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Abdullah, my Uyghur guide of the Flaming Mountains of Turpan

14 Jul Posted by in China | 1 comment
Abdullah, my Uyghur guide of the Flaming Mountains of Turpan
 

Abdullah is a young Uyghur boy. He is running in the narrow dusty streets of Turpan under the desert’s burning sun. The green vineyards and the wheat fields of the oasis provide many places to hide and play for the kids of his age. Five times a day, Abdullah prays. He is Muslim. Often he goes to the ancient mosque nearby his house. It is a quiet place with a blue mosaic decorated porch, cracked cob walls and fresh gardens planted with poplars and vines.

At school, Abdullah learns Uyghur – his native language – and the history of his people who originated from a Turkic ethnic group. He also learns mathematics, Chinese, Arabic and English. He is a very bright pupil. His teachers are proud of him, very proud.

After years of hard work at school, Abdullah, now a young man, becomes a tourist guide. He knows everything about his land, and tells stories and legends in perfect English. He earns a reputation, and soon becomes one of the best guides in Xinjiang.

Driving a powerful Jeep, he takes dozens of people to discover the wonders of Turpan. He drives them to the Flaming Mountains and their red shaded tones under the sun, to the mysterious streets of the neighbouring village of Tuyoq, to the furnace of Turpan’s Depression – 154m below the sea level, the third lowest place on Earth – and to the great sand dunes of the desert. During warm nights, he and the visitors spend hours enjoying the spectacle of a million stars sprinkled sky, lying on the sand in the middle of nowhere.

That was 15 years ago…

Flaming Mountains, Turpan

Flaming Mountains, Turpan
Image Credits: Olivier Roulin

I am now sitting in Abdullah’s small wheezy van. It is a cheap Chinese unknown brand and it doesn’t seem very reliable. The air con is broken and my window is stuck wide open. We drive out of Turpan city on one of the main avenues and join a large highway running east. How did I meet him? The day before, I asked the receptionist of my seedy hotel if she knew someone to drive me around, and she scrawled Abdullah’s phone number on a piece of paper. I just called him and arranged an appointment. For $40 he agreed to drive me to a few places… if his van makes it that is…

My Lonely Planet strongly advises to visit some old ruins in the desert but I’ll pass… I mainly want to see the Flaming Mountains and to experience the silence of the sand dunes. In faltering English, he confesses that he is very happy to go to the sand dunes today. Surprised, I ask him why. He explains it’s been more than two years since anyone asked him to visit that place, so today he has a chance to recall some good memories. The tourism industry has now been monopolized by Chinese tour operators and all the visitors – mainly Chinese people by the way – are part of organized all inclusive tours.

So Abdullah has experienced a drastic decrease of the number of his customers, for the “mass industry” has ruined his “craft industry”. And I am just about to get a picture of this… We finally arrive at the first stop of the day. We pull over and I get out of the van to land on the burning asphalt. A high wall of mountains runs alongside the road. It is a massive wall of bare rocks, full of ravines and creased like paper, running for kilometres from east to west. The Flaming Mountains are so called because they have a bright shade of red under the hard sun of the desert. Their geometrical peaks stand against a deep blue sky absolutely free of clouds.

As my eyes run down along the vertical ravines toward the dry ground, they land on something a bit… unusual. A long railing has been set in the desert, and a gate welcomes the tourists willing to pay to see the site. A group of Chinese visitors is now penetrating the enclosure, their cameras ready to shoot. How can it be? Would people pay to cross a gate in the middle of the desert? Do I have to go there to see better scenery? Abdullah winks at me and tells me that 400m on from here, he knows a spot where the scenery is even more dramatic, and no railing… Stunned, I get in the van, and we leave this strange place.

Later on, we are heading to the sand dunes. It takes more than an hour to drive there from our previous site. Many trucks drive past us on the highway. Through the window, I see lots of oil derricks growing here and there like giant orange flowers on the rocky soil. Xinjiang provides large reserves of petrol which have been increasingly exploited during the last 12 years. In this region, security is taken very seriously, and it is now forbidden to sleep in the desert. So no more night escapes for Abdullah and his very few clients…

We leave the main road and turn onto an old track. After a long bumpy drive, we are at the edge of the sand desert. I move away from the van and head to the dunes. A 15 minute walk in the sands is enough to feel lost. No sound to hear, only the warm wind blowing in the sand grains. Far behind me stands the small blue dot of the van. I sit on the top of a dune and look in front of me – as far as I can see, dunes and dunes again. I stay there, listening to the silence. It is just an amazing and heavy sensation. Bedouin people say that a journey through the desert is a journey through oneself…

But I need to go back to the van, for time is running out. I have a tight budget and can’t afford any longer the services of my guide. On our way back, Abdullah declares he needs to stop for the evening prayer. We stop in a small village in front of a dusty mosque. He disappears under the old cob gate, pushing the squeaky decorated wooden door. I patiently wait for him here, taking a few pictures. I kind of lose the notion of space and time in this place, and can’t really say how long it takes for him to come back. When he’s finally ready to go, he turns the van’s ignition key… nothing… Another time… nothing again… Night has fallen and Abdullah’s Chinese van is dead…

He winks at me again and says it never happened with the Jeep he had before, when his job provided him with enough money. We walk to the main road. Hitchhiking seems to be the only solution now to get us both back to Turpan, 70km away. Thanks to Abdullah, I experienced for the first time the desert and its heavy silence. It is a strange sensation. But beside this, I witnessed a fight between David and Goliath. The minority Uyghur ethnic group faces the giant Chinese development. Unlike mythology, I am not sure of the issue of this story.

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  1. sam09-05-16

    Dear Olivier

    after read your experiences in Turpan, can you share contact email or watspp of Mr Abdullah. Im planning to visit Turpan next year. Maybe he can be our guide during the visit.
    Thanks

    Sam, Malaysia

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