Ground to a Halt...


Map of Turpan to Urumqi


The Turpan Depression is reckoned to be the third lowest dry spot on the planet.  Its lowest point is the Ayding Gol – or Moonlight Lake – which sits at 154m below sea level.  Sometimes counted as one of the “Furnaces of China”, with average temperatures in July climbing to 40°C, it is not always the most comfortable place to be. 


But I was fortunate during my short stay there.  For the two days that I was in and around the city of Turpan, it never rose above around 25 or 30°C, and in fact the skies were murky and grey for much of the time. 


Nevertheless, I got a good impression of the place.  Because of its geography, its climate and its location, straddling one of only two routes westward out of China, Turpan has always been a strategically important land for the control of the trade routes passing through it.  Consequently Turpan has a long history, much of which is still quite visible today, thanks to the arid conditions which preserve archaeological remains so well. 


The walls of the old citadel - the river bed curves round to the right

The old ruins of JiaoHe city, situated on this island fortress created by the meeting of two rivers


At different locations close to the present-day city are several very well preserved ancient ruins.  I didn’t visit them all, but managed to visit the best preserved of these, known as JiaoHe City.  This sits atop an island created by the confluence of two branches of a river (JiaoHe means “river junction”), which has cut down and down into the earth to create a raised island platform with sides reaching 30m high or more, about a mile long, and 300m wide at its widest part.  In this naturally fortified position, this ancient city apparently flourished from as early as the 1st century BC, through to its destruction by marauding Mongols in the 13th century AD.  During its heyday in the Tang Dynasty (around the 7th century AD), it was the seat of the Protector General of the Western Regions of the Chinese Emperor, so it had been an important site. 


The ancient city of Jiaohe - just outside Turpan

The ramp up into the ancient citadel of JiaoHe, just outside Turpan


Although I knew very little of its history and there was no one to explain what I was seeing in any great detail to me, it was interesting to wander amongst the streets and alleyways of this old city, with its residential and government districts still clearly defined, and the whole layout of the city driving you towards the more prominent position of the temple district and the ruins of two large Buddhist monasteries at its western end.  More than many archaeological sites, one doesn’t need a brilliant imagination to conjure up images of what life may have been like in this old city.


 The Grand Temple and Stupa - still standing more or less at the western end of the city

The remains of the Buddhist stupa that stands at the western end of the ruins of JiaoHe


Another feature of the whole region is the curious looking buildings which had at first mystified me on the way down into the Depression.  They are simple oblong buildings built with a kind of lattice brickwork, and stand all over the landscape beyond the green vineyards of Turpan’s immediate surroundings.  I soon learned that these were barns used for drying out the locally-produced grapes to make raisins. 


A grape drying barn

The lattice brickwork used in constructing the drying barns for producing raisins, Turpan county


Grapes are certainly one of the foundations of the local economy, which represent something like 90% of China’s entire seedless grape crop, and they are exported around the world.  There is no doubt that you have eaten a grape or raisin from this region at some point in your life.  Because of the hot and dry conditions, all the fruit grown in the region has a very high sugar content, so much so that if you ask any Chinese person about Turpan, the first thing they will tell you is to try the “sweet and juicy grapes”.  The grapes are sold as picked, as raisins but they also used to make a wide variety of local wines as well.  Besides grapes, the local farmers grow mulberry, peach, apricot, apple, pomegranate, pear, fig and watermelon, as well as cultivating cotton.


Lovely juicy grapes - actually have to wait till September for the proper harvest

Ripening vineyards - the grape harvest comes between July and September


All this is made possible by an ingenious irrigation system, invented in Turpan, that features not only throughout the Depression, but also across wider areas of Xinjiang and into the province of Gansu.  This is called the Karez System of irrigation.  This system is a network of underground channels, wells, ground canals and small reservoirs which use the natural slope of the terrain to bring the mountain rain and meltwaters from the Tian Shan and nearby Flaming Mountains (mostly) underground direct to the crops on the surface, minimizing the evaporation of the water which the tremendous heat would otherwise cause.  The system represents a vast feat of engineering that has been carried out over millennia, and it is still the irrigation method used today.  As such, it is reckoned on a level with the Great Wall and the Grand Canal (from Beijing to Hangzhou) as one of China’s greatest ancient engineering achievements. 


Replica of a Karez underground irrigation channel

A replica of a typical Karez underground irrigation channel


I visited a couple of other tourist spots during my day off, but became quite weary of the heat and concentration later in the day.  Perhaps of more interest was the city of Turpan itself, which really comes alive as dusk begins to fall.


Old singer at the Berezelik Caves

An old Uighur musician entertaining the tourists at the Berezelik Caves


Because of the insistence on the centralised government that the whole of China should run on one timezone, this means the evenings are, even now in May, extremely light right up to 10 o’clock at night.  This means these western cities only seem to become lively very late in the day.  It is true that many of the local Uighurs insist on referring to Xinjiang Time (2 hours behind Beijing), but in reality very little operates according to this.  Shops, post offices, working hours, travel timetables all use Beijing time, and it is obvious that using Xinjiang Time has more to do with an assertion of independence, than with any practical use. 


Whichever time you preferred, as the heat of the day passes into the evening, market stalls would appear on the streets, and an area in the central square, set behind a large fountain, would become a jumble of trestle tables, naked light bulbs, racks of raw meat on skewers ready for roasting, steaming noodles bubbling away on coal-fired stoves with the hum of gossip and patter floating up into the warm evening air.  These were all Uighurs food stands and a great performance is laid on as you wander amongst these to try to entice you to their particular culinary offerings.  Since each stall is identical to the next, it becomes obvious that salesmanship is key to their good fortune, and it is amusing to watch the jealous, resentful or rueful looks exchanged between stall-keepers when a group of wandering patrons settles at one table rather than another. 


My own choice was as arbitrary as any, but I settled in to enjoy truly delicious chunks of lamb roasted on metal spikes and the ubiquitous laghman  noodles, washed down with an entire bottle of a local vintage.  I’m no expert on “the vine”, but even I could tell that a wine that tastes more like concentrated grape cordial than white wine would have any self-respecting Frenchman reaching for his spittoon.  Even so, enjoying the wine added something to the welcoming mood of the place. 


I was joined on my rickety table by a young Uighur man who was snacking on just a plateful of meat.  He offered to share some with me, and I tried out the 4 or 5 Uighur phrases I’d learnt that day, and he taught me a couple more. 


Vine-covered trellis walkway in Turpan

Pedestrian street in the centre of Turpan 


Aside from this, it would have been nice to have some real companionship that evening, as it was genuinely enjoyable to stroll home with a full belly and a careless air under the vine-covered trellises that line each walkway.   It would have been nice to add some free and easy conversation to the already pleasant atmosphere.


Brought to the end of myself...


I had intended to stay in Turpan for two days before continuing to Urumqi where I would have a longer rest, but having seen all I really wanted to see in Turpan in just one day, I decided I would make my move a day early.  Urumqi is only 180km from Turpan, which ordinarily should not present a huge problem.  However, I was about to find out that any winds I have complained about up to this point were mere preludes to the main event. 


As I said, Turpan lies at an elevation of 154m below sea level, Urumqi sits a little higher at 800m above sea level.  Over a distance of 180km this is a climb, but not a difficult one.  So I set out on another grey and cool morning relatively optimistic that I could make it to Urumqi in probably a day and a half. 


As I continued along out of the city, the first 20 or 25km passed quickly and easily.  I even began to allow myself indulgent thoughts about perhaps getting there in a day if all continued just as well. 


The answer to these fleeting fantasies was a resounding rebuke from a wind that apparently came out of nowhere from the north.  I could take you to the exact spot where, with a slight curve in the road, the wind went from a very light tailwind into a roaring headwind, as if at the turning of a switch. 


It felt like someone very large and objectionable had just sat on me. 


From 20kph I was suddenly going 6kph.  The howling noise of the rushing air in my ears was incessant and deeply irritating, but I comforted myself that at least I was going forward.  Forward. Forward.  If I keep going forward I will get there – not today – but surely tomorrow.  Or at any rate one day.


Anyway, this was all the usual exercise in retaining a positive mental attitude……but then the road swung west again, to trail off uphill through a field of perhaps 200 wind turbines, all merrily spinning at an alarmingly rapid rate.  Aside from these, it was a barren pale wilderness, broken by a few rocky hills higher up the sloping landscape, and a few others some way off downhill in the haze to the south. 


The problem was that, as the intensity of the wind grew with every passing minute, this was now a crosswind, blasting straight across the two-lane highway which I was sharing with zooming 4x4s, buses, trucks and lorries – all in a hurry to get as far away from this place as possible.  And who could blame them?  But with each blast of wind, at 5kph now, the bike would veer dangerously into the middle of these traffic lanes.  After a few near misses and a couple of times I completely lost control of the bike (fortunately when no vehicles were passing), I decided to get off and push.


So you can now picture the scene.  Me.  Alone.  A bike weighed down with over 50kg of baggage (I know, I know - it’s too much).  Manfully pushing this thing uphill along the side of an expressway in China, and every few seconds staggering against another violent gust of wind, which even on foot threatened to push me into the path of the traffic.  And around me there is nothing. 


I crawl my way passed a big sign which tells me it’s only 145km to Urumqi.  Wonderful.  As this rate I should reach there in exactly 36 hours’ time.


The sun comes out and I feel that my legs are starting to burn.  And then the bike starts wobbling even more.  I look down and I have a puncture. 


OK.  I think by this stage, I had entered the mind-frame of a penitent wanderer, so absurd did this situation seem to be becoming.  Wearily I sat down and unpacked everything I needed to fix the puncture.  I couldn’t hear myself think, so noisy was the wind.  What am I going to do?  I’m running low on energy now, I can’t set up a tent in this, and I have no idea how far is the next…..anything


However, I have learnt that punctures seem to precede good fortune, and (it turned out) this was no exception.  In the sorrier moments during the course of the day, I had toyed with the idea of stopping someone and asking them for a lift.  But (being a fool) my pride told me this had to be a last resort of the direst proportions.  Asking for help while I could still move forward at all seemed like baling out.  But I had resolved that if someone pulled over and offered me help, then I would take it.


As it happened, just as I was pumping the last bit of air into the tyre, a police car pulled up alongside me. 


“You need any help?” the officer called.  Debating for about one and a half seconds, I stood up and grinned obsequiously.  “Yes, yes” (a thousand times yes!) and “thank you so much” etc. 


We were soon speeding along with all my possessions and a dismantled bike bumping along in his boot.  He said he would take me to the nearest gas service station where there was a motel.  This ended up being about 15km down the road.  Within less than a minute of sitting in his car, I had reached the conclusion that this was the best outcome for the day.  Had I declined his offer of help, who knows – perhaps I would be sitting there counting wind turbines to this day?


It was already quite late when he dumped me and my stuff inside the little restaurant that was attached to the service station shop.  As it happened, this was a relatively sophisticated stopover by Chinese standards, but his belief that it was also a motel was wrong.  In fact, all they could offer me was a large and empty unused room at one end of the building where I could camp out on my inflatable mattress. 


The staff were very friendly and seemed to enjoy the novelty of me tinkering with all my kit in the corner of their restaurant, laughing at the effort required to inflate my tyres (which always reduces me to animalistic grunts).  The facilities were fairly basic.  If I was going to stay the night there, I wanted to get clean so I took a little hand towel, a flannel and a pair of trousers and a clean t-shirt off to the restroom. 


Of course there was no shower – as expected – and I thought I might get away with washing and scrubbing myself down by the basins – kind of “in between” visitors.  But as I started to try to get out of my cycling shorts, clean myself and then into my trousers, the wizened old toilet attendant came and stood by and just watched.  This was moderately off-putting to say the least.  So instead I took my stuff round the corner to the cubicles for some privacy.  As you might imagine, the cubicles were not particularly clean, and were furnished with the “squatting” toilets rather than sit-down ones. 


I can’t remember my exact reasoning, but I think I figured I had less chance of dropping something on the urine-soaked floor and down the hole in a cubicle with no door, rather than confining myself in the smaller space of a cubicle with the door closed.  So choosing that particular open cubicle, I began my “ablutions”.  No sooner had I pulled down my pants once more than the little old man reappears, armed with his mop this time, perhaps for form’s sake.  He stops directly facing my open cubicle and shuffles his mop about a bit while shamelessly seeing what I was up to.  Realising I was fighting a losing battle on his turf, I set about doing what I needed to do, cleaning myself up and managing to pull on my jeans without getting the bottoms overly soaked in piss, all under the approving and avuncular oversight of this aged spectator. 


I guess with nearly a billion and a half Chinese filling this country, why bother with worrying about privacy anyway?


The rest of the evening was spent reading or catching up on news on the miracle that is the iPhone4, which even in the most remote places can often pick up 3G reception.  From this I learnt that, according to the Beaufort Scale, I had been battling against something like a Force 7 or Force 8 gale.  This means something like 60kph or more winds.  I honestly don’t know how a cyclist is supposed to continue against this force.


Nevertheless, grateful for my temporary safe haven for the night, I was pretty sure if I got up early enough, the wind would have dropped and I could cover a decent amount of the 110km that lay between me and Urumqi. 


Waking up at 5am, I got all my stuff ready and finally poked my head out of the door about 45 minutes later.  My heart dropped (like a lead weight) as I heard the little coloured flags across the forecourt crack in the wind.  The canvas covers on the trucks parked outside snapped and whipped with each gust, and the same distressing sound of blowing air rang in my ears. 


For all this, there was nothing for it but to set out, though I have never yet done so with less optimism or enthusiasm.  I couldn’t imagine how far I would get.  It was still dark, and the road was straight, heading for some low hills that mark the river valley out of the Depression.  The policeman had used an expression the previous day, which I only vaguely grasped.  I thought he said that this place was “da feng kou” – something like the “mouth of the strong wind”.  That morning I was sure of it.


Certainly the rocky sides to this valley appeared to channel the wind directly into the oncoming traffic as it climbed uphill, whichever direction the road took.  I tried so hard to be optimistic.  The sun broke above the horizon in the east, and shards of pale pink light struck the western tops of the valley wall, spreading slowly downward until I too was in sunlight.  If I had been nothing but a pair of eyes, the picture was of a landscape of raw beauty.  But I have ears, and legs. And a body.  I am solid.  And the wind was determined I should not go forward. 


At moments I tried to convince myself the wind was dropping, only for it to pick up with more violence than before.  Like a petulant child, I commanded the wind to stop, desperately trying to believe I had such power.  After about an hour and a half, my legs were empty, my stomach was empty, my mind had given up complaining.  Every few minutes a strong gust would come and drive me and the whole bike buffeting into the highway barrier, and I would bump to a halt.  I did not care.


That was my one thought: “I do not care.”  What if you never reach Urumqi? I do not care.  Why are you even on this journey?  I do not care.  What of love, what of dreams, what of ambitions?  I do not care.  What of the past or the future?  I do not care.  What is my life?  I….do….not….care. 


The bike thumped once more against the barrier.  I got off in silence and started pushing.  Another signpost, shining in the morning sunlight amidst the thundering wind: “Urumqi 94km”, and another town “Dabancheng 24km”.  I had come 12km in two hours and I could not move any further.  I couldn’t imagine how I could even reach the next town, let alone Urumqi.


I came to an utter standstill. 


Perhaps it is good to go through these moments, when you are brought absolutely to the end of yourself.  What else could reduce me to such a state?  I don’t know, and I don’t relish finding out.




The irony is that, for all of this struggle, getting out of the situation proved very simple.  As soon as I made the decision to get someone to pull over, it was only a very short time before a Toyota pick-up truck came to a halt alongside me.  It had an open back and a four-man cab up front.  I stuck my head inside the passenger window and asked them for help – trying not to sound quite as desperate as I felt.  The driver was a young Uighur man and he hopped out and said they were going to Urumqi and they were happy to give me a lift.  Within seconds we’d put all my clobber in the back and strapped the bike well down, although both of us were blown around as the wind continued to whip around us.  I took this to be some vindication that the decision I’d taken was really necessary.


As I clambered in the back-seat, I found myself sitting next to a very pretty bright-eyed Uighur girl of about 20.  On the other side of her was a bronze-faced man of about 60 wearing a little blue and white Uighur hat, and in front of me another older man with a strong nose and short spikey white hair.  It turned out they were all clothes traders from Turpan, who were on their way to Urumqi to buy clothes which they would then bring back to sell in Turpan. 


The contrast between these two situations – the naked exposure of my whole being to the wind, and now the cosy banter (albeit only half-understood) in the warmth of this cab as we sped past the landscape that had only minutes before felt like my doom – made me practically euphoric.  I could see as we rose up out of the Depression finally and onto the plains that led towards Urumqi that the wind was no less fierce here.  Off in the distance, the Tian Shan rose higher and higher – dirty brown craggy deserts rock formations growing into soaring black and white snow-covered peaks, sharp against the bright blue sky. 


The girl and I tried to talk to one another, and the others would drop in questions now and then.  Unfortunately I struggled to understand her well, and the few words of Uighur I had ran their course pretty quickly.  Nevertheless, they were so friendly that it felt quite natural to be with them.  I must have looked a wild and unappealing sight to her, but of course the smile of a pretty girl is an effective restorative for even the sorriest of souls.


Within about an hour and a half we were passing the outskirts of Urumqi, and we were soon parting company with smiles and waves.  I offered the driver 50RMB for his trouble thinking it was the least I could do.  But this was politely refused.  Instead he said my rescue was surely worth not a penny less than 100RMB and held out his hand. 


They say that experience comes cheap at any price – so I handed over the crisp red note without so much as a whisper.

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