Legend has it that it never rains in Turpan in summertime. And yet, the courtyard of hotel the Silk Road Lodges was sodden when we left our oriental-style room.
Oh yes! Finally, a few drops to cool down a bit. It must be your lucky day! Judith, our local guide in Xinjiang province came out of nowhere and greeted us with a big smile. Kerstin also seemed glad to see a murky sky, which was exceptional since we both love sunny days. It looked gloomy, but the temperatures were still high. 35 degrees Celsius maybe? It was only 9 am, so I wondered whether we would be boiling by noon.
As our car left slumbering Turpan, we watched strings of vineyards flashing by. The grapes were ripe, and with the cooler temperatures of the A/C, we almost felt like road tripping through Burgundy in France. But soon the landscape turned into a flamboyant scenery of tangerine hills and crimson mountains. Judith’s seat creaked as she turned to face us. – It is time I told you about the Flaming Mountains. You know the legend of the Journey to the West, right? And how the Monkey King saved the Buddhist monk Tang Sanzang…? Let me tell you a few of the stories, legends and myths that travelers along the Ancient Silk Road used to relate.
About an hour later, as we arrived at the Bezeklik Grottoes, a complex of Thousand Buddha Caves excavated from the 5th to the 14th centuries under the Uyghur Gaochang Kingdom, we felt like stepping out of a byzantine dream. Reality caught up with us fast, when we passed through a security check-point, where a grim-looking agent rummaged through our backpack and browsed through our passport. We quickly nurtured a distaste for the security checkpoints in Xinjiang province.
Unlike in other Chinese regions, security checkpoints in Xinjiang are omnipresent and very thorough. Not just in airports, train stations, or museums. But also, at each and every landmark, may it be an archaeological site or a park. And they’re also installed at the entrance of hotels, hostels and even restaurants. The security officers often scanned our faces. They would hand our passport to another officer to examine it closely. They would make us wait, reopen our backpacks, let us exhibit power banks, water bottles, or any other suspicious item again and again…
Had it not been for our guide Judith, who always explained to the security guys that we were visiting “under her responsibility”, that we were travelers, tourists, visitors from Luxembourg – a developed country in Europe and so on – we probably would never have passed through all the security controls in Xinjiang province.
When we finally entered inside the archaeological site of the Bezeklik Grottoes, raindrops started to fall again. The surrounding red mountains turned brown. Or rather into a peanut color…
We reluctantly followed Judith into one of the 40 painted caves. Just like the Bingling Caves not far from Liujiaxia and the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, which we had visited several days before, the Bezeklik Caves were also profusely painted. The dome ceiling, also in peanut-brown, is covered with rows of miniature Buddhas. They are sitting closely next to each other. And each of them is surrounded by a turquoise halo.
But unlike the ones in the other caves, the Buddhas’ faces at the Bezeklik Grottoes are either covered in mud or scratched off. Judith explained that this damage was done in the 14th and 15th centuries when Islam spread out in the Turpan Basin. Since the religion of Islam proscribes figurative images of divinities, the Muslim population in Turpan defaced all the Buddha paintings. But the murals were also heavily damaged during the Cultural Revolution in the 1950s-1960s.
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On the walls of the caves, we saw bits and pieces of mural paintings. A sculpture of Buddha was once in the central niche, and his 6 disciples on the lateral walls, 3 on each side. Now you can only recognize the form of their body, and the turquoise and white decorations between them. So, these were all destroyed during Islamisation and Cultural Revolution?
No, there was another hardship in the 19th and early 20th century, which contributed to the destruction of the Bezeklik Caves’ paintings. Judith made a pause… You see, at that time, so-called explorers from Europe and Japan came to Turpan. They called themselves archaeologists, and said they wanted to do research in the caves. The local people and government in Xinjiang didn’t have money. They didn’t know much about history and archaeology. And were happy to welcome foreigners in this area of China. But these explorers knew very well about the importance and the value of these cave paintings. They didn’t say anything to the inhabitants or the government and plundered a large number of murals and relics.
Judith guided us to another cave, where we gazed at two yellowish sheets of paper hanging on bare walls and showing two scenes of mural paintings. One depicts two Uyghur women from the Tang dynasty, most probably the queen and her servant. This mural, Judith explained, and many other scenes in this cave were totally cut out by German archaeologist Albert von Le Coq and sent to Berlin. He said that the paintings were safer in a European museum. But during WW2, the Berlin museums were looted or bombed and this Bezeklik mural painting was destroyed. So today, these two photographs taken before the Second World War are all that remains of this mural painting.
On the lower part of another wall of the same cave, we recognized a few decorations and the feet of a Buddha painted in bright colors. On the height of his ankles, the wall had been cut deeply. Von Le Coq didn’t even bother to cut the whole scene. He just confiscated the Buddha’s head and body. Because… what are Buddha’s feet worth, anyway…
When we left the Bezeklik Caves, a bunch of Chinese tourists lined up at the security checkpoint. Their guide reminded them to take off their hat, jacket, face mask, glasses, and anything else that could seem suspicious to the wary eyes of the guards, before going through security. Remember everyone, we are in Xinjiang!
As soon as our driver closed the windows, Judith turned around from the front seat, and we started to ask about Xinjiang’s re-education camps. There was an underlying – unspoken – feeling, as if we could be heading into an unexpected danger. Like the travelers of the Ancient Silk Road who faced copious perils, we were crisscrossing a region in China where multiple ethnic minorities and various religions were coexisting. They rarely met, and when they did, blood could be shed.
In front of us, the sky darkened. And from afar, we could single out a flying shadow. It was a statue of the Monkey King, monitoring the area. When our car sped past the Flaming Mountains, the sun finally peeked out of the ashen clouds.
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