Turpan and the Bezeklik Caves

with 21 Comments

 

Legend has it that it never rains in Turpan in summertime. And yet, the courtyard of 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.

 

Flaming Mountains in Turpan, China © Travelwithmk.com
Flaming Mountains in Turpan, China © Travelwithmk.com

 

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.

 

Bezeklik Caves in Turpan, China © Travelwithmk.com
Bezeklik Caves in Turpan, China © Travelwithmk.com

 

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.

 

Museum für Indische Kunst Dahlem Berlin Mai 2006 064

 

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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Turpan and the Bezeklik Caves in Xinjiang, China © Travelwithmk.com

Turpan and the Bezeklik Caves: the Good, the Bad and the Truth in Xinjiang, China © Travelwithmk.com

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Mei is a 30-something Archaeologist, born and raised in Luxembourg. Besides traveling, she loves eating sushi and stinky cheese (although not at the same time), as well as listening to Kerstin's funny stories while driving on long road trips. She's afraid of heights, but adores panoramic views. Her favorite places are those she chose to live in: Paris, Greece, San Francisco.

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21 Responses

  1. An area of the world that seems so remote and distant! The caves look very interesting, but I am not sure I would travel that far to see them! You are brave!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Haha.. thanks! Well, the Bezeklik Caves happen to be along the Silk Road, and it has been our dream to explore this ancient route for very long. We only did the part in China, there are many (even braver) travelers who’ve trekked the whole road.

  2. Erica
    | Reply

    Great post, this is the first time I’ve heard of the Bezeklik Grottoes and now it´s yet ANOTHER thing to add to my neverending China bucket list! It´s always a shame when great works of art like this aren´t well taken care of, but definitely worth seeing nonetheless!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Yes, it’s definitely worth seeing the mural paintings that are still left! We hope you’ll get to visit China soon.

  3. melody pittman
    | Reply

    What a cool place. I’ve never heard of the Bezeklik Grottoes before so this was really interesting to me. It is a shame that so many of the relics haven’t been taken care of so well, but still a beauty to see. Thanks for sharing your adventure. I felt like I was right there with you.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Yes, it was really very interesting to visit the Bezeklik Grottoes! Throughout our trip in China, we met many Chinese people who told us that they’ve never heard of this place neither. So I guess, it’s a hidden gem, and we’re so glad we went the extra miles to see them in Turpan.

  4. Yukti
    | Reply

    I never knew about Turpan but it really looks very interesting and beautiful due to its strategic location at Silk Road. Flaming Mountains in Turpan is really beautiful. Even the Bezeklik Caves in Turpan looks very interesting and worth visiting.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      If you get a chance, Yukti, we definitely recommend you to visit Turpan! 😉

  5. Michael Hodgson
    | Reply

    Hot and damp … oy vey what a dastardly combination! Been commenting on a number of your posts and while they are all very good Mei, this one was exceptional. Lovely writing and style as you painted a perfect picture of the adventure, from rain and heat to colors to the history to the distaste for the omnipresent security. Applause!!!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thanks a lot, Michael! Really glad that you like my writing style. 🙂

  6. Delphine
    | Reply

    China is a very interesting destination but the fact that the remote areas host re-education camps is quite off-putting. I bet you didn’t get an answer on your questions about this sensitive topic… It seems you got reasonably close to one or was it the usual control of the Chinese government over its citizens?

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Well in fact, we did talk a lot about the sensitive topic of the reeducation camps with our guide as well as with some Uighurs, and it was very interesting to learn about the local people’s opinions. But of course, some told us the things they thought we wanted to hear, so you always have to read between the lines (we’ll tell you more about this topic in an upcoming post). Regarding the heavy security controls, we were told that this is usual in Xinjiang province (and also in Tibet) ever since the “Ürümqi riots”. So it was not because we got close to a camp, but simply because we were in a “sensitive” region.

  7. Eric Gamble
    | Reply

    Oh no, don’t tell me it was too hot cause I would love it but poor Darcee would veto me cause she is a cold weather girl. But those hidden mosaics and the art of the thousands of Buddhas in the Bezeklik Grottoes looks absolutely amazing. I love how it feels like you guys were the only people there too, like you uncovered a great archeological find in the desert of China!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Haha… it was hot and moist, but the archaeological sites were totally worth all the sweat! 😀

  8. What a beautiful archeological spot. I had no idea. Thanks for such an informative post.

  9. Danik
    | Reply

    I love the looks of the caves and would love to check this out. I love the looks of the murals as well. Never knew these kind of places exsisted in China, I would have expected this more in Central Asia or in North Africa but China…wow! I learn something new today 🙂

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Haha, yeah, many people think that China is all about Beijing and Shanghai, and maybe also Xian, Guilin and Chengdu… but it’s a huge country and the regions in Central and Western China are quite different. 🙂

  10. Ryan K Biddulph
    | Reply

    Whoa this place looks awesome. Desolate, neat, fascinating. And a little off the tourist path 😉

    Ryan

  11. Ryan K Biddulph
    | Reply

    WHOA this place looks awesome. So neat, desolate, fascinating.

    Ryan

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