May 22, 2007 - Turpan, China
The Western China Roundup II
Huo Yan Shan
After a early AM bike ride out to the ancient city of Jiaohe we felt pretty accomplished - getting out of paying some absurd tourist ticket price, trespassing and finding a beautiful oasis. Not bad for returning the bikes and being back at the hotel by 9:30AM.
The previous day we had met a couple living in Beijing - an expat running a small travel rag and his girlfriend, a documentary producer - walking out to Su Gong Ta. Hoping to economize a bit we agreed to meet and rent a taxi for the day to drive us out to the local Grape Valley and Flaming Mountains. We stocked up on drinks to keep the heavy sun at bay, a few snacks for the road and set of in our rickety red taxi into the rising Turpan sun.
Our taxi driver must have thought us slightly crazy - forgoing all of the tourist spots and asking to stop at seemingly random spots along the road. In the middle of the narrow Flaming Mountain Range we must have stopped 5 or 6 times, each time piling out with cameras and camcorders in hand and clambering over the sandy red rocks to catch a glimpse of a fertile gorge below or a red peak above. On our last stop in the mountains we climbed one of the northern peaks - a fairly quick hike up 20 or 30 minutes over smooth crumbling sand.
A thin wind-blown crust covered the ground at a higher altitude and eventually gave way to packed sand. Outcroppings of jagged white rocks poked out from the orangish landscape. On occasion a small piece would be underfoot and crumble into a fine white powder. Some kind of chalk was my first impression, but as we picked out way higher the rocks became harder and more saw-like. Finally near the peak a small glint caught my eye - almost like a small broken mirror. Getting closer, the ground became littered with small transparent shards. A large outcropping of the stone revealed layers of the clear stone chipping off. The top of the mountain was covered in mica.1
The way down proved much easier - a long-legged lope down the steep hills triggered small slides of sand and got us to the bottom in minutes - albeit with shoes and socks colored a ruddy brown.
Our driver suggested a small town for lunch after we stopped - and quickly turned tail - at Gao Chung, the ruins of another ancient city. Small girls mobbed the taxi dressed in colorful gowns. Vibrant greens, reds and pinks. Square beaded caps or bright scarves adorned their heads and many of them had a bushy unibrow painted across their brown foreheads. Each a master in their trade, blinking alluringly and shouting English phrases across the gateway.
"Beautiful bead for beautiful girl!"
After finding the admission ticket 90 kuai and another 90 for a donkey cart ride we went in search of less trodden paths.
Lunch was typical Xinjiang fare - white noodles with a thick covering of vegetables, thin slices of beef and a light brown sauce - that we ate at a small roadside restaurant full of locals. The seasonal vegetables now are small bits of tender greens and my personal favorite, scapes. The garlic tops are tender little stalks, slightly crunchy and hinting of garlic. After a quick stir-fry they melt in your mouth. Wonderful on top of noodles. Only after a bit of persuasion did we convince the driver that tourists dives weren't for us.
We stopped at a few other places on the way back to Turpan - some more touristy than others - including the parking lot of a grape vineyard where we introduced Scott to a friendly camel.
Like brothers they were.
1 Mica Sheet silicate minerals includ(ing) several closely related materials having highly perfect basal cleavage. You got that? Highly perfect basal cleavage.