Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Enchanting City of Turpan and the Uyghurs

(8/23/09) – I fell in love with the city of Turpan. It seems to be a cross of ancient Arabia and Santa Fe with its Persian looking buildings, mosques, and charming adobe mud brick houses. Turpan is about a 3 hour drive from the Urumqi Airport, and as you approach you are surrounded by stark brown desert and large white windmills. Then the city slowly appears like a mirage in the distance with green trees and the strange looking raisin houses as the first visible objects. The architecture of the raisin houses is ancient; they are rectangular in shape and made from mud bricks which are stacked so that holes are created in the walls. This is to allow air to enter and dry the grapes that are draped on wooden racks inside. These unusual looking buildings surround the outskirts of Turpan.

When you finally enter the city, the boulevards are wide and tree-lined with small canals running down both sides of the roads, with pink roses bordering the sidewalks. Off to the side, you can see acres of green table grapes growing on short pergolas. The modern downtown has new and impressive stone and marble buildings with Arabic design. All the signs are in both Chinese and Arabic. There are beautiful parks with lakes, as well as the colorful local markets. As you move out of downtown, you find yourself lost in time as donkey carts pass pulling women in colorful Arabic dresses and men with long white beards and small caps. This part of the town is filled with small brown adobe houses with brightly painted wooden doors with pictures of flowers, birds, and fruit. Every once in a while you pass a colorful mosque with turrets. It is like something from a book, and completely enchanting.

We ended up having two different female guides during the course of the conference, and both were Uyghurs (pronounced “weger”). Uyghurs are part of the ancient people who first settled in the area in 300 B.C. They are thought to be of either Persian or Turkish decent; as they do not look like the Han Chinese, but there could be some Mongolian mix. They speak Arabic and are Moslem, which they adopted sometime in the mid 800’s as the religion was imported to the area along the Silk Trail.

The two Uyghur girls explained much of the culture to us, and I was fascinated to learn that many of the Uyghurs drink wine. They also do not conform to orthodox Moslem dress of heavy black cloth and face veils. In fact, they seem to go to the opposite extreme, in that they dress in very bright multi-colored silk and wear small colorful hats with gold trim. I was fascinated to learn that this region discovered how to make silk and kept the secret for thousands of years – thus creating the Silk Trail industry – until it accidently leaked out and the Europeans learned how to cultivate the silkworm and grow mulberry trees.

They said that Xinjiang is 60% Uyghur, 14% Han Chinese, with the remainder other mixed ethnicities. It is supposedly the Uyghurs who led the revolt in Urumqi two months ago because they felt they were being mistreated by the Hans. Interesting, the girls told me the Chinese government does allow minorities, such as the Uyghurs, to have 2 children (3 in the villages), rather than the mandatory one child per couple.

Another interesting fact about Turpan is that in the heat of the afternoon, everything seems to shut down – similar to a siesta in Spain. Our lunch break was from 1 to 4pm, and when I tried to go for a walk, I not only nearly melted from the heat, but couldn’t find much open. However, in the cooler evenings, everyone seemed to be on the streets. The lake garden near our hotel was filled with families with children every night – boating and playing on the lake. They also held what appeared to be large line dances, and many people danced late into the night. What an amazing place!

Caveat: In reading back through this posting, it sounds as if I am romanticizing Turpan – and it is possible that I am. However, I really did find this city enchanting. I’m sure it has its dark corners and poverty-stricken neighborhoods similar to those we saw in Heshuo and ShanShan County. At the same time, I’ve seen the same type of small rundown houses along the borders of Texas, California, Arizona, New Mexico and the Deep South of the US. The fact that I didn’t see it in Turpan, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Poverty is something that is a sad fact in many parts of the world. What I did find in Turpan, however, was magic in the air….in the architecture, customs, clothing, ancient sites, and the stories of our guides.

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