Ancient Ruins of a Silk Road City, 2012

The Jiao He ruins, or “交河故城” [jiao he gu cheng], were awaiting us at the end of our long 3 hour bus ride from Urumqi. Jiao He is an ancient city that dates as far back as 108 BC. It was an important site along the Silk Road trade route. I have to say the ancients really knew what they were doing when they built Jiao He on a large plateau in the middle of a river. The river acted as a moat, removing the need for fortress walls to defend the city. The steep cliffs on all sides of the river also acted as natural defenses.

It’s amazing how this tiny, isolated civilization of 7,000 people managed to last several thousand years. There was even a sophisticated social hierarchy of government officials and farmers, the rich and the poor. Because there was nothing on the plateau, houses were created by digging downwards into the earth. Wood was rarely, if ever, used. We were taken down into the residence of a rich trader. There were rooms for the family and the servants, a kitchen, a work room, a secret escape passage, and even a living room. Luxurious even by 21st century standards, albeit without the convenience of electricity, gas, and plumbing.

Slots were carved into the high walls so that large, stone doors could be fitted: for extra protection against sieges and invasions. The living room became a safe room during wars or when Jiao He was under attack. No one could get in, but the inhabitants had a way out through the tunnel. Inhabitants also still had access to their kitchen and rooms, right and left holes in the wall, respectively. Kitchens had chimneys built into them–a hole in the “roof”. Smart people.

We walked down what was essentially “Main St.” of the city, past the crumbled remains of government offices, and the South and East Gates–the only true entrances and exits to Jiao He. Both were sealed with bricks. Jiao He was divided into three districts: east and west were residential districts, and the north was reserved for Buddhist temples and stupas. One of the sites we stopped at on our journey to the northern district was a large graveyard. Apparently during the last invasion, several hundred children and babies–some already dead, but many alive–were simply buried. Shudder to think. There was also a vista point about midway through the entire Jiao He prefecture that overlooked the entirety of the city. The chance to take panoramic pictures in traditional Uyghur/Kyrgyz clothing was tempting, but dressing up in 5 layers of clothing in 98 degree weather is a little too much to ask. Hard to imagine that just yesterday we were suffering in the frosty 27-30 degree weather of Tian Shan. 

To complete an entire loop of Jiao He, from south to east to north to west, takes about 90 minutes. Visitors are allowed only to walk on the designated path since straying off the road meant literally stepping on some ancient person’s roof.

One of the most interesting parts of Jiao He was their Buddhist temple. Temples were enormous! Many were at least 3 stories high, and the most impressive part was the near-complete remains of a Buddhist figurine sitting at the top of the temple. Jiao He’s Buddhist temples were built for worship–communal areas were an essential part of the temple, with Buddhist figures in the center.

Our tour of these stunningly well-preserved ruins ended with everyone fighting for slices of fresh watermelon at the entrance to Jiao He. As thirsty as I was, I was scared to eat anymore than one slice. Since the lunch in Mutianyu village in Beijing, I caught some pretty bad traveler’s diarrhea :(. Always be wary of the food when traveling in developing countries! Watching the workers cut up the watermelon for us only reaffirmed that fact: flies everywhere, knives were washed repeatedly in the same, murky water, and watermelons that were sliced open for previous customers, were simply left outside where the dust and bugs could get to them. Mm-mm good.

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