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Published: June 11th 2009
Heading East again across the Taklamakan desert which in the Uyghur language (Takla Makan) means "go in and you'll never come out"…mmm…sounds like fun but decided to opt for the “safest” way to cross the desert! No motor hand gliding this time, but a 29 hours train ride along the Tian Shan mountain range and a stopover in Kuche a lively oasis located half way between Kashgar and Urumqi.
Early morning departure, the train station waiting hall is quickly filled with locals carrying about everything they can possibly carry from the silk bought in Kashgar to huge ballot of wool or even poultry… The headgear are colorful and diverse, the dialects spoken truly make you feel that you have landed next to the tower of Babel
The first part of this journey takes about 12 hours
(slow train) stopping about everywhere there is anything that looks like a train station. The view over the desert is stunning and the contrast of the blue sky over the sand and reddish mountains
makes this trip worthwhile. Only downside, the windows of the train are way too dirty to be able to take any proper pictures, anyhow,
sometimes it is fun to just sit back, relax and enjoy the view!
Kuche (Kuga) an ancient Buddhist kingdom in the heart of the desert
Late arrival in Kuche, short stop by the ticket desk at the station to buy the second part of the journey, one of the “beauty” of traveling in China by train being that you can only purchase ticket for train departing from the station where you purchase those… No luck this time, as no more sleeper or soft seats are available so the 17 hours journey starting the following day just before midnight is going to feel like an eternity!
The city of Kuche is at first surprising as the first thing you get to cross coming from the train station is the “new” Kuche with buildings made of concrete lined up next to each other, and wide avenues void of charms before discovering the older part of the town located on the other side of the river, true labyrinth full of mosques, tiny restaurants, earth houses, kids running around and the now usual smell of mutton & lamb skewers!
Ended up absolutely lost in this labyrinth which felt
like the best way to discover the area before arriving (don’t ask me how) right next to the main mosque at sunset
(my luck was back!) Dinner at a Uyghur restaurant where I was quickly to share the table with a local family while enjoying some of the best meat I had so far. Back to the sign language as their understanding of the Chinese language was quite limited, until their oldest daughter (who must have been 10 years old at most) ended up translating back and forth between Chinese and Uyghur while explaining that “just like me” she had learned Chinese at school…mmm…
Kuche Friday morning market
Less well known than the kashgar Sunday market (packed with tourists) as smaller in scale, it is somehow more authentic and less of a tourist destination
. Merchants are coming across the desert from neighboring cities by horse, cars and donkeys to sell/ exchange everything you can think of
(pigeons, horses, handmade baskets, haystack, roses, fabrics, tea sets…and the list could go on forever)
Located along the river and across the bridge, it feels like an organized chaos, with merchants trying to attract the attention of buyers
Parking his "vehicle"
Kuche - Friday market
or debating over purchase price, and each type of goods having a specific area allocated
Completely exhausted after this intense market visit session, I managed to arrive just on time at the hotel to meet my driver for the day. We had a few good laughs together the day before and exchanged a few cigarettes before offering to drive me around the next day at a real bargain price, done deal!
Located about 64 km north of Kuche, the gorge is more than 5km long and mostly made of red sandstone
. Barely no one when I visited the site, which made the whole experience somehow mystic
with the wind blowing inside the canyon creating all sorts of sounds and light changing quickly. The path in itself offers sometime less than a meter to go through while at times a ladder has been placed to go over large rocks and deeper inside the canyon…better have the trek shoes on!
The Kizil Thousand Buddha Caves
Another interesting site for the one interested in learning more about Buddhism and different myths from Central China, India and Persia
between the 3rd to 9th centuries
The caves are now locked and accessible by a maze of staircases but unfortunately most of the precious murals had already been stolen by the Japanese and German and the remaining one damaged during the Cultural Revolution. The entrance to each cave was only locked in the mid eighties and this site is now part of the UNESCO patrimony. Got to see about 10 caves (out of more than 200)
including two that are normally not shown to visitors but that the Chinese speaking guide decided to show me to illustrate some points we were discussing about, sweet!
Subashi ancient ruins
23km north of Kuche, this ancient Buddhist monastic complex
offers some great view over the surrounding mountains and desert.
Arrived there quite late (about 9pm, Beijing time), absolutely starving and as the driver parked the car, I was starting to have some serious doubts on whether the place was still opened to visitors. The ticket counter was closed so decided to enter anyway and see whether anyone was still inside. Kids were running around and the staff was preparing dinner but the lady was prompt to invite me to visit the site anyhow, mentioning
Love that one! Took a pretty blur picture and she noticed me, and then offered that I take a proper picture of her! :-)
that I could purchase the entrance ticket when I leave as by then the supervisor would be back from shopping! Ok, sounds good!
So on my own, again, I started to explore the ruins spreading over a kilometer on both side of the Kuga River
. The main temple ruins and some stupa have been quite well preserved due to the dryness of the desert and the silence surrounding those ruins was exactly what I needed to finish this short visit of Kuche and its surroundings.
Back on the train, crossing the second half of the Taklamakan!
23:30pm, hard seat and 17 hours to go…
our section is occupied by three young Chinese and quickly animated with discussions. Impossible to sleep properly but around 1am my Chinese travel mates are prompt to offer me three seats so that I can lay down while they start playing cards games. Slept like a baby until 9am! Not so bad, and just on time to enjoy some more of the Xinjiang sceneries!
Before I knew it, we were in Urumuqi, time to go for a good massage and the last meal before taking an early morning flight the next day.
This trip has been one of the best I ever took in China; the diversity of sceneries and cultures offers a unique gate to Central Asia while discovering another facet of the mainland China. Trip around Xinjiang
PART 1: Xinjiang Southern Pastures: Kazakh, horses, snow & yurts!
PART 2: Hundreds years of dust...welcome to the Gobi Desert!
PART 3: Kashgar, the gate to Central Asia! Vibrant & colourful!
PART 4: Karakoram hw, simply unreal...driving on the highest paved road in the world...
Since this trip, I have been traveling to Fujian province and south of Yunnan before heading back to France to visit family & friends and discover some amazing parts of the Pyrenees Mountains. Lots of blogs to come (just need to find time to write those!) and more traveling!
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