So far on our Silk Road journey, the historical evidence of the oasis towns' roles in the past was there if you went looking amid the modernity - in Dunhuang if you went to the Mogao Caves; in Turpan if you went to the ruins; in Urumqi if you...closed your eyes and imagined it. In Kashgar, however, you're immediately transported to the ancient times of the Silk Road at its peak just by stepping foot in the city bounds. As soon as we got off the train, we knew this place was special, considered the pinnacle of a Silk Road exploration today for dern good reason. Given how dusty and old-fashioned and straight out of the history books it is, my fondness for Kashgar is surprising to say the least (I hate dust!). But when you see how unique a town it is, how deftly it combines the cultures that converge geographically at its location at the crossroads of central Asia, it's easy to understand why I loved it.
After our visit to Turpan, we took a super short train to Urumqi, which is the capital of the Xinjiang region. You know how state capitals are often not the best city in the state and usually not even in the top five? Like, Harrisburg you'd have to pay me to go back to. And Albany, I don't know anyone not in government who would ever want to go to Albany. I don't think anyone in government ever wants to go to Albany either but they have to. I still feel bad for my poor law school friends who were sent there to take the bar instead of the Javitts Center. Suuuucks. Anyway, same for Urumqi. It used to be a big deal on the Silk Road, as all these Xinjiang towns were because they had water and goods and people to help caravans and traders survive as they trekked through the desert. But now it's just, city. And not a particularly fun one, just...city.
Our next stop on our Silk Road journey was the city of Turpan (the English name) in the Xinjiang region of China. It's also known as Turfan and Tulufan (in Uighur and Chinese) while I, on the other hand, refer to it as Turpan Alley, because it is a bit of a hole. Turpan was a fertile little oasis town back in the day, and today (and probably back then too) is known as "China's Death Valley" because it's one of the few places below sea level and also because IT'S DUCKING HOT AS BALLS. It's so hot and sunny and dry that walking around the city would have been uncomfortable even if it wasn't a bit of a hole. Apparently, the Chinese like to say that Turpan is farther from the ocean than any other place in the world, which I don't doubt but that is a chitty thing to brag about. (I hate feeling landlocked! I love being near water! This trip is difficult for me.) The best part about Turpan (and Xinjiang) is that this climate grows some insane delicious watermelon.
It's unclear when exactly we should say we began our exploration of the ancient Silk Road, not one road so much as a cross-continental network of trade routes and passes from China, across most of central Asia, and possibly all the way to Rome. (Sea routes stretching from Indonesia to Africa were also part of it, but we didn't do any watersports; it's all desert from here on out.) Xi'an was considered a terminus of it, but today it's such a modern busy city that it didn't seem very 'Silk Road-y' to us when we were there; we were still in 'China' mindset and not 'incredible desert history' mindset. But there's no question that once we landed in Dunhuang, our journey through the Silk Road had begun. Dunhuang was one of the most important historical sites of the Silk Road both then and now, and it has provided tons of insight into the dealings and relationships among people, religious groups, and states from ancient times. If you go to Dunhuang, you are unquestionably there to go back in time and learn about its role in the Silk Road.