Kuqa was a very important ancient entry point for the Silk Road Central Asian trade, Indo- European culture, and Buddhist beliefs into China from India. When Xuan Zang passed through the Kingdom of Kuqa in the sixth century, he reported that he found two huge Buddha statues, each 27 meters high, guarding the road!
With Kuqa’s long history of Buddhist influence in mind, we started out today at 10:30am with a 75 km drive to visit the Kizil Thousand Buddha Caves, a 236 cave complex in a beautiful rural setting, an oasis of spiritual and natural beauty in the desert. Kizil is another one of the cave sites whose paintings were mostly cut up and carted away in the early 1900s by German and other European adventurers, then also defaced by Moslem Uygurs. We were shown by a guide about six or seven of the locked grottoes, two of which were empty, but had photographs illustrating how they looked at one time. The fragments of paintings that remained were quite beautiful.
Just being there, among the trees and by the river in front of the mountainous caves, surrounded by nothing but sand and scrub brush, seeing the result of the devotion of so many workers to carve so much of a mountain face over so many years…it was very moving, despite the few fragmented fresco remains there were to see.
Next we drove to Tianshan Mysterious Gorge, which the Uygurs call, “Kezilya,” meaning “Red Cliffs.”. This gorge, carved out by the sandy desert winds and flash floods of millennia, is a day hikers’ paradise, and for us, quite an unexpected delight! As we walked farther and farther into the gorge, surrounded by red and ochre carved cliff faces hundred of metres high, the space between the two cliff walls around us got gradually smaller – at first there was wide open space of perhaps a hundred meters between the walls, but by the end of the hike, the gap was so narrow that it was impossible to pass through!
There were rangers posted as the gorge narrowed, warning the hikers (in our case, by very colorful pantomime!) that in the event of a flash flood, we would have to claw our way to higher ground in a matter of seconds, or face disaster. They also warned us that the pathway was very narrow and difficult to navigate – lots of squeezes through tight rock face openings, climbs and descents of narrow ladders…quite an unexpected adventure!
China is full of amazing natural beauty like Tianshan, as we’ve been seeing, and serious adventures await those who seek them out, because these wonderful places are not always that well publicized in tourist guidebooks or on the Internet. This was one of those days, much more exciting than we had expected!