In Turpan, we wandered down to Emin minaret through tree-lined streets with grape-drying buildings (cross-shaped windows speckled throughout the brick facade, a recognizable pattern) and huge courtyards we peeked into (tiled paintings on top of entrances of cranes and ships and the minaret). Along the path, a man lay on a bed outside, watching over the baby beside him. The house behind him has a roof of heaped up grape tree branches. Through the dusty village where children shouted out to us “Hello, malcolm yellow!” but really, it was, as E. tells me, “Essalam eleykum!” A common greeting. We reached the minaret’s surrounding grape fields as the sun set, a lone child watching us as we perched on a dirt pile near the grape fields taking photos.
The next day, the ruins of an ancient city, Jiaohe. There was no shade there, only dusty paths to the ruins of old buildings, all the color of the sand, bleached by sun. We walked off the beaten path and nobody noticed; we peered down over a cliff and saw the footsteps of others who’d done the same. The sun was high overhead; we had arrived at 11am. Under the shade of a small cave, we talked about serious things that I cannot remember. We walked on wooden planks in the remains of temples: this is the room in which this happened and this is the room in which this did not happen. After, on the way back, we found a reservoir/dam where kids were swimming despite the signs that said swimming was forbidden. To get to it, we watched kids dragging their motorbikes through the mud then followed another set, our shoes sinking into the soft earth. We climbed the hills around the reservoir without enough water to drink. In one crevice, the skeleton of an animal. Across the reservoir, we could see the ruins and down by the water, a series of fishing rods, lines sinking down. Also, tiny frogs.
A dinner of Sichuan food but a drunken Uighur man kept coming and trying to speak to us. The mother of the chef of our restaurant took out two bats; she thumped them against the ground, against the tables. Funny how friendly one moment and how angry the next. We watched young boys drink sodas and smoke cigarettes. The minaret again and then a cab ride back that cost double what it should’ve. No one ever used the meter and we’d made the mistake of not asking for the price first. Then a train ride to Liuyuan.
In Dunhuang, we took a small bus to a hostel by the dunes, with cabins splayed around the land. We had to pass rows and rows of camels along the way, mangy with pink humps that flopped obscenely. They ground their yellow teeth at us. Our room was in a traditional type courtyard with a beautiful interior but a very hard kang. I hung my clothes in the courtyard to dry as the swallows flew in and out of the eaves. But the dunes! All soft sand and just as tall as I had imagined. Walk along the crest of the dunes and watch the sand waterfalling down. Some of the tourists rented bright orange booties but the sand wasn’t hot and we walked with bare feet on the tops of the dunes till the sun set. In certain areas, so windy that the sand scoured our faces and stole our hats so that P. had to run down into the valley to retrieve it. We made up diary entries and saw lizards and sand beetles.
When we returned to our hostel, there was nothing to eat but ramen. Then, a midnight excursion with some Chongqing kids to see the stars from the dunes. The fence had a hole but it was very small and underneath the sand, there was a bar. Instead, we lay near the fence and talked about the possibility of snakes. In the sky, the Milky Way.
And then there were the Mogao Caves. We’d hired a car and left in the morning, along with two girls. The cliffs the caves were a part of all had a manmade facade and the openings had gates. It used to be that they were natural openings, sometimes with temple entrances in front, the upturned eaves of wooden roofs but there are only one or two now. Our guide took us to ten of them although the one with the large Buddha was closed for restoration. What I could understand was fairly limited but there was resentment here in how foreigners had taken these relics, or destroyed them. In one cave, you could see the blackened ceiling and walls from where Russian soldiers’ fires had damaged the paintings. There were many different styles of deities due to the span of years and cultural influences of the Silk Road. Later, where I should have paid more attention, was the museum that went through so many of the small details. The monks’ quarters (not in the shrines we saw but more ascetic caves nearby) where they ate and slept when they were not praying. What the statues are made of since the rock was not really suited for carving. Imagine this life and what it entails.
The employee in charge of our train car on the way to Zhangye from the huge, fairly new, empty Dunhuang station, was the cleanest one I’ve ever seen. Every half hour, we’d raise our feet so he could mop the floor. In Zhangye, the local bus was so crowded that the woman in charge of tickets directed people to certain positions in the bus, in a voice on the verge of tears. As the bus stopped, she’d hop out and direct any passengers in before squeezing in herself. We stayed in a terrible hotel the first night, where they showed us uneven beds and odd stains on the wall. P. said there were ghosts and our bathroom had a squat toilet. But the interesting thing about Zhangye is that the listed price for hotel rooms seems to be the actual price and incredibly low. The first was 98rmb, the second 118rmb. Neither knew what to do when we showed them our passports.
I had wanted to go to Danxia for its red and yellow-streaked mountains but really, it was Mati Si the next day that won me over. On the way to Danxia, our 1.5 hour bus would pull over on the side of the road and passengers would clamber on. Sometimes there were no seats, so they’d sit on the black shelf behind the driver’s seat and chat with the ticket lady who sat on the steps. In Danxia itself, we had to take a mini-bus/trolley that took us around the huge space. The driver and the guide flirted with each other while we went off to climb the stairs and take in the view. At the first point, we wandered to all the walkways and, thinking others would do the same, assumed we had time to just sit and chat for a bit. We were the last ones on that bus and later, an older lady said, “Some of the people, especially one lady, told the driver to leave without you! But I said that if she were visiting another country, would she want to be treated like that?”
Mati Si, another 2 hour bus ride away, there was oddly delicious fried rice (I had been cranky and unwilling to wait since we only had a limited amount of time there but it was worth it) and a temple set in the cliffside, consisting of huge caves on the lower level before climbing narrow stairs up and up into these birdhouse-like clusters, their entrances enclosed like balconies with brightly painted eaves. There weren’t too many tourists and sitting high in one of those window-balconies, I could imagine being a monk and living there. The serenity of it and the view of mountains in the distance and the intense loneliness. The pigeons cooed outside and you could see the strings of brightly colored flags streaming down to the ground, so many meters away. After, we walked to the Thousand Buddha Cave which involved some climbing to reach parts of the temple, the bell tower, narrow vertical chutes with gaps for your feet. A one-way path. Then the bus picked us up on the way out and we learned how they would up the admission fees this month and set up tourist trolleys within the area even though it was only about 2 km away from the entrance. If we’d had time, I would’ve stayed the night but we had to return so we could catch a 10 hr train to Lanzhou then a flight to Chongqing.