I am not sure that I had even heard of the Mo Gao Grottos before we started planning this trip.  Or if I had heard of them I immediately forgot their names.  I won’t again.  The Mo Gao Caves were truly one of the most overwhelming and awe inspiring places that I have ever visited.

There are six criteria for becoming a UNESCO World Heritage cultural site.  A site must meet at least one of them to be selected.

“Human creative genius,  Interchange of values, Testimony to cultural tradition, Significance in human history, Traditional human settlement, and Heritage associated with events of universal significance.”

There are only two places in the world (so far) that have met all 6 of the criteria.  The canals of Venice and the Mo Gao Caves.

The MoGao Caves or Grottos are caves that were dug and enlarged and then decorated with Buddhist art.  The art is a combination of wall murals along with statues.  Figures and paintings were added to the caves over the period of a thousand years.  There are examples of silk painting, textiles, and printed images in addition to the murals and sculptures. 

Chinese Buddha

It is interesting that the Buddha’s were all the skinny south Asian kind rather than the jolly fat Chinese Buddha.  They are both representations of “future Buddha” (or at least the ones in the cave and the fat Buhai are) rather than of the historical Buddha. But for some reason “jolly” and enlightenment don’t go together in my head.  The Buddhas in the grottos look as if they are contemplating something rather than as if they are about to laugh at you.

Fragile Art

We had to go around with a tour guide.  Everyone does.  I think that is how they ensure that people aren’t touching the walls or the statues constantly.  There are thousands of visitors here a year and keeping the grottos inside the caves pristine is a lot of work.  Even the light from the open door is damaging and the caves that are open to the public are rotated to limit the light exposure.

The advantages of speaking English

I finally found an advantage of speaking truly horrific Mandarin. (I am super exaggerating when I say peak I mean I have some stock phrases that I am getting me through life here.  Yes, I am ashamed) At the Mo Gao caves we were put into a separate “not Chinese” line where we waited for a guide who spoke English.  We had arranged our tickets ahead of time and coupled with this we were saved more than a two hour wait in line.  Another bonus was the fact that our group was only 20 people as opposed to 100.  Score.

And yet somehow this was forgotten.  China seems to have periods in its history where they decide to completely overlook something huge right outside their backdoor.  The Silk Road was abandoned in the Ming Dynasty (about 700 years ago) and the world forgot about the caves until 1900.

Friggin’ Colonialist thieves

Much like the history of the rest of the world the rediscovery of the caves went something like this:

1. Chinese man rediscovers caves and INSANE amounts of documents.

2. Wiley Englishman dupes Chinese man out documents and “discovers” the cave

3. Documents somehow find their way to the British Museum.

4. Chinese Government pissed.

Putting Down the camera

There are some places that photographs or the the most vivid description cannot communicate. I am glad that you can’t take photos in the caves.  Sometimes when you aren’t thinking about how you are going to document a moment you actually experience it.  I noticed the exact shade of blue, and red, and yellow used. I marveled at how even after 700 or sometimes 2000 years the colors almost seemed to glow when you shined a flashlight on them. 

It is so easy to focus on taking the picture.  We all do it sometimes.  We are looking for the pretty image and forgetting to really see what is in front of us.  When you put away the camera there is a part of your brain that seems to come awake.  “Oh, my God , people we are going to have to remember this!  She put the camera in her bag.  This is not a drill!  Repeat: this is not a drill!” I found myself taking more time to look at the patterns on the walls, the individualized faces of each Buddha, the paintings on the ceilings.

*I apologies for my lamo explanations of Buddha.  I am SO not an expert.  Do NOT cite me as a source. Seriously, I know nothing.