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Turpan: A central nexus of the new Silk Road

Erik Nilsson
Updated: Jul 22,2015 9:48 AM     China Daily

The ancient city of Yar attracts visitors from around the country.[Photo/ Xinhua]

The Easter bunny came to town-specifically an ancient ghost town in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.

When the day celebrating Jesus’ resurrection coincided with the Chinese Tomb Sweeping Day this April, our 3-year-old scoured Yar’s ruins for candy-packed plastic eggs stashed by a pagan hare.

It dawned on us that the fact we staged the egg hunt in the dead city of Yar, also known as Yarkhoto, or Jiaohe, shows how its ancient position as a multicultural Silk Road nexus breathes new life into its international appeal. That narrative thread hems Turpan’s rich tapestry of past and present cultures along the ancient and emergent routes.

The site’s bygone multiculturalism sired the city that lured us there.

A Uygur man in Turpan.[Photo/Xinhua]

Yar was a global village before the term existed. Yet intolerance made it a mass grave.

Its heterogeneous composition propelled prosperity for 1,600 years, until Islamic Mongolian conquerors incinerated Yar to enforce religious homogeny.

This left what Hungarian-British archaeologist Aurel Stein a century ago called “a maze of ruined dwellings and shrines carved out for the most part from the loess soil”.

His depiction remains apt.

This early legacy attracts a growing plethora of modern peoples from further afield. Even Americans.

And we contributed to its internationalist revitalization by observing our foreign festival among its remnants. Chinese unacquainted with the egg-stashing custom gawped.

The bunny-a symbol of birth adopted by Christians when they co-opted the pagan equinox tribute to the fertility goddess Eostre-that day played by two nonreligious American parents, celebrated the festivals’ confluence by stashing eggs (shamanic fecundity totems) in a massacred city’s Buddhist cave temple.

Ruins of ancient loess structures in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region’s Turpan prefecture.[Photo by Erik Nilsson/ China Daily]

The mythical cottontail did so when two distinct lunar calendars collided so Easter coincided with the Chinese festival hailing from ancient ancestral worship linked to folk religions, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. That is, in a now predominantly Islamic swathe where Manichaean and Nestorian beliefs previously prevailed.

Europeans didn’t “discover” the “New World” for nearly a century after Yar was decimated. But their descendants (in this case, our family) have since zipped the other way across the planet to this westernmost strip of the Far East. And not just to hide eggs.

Thus, Turpan’s ancient ghost cities of Yar and nearby Qocho are being reincarnated and repopulated by a diverse mix of sojourners.

These ancient trade hubs were vital nodes of the 5,000-kilometer Tianshan Silk Road corridor linking China with modern Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Today’s Turpan is poised to become a central nexus of the embryonic new Silk Road.

Silk, lacquer ware and iron implements traveled from China to Central and West Asia, and even the Mediterranean, centuries ago.

These regions transported horses, walnuts and grapes eastward via the route.

The revived link will not only send goods but also people, including tourists, both directions.

Yar’s visitors can explore the remnants of the cave storage units in the “warehouse” district, as well as the central avenue and temple district that comprises two-thirds of the 680-hectare settlement.

The religious compound contains more than 80 structures, including seven small cave temples, the Grand Central Pagoda and the Grand Buddhist Temple built in the 4th Century-the site of our Easter egg hunt 700 years later.

Also largely intact are the southern gate, city walls and three-story courtyard houses. Cemeteries fringe the cities.

A plank platform overlooks the government complex, including courtyards, offices, cave rooms and passages, enclosed in a rectangular barricade.

Yar is 10 kilometers from Turpan prefecture’s seat, as the camel trots.

Its proximity to downtown and larger size means it often overshadows Qocho’s smaller and more distant ruins.

The 198-hectare city is 30 kilometers from Turpan and narrates a similar saga-with an almost identical conclusion.

Qocho was also charred in the same religious war after prospering from the 1st century BC through the 1400s.

It’s perhaps ironic it was torched at the foot of the Flaming Mountain. Still, Buddhist, Nestorian and Manichaean murals and scriptures survived.

Silk blankets were Qocho’s medium of exchange in the 4th century, when they were traded for Chinese, Eastern Roman or Persian coins.

The settlement was predominantly ethnically Han in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) but also hosted but also hosted Sogdian, Turkic, Qiuci, Yanqi and Sindhu people, who wrote Chinese, Brahmi, Sanskrit, Persian and Sogdian. It became a Uygur kingdom in the 9th century, when the primary religion was Manichaeism. Residents later converted to Buddhism.

Qocho later became a vassal to the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). This allegiance led to its demise, when the rebellious Mongolian Islamic Chagatai Khanate destroyed the city around the 1390s.

The city wall, moat, religious buildings and residences are preserved.

So is Khan Fort-aka the Imperial Palace-which served as the government seat. A pagoda stands in the compound.

Qocho’s eerie stillness is even headier than Yar’s.

We wondered at how such a once-bustling metropolis could become so barren.

The only sounds in the dead city on Tomb Sweeping Day were the breezes. They hissed through once-grandiose buildings’ nubs that remain as monuments to a moment when xenophobia and intolerance vanquished diversity.

The winds seemed to whisper warnings through the ages.