Unless you grew up watching Chinese soap operas and dramas, chances are you wouldn’t be familiar with the Monkey King, Sun Wu Kong. 孫悟空 is the protagonist in a classical Chinese epic novel 西遊記 [xi you ji], Journey to the West in English. “西” is west, “遊” is travel, “記” means memory–or in this case, memoirs. Sun Wu Kong possesses supernatural powers, such as shape-shifting and cloning abilities, and wields a trademark 8100 kg golden staff that can change its size, multiply, and fight according to the whims of its master. The Monkey King tried to escape death by erasing his name from the “Book of Life and Death”, and was punished by imprisonment in Buddha’s hand. He was finally released on probation to assist and defend the monk Xuanzang in his journey to India. Xuanzang sought to retrieve the Buddhist sutras for the Bodhisattva Guanyin (观音菩萨), whom I was named after (just FYI) :D.
As a kid, I remember role-playing with friends in kindergarten and reenacting scenes from Journey to the West. Everyone wanted to be Sun Wu Kong, but never Zhu Ba Jie, 猪八戒, the Monkey King’s part human and part pig companion. Lazy, fat, has major fidelity issues, and the “idiot” of the group.
So here’s how the Monkey King ties into our trip: the Flaming Mountains, “火焰山” [huo yan shan]–with “火” meaning fire, and “山” mountain(s)–are giant, red sandstone hills in the Tian Shan Mountain range. They border the northern rim of the Taklamakan Desert and lie east of Turpan. And while the gullies and trenches of the mountains create the appearance of flames running skyward, I really believe the Flaming Mountains get their name from the climate. This is the hottest spot in China, with the air temperature frequently reaching, or exceeding, 122°F. That’s air temperature. Surface temperature is even higher. The mountains were supposedly created when the Monkey King knocked over a kiln when he was in the heavens, causing embers to fall from the sky. He and his ward, Xuanzang, ran into this wall of flames on their pilgrimage to India. The Monkey King was ultimately able to extinguish the mountains using the fan of the Iron Fan Princess.
Our tour guide gave us a more scientific explanation: a chemical reaction occurs when sandstone is exposed to extreme heat and causes the sandstone to turn red. Despite the fact that all of us were on the verge of heat stroke and were nearly blinded by the dust storm, if we truly wanted to see the bright red “flames”, we’d have to wait until 1) the sandstorm had subsided, 2) for the temperature to rise another 20° and 3) stay there until mid-afternoon because the mountains would’ve baked long enough under the sun for their infamous reddish hue to show. Nope. Not for me.
After about 30 minutes, we all scrambled back onto the air-conditioned tour bus to catch the New Orient Express ‘东方快车 dong fang kuai che’. Our dwellings for the next few nights would be on the train. The Turpan main train station was a rather unnerving place to be; most of us were obviously tourists, and the locals glowered at us when we came in. Although others were just nosy; one of the local men stalked a member of our tour group who was walking around taking video of all of us, since he wanted to see what was being taped.