I arrived at the Kuche railway station at 7 in the morning, cramped after a sleepless night spent on the train from Urumqi. I had treated myself with a ruanwo (soft sleeper), and opting for the bottom bunk so I could easily move in the coach, sit down and go to the toilet. Of course, as soon as I settled, a tiny woman timidly came to me and asked me to switch beds since she had a even tinier baby to care for and would have liked to stay at floor level. I, being the bodhisattva of mercy not being an asshole, relented and said yes, no problem. At least I was in the ruanwo coach, so even in the top bunk I still had space to breathe (nothing like the hard sleeper top beds, in which you have to stare straight ahead at the ceiling 20 cm away from your nose and experiment what being in a coffin means). After a frustrating 30 mins wait right at the doors of the station, where all of the passengers were held back for no apparent reason by grumpy-looking policemen in full assault gear, I could finally meet mr. Yang, the designated driver who would bring me to the site of the Kizil caves, located almost 70 km far from the hub of the city, among one of the most impressive mountainous landscapes that I’ve ever seen.
Is mountainous even a word?
A quick breakfast, included in the whopping price of the Kizil hotel (nobody was there apart from me and some other researchers, the receptionist told me) and I was off to the first real screeching halt of my whole journey: the price of every site that I needed to visit was so astronomical that not even the Hubble could cover its enormous scope (clue: hyperbolic language going on here). As I stared, dejected, at the head of the reception department and her vaguely amused smile (evil!), I tried to estimate if I had enough cash with me to visit at least two out of the ten that they have there (read: I panicked). I will be clear: theoretically speaking, I was prepared to the chance of this happening. I had contacted almost everyone I could think of in this regard and my advisor had warned me. Nevertheless, I wasn’t ready to see those numbers keeping increasing and increasing. But what could I do? You know the adagio: go big or go home. I was in Kuche to see those Buddhist caves and I would see those f** Buddhist caves.
So. in the end: what did I see in Kuche and what should you see if you happen to go there (especially in the case you are a Buddhism enthusiast as I am)? The list follow a chronological order, that is, the order in which I saw these and it is not necessarily the best course.
Kizil rock monastery
Lying among the dry red mountains of the Qoltagh range, Kizil was the biggest rock monastery of the ancient state of Qiuci, one of the oases on the northern branch of the Silk Road along the northern border of the Taklamakan desert. The scenery is pretty awesome and an atmosphere of placid serenity reigns among the poplars leading to the Kumarajiva square in front of the cliff. Only six caves in the Western district (Guxi) are open, but if you pay the ticket twice, then the guide will bring you to see part of the Eastern section (Gudong): I was told about it and I had to ask, they won’t tell you if you do not ask. You can also take a stroll in the Inner district (Gunei) and walk eastward until you reach the end of the fence. Busy hours are around 5 pm Beijing time. Guides are compulsory and they only speak Chinese. As of May 2017, the ticket is 70 yuan for the entrance and 60 for the guide. Photos with the camera are not allowed (you must leave the camera in a locker at the feet of the cliff), but I was told that mobile pics are ok (I didn’t dare to take any, though, because the information they gave me were contradictory and I didn’t want to jeopardise possible future collaborations).
Kizil Rock Monastery, western district.
Simsim rock monastery
I am kind of sad that my experience of this site was somewhat tarnished by its crazy price, because the caves were awesome. Between the “entrance ticket”, the guide and the driver, I ended up spending more than 1200 yuan that day. Nevertheless, after the initial shock, I realized that, yes, around 200 Euro to see a site that’s usually closed to the public is not actually that crazy of a price. Simsim is located in a spectacular setting, even if the cliffs there are not as high as those of Kizil. To reach the site, we had to drive through a dry flatland without any sign of a road, so if you ever go make sure that your driver is okay with that (mr. Yang was somewhat baffled by the absence of a clear path, but kept pushing through: thank you mr. Yang!) Almost all of the caves in Simsim are decorated and I could visit a dozen of them. In the central area there are still traces of some surface structures, even though their present ruined state does not allow for an assessment of their original shape or functions. On the road to Simsim, I passed through the site of Mazabaha, which I could visit briefly on the way back to Kizil, although I was not allowed inside the actual caves.
Mr. Yang bravely faced the ravine beneath to snap the perfect picture.
Walking along the geological strata in Mazabaha Rock Monastery.
This was probably my favorite spot in Kuche. I am sucker for what I call “monumental landscapes”, that is, landscapes that elicit the feeling of the sublime (and if it’s the terrible sublime, I am totally on board with that), because nothing is better than being reminded that things of nature are beautiful and terrible and can crush us in a moment but that, at the same time, we are things of nature too: beauty and horror are part of what we are as humans. I am afraid my pictures are not good enough to convey the majesty of this canyon. At the end of the canyon, closest to the spring of Kucha river, A’ai cave was hewn around (probably) the Tang DynastyThis period (618-907). The canyon will always be remembered as the place where I dropped my phone into a squat toilet and lost all of my GPS points and my pictures. Cherry on top: I couldn’t wash my hands for the whole day.
This canyon was impressive, period.
Built in a spectacular location in the vicinity of the Qoltagh mountain range, Subashi is the site of an ancient Buddhist citadel. The ruins of its massive walls and red earthen temples gives us just a glimpse of how impressive this city may have looked once. On the two sides of the Kucha river, different structures face each other: from the Western section, I could cast my glance beyond the walls and see the round stupa in the East, emerging among a haze of dust and slightly trembling in the midday heat. Unfortunately, at present times it’s not possible to visit the Eastern section for a lack of roads connections, but the guardian there assured me that next year the site will be accessible. The entrance ticket is 25 Yuan.
The stupa in the western part of the citadel.
After visiting Subashi and having lunch with my Uyghur driver and his lovely family (who couldn’t speak Chinese at all), I left Kuche and moved on to Turfan. I admit that I had conflicting feelings about that: on the one hand, I was happy to leave a place that so thoroughly drained my finances (also because I had to buy a new phone – welcome vivo phone with no Italian keyboard!); conversely, on the other hand, I did meet some very good people who helped me through my frustrations and was patient with my poor grasp of Chinese and I was reluctant to part with them and be on my own once again. But Turfan laid ahead of me and boiling temperatures, harsh landscapes and more archaeological sites were awaiting.
I know the pic’s shitty but chaomian for everybody, please.