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My Silk Road Adventure

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Before taking my 10-day Silk Road Adventure, I was busy reading about the Silk Road and attractions dotting the route. I had a strong feeling that this is going to be a trip of a lifetime and in fact it amazed me.

Day-1 Xi’an: Free walk in the Muslim Quarter and more

After check in hotel, I was eager to uncover the ancient capital beyond the seemingly- stodgy and dusty exterior. It was too late to pay those Terracotta warriors a visit in the afternoon, a free walk along the Muslim Quarter (回民街) was calling me out.

At the west to the standing-out Bell Tower, there is the complex of the Muslim Quarter, covering Beiyuanmen (北院门), Huajue Lane (化觉巷), Xiyangshi (西羊市) and Dapiyuan (大皮院). Second to the Han people, the Muslim takes up the most of Xi’an’s population. According to historical materials, they are originally descended from Arab traders who have settled here after their year-long trading journey along the Silk Road. Dating back to the Tang Dynasty (before 1248 BC), the Muslim Quarter is an unprompted creation and important religious and commercial hub for the Muslim community.

Tang Dynasty Show

With a bottle of water and a camera, I lost my direction but to follow the wave of the crowds. The two main streets, Xiyangshi and Bei Guangji Street (北广济街) form an L-shape central place that offers a busy moment checking out the food vendors and souvenir stalls. Turning at the left at the joint of the two streets, I walked into the Great Mosque (清真大寺), one of the over-10 mosques in the neighborhood. Without any sign, one might not think of this garden-like temple as a mosque. The garden, prayer hall, pavilion and chambers are an interesting Chinese interpretation of Arabic cultures and Muslim religion. Prayer hall is only open to the Muslims.

After a quick dinner of Lamb Paomo (羊肉泡馍, pita bread soaked in lamb soup), I walked through the Bell Tower Square and got to the Fountain Square (喷泉广场) by a 20-minute ride on Bus 606. The square is located behind the city icon: Big Wild Goose Pagoda. The pagoda itself is not that appealing to me, so an afar view is good enough. The lesser-light musical show is on at 8:30PM songs played including the Nutcracker March, Santorini by Yani, the William Tell Overture and other Chinese classics. The square is a perfect place to capture a distant shot of the pagoda, and more importantly, it is free!

Tips for visiting the Muslim Quarter and around

  1. No alcohol and pork offered at the Muslim Quarter and don’t even ask for any when you are in a restaurant.
  2. Cannot name the oddly-looking snack? Don’t worry! You just need to point at it, by show of fingers the vendor would tell you the price and bravely chew it down after paying.
  3. Always keep an eye on your belongings as it is impossible to avoid the crowds.
  4. When you are on the Fountain Square, don’t stand too close to the watering holes because the surges of the fountain can be dangerously powerful.
  5. Going further to Bei Guangji Street and Qiaozikou (桥梓口), you will get a better taste of the local lifestyle with less travelers. This area is also known among Xi’anese as Fangshang (坊上).

Day-2 Xi’an: The Terracotta Army and Onboard the Overnight Train

I would have visited the Terracotta Army when I had the chance. However, the fear of missing highlights and not understanding the historical background keeps me waiting until today. I joined a half-day tour with pick-up at my hotel.

The Terracotta Army was officially the first highlight of my trip. It is located in Lintong District (临潼区), 42km away in the northwest of Xi’an, taking 2 hours by car. Signed as the Emperor Qin Shihuang Mausoleum Site Museum, the entrance is always piled with visitors. From the entrance to the site, it took 10 minutes by walk while other groups took the 10-yuan buggy cars. (Note: the buggy car is only one-way) There are three main sites: No. 1 Pit, No. 2 Pit, and No. 3 Pit. The pits are named in the order of their discovery time.

The Terra-cotta Warriors and Horses

The No.1 Pit was firstly discovered and opened to the public in 1979, and also the largest one. This enormous rectangular is14, 260sq.meters and holds over 1,000 terracotta warriors and horses. The east-facing army stands in a full battle array: three lines of soldiers at the east are the striking force, with one line of knights at each side in the north, west and south as flank and back defenders. Behind the striking force, there are nine passageways, all lined with giant troops in heavy armor and riding on chariots. We stayed at this pit for 50 minutes and I walked around the pit for some great close-ups of the soldiers.

The No.2 Pit is less impressive but of more academic value, worthy a 30-minute stay. The combat formation at this pit is more complicated and complete than other pits. It has over 1,300 terracotta soldiers and horses, 80-some chariots and thousands of bronze weapons including swords, machetes, spears and halberds. It is reported that most of the pit is still buried underground and will remain so until the archaeologists devise a way to preserve the colors of the already-discovered warriors and horses. There is a display of each kind of unearthed soldiers: kneeling archer, cavalry soldier, general, armor warrior and more, which is awfully clogged.

Another 30 minutes at the No.3 Pit completed our grand visit. This pit, according to archaeologists, was the command center of Qin Shihuang’s underground army. However, after the former two pits, this pit seemed like a smaller component of the other two. There are 68 terracotta warriors, four horses and one chariot, arraying inside a pit shaped like shape the Chinese character “凹”. The expression and armors on the warriors indicate their high rankings. No commander inside the pit to lead the army and it is believed that Qin Shihuang built it like this to secure his authority as he is the commander of them all.

The scheduled visit time of the Terracotta Army was 2 hours and we had some free time after the 3 pits. Bowering at the gift shops was fun, too. They had all kinds of stuff related to the Terracotta Warriors and Horses, including toys, trinkets, freezer magnets, key chains and postcards. Afterwards, we were taken to a factory, named Qin Dynasty Artist Ceramic, showing us the making process of the clay soldiers.

After we were back to the city, I went to lunch at the Muslim Quarter. I spent rest of today taking photos at the Ancient City Wall and even took a brief cycling trip. As detailed in my itinerary, I went back to hotel and packed up my luggage before hailing a taxi to the train station – meeting time was 8PM. We boarded the train (K169) and after 4 hours, we arrived in Tianshui, Gansu Province.

Tips for Visiting the Terracotta Army

  1. At the No.1 Pit, there is a viewing gallery directly facing the whole army and offering the best panoramic view. Thus it is the most crowded and some people will hoard the railings for a long time. You can visit other pits first and take a turn back to the No.1 Pit after the big crowd is gone.
  2. At the No.1 Pit, to protect the clay soldiers, there are temperature and humidity controls in the pit but it can still get real hot because of the crowds.
  3. At the No.2 Pit, you can see encased warriors but a close-up shooting can be very tricky as the class case is always densely rounded by people.
  4. Gift shops outside the museum offer low price souvenirs and the quality is questionable. The best way to get a nice deal is trying the shops 5-minute-away of the exit of the museum. Or, even better if possible, buy the same stuff at the Muslim Quarter, but with better quality.

Day-3 Tianshui: High above the Maiji Mountain

In the history of the Silk Road, Tianshui used to be an important strategic point. Even nowadays, the second biggest city in Gansu Province is still a major trading spot in the three provinces: Ganshu, Shaanxi and Sichuan.

Our train arrived in the early morning, 4am. It was dark and chilly outside and our tour guide took us to a nearby hotel for rest and breakfast, which was a thoughtful move for today’s visit.

Among the top four Buddhism caves in China, Mogao Grottoes (莫高窟) in Dunhuang, Yungang Grottoes(云冈石窟) in Datong, Longmen (龙门石窟) Grottoes in Luoyang, and Maiji Mountain Grottoes (麦积山石窟) is the less-known one. In about 400 AD, when Buddhism preached its way to China from India, the traditions of cave shrines was alongside brought in and soon spread over China’s heartlands along the Silk Road.

Maiji Mountain, literally meaning stack of wheat, rising up to 142 meters (466 feet), is located just a few miles away from the Silk Road. It was an easy spot for the monks and artists for retreat during their arduous journey. The two monks, Tanhong and Xuangao, had meditated there with over 300 disciples. They started the great work of building the cave. The peak period of construction was during the Western Wei (西魏) and Northern Zhou (北周) dynasties. More grottoes were continuously added to until the early 20th century.

The grottoes are carved on the hewn rocks and overlooking the surrounding flat and lush forest. Sizing from 10cm (4 inch) to 17 meters (56 feet), there are over 7,200 Buddhist sculptures and over 1,000 sq. meters of murals. It is mainly noted for the clay Buddhist statues with vivid style and colors. Each cave is a shrine and each statue is a god. Standing or kneeling, gazing down or looking up, there are countless positions and facial expressions. Those stone-made gods reflect more humanity than divinity, evident by the extant 194 caves. Most of the caves are closed to the public for preservation and only 10-some caves can be reachable via stairways.

There is a 1-km mountain road from the entrance to the mountain. Buggy cars for 6 RMB (up to 12 passengers) and small travel coaches (for travel groups) are available. After arriving at the mountain foot, we walked by a small museum-like display hall with pictures and documents about over 20 main caves. It is the only chance to get a taste of those closed caves. Just before the climbing, the old and young (under 8) as well as people with acrophobia (for real) were kindly suggested to stay at the waiting hallway while others climb the mountain.

The whole trip at the mountain took 2 hours, ended at 11am. Following, we visited Fuxi Temple (伏羲庙), costing 40 minutes. For Chinese travelers or travelers who are interested in Yin & Yang cultures, Fuxi Temple is an interesting place to learn about the basic knowledge of Bagua (or Eight-Diagram Crucible, 八卦).

After lunch, we boarded on the 4PM train to Jiayuguan, Train T53. 

Tips for Visiting Tianshui

  1. At Maiji Mountain Grottoes, the buggy car is two-way at 10 RMB, but a 1-km (1.1 yard) walk uphill is easy and scenic. There are lots of food and souvenir vendors along the road, selling snacks, nuts, dry fruits and trinkets. Unlike at other attractions, prices and quality here are satisfying. Vendors are local folks and very nice, is also fun to ask about their daily life. 
  2. Covering in dense forest, Maiji Mountain is cool in the morning. However, climbing up the mountains and at noon it can get very hot. Take sunglass, a bottle of water and wear T-shirt. No high heels and short skirts for female travelers. For photo-shooting, a lens hood is needed.
  3. If not interested in the Yin and Yang cultures, the vast public ground outside the Fuxi Temple is fun to check out: old people sit at the stage and enjoy the local opera while their grandkids run about, food vendors howling about their wares.

Day-4 Jiayuguan: One Foot in Another Country

Our train arrived in Jiayuguan at noon. Checked in hotel and had lunch, we had one hour for rest before the afternoon visit to the Jiayuguan Pass.

The Jiayuguan Pass (嘉峪关) was the only major attraction. Although a stop for this site seemed like unworthy, it was still quite important for this trip to be archetypal because it was the official border back in the days of the Silk Road. Outside the pass, it is nothing but the desert, which used to be the realm of the Huns back in the Ming Dynasty. The pass was built to protect the trading along the Silk Road.

As the starting point of the west section of the Great Wall, Jiayuguan Pass was firstly constructed in 1372 in the Ming Dynasty. Walls up to 10.7 meters (35 feet) enclose the city and form a rectangular formation including 14 watch towers, general mansion, two viewing pavilions, theater tower and decorated archway.

During the construction, the foreman was challenged with the order not to squander any construction materials. Eventually, the construction team managed to work out an accurate blueprint. At the time of complete, every brick and wood was used in place, even with one brick left. The very brick is nowadays laying at the porch of Huiji Gate (会极门), as a memento of the successful project.

Near the attraction, there is a small museum, The Great Wall Museum (长城博物馆). With 30 minutes, we learnt about the construction, history, legends of the Great Wall, not just the one in Jiayuguan.
The hotel that we stayed, Holidays Plaza Hotel, is probably the best hotel in town.

Tips for visiting the Jiayuguan Pass

  1. It takes 20 minutes on foot from the entrance to the first watch tower. Buggy cart is available but walking allows you to take in the Gobi vistas. 
  2. It is windy and sandy at the site, especially so during autumn and winter. Wear a long scarf that can cover your head and neck; take good care and protection for your lens camera.   
  3. Weather in Jiayuguan is very dry year-round, drink as much water as possible and use some saline solution in nostrils in case of nosebleed.
  4. There are some camels at the site for rent, 100RMB for half an hour. The camels have a small that might be not good for some travelers. Another fun thing to do is the general makeover; you can take photos and walk around the watch tower in a general custom or take photos with a “general”.

Day-5 Jiayuguan to Dunhuang: Sand Sliding and Night Market Shopping

The drive to Dunhuang started after breakfast and took painfully 4 hours. Checked in hotel and had simple lunch, followed by a drive of 10 minutes to the site of the Singing Sand Dune and Crescent Spring.

The site was an enclosure of the desert dune and an oasis. The mountain ridge runs for 40km (24.8 miles) and is 20km (12.4 miles) at width with a highest peak to 250m (820 feet). Rolling up and down, the mountain offers a magnificent view that makes you feel so small.

Camel-back riding and sand sliding are the two major activities. At the entrance, we jumped on the back of the camels and enjoyed a 20-minute ride to the center of the desert. There is the lake, Crescent Spring surrounded by the dunes. I scrambled up the dune by a chain of ladder. On the way, I stopped for several times for break. When I looked down the dune, I can see people sliding downhill on the sand or doing the same thing as me. Almost out of breath when I reached the top. The vistas were so wide-open that I suddenly felt quite lost in the mirage of the surface-shimmering desert under the sun.

Respectively, the night walk at Sahzhou Night Market (沙洲夜市) was a blast. The night market is located at the east corner of Yangguan Road (阳关路), an open-air dining space opens at 6PM every day. Behind it is a pedestrian street lined up with juice bars, clothes shops, and local specialty and souvenir vendors. I bought 3 bags of dried melons as a chance to take close photos of the vendors. Some Xinjiang Muslims were advertising their Hetian jade loudly while snack stores were asking every passer-by to try out the sun-dried tomatoes – such a lively picture was a microcosm of the Silk Road.

Our hotel, Dunhuang Soulex Hotel (阳光沙洲大酒店), is probably the best hotel in town. It offers western-style buffet breakfast and the beds are soft. Gift shop inside the hotel is reasonably priced.

Day-6 Dunhuang: Amazing Mogao Grottoes 

Obviously the highlight of today, or this trip, was the famous Mogao Grottoes. It is 25km (15.5 miles) at the southeast of Dunhuang City, a 30-minute drive was enough for its basic briefing.

Crowning to the Four Grand Buddhist Caves, the Mogao Grottoes has a lot to be proud of: the largest and oldest Buddhist art treasure trove, best-preserved cave, most valuable situation at the crossroads of the Silk Road trading and cultures, a site enlisted in the World Heritages and more.

At the rolling ridge of Mingsha Mountains, there are over 700 caves, 492 art caves (enshrined Buddhist statues) at the south section and 243 living caves (where the artists used to live) at the north section. Only 10 caves and 2 display rooms are open to the public. There are murals measured up to 45,000 sq. meters in total and over 2,400 colored clay sculptures. The murals are mostly about Buddha’s life stories and the preach of Buddhism in China.

In 366BC, a monk named Le Zun (乐尊) began the construction after he envisioned the Buddha’s light from thousands of glitters glinting from the mountain. Along with the development of the Silk Road, the construction reached a tide in the Tang Dynasty. When the Silk Road has fallen into decay since the Yuan Dynasty thus the construction stopped and it became a forgotten land until 1701 in the Qing Dynasty.

From the Qing Dynasty, no sculptures were added to but majorly some repair and re-coloring works. Time came to the period of the Republic of China, the site was under national protection and preservation. During this time, 400 caves were reinforced and 10 wood-constructed caves got emergency repaired.

We were divided into three groups, 8 people of each, and assigned with one attraction guide. Everybody had a voice guiding device, and some foreigners were given the English device. The device works on a radio frequency. We had to stay and follow closely to our guide so that the signal of other guides’ won’t overlap with ours. Among the visitable 10 caves, the tour guides choose 3 main ones individually plus 1-2 side caves if time allows. We visited the No.45, No.138, No.148, No.220, No.259 and No.321.

Cave No.45 was definitely a splendid masterpiece. The exact year of construction was untraceable but the clear-cut style and artistry implicate to the Middle Tang Dynasty to the Fives Dynasties. The cave itself was a shrine shaped like a triangular. The Buddha was sitting in lotus position inside the main niche, with six other figures flanking at his both sides. The nearest two are his Two Great Disciples, the young and jolly-looking one being Ananda, the old and bitter-looking one being Kasyapa (some say it is Maudgalyayana or Sariputra).

By their sides, there are two Bodhisattvas with beautiful feminized appearance. The edge of the flanks was two Devarajas, who were dressed as generals and looking quite anergy. On the celling and walls, there are numerous Feitian (飞天, heavenly apsaras) and series of murals demonstrating the Buddhism. One of the murals paints out how the Guan-Yin (观音) comes to rescue people in danger once they call on him.

Another one is about patricide of Prince Ajatasatru who threw his mother, Queen Vaidehi, in jail. The poor woman called upon the Buddha and asked for a paradise to relive. The Buddha tells her about Amitabha’s Pure Land and ways to reach there. The16 ways of visualization in her practice were illustrated on the other side.

The reclining Buddha in Cave No.148 was another highlight. The cave is a transverse rectangular layout and the reclining Buddha takes up the most room and makes the whole cave look like a coffin. That’s the he Buddha’s nirvana, which is the best version in Dunhuang. On his shoulder, there are over 72 stucco statues, who are thought to be the Buddha’s followers, standing in mourning his death.

No cameras allowed inside the caves. This was because most colors used are readily oxidative, the photoflash of the cameras will accelerate the oxidation. Therefore, one has to go inside the caves to understand its essence. The tour guide will use a small hand flashlight to light the objects.

From 1984 on, high-end techniques were involved in the preservation: the isotope analysis of minim lead was used in analyzing the paints used in the sculptures and murals; Environmentalists renewed different methods for desertification prevention and control; In-cave monitors were installed to control temperatures, humidity and oxygen level. All of these is a surely result of the surging amount of visitors drawn by its spectacle. , the site will be shut and, as a replacement of it, a digital display of the art works is the only way visitors can observe.

The visit took a solid 2 hours, ending up with a stop at the adjoin museum full with replicas of the statues and historical documents.

After dinner, we took a 2-hour drive on the Gobi desert to Liuyuan Train Station (柳园火车站). Train K1337 left for Turpan at 11:40PM. I had a sweet dream thanks to the colorful visit at the Mogao Grottoes.

Tips for visiting the Mogao Grottoes

  1. No photos inside the caves and the museum.  
  2. The tour guides are tend to introduce the sites in a fast tone. It helps a lot if you can preview the caves and learn about the essence and styles. Bringing your own flashlight is helpful, too.
  3. Cameras, lighters and bottles of water are required to put at the ticket office before entry. Only lady’s purse can be brought into the caves.

Day-7 Turpan-1 : Water Brings Hope 

Train K1337 arrived in Turpan Train Station at 8:30AM. Shortly after check-in, our exploration began at the Karez Water System.

The Karez Water System is one of the Three Great Projects in the ancient China (The other two are the Great Wall in Beijing and Grand Canal in Hangzhou). Water in Xinjiang was, and is, greatly crucial in the development of the local economics and the Silk Road.

In the Han Dynasty, the original part of the system was built up on the vertically dug wells. The wells were connected with underground canals that collect water from the watershed surface runoff flowing from Tianshan Mountains (天山山脉) and Flaming Mountains (火焰山山脉). Water was channeled to the surface, by the help of gravity in the downward slope of the Turpan Depression. In this museum, there are wells, dams, pumps and channels that were used to hold water and control its flows.

After the museum, we walked into a local vineyard and tried out raisins. Thanks to the long duration of sunshine and short rainfall, grapes growing in Turpan have high sugar content up to 22% - 24%. Local planters use the cooling-sheds (凉房) to dry and wither the juicy grapes in natural windblow. Over 500 breeds of grapes are planted in Turpan. July to October is the season for fresh grapes while other time is for raisins.

Dinner was also served in the vineyard, local flavors like Taipan Chicken (大盘鸡, chicken cooked with potatoes, tomatoes and bell peppers), lamb kebabs, Naan breads and home-made yogurt, providing a delightful treat.

Our hotel, Tuha Petroleum Hotel (吐哈石油大厦), is a government-owned 4-star hotel. The breakfast and services were just so so. Yet its advantageous location in downtown made my night walking around easy and fun, until I was warmed by a police officer, saying it is dangerous for a young girl to walk solo after evening. 

Tips for visiting Turpan

  1. Watch your steps and don’t fall into the wells while at Karez Water System Museum.
  2. While in the local vineyard, don’t pick the grapes from the vines or else you will be fined by 500 RMB for one grape. The garden owner treats you with refills of the raisin plates. You’d pay for extra bags to take home.
  3. After washing hands before a meal, don’t shake hands dry in a household, as it is considered to be unfortunate and rude.
  4. No pork or alcohol in a Turpan restaurant or household. 
  5. For safety reasons, get some companies and try to be back to hotel before 8PM if you want an evening walk.

Day-8 Turpan-2: Jiaohe Ancient Ruins   

After breakfast, we drove for 30 minutes to the grand site of the Jiaohe Ancient Ruins (交河故城).
This archaeological site is by far the largest earth construction in the world. Located 10km west of Turpan in the Yarnaz Valley, it was built on a leaf-shaped alluvial islet formed by the two river valleys. In Chinese, “城” means city. However, Jiaohe Ancient Ruins is not only a city for living but also a natural fortress. Deep ditches were cut by the running water that once flew around the city, forming a range of steep cliffs on all sides. These natural walls are 30-meter high (98.4 feet).

Jiaohe used to be important both strategically and economically along the Silk Road heading west. At the beginning, Jiaohe used to be the capital of Anterior Jushi Kingdom (古车师王国) during 108 BC to 450 AD. It was Jiao Prefecture in the Tang Dynasty; later it was Jiaohe County in 640AD. During the period of 640 - 658AD, it was the seat of the Protector General of the Western Regions (西域都护府), which was the highest military rank posted in the west during the Tang Dynasty. It was under the ruling of the Uyghur Khaganate in the earl era of the 9th century until their power was overtaken by the Kyrgyz in 840BC. Its final destruction befell by an invasion led by Genghis Khan in the 13th century.

Today, nobody lives in the ruins and no water flowing around it. The model at the entrance tells us how it used to look like back in the days. Layed out in the east and west, there are the city’s residential districts. Houses were built carved into the earth from roof to the basement, making the city streets look like trenches. Residences were located in the north point of the east-and-west township; next to them linked the governmental offices and commercial centers full of workshops.

Our guide led our way into the ruins through the South Gate. As she explained, people firstly dug water wells and houses were built by digging downwards around the wells. After hollowing out the earth and making it into a room, woods and metal were installed to reinforce the construction. No windows or doors were installed on the walls facing the street, for defensive purpose. Thanks to the dry weather and short rainfall, these earth house are still firm and in good shape after centuries. 
The religious center was at the north side. Regardless today’s considerable Muslim population in Turpan, the Buddhism was the only religion practiced in Jiaohe. Standing on the viewing platform, we could barely get a vision of the long-gone Buddhist temples and stupas that once stood glitteringly.
At the northwest point of the religious district, linked to the governmental offices, our tour guide pointed us to a area filled with small earth bumps. That is the mysterious Infant Tombs. Tombs are 1-meter at width and number up to 200 some. Found in 1994, the construction purpose of these funerary monuments still remains unknown.

There are three conjectures. One is a plague took over the city and killed over 200 kids and babies. Their sad parents buried them next to the government as a way to mourn and remember. One is those kids under 2 were killed as sacrifice. Another conjecture is that: parents killed the kids by themselves because they couldn’t stand their kids being tortured and humiliated by ceaseless wars, especially the invaders, the Mongols, brutally forced them to convert to Islam from Buddhism. Whatever the truth is, the tombs cloud every visitor in with a long-lasting depression.

The visit ended at noon. We had lunch and checked out hotel, soon enough we were on the way to Urumqi. Along the 3-hour road trip, we saw a tremendous wind generating station. Firstly built in 1985, the Dabancheng Wind Generating Station (达坂城风力发电站) is China’s largest inland wind generating project. Hundreds of generators scatter on the plain with each high up to 40m and worth 4,200,000 RMB. It is now a new spectacle on the ancient Silk Road.

Tips for visiting the Jiaohe Ancient Ruins

  1. No bathrooms inside the site, nor any washrooms or drinking place due to protection of the earth construction.
  2. Better avoid a noon or afternoon visit at this site for the heat and sunburn can be severe. Best time for photos is at 5PM when the sun is slowly setting.
  3. There are 4 major viewing platforms, offering superb views.” No Passing” signs are on some structures.
  4. On the way passing the wind generating station, the driver might stop for break or gas. Visitors can go by the road sides to take photos of the generators but shall watch out for rushing cars. Wind blow is quite strong and put on your hat and heavy coat.
  5. There is a twin site of Jiaohe Ancient Ruins, Gaochang Ancient Ruins, which is at the east side of Turpan. Two days are needed if you want to visit both ruins.
  6. Near the freeway exit of Urumqi, there is a security check with SWAT teams. Some travel groups will be asked to stop for routine checking.

Day-9 Urumqi: Fascinating Landscape and Interesting Museum Visit  

Urumqi, literally meaning beautiful pasture, owes its prosperity to Tianshan Mountains.

Tianshan and Tianchi, or Heavenly Hill and Heavenly Lake (天山,天池) is a famous natural attraction. Located 100km (62 miles) northeast of Urumqi, it took us 1 hour to reach the foot of mountains, followed by a half-hour buggy ride to the mountain top. We stopped at a local restaurant surrounded by villages of the Kazakh people. The Kazakh people live on the mountain for pasture and move to the city when winter comes.

We reached the mountain top at noon. The sum brings out lovely colors of the Heavenly Lake and its pine forest. So much in luck, it snowed two days before our trip and now it was a crystal world of white and green. Standing at the shore, I took a full photo of the lake hugged by the mountains. Later, a 20-minute boat ride gave us an even better view of the mountains and villages around.

Most of us fell asleep on the way back to Urumqi, including me. I was like “yawn another museum” when we arrived at the Museum of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, which later turned out to be a worthwhile visit in my trip.

Three integral sections at the museum: the Xinjiang People Customs Exhibition Hall with different folklores and cultures of the 12 ethnic groups in Xinjiang; Historical and Cultural Relics Exhibition Hall, housing historical relics and antiquaries about the Silk Road; and most-famous, also my favorite, the Ancient Mummies Exhibition Hall, interesting yet scary display of Loulan Mummies (楼兰古尸).

At the Ancient Mummies Exhibition Hall, astonishing display includes 3 female corpses known as Loulan Beauty (楼兰美女), Hami Beauty (哈密美女) and Qiemo Beauty (且末美女), with over 3,000 years of history. Unlike the mummies in Egypt, the mummies found in present-day Xinjiang were ordinary villagers with no political powers. Anthropologists and scientists had recovered the original looks of the Loulan mummy and a pretty face was present to people: big oval eyes, straight lines run through her nose, generously full lips and a pointy chin, which shows vivid characters of Europeoid race. Looking closely, every eyelash is still plainly visible.

According to the studies, she was a residence of the Xiaohe Tribe (小河部落) and lived in 3,800 years ago. Laying in a peaceful position and with a vague smile, her exact age and cause of death are still the biggest mysteries luring more and more visitors and scholars.

After the museum, we caught up with a late business hour at the International Bazaar (国际大巴扎), also known as the Erdaoqiao Market (二道桥市场). We attended the dinner show with buffet on the 4th floor of the bazaar, which was absolutely awesome although the food was just so so.

Tips for visiting Urumqi

  1. Due to the altitude, a visit at the Heavenly Lake in the morning or in the afternoon after 4pm is really cold. Better to arrive at noon and spend 1 hour before getting back to downtown.
  2. At the Heavenly Lake, boat ticket is usually excluded in the attraction fee (100RMB). Normal boat is 65RMB for 20 minutes; gaily-painted pleasure-boat is 85RMB for the same time. Keep your hat and scarf on while cruising the lake.
  3. When the buggy car arrives at the waist, there is another walk of 20 minutes up to the lake. Along the way you can see swinging pine forest, gracefully covered in snow. Walk slowly to prevent gasp for the altitude is 2,150m (7054 feet).
  4. One shall not haggle if not intend to buy while visit the International Bazaar.
  5. There are four main sections at four orientations of the bazaar, including food, clothes, medicine and every-day uses. The food section is fun enough for general travelers. 

Day-10 Urumqi to Xi’an: Good-bye and see you again soon!  

I had a free morning before my flight at 4PM. As walking in the International Bazaar, I tried to imagine the days when people haggled and dealt under the same blue sky as today. The Silk Road didn’t end in Urumqi. Instead, it reached out to the Middle East, where I wish one day I can be to compose the whole journey of a real Silk Road adventure!