Uyghur: نىيە Niye
Chinese: 民丰 Mínfèng
Niya, also called Minfeng, is a small town in Xinjiang, China. Like most towns along the southeastern rim of the Taklamakan Desert, Niya / Minfeng has not been packaged for tourists. Independent travelers have to participate more in their visitor activities. Yet this is also a great place to wander and get a sense of how regular people here really live their daily lives.
The main claim to fame for Niya / Minfeng is the ancient city of Niya located 130 kilometers to the north, rediscovered at the turn of the twentieth century by explorer M. Aurel Stein. Unfortunately, ancient Niya can't be visited without mounting a camel caravan expedition.
So if ancient Niya is out, what else is on offer for the traveler?
On this web page you will find:
Go to the author's Flickr Niya / Minfeng Collection to browse through the author's selected 127 Niya / Minfeng photos. The images are organized into ten sets: Sights, People, Bazaar, Maps, Mazar Imam Jafar Sadiq and Kapakaskan Village, Taklamakan Desert, Lodging, Restaurants, Bus station schedules, and Information about a variety of practical resources.
All of the Niya / Minfeng images from this page -- and more -- are at the Flickr site. Larger format versions of the images are available there for download.
See Caveats for some qualifications about this web page, how the information was gathered, the confusing use of both Beijing time and Xinjiang time, how fast the town is changing, and a few words about spelling and place names.
The town is located at 37°3'50" N, 82°41'16" E or 37.063888 N, 84.68777 E. It is at about the center of the Highway 315 stretch between Kashgar and Charklik / Ruoqiang, which runs west to east between the Taklamakan Desert to the north and the Kunlun Mountains to the south. Highway 315 then turns southeast through Qinghai Province to Xining.
Niya / Minfeng is 815 km east of Kashgar, 294 km east of Hotan and 117 km east of Keriya / Yutian. It is 314 km west of Cherchen/Qiemo and 660 km west of Charklik / Ruoqiang.
Niya / Minfeng is 21 km west of the junction of Highways 315 and the Tarim Highway. The Tarim Highway, runs from the junction near Niya / Minfeng in the south to Bugur / Luntai 论台 562 kilometers to the north.
From a few kilometers east of Niya / Minfeng, a local road goes southeast into the Kunlun Mountains to Yeyik 叶亦克 and other villages, and an older rough road goes north along the river route.
Niya / Minfeng is the capital of Niya / Minfeng County, which has 30,000 residents (2002). Minfeng County is located between Yutian County and Qiemo County. It is the easternmost of seven counties in the Hotan Prefecture of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China.
The information here may change quickly because, though Niya / Minfeng is a small town, much building is going on, mainly for the increasing Han Chinese newcomers. Recall that, until 1995 when the Tarim Highway opened, Niya / Minfeng was one of the most remote places in Xinjiang, with access only from Hotan. The author welcomes any changes of which the visitor wishes to inform us.
The business district is centered on highway 315 which goes through the center of town. The author was told that, in town, the highway is called BoSeTan Lu. It makes a 90-degree turn at a large traffic circle going south and then leaves the town to the southwest, still called BoSeTan Lu and still highway 315. (See Maps below.)
No other roads seem to be named. At the inside corner of this turn is the China Post Office. In that building and the adjoining buildings are a grocery, a pharmacy, a jewelry store, two Internet cafes, the police station and several other shops including, surprisingly, an Avon cosmetics outlet.
In the center of the traffic circle is a column monument with a profile image of and a quote by Mao Zedong. See the translation below under Chairman Mao Monument.
About the only other paved street is an east-west road that crosses BoSeTan Lu about half a kilometer south of the traffic circle. The author calls it "the tree-lined street" since locals the author asked didn't seem to think it had a name. Where the tree-lined street crosses BoSeTan Lu is the town's only traffic light, in the center of the intersection, with a 10 m tall street lamp; neither was functioning.
A large traditional Uyghur neighborhood is found by going west or north from the traffic circle. Between these two roads, northwest of the traffic circle, lies the main bazaar. The bazaar spills out into the west road on Sunday, the main market day. On that west road are also several Uyghur restaurants.
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Lodging and Eating
Getting There and Away
A street map of central Niya / Minfeng, drawn by the author, is provided. This map shows some hotels, restaurants, the bus station, Internet cafes, a grocery store, a pharmacy, a mosque, the bazaar, a Uyghur neighborhood, and the China Post office.
Three satellite views of Niya / Minfeng, from different elevations, are provided here below. These are extracted from Google Earth satellite images. They show three elevations - center, town, and oasis.
Higher-resolution versions of all these images are available at the author's Flickr page.
To explore interactive Google satellite maps for this area, as an adjunct to Google Earth, the author recommends the following Navimap page with links to Google Earth references for hundreds of place names in English in Xinjiang: Google Earth KMZ : Xinjiang Uygur Zizhiqu, which gives the geographical coordinates along with a satellite image for each location. (Note that many places in Xinjiang have a Uyghur name and a Chinese name, which may or may not be similar. The referenced KMZ page has only one name per place, mainly transliterations of the Chinese names, but sometimes of the Uyghur name.)
To the left is a map of Niya / Minfeng County. Niya / Minfeng County is one of seven counties in Hotan Prefecture in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomouse Region. The map is in Chinese with some English place names added. This is an old map, and not all roads are shown. The large, original 3204x4566 map of Niya / Minfeng County, in Chinese only, provided in a smaller size here at left, was found at VB Good Maps / Xinjiang, along with maps of all other counties in Xinjiang and several other useful maps. At that site, click on Xinjiang Minfeng Map to download the original 1.3 MB file.
A cropped version of this Niya / Minfeng County map, here on the right, shows the more populated central section of the county and has some locations marked in English. The reader could work with this map and the Navimap site above to fill in the English names of some of the towns.
To the left and right are Xinjiang road maps, with distances in kilometers. They are mainly in Chinese and has some place names in English added. These map were originally found at map.vbgood.com/xinjiang. Because of their size, they are linked to the author's Flickr page for the map on the left and the map on the right. If the reader does not have access to Flicker, contact us and we will email you a copy.
A few blocks south of the traffic circle is the Bus Station.
From the bus station, where you will likely arrive, you can head north toward the traffic circle, which has the inescapable red and white column of the Chairman Mao Monument. On the inside corner of BoSeTan Lu, is the China Post Office.
A few doors to the east of China Post, next to Avon (yes, really, ding-dong, Avon calling) and China Mobile, is a friendly Internet cafe, run by Uyghur staff. Y2 per hour.
The next building to the east houses, among other things, the PSB (Public Security Bureau = police). This PSB does not have an Aliens Entry and Exit Office, which means you can't get your visa extended here. No town between Hotan and Korla has an Aliens Entry and Exit Office.
Going south from the China Post, in the next building -- the first of two twin five-story buildings -- is another Internet cafe. The attendant would not let the author use the computers there, required Uyghurs to sign in and pay in advance, but let Han Chinese just sit down and start in.
In the second of this pair of five-story buildings is the Lu Zhou Shang Hang 绿洲商行 grocery store, with drinks, snack foods, soups, and other groceries. One full aisle of the three aisles carries only liquor, most in traditional Chinese red gift boxes.
Near the grocery store is a Pharmacy.
A little further south, a tree-lined street crosses BoSeTan Lu, with the town's only (non-functioning) traffic light. On the northwest corner is an Agricultural Bank of China, but it won't be of much use to you.
The bank has no ATM. All sources queried stated that no banks or hotels accept or change foreign currency anywhere along the southeast route. The author did not find, either, any ATMs that accept foreign cards in the region. One can exchange currency or withdraw money from ATMs in Hotan, Korla, Golmud (far southeast in Qinghai Province) and Dunhuang (far east in Gansu Province) and apparently nowhere in between.
Some travelers have reported that, as in many other small towns in China, especially in arid locations, the water supply in Niya / Minfeng is a challenge. Check with your hotel about what hours cold running water and hot running water are each available during your stay. You should always be able to get a thermos of boiling hot water for your room. As with anywhere else in China, negotiate down from the posted hotel prices.
On the other side of the street from China Post and a few buildings east from the traffic circle (in the first three-story building on that side) is the Lu Zhou 绿洲 (Oasis) Guesthouse. Tel: 0903-6752999.
Posted prices: Suite Y580, triple Y280, double Y288 (negotiable to Y120). All with bath and electric remote-controlled air-conditioner / heater. The price list says they have common rooms (dorms) for Y80, but the receptionist said they don't. Perhaps they don't let foreigners stay in the dorms.
In the same building as the Lu Zhou Binguan is the entry to the Ba Shu Yu Zhuang Restaurant 巴蜀鱼庄. The restaurant is down a flight of stairs in the basement, with each large table in its own pleasant room. Clean, efficient, with tasty food. Long menu in Chinese only. Most dishes Y8-28. Yu Zhuang means fish farm, so perhaps fish is on the menu, though being more than 2,000 kilometers from any ocean, it might not be fresh.
Going the other direction, west from the traffic circle, brings you to the main entrance to the covered bazaar and several Uyghur restaurants, one of which is pictured here. The most common Uyghur dishes are langmen, a noodle dish with saucy vegetables and lamb, and polo, a rice pilaf with lamb and vegetables. Other popular options are kawap - lamb kebabs, suyuq ash - mutton soup with noodles, and manta - steamed dumplings. Nan is the ubiquitous flat bread.
At the southwest corner of the tree-lined street is the two-star Bao Rui 宝瑞 (Lucky Jewel) Guesthouse, covered with blue windows. New and quite clean, with a pleasant lobby, including a jade counter. A suite is posted at Y358, double with bathroom and A/C 280, Y260 single. The standard room is pleasant, with two beds. The author forgot to check for A/C, but thinks, at these prices, they likely have it -- ask to see the room before checking in. A pleasant two-bed dorm room is Y120 with clean indoor flush squat toilets in the hall.
If you go east along the tree-lined street and turn into the third driveway on the left side, you will be on the driveway leading to the Niya Gong Yu 尼雅公寓 Hotel. Tel: 0903-6751111, fax 0903-6752550. Posted prices: deluxe suite Y630, suite Y470, double with bath Y280 (negotiable to Y180). It's the best hotel in town, and looks quite new. Doubles are very nice, and each room has air-conditioning and a four-liter purified water dispenser with hot and cold spouts. Bathrooms are nice, but with a simple wall shower. One staff member spoke good intermediate English, the only English-speaker the author found in town. There are plush leather seats in the lobby. A wide selection of jade items is on offer in a jade counter, from jewelry to bowls and mats. The restroom off the lobby has an electric hand dryer. (It didn't work, but it was still a surprising sight, as was, in fact, having a restroom off the lobby.)
According to several folks, the hotel also has the best Chinese restaurant in town: Niya Gong Yu 尼雅公寓 Restaurant. It is large, looks very nice, and has a large-screen TV. The menu (only in Chinese) is on a single sheet of paper, on which you mark what you want. Most items Y8-28.
Back on BoSeTan Lu, continuing a short distance south from the tree-lined road, the Bus Station is on the east side of the street.
Just north of the bus station is a basic lodging, Jiao Tong 交通, the usual "traffic hotel" near most bus stations in Chinese towns. Doubles with a dicey bath are Y60, while dirty three- or four-bed dorms (shown below) are Y10 per person.
As a potential additional lodging option, in most Chinese cities, the China Post office has basic hotel rooms. The author didn't check with this China Post, since it was closed for renovations.
Lodging and Eating
Getting There and Away
The center of town is small enough to walk everywhere. But if you want a ride, the only taxis that roam the streets are motorcycle cart taxis, for a few RMB.
The car taxis hang out at the bus station and seem mostly for longer range trips. If you want a taxi pick-up, such as from your hotel to the bus station, you'll need to arrange it ahead of time with a driver at the bus station.
See Getting There and Away for bus schedules for both nearby and long distance destinations.
Buses and car taxis leave from the main bus station, a few blocks south of the traffic circle.
All times given here are in Beijing time, as all official life is required to run on Beijing time, though folks generally live their real lives on local or Xinjiang time, which is two hours earlier.
Most buses that go through Niya / Minfeng do not start there but are passing through. These don't bother to enter the bus station grounds. Nor do they even stop or slow down in town, so be careful when crossing the main street, which is also Highway 315.
To the left is a distance and fare chart for buses from Niya / Minfeng, from the bus station wall, with row and column headings in English added by the author. To the right is a distance and fare chart for minibuses to nearby locations, with destinations added in English.
Still, you can wait on the street in front of the bus station, on either side of the street depending on your destination, and flag one down. Better yet, try flagging one down as the driver is forced to slow down to take the 90 degree turn around the traffic circle. The driver will probably stop if he has a spot to put you. Check with the driver first, of course, to ensure the bus heading to your destination.
The driver flagged down by the author charged the posted price, and the author has heard others have also. But it's a good idea for you to know the posted price to your destination, just in case.
A virtual caravan of buses going west come through in the morning, after a night spent crossing of the desert. Likewise, most buses going north come through in the evening. But there are nine buses each way throughout the day just between Hotan and Urumqi, in addition to other destinations, so there is a bus every few hours.
This barrage might change somewhat after the new cross-desert highway opens in October 2007 from Hotan to Aksu. The total distance from Hotan to Korla by bus will only change by less than 50 kilometers on the new route, but the distance in the deep desert will be shortened, and the new route will have several hundred more kilometers along the more heavily populated northern rim, on Highway 314, instead of the more rural southern rim, on Highway 315.
To the left is a frequency schedule for buses from Niya / Minfeng. Not all possible destination are shown. The author had added the destination names in English. To the right is a map of destinations from Niya / Minfeng, in Chinese only. A larger version of this image, and all images on this page, can be found at the author's Flickr site.
Keriya / Yutian: Four daily buses west to Keriya / Yutian, 117 km, Y14-18, earliest 08:00-09:30. And, unofficially, you can flag down almost any bus headed west.
Cherchen / Qiemo: One source said there is one daily bus from Niya / Minfeng to Cherchen / Qiemo. Another source said there are six daily buses head east to Cherchen / Qiemo, 314 km, Y36-51, 6 hours, earliest departure 04:00, latest 22:00, and at least one of these continues east to Charklik / Ruoqiang. Cherchen / Qiemo, however, is not listed on the posters in the bus station; the reason for this absence is unknown to the author.
Hotan: One daily bus west to Hotan, 294 km, Y35-45, 16:00, 6 hours. Plus there are nine daily buses from Urumqi to Hotan that pass through town, and six from Korla, and several from other places like Gulja / Yining. You might not be able to purchase an official ticket from the ticket office for these other buses, but you could try, with your phrase book, to talk to the driver and see if he'll take you. (Some number of these buses, however, may change routes to the new Aksu - Hotan cross-desert highway scheduled to open in October 2007).
Coming from Hotan to Niya / Minfeng, the Hotan-to-Niya / Minfeng bus doesn't leave from the main long-distance bus station in Hotan. Instead, you catch the #10 local bus in front of the Long-Distance Bus Station to the Dongchezhan (East Bus Station). There you catch the bus for Niya / Minfeng. A fellow traveler said it leaves at 09:30.
Korla: One daily bus north to Korla (751 km, Y81-152, 8 hours) and on to Urumqi (1,214 km, Y130-204, 18 hours). It leaves Niya / Minfeng at 16:00, gets to Korla at 00:00, and to Urumqi at 10:00. Plus six buses daily go from Hotan to Korla so you might be able to flag one down at the traffic circle, where the buses have to slow down to make the turn.
Padishaim / Mazar Imam Jafar Sadiq / Kapakaskan: Three daily minivans to and from Padishaim, the name on the bus schedule for the shrine - Mazar Imam Jafar Sadiq - and Kapakaskan village, 88 km, Y20. The earliest leaves Niya / Minfeng at 08:00, one returning minibus leaves the Mazar at 15:00. The minivan takes the new Tarim Highway.
Posted Bus Schedules
For more destinations, used the links below to see the posted bus prices and frequencies. The posters are only in Uyghur and Chinese in the station, but author has added the destination names and column headers in English to these images.
There are four posters in the bus station..
The third poster does not give time schedules but rather, for certain destinations, the frequency of daily buses to those destinations. Also, the frequency table does not give all the destinations; for example, Cherchen / Qiemo is not even listed; see above for buses to there.
Lodging and Eating
Getting There and Away
Chairman Mao Monument|
Oasis and Sand
Shrine: Mazar Imam Jafar Sadiq|
Desert Irrigation Pumping Stations
Tazhong Oil Field
The center of modern Niya / Minfeng is the large red and white column in the traffic circle where the main street makes a 90 degree turn. At the top of all four sides is a profile of Mao Zedong 毛泽东, atop a quote, written in Chinese, Pinyin, and Uyghur. (The image here has the Uyghur. The image near the top of the page has the Chinese.)
A rough translation of the Chairman's quote is, "The powerful leader of all things is the universal Communist Party [which] leads all our ideas based on the ideas of Marxism and Leninism."
Just north of the traffic circle is a traditional Uyghur neighborhood. Leaving the modern Han Chinese area behind, you are quickly on a tree-lined lane with Uyghur courtyard homes, many with their famous decorated doorways.
There are a large number of other Uyghur neighborhoods, likely in all directions outside the modern central district. Most of the Han Chinese seem to live in the tall white apartment buildings in the area behind the China Post.
|Bazaar street entrance|
The bazaar is open daily though is at its best on Sundays. This is a small bazaar but more authentically Uyghur than many you will see. The covered bazaar runs for a large area north and west of the traffic circle.
On Sundays, the bazaar spills out onto the street west of the traffic circle. The author was told that the best Uyghur restaurants in town are also on this street.
Fruits are peddled on street stands. In summer, you will wander past mountains of melons and, in the fall, vendors will squeeze fresh pomegranate juice for you. Nuts and dried fruits are also on offer. Vegetables are for sale deeper in the bazaar, past tin smiths, clothing sellers and boot shops.
West of the vegetable sellers you will find the donkey cart parking lot and, beyond that, a modest live animal market offering sheep, donkeys and horses. At the Sunday bazaar are vendors who slaughter and butcher cows and sheep right on the street first thing in the morning, as well as poultry vendors with live chickens and pigeons.
Going east on the tree-lined street, on the right is a small mosque with a nice entry gate/minaret, decoratively painted, built in 1988. The prayer house has a wooden porch, with carved and painted wooden pillars, which is typical of mosques throughout Central Asia. The porch is for prayers when the weather is hot, while inside is for prayers during cold weather.
You can climb the three-story minaret, but the views aren't great - mostly of white Chinese apartment blocks. This mosque is not particularly large or distinctive, but is a reminder of the active Islamic heritage of the area. If the main gate is locked, enter through the smaller gate to the right.
|Donkey cart on rural lane © Tsuyoshi Tokunaga|
Although in a desert, Niya / Minfeng is an oasis town, surrounded by farmland, especially to the southeast. Wandering in that direction should take you to lush tree-lined rural lanes and sheep pastures. At youtube.com is a two-minute video called East Turkestan / Xinjiang / Niya, with such pastoral scenes. Search youtube for literally thousands of videos, largely of Uyghur music and entertainment. Because of the multiple spellings, search for: (uyghur OR uighur OR uygur OR uigur).
The desert is to the north of town. There is no formal place for tourists to climb sand dunes, as there is at Mingshashan in Dunhuang. But the latter is extremely touristy and costs Y120, so the independent traveler would likely prefer this opportunity to discover and explore their own dunes.
If you are headed to Mazar Imam Jafar Sadiq, there are sand dunes all around the shrine and village. Just let your driver know that you'll be heading into the dunes for a wander.
For more images of Niya / Minfeng dunes, check out L Joo's Virtual Tourist page and click on Minfeng. Joo writes that he had a taxi take his party about 20 km from Niya / Minfeng to wander in the dunes.
\Perhaps you could ask your hotel to help you write a note for a taxi driver to take you somewhere nearby where you can climb desert sand dunes, and wait a specified time for you as you explore. Be sure to bring some water and a compass with you, and note the direction of the sun, because it is surprisingly easy - and dangerous - to get lost.
The entire Kunlun mountain range is rich with jade. Chinese history and culture is intimately tied to the stone. Chemical analysis of jade items in central China dating to the Shang dynasty (1700 - 1027 BCE) shows that jade has been traded from this region along the ancient Jade Road for more than a millennium before the Silk Road connected Han Dynasty China to Rome.
In the lobbies of the Niya Gong Yu and Bao Rui hotels are jade counters, and there are likely other jade vendors in town. Since Niya / Minfeng is smaller than Cherchen / Qiemo and Hotan, the selection will be more limited and the prices may be a bit higher; on the other hand, the pace for perusing may be more relaxed.
Lodging and Eating
Getting There and Away
|Tomb at Mazar Imam Jafar Sadiq |
© Christoph Baumer, "Southern Silk Road"
Mazar Imam Jafar Sadiq مازار إمام جعفر الصادق
Entry Y50. Hours not posted but probably open every day.
90 km north of Niya / Minfeng. Coordinates: 37°44'5"N 82°7'40"E.
Daily minibus (Y20 each way) or by taxi (Y60-120)
Taking photos is officially discouraged anywhere at the shrine.
This is an ancient sacred place and an active pilgrimage site which allows tourists, not a tourist site. Please be respectful.
An attraction for visitors to Niya / Minfeng is 90 kilometers north: the mazar, or shrine, of the holy man, or imam, named Jafar Sadiq.
The shrine complex consists of two main sections: a typical mosque complex - with a mosque, a large decorative brick entryway, side buildings and courtyard - and the more interesting hill to the west with the pilgrimage walkway and tomb, festooned with unique votive offerings. There are also some ruined buildings behind the mosque, and many older ruined buildings around the general area.
On the highway sign and in the bus station signage, this destination is called Padishaim (帕地厦依木 pa di sha yi mu), a Uyghur name that may derive from an adopted Persian word for emperor - padishah. Given that this is the name on the highway sign, this may be the new name the government is assigning to the site.
The shrine is near the village called Kapakaskan, also sometimes just called Mazar. For the name in Chinese characters and pinyin, see some notes about place names and spelling.
Symbolic Archway along Pilgrimage Path near Tomb, Mazar Imam Jafar Sadiq |
© Lisa Ross
Based on the number of ruined buildings, near and far, it seems that the shrine was much more popular in times past. This may be, in part, because the Niya River continues to retreat. It once reached 80 km past the village to Niya North, an unexcavated stone-age settlement, but now disappears into the sand south of the shrine, and the villagers rely on wells for their water.
This site is not grand or flashy, though Judy Bonavia, in "The Silk Road," says it has long been called the "Mecca of Turkestan" and thousands of pilgrims are said to visit in late summer and autumn. It is a rare and beautiful sight, though few tourists venture here.
A very Uyghur tradition for shrines, which likely dates back to shamanistic practices from pre-Islamic times, is to attach pieces of cloth, as representations of prayers, and animal skins, feathers or skulls, as symbols of sacrifice, to trees or symbolic wooden arches or, in the desert, to branches in the ground at various places along the pilgrimage path.
You can see a number of beautiful photographs, at the web site of Lisa Ross, of this shrine and of several other shrines in Xinjiang.
"There are no roads leading to the tombs of Saints.
There are no names telling you who is buried where.
There are branches, scarves and mud bricks.
In the west, naming and identifying constitutes most of our lives. In the Central Asian desert people come to a mud brick and that is enough to know to whom they are praying.
The motivation for this body of work is derived from the possibility of creating a visual language that translates the sacred nature of these fragile objects into an experience of intimacy much like a portrait of a lover strives to capture an emotion that cannot be seen."
Part of the value of this recommended excursion, for the traveler, is to get an experience of the Taklamakan Desert as well as the Tarim Highway - see Tarim Highway and Tazhong below - and all its desert-taming techniques, without having to cross all 562 kilometers of it.
Another benefit is to experience a truly tiny Uyghur hamlet of about 100 farming families in an extremely remote desert oasis which is, at the same time, somewhat used to strangers because of the pilgrimage nature of the site. Please note that probably none of the people in the village you will likely encounter speak more than a few words of Chinese. If you didn't bring the Lonely Planet Central Asia Phrase Book, which has a Uyghur chapter, be prepared to communicate with gestures, a notepad, patience, and a sense of humor.
In addition, one can feel a connection here with the ancient kingdom of Niya, some 40 kilometers north. The site, lost for 1,500 years, was rediscovered by the explorer, M. Aurel Stein. Expeditions to ancient Niya today still leave from here.
Getting There: A white public minivans to the shrine leaves from the Niya / Minfeng bus station yard three times every day, the earliest in the morning at 08:00. Three return, one in the afternoon at 15:00. The cost is Y20 each way. At the bus station, ask for a ticket to Padishaim or Damaza.
Alternatively, you can hire a taxi for about Y60 (negotiable from Y120) there and back, also from the bus station yard. You may want to negotiate with your taxi driver to stop at one of the irrigation pumping stations on the way - see Tarim Highway below. You may also try to negotiate with him to take you to the shrine via the Tarim Highway and back by the old road along the Niya River oasis, with its several even tinier villages. (The author doesn't know the condition of this road, and the driver may refuse, and perhaps a 4WD would be needed. Please let the author know if you find out.)
Your vehicle will reach the Tarim Highway 21 kilometers east of town and turn north. You will follow the Tarim Highway for 50 kilometers. Once on the Tarim Highway, along both sides, you will see the many desert-taming techniques. Every five or so kilometers, you will see a blue building with a red roof. This is an irrigation pumping station - see the Desert Irrigation Pumping Stations below for more about them.
Near kilometer marker 512 is the turnoff to the left toward the shrine, which a sign tells you is 17 kilometers west (and 645 kilometers north until Korla) The sign says Padishaim in Uyghur and Padishayimu in Chinese, although everyone calls it the Mazar in Uyghur or Damaza in Chinese. This side road has only been paved since 2002.
After 12 kilometers, in the middle of the sea of sand, the east-west road ends at the north-south road of the tiny oasis village of Kapakaskan. This one street has a small concrete school / community building and all else are mud brick or thatch buildings. Note the construction of today's wattle homes and how similar they are to the building remains in ancient Niya.
Across from the school, there are a couple of tiny, two-table restaurants offering soup and bread, and a few miniscule storefronts. Very basic lodging is available for Y10 in the village - or Y20 if you want to stay in a very basic room at the shrine.
At the north end of the village is a locked roadblock. The Y50 entry fee for the shrine is payable at the roadblock. The village economy depends in part on the pilgrim trade, so you are not permitted to walk around the roadblock and hike to the shrine.
The man with the key to the roadblock and the shrine lives in the house to the right of the roadblock. The author was told that on Sundays he is usually in Niya / Minfeng for the bazaar, but most other days, he's here. If he's not at home, have your driver head back less than a kilometer to the few roadside stores to ask; someone will likely know where he is.
But if the man with the key cannot be found, one of the young men with motorcycles can be persuaded to give you a ride around the roadblock, after paying him the entry fee. This young man will also not have the key to the main entryway to the shrine, but he will know how to get in the back way.
After the roadblock, you will drive another 5 kilometers on paved road, which ends at the mosque compound.
Above is a satellite image of the shrine complex. The mosque and courtyards are in the upper right, while the pilgrimage walk and tomb are on the hill to the left.
A seven-meter high decorative brick entryway, in traditional Uyghur style, opens from the front courtyard, with its low walls, onto the mosque courtyard. Before entering the front courtyard, to the right, are a row of about five very basic rooms for visitors. The staff seems to stay in buildings to the left of the courtyard.
Along the left side of the courtyard is a simple mosque, into which you can look through the windows. Then you can wander through the hallways on the right and rear of the courtyard.
There's a short stone tunnel behind the courtyard, which leads to some ruined walls and buildings and a few intriguing large old trees.
To the west of the courtyard, the staff will point you to a hill with the tomb that is said to house the remains of Imam Jafar Sadiq.
The current holy man or imam may be present at the mosque or the tomb.
On the hill and north of the hill is what seems to be the pilgrim walkway through the sand, with wooden arches set up like symbolic gateways, and colorful concoctions of branches and swatches of fabric stuck in the sand or hung from the arches have religious significance as votive offerings. Skins, feathers, or skulls of sacrificed animals may also be hung near the tomb or on the arches, as well as amulets and a variety of other items.
|Votive offering at Mazar Imam Jafar Sadiq © Lisa Ross|
About these offerings, the New York Times wrote, "[Xinjiang] is home to the Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking people who largely practice Sufism, a mystical, pacifistic form of Islam. Sufi devotion focuses on generations of saints, 'friends of God,' and specifically on their burial sites.
Such graves dot the Taklamakan, indicated by the most fragile of markers: dried branches staked vertically in the ground or piled up to serve as prayer huts. What makes the markers visually distinctive is the way they are ornamented by visiting pilgrims with amulets, dolls and ribbon-like strips of bright-colored cloth, brilliant against a landscape of unbroken sand-brown.
An awareness of transience lies at the heart of all devotion, and it finds an apt emblem in these grave markers, bent and tattered by the wind."
Lodging and Eating
Getting There and Away
One main reason to visit the Imam Jafar Sadiq shrine is to experience the famous Tarim Highway and the sand dunes of the Taklamakan without having to cross all 562 kilometers of it, allowing the traveler to continue east along the southern Silk Road. The Tarim Highway is shown in red on the Xinjiang map to the right.
The current and future impact of this new highway, for good or ill, cannot be underestimated. As Jonathan Tucker wrote, "As late as the 1960s, it still took 40 days to travel from Minfeng to Korla, but the completion of the new Desert Highway - built to facilitate the exploration of Xinjiang's vast oil reserves - means that the journey can now be completed in about eight hours."
A major oil field was discovered in these sands in the 1980s. The government decided to build a road to access the oil fields and, secondarily, spur the economic development of southern Xinjiang. Every consultant said the Chinese were crazy to attempt a road across the Taklamakan Desert. After all, in Uyghur, the desert's name is said to mean, "You go in and you don't come out." Tradition says this name refers to the many rivers that enter from the surrounding Kunlun and Tian Shan mountains and are swallowed by the desert sands, but it has also applied to many unwary travelers that ventured in over the millennia.
Tarim Highway, with desert-taming reed belts |
© Noboru Ogata
But the need for the road created high motivation to overcome the challenges of a desert highway. China developed 310 new desert-stabilizing and road-building techniques in order to get to the oil and transport it out, according to Judy Bonavia in "The Silk Road." The highway was begun in 1991 and completed in 1995.
The Tarim Highway is prone to sandstorms, especially in the spring. Also it is plagued with crashes, probably because of the monotony of such a long, straight road with unchanging scenery.
There was a fatal coal truck crash on the highway the day the author went to the shrine. The taxi driver indicated such accidents were sadly not uncommon. After waiting a while, the taxi was just able to get around the wreck on the sand shoulder, though the heavier trucks were stuck waiting and were still there when we returned hours later. A bulldozer had been brought in to move the debris off the roadway, but first it had to push its own transport truck out of the sand the latter had slipped into while unloading the bulldozer.
For both these unpredictable factors that could cause long delays, be sure to bring extra food and water, a good book or journal and, as you probably already have for traveling in Xinjiang, a hat and a fan.
Shortly after leaving Niya / Minfeng on the way to the Tarim Highway, you will pass a Uyghur cemetery on a small hill to your right. It is a Uyghur tradition, and a wider Turkic practice, to erect short fences around tombs.
You will likely see donkey carts returning to town with firewood. Deforestation is an enormous problem adding to the challenge of desertification in the region. China is said to be diverting some of the natural gas from the Tazhong oil fields to help mitigate this problem, as well as encouraging the use of solar energy.
Surprising but true, the Taklamakan Desert sits atop a huge aquifer, even though, at 338,000 sq km, it is the world's second largest shifting sand desert on earth after the Arabian Rub al Khali Desert. The vast water reserve is mainly because of the many rivers that run into the desert from surrounding mountain ranges and dissipate into the sand. In most places, water is no more than 10 meters under the surface. (You can see the relative sizes of the earth's largest deserts at Infoplease - Principal Deserts of the World).
Several of China's desert-taming techniques involve growing hardy reeds or flax plants, 16 rows deep, along the roadsides. The visitor will see endless swathes of these plantings and their associated black drip irrigation hoses, as well as wooden and plastic fences. Those hoses are connected, every four or five kilometers along the Tarim Highway, to an irrigation water pumping station with a bright blue building and a bright red roof, each one numbered.
You can see a satellite view of one of these pumping stations, along with the many planting strips along the highway at 37°36'24"N, 82°52'47"E, at one of the many satellite web sites such as Wikimapia.
|Pump Station Attendant at Work, Tarim Highway © Gareth Morgan|
Another surprise, for many, is that each building is home to a person or a couple who live there, in extreme isolation and extreme weather conditions for most of the year, to maintain the pump equipment and tend the plantings and their irrigation systems. You may see them traveling their territory by bicycle, on inspection duty. Apparently, all the pump attendants are Han Chinese recruited from other places in China, for not much money but more than they might make at home. They are regularly supplied by government trucks and, the author has read, many do not leave the stations for months at a time.
|Desert Taming Techniques © Gareth Morgan|
If you travel to the shrine or across the Tarim Highway with independent transportation instead of by bus, you might consider stopping at one of these pumping stations to greet the residents. Some travelers have reported that a meal could be had there, but in any case it would certainly be polite to bring a hospitality gift, such as perhaps some reading material, fresh food, or postcards from home for wordless conversations.
The Tazhong oil field is the raison d'être of the Tarim Highway. Its name literally means center (中 zhong) of the ta (塔), short for Taklamakan. Coordinates: 38°59'36"N 83°37'48"E
|Tazhong oil field derrick © Gareth Morgan,|
The roadside town of Tazhong was purpose built to support the surrounding oil fields, and was described by one visitor as "a refuge for truckers, oil workers, and prostitutes." Travelers have reported that basic meals and accommodation can be found. During the summer, tour groups that have to overnight in the area seem to prefer to spend the night camping among the dunes under the stars.
A Qiemo County Travel Bureau brochure says the bureau can arrange for Tazhong oil field (you tian - yóu tián) sightseeing. The number of the Qiemo County Travel Bureau is 0996-762-8574, but no one there speaks English. The author does not know the cost, location or any other particulars, except a travel agent who called to inquire said that no English is spoken on the tour.
|Tazhong hostel, outside, Tarim Highway © Michael J. Manning, The Opposite Side of China|
|Tazhong hostel room, Tarim Highway © Michael J. Manning, The Opposite Side of China|
Tazhong is just across the county and prefecture border from Niya / Minfeng County in Hotan Prefecture into Cherchen / Qiemo County in Bayingolin Mongolian Autonomous Prefecture. This is not of much relevance to the visitor except for knowing why the Qiemo County Travel Bureau promotes the tours.
Tazhong is located 230 kilometers north of Niya / Minfeng and 350 kilometers south of Bugur / Luntai. There is also a direct spur from Tazhong southeast 118 km to Cherchen / Qiemo, completed in 2002. There may be direct minibuses between Cherchen / Qiemo and Tazhong, but these were not listed on the bus station schedule posters in Cherchen / Qiemo. A taxi is another option.
Lodging and Eating
Getting There and Away
The section on ancient Niya will be added later.
Two Time Zones at Once
Xinjiang, like the rest of China, is required to officially be on Beijing time. All bus schedules, for example, are on Beijing time. But much of the rest of life -- such as restaurants, mosque prayer times, and appointments -- operates on Xinjiang or local time, which is two hours earlier. Government offices will post hours in Beijing time, but these hours will be usually be shifted two hours later than elsewhere in China, such as closing for lunch from 13:00 to 15:00. Whenever you schedule something, be sure to ask whether that is in Beijing time or Xinjiang time.
Just a Fellow Traveler
The information on this page was gathered by a fellow traveler, who doesn't speak Uyghur or Chinese, and found no one who spoke English in town. Information was gathered over a couple of days with a phrasebook, a notepad, gestures, patience, and a sense of humor, followed with Internet research. Some information may be incorrect and much may be incomplete.
Since there is so little tourist information available in English on this region for independent travelers, the author hopes this will be of assistance, but can give no guarantees as to its veracity. Please send any corrected or additional information to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This page is one of a series of pages written (or in the process of being written) by the author on towns on the southeastern edge of the Taklamakan Desert, including Hotan, Keriya / Yutian, Niya / Minfeng, Cherchen / Qiemo and Charklik / Ruoqiang. To see the Home Page for this collection, you will be linked here to the Southeastern Rim Home Page when it is available.
Bargain for Your Lodging
Most hotel room rates are negotiable in China, from tiny places to large ones. Negotiate.
Town Changing Quickly
As with all the towns along the southern rim, Niya / Minfeng is changing very rapidly, with many Han Chinese moving in and much construction underway. Its location at one end of the new Tarim Highway is bringing more business and many more travelers. The information on this web page may quickly become outdated. Please send any updated information to email@example.com.
Niya. Niya (nee'-ya) is the traditional Uyghur name for the town. Niya has also been written Nya, Nija, Nia or New Niya. For his own convenience but clearly not ours, explorer M. Aurel Stein also gave the name Niya to the ancient town he found to the north.
Minfeng. Mínfèng The Chinese have given different Chinese names to several cities and towns in Xinjiang. The Chinese name here is Minfeng. Because the "e" comes before an "ng," Minfeng is pronounced min-fung.
Since the names Niya and Minfeng are so very different, and both names are so widely used, the author decided, for the reader's benefit (even if not ease) to use both names for the town.
Town Names in Xinjiang. The author does the same for other towns with very different names, such as Charklik / Ruoqiang, Keriya / Yutian, Bugur / Luntai and Cherchen / Qiemo. For towns where the Pinyin name is different only because of the challenges of transliteration into Chinese, the author has used the name in common use, which is usually a transliteration of the Uyghur name. These include Kashgar (Kashi), Urumqi (Wulumuqi), Hotan (Hetian), and Korla (Kuerle).
The author has chosen to use the common spelling of Bugur and Urumqi, without the umlauds over all the "u"s, though the use of umlauds is technically a more correct transliteration of the Uyghur.
Ancient Niya. Today, the ancient city of Niya is usually called Niya in documents in many languages. But is often also called Jingjue in modern Chinese documents, which was the name used for this kingdom in ancient Chinese documents back to the Han Dynasty. There is some controversy over whether the town called Ni Jang in the time of Hieun Tsiang (Xuan Zang) refers to this place or a newer town further south along the same river. Its ancient name of Cadota - the name the inhabitants called it, according to the ancient Kharosthi documents - is rarely used, even by historians.
Mazar. Mazar, مازا, is the Uyghur word for shrine.
In Chinese characters and pinyin, for any shrine in Xinjiang, the Uyghur word mazar is often written 大玛扎 damaza (dàmǎzā).
Mazar Imam Jafar Sadiq
Uyghur: مازار إمام جعفر الصادق
大玛扎瘗犘嚜垞沷闟地勀 Damaza Yimame Chafa Sadike (dàmǎzā yìmáme cháfā sàdìkè)
The shrine - mazar in Uyghur - near Niya / Minfeng venerates an imam (holy man) called Jafar Sadiq, so the place is referred to as Mazar Imam Jafar Sadiq (mah-zahr' ee-mahm' ja-fahr' sah-deek').
The Letter 'Q'. Uyghur, when written in roman script, traditionally uses the letter 'q' for one of its 'k' sounds, as does Arabic. However, the Chinese Pinyin system uses the roman letter 'q' for one of its 'ch' sounds. The author has chosen to spell the name of the holy man with the traditional 'q', but notes to the reader that some sources, especially Chinese sources as well as explorers like Aurel Stein, spell the name Imam Jafar Sadik. The name, traditionally transliterated from the Arabic, is written Ja'far al Sadiq or Ja'far as Sadiq.
Padishaim. For reasons unknown to this author, the highway signs and two posters in the bus station refer to the shrine as Padishaim in Uyghur, transliterated as 帕地厦依木 pa di sha yi mu. This may be a Uyghur word borrowed from the Persian word for high king - padishah - with padishaim perhaps meaning "my sovereign."
Kapakaskan. The village's name has also been spelled Kabakasgan. The name means "hanging gourd."
The author has seen the village's name in Chinese transliterated in various ways into Chinese and pinyin:
ka ba ke a si han
ka pa ke a er shi kan
ka ba ke a shi ha mi
One version of the name in Chinese characters is:
|Charklik / |
|Keriya / Yutian||700||180|
|Niya / Minfeng||814||294||117|
|Cherchen / Qiemo||1,124||605||429||315|
|Charklik / Ruoqiang||1,475||956||780||666||351|
|Korla||* 1,564||1,045||866||751||708 +||490|
|Urumqi||* 2,027||1,509||1,329||1,214||1,171 +||953||463|
* 1,564 and 2,027 via Niya / Minfeng and the Tarim Highway, which is relevant for many users of this web page. By way of the north rim of the Taklamakan, however, Kashgar to Korla or Urumqi is, respectively, 930 km or 1,393 -- which can also be done by train. Traveling via Hotan and the Tarim Highway is thus only an extra 634 km (or about 10 travel hours), far less most people think.
+ 708 from Cherchen / Qiemo to Korla via the spur from near Cherchen / Qiemo directly to Tazhong, and following the Tarim Highway from there.
1,066 to Korla if heading west toward Niya / Minfeng to the start of the Tarim Highway.
841 km by way of Charklik / Ruoqiang to the east then north to Korla.
The longer distance route, along the full southern route, by way of Charklik / Ruoqiang, from Kashgar to Korla is 1,965 km, and on to Urumqi is 2,428 km. This is an extra 1,035 km (or about 15 travel hours). That's not really much for all the advantages of taking the road less traveled, and it's much more interesting than backtracking all the way from Kashgar.
The home page for this web site will be an overview of the Southeastern Rim of the Taklamakan, with more specific informationon the Taklamakan Desert and the jade which has been the region's lifeblood for at least 3,500 years.
Other sights in this area include 2,600-year-old mummies, museums, nature reserves, handmade silk and carpet workshops, jade mines, oil field, rock carvings, shrines, mosques, bazaars and twisty old towns to explore, as well as desert sand dunes and the extensive Chinese desert-control systems trying to keep them at bay.Cherchen / Qiemo
At t heCherchen / Qiemo page, you'll read about seeing fourteen 2,600-year-old mummies in the Zaghunluq Ancient Mummy Tomb and learning their history, visiting the Toghraklek Manor Museum with displays of 100-200 year old household and farming implements and 2,000-3,000 year old funerary offerings, walking a large central square and in rural Uyghur neighborhoods.
Nearby you can see Bronze Age rock carvings, a 60,000 hectare wild animal nature reserve, an international hunting park. You can take a two-day working jade mine tour in the Kunlun Mountains or plan an expedition to the nearly 7,000 meter Mount Ulugh Muztagh. Also, you can start from here to take an oil field tour -- because of the nearby highway spur, Tazhong is closer to Cherchen / Qiemo than to Niya / Minfeng.
Visit the mosque with its intricate brickwork in this town 180 km east of Hotan. Wandering the winding Uyghur neighborhood along the river, inhabited since Han dynasty times at the dawn of the Silk Road as the Kingdom of Jumi. Eat at a Uyghur restaurant while watching the langmen noodles pulled by hand at the next table.
View the statue of an elderly Uyghur electrician who is the only person to share a monument with Mao Zedong in all of China. For a contrast, first wander the new Keriya International On-Foot Street shopping mall and then cross the street to explore the traditional Uyghur bazaar. For the expedition minded, visit the ancient cities buried in the desert, Karadong and Dandan Oilik.
The page on Charklik / Ruoqiang, the easternmost of the towns along Highway 315 along the Taklamakan, describes this small desert oasis town with its central plaza and several lodging and dining options and bus schedule. Some history of the area will be included.
This page also assists you to access the famous ruins of Miran or Loulan and the enormous dried lake bed of Lop Nor across Marco Polo's notorious Desert of Lop. The enormous Nature Reserves in Lop Nor and the Altun Mountains will be discussed, along with the nuclear testing sites in the greater Lop Nor area. In addition, Charklik / Ruoqiang is the back door to the roads much less traveled through Qinghai to Dunhuang, Xining, or Golmud, from which you can reach Lhasa. Detailed transit information is provided on this route, which is complicated but not as onorous nor mysterious as some reports indicate.
The page on Hotan describes the vast array of delights in this largest city on the southern rim. See silk made by hand in the ancient tradition from cocoon to the colorful King of Silk as well as, on the other side of town, the entire process in a modern, mechanized factory. Watch carpets tied by hand in millennium-old patterns. Observe jade being carved into fantastic shapes, and paper being made from mulberry bark and desert plants. Wander the Sunday bazaar rivaling Kashgar for the largest in Central Asia.
Visit an excellent museum in its newer, larger site that brings together the region's 5,000 years of human history on the crossroads of Indian, Central Asian, Chinese, Russian, Middle Eastern and even Greek cultures, a corridor for and center of shamanism, Buddhism, Christianity, Manichaeism and Islam plus an entire floor more recent cultural treasures of jade, jewelry, musical instruments and Uyghur traditional medicine.
Beat the heat along more than 1,500 kilometers of shady grape corridors, or in one just outside your hotel door. Wander around neighborhoods with traditional Uyghur architecture. Watch nightly Uyghur traditional music and dancing and eat polo from a bottomless cauldron in a packed Uyghur restaurant and nibble your way along the stalls of an ancient night market.
Or dance the night away at a score of flashy night clubs, grab a burger or fried chicken at a Chinese chain, wander the endless aisles of three enormous supermarkets, pick your live seafood for dinner from two walls of tanks more than 2,500 kilometers from any ocean, or watch the world pass by from your table at a number of modern coffee bars or internet cafes.
Spend Y20 to Y2,000 per night on a range of accommodations. Visit aSunday bazaar that rivals Kashgar's for size, or head out on Thursday to a weekly tiny bazaar and festival in the desert at an ancient sacred site of pilgrimage. Visit one of several nearby ancient ruins from the fabled Silk Road.
If your travel planning requires information about the above towns before the web page might be available, you can contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org for an advance draft copy.=
"Grasslands stretch away before you as you emerge from the area where the Uyghurs live. A dazzling vision of blue sky opening out above a carpet of grass. " Enjoy this two-minute YouTube video entitled "East Turkestan/Xinjiang/NIYA." for a pastoral view of the oasis.
A collection of photographs of East Turkestan (Xinjiang) taken by Tsuyoshi Tokunaga, the same artist as created the above video on YouTube. Click on the Niya link, then scroll to the bottom to find his "Niya's Still Images Gallery" link. You can also see his video and still images of Charchan / Qiemo, Hotan, Yarkand, Tashkurgan, Kashgar and Atush.
Michael Manning has an interesting blog, from his base in Korla, commenting frequently on a wide variety of aspects of life in Xinjiang at The Opposite End of China.
Here is a page with links to Google Earth references for hundreds of place names in Xinjiang, Google Earth KMZ : Xinjiang Uygur Zizhiqu, giving the geographical coordinates and a satellite image of the area. It doesn't have Kapakaskan / Padishaim / Mazar Imam Jafar Sadiq on the list (yet), but they does show up on the map itself near Tülkigikol, a village along the Niya River on the older route to the shrine.
A review of Christoph Baumer's excellent book "Southern Silk Road: In the Footsteps of Sir Aurel Stein and Sven Hedin". Read a present-day archaeologist's take on the history of the region and enjoy his many photographs and descriptions about the ancient cities in the desert. A great accompaniment to any southern Silk Road journey, either before or after you go.
The Buried Silk Road Cities of Khotan by William Rust and Amy Cushing, an excellent overview of the finds at the various southern silk road cities. It puts the region in the context of greater Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent.
A brief travel blurb on the Ancient City of Niya
A brief article from the Chinese perspective on the Chinese excavations at Niya: "The Most Important Findings of Niya in Taklamakan" by Wang Binghua, April 1996.
Archaeological GIS (Geographic Information System) and Oasis Geography in the Tarim Basin by Mariner Padwa, published in the The Silk Road Foundation Newsletter. In fact, take a wander around the various issues of this fine web publication.
Beautiful photographs by Lisa Ross of the Mazar Imam Jafar Sadiq
A gallery showing at Nelson Hancock Gallery in New York City in 2006 of Lisa Ross photographs of Mazar Imam Jafar Sadiq and another area shrine.
A review in the New York Times of Lisa Ross' Traces of Devotion Gallery Show
Niya River - A (Very) Brief Speculative History with a few nice pics.
Read a brief story by Dr. Pamela Morgan on the challenges of Geocoding Treasure-Maps In The Southern Taklamakan Desert, that is, a project to provide stable geographical anchor points along the southern Silk Road for satellites to effectively map the Taklamakan Desert. Check out her home page for bringing space age technology to discover the still-buried treasure of ancient cities, including the still-elusive ancient Cherchen.
Check out this ever-so-brief-yet-thankfully-helpful abstract of an article about Carbon-14 dating of the Niya site in the Tarim Basin
In another brief yet informative abstract, this time about mitochondrial DNA analysis, this article finds that one body found at ancient Niya is consistent with subhaplogroup U3, who tend to come from the Near East and the area of today's Iran, which is similar to several remains analyzed from the Sanpula cemetery near Hotan. All but two bodies of all those found at ancient Niya were Caucasian.
Read about Stein's rediscovery of ancient Niya in his own words in Ancient Khotan, starting with his progress in January 1901.
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