The Colorful Folklore Behind the Flaming Mountains of Turpan
The Flaming Mountains of Turpan (also known as Turfan) are located in the Tian Shan Mountain range in China’s Xinjiang province. These mountains lie to the east of the city of Turpan, which is located on the northeastern rim of the Taklamakan Desert. This is the largest, driest and hottest desert in China. The name of these mountains certainly conjures up an image of an inhospitable environment, in accordance with the harsh reputation of the Taklamakan Desert.
The Geological Origins of the Flaming Mountains
According to geologists, the Flaming Mountains were formed by the movement of tectonic plates on the earth’s surface during the formation of the Himalayas fifty million years ago. Over time, erosion of the red sandstone bedrock caused the formation of the ravines and gullies that crisscross the mountains. These features give the mountains a fiery appearance at certain times of the day. During the summer, the surface temperature of these mountains can exceed 70 °C (158°F)!
The Folkloric Origins of the Flaming Mountains -The Uighur's Dragon Story
Literature and mythology, however, provide a more colorful explanation to how the Flaming Mountains were formed. For instance, the local Uighurs have a story to explain the red color of the mountains’ surface. According to the Uighurs, the Flaming Mountains were once ravaged by a dragon. When the dragon was eventually slain by a young hero, its blood was spilled on the mountains, hence giving the earth its bright red color.
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Another Origins Story for the Flaming Mountains from The Journey to the West
Another story regarding the Flaming Mountains can be found in Chinese literature. In the Chinese language, the Flaming Mountains are also known as ‘Huo Yan Shan’. This name is derived from a story in one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese Literature, The Journey to the West . This novel was published during the Ming Dynasty, and is attributed to Wu Cheng’en. The origin story of the Flaming Mountains can be found in Chapter Sixty of this popular novel.
In the novel, the protagonists encounter an impassable mountain with flames that burnt continuous. According to the local god, this fire was caused by Sun Wukong (known also as the ‘Monkey King’), one of the novel’s protagonists. When Sun Wukong wreaked havoc in Heaven 500 years prior to the journey to the West, he was subdued by the god Erlang. He was then placed in Laozi’s Eight Trigrams Furnace to be destroyed. When the furnace was opened, however, Sun Wukong was not reduced to ashes. In rage, he kicked over the furnace, and some of its bricks which still had fire in them fell to the earth and became the Flaming Mountains.
Painting of a scene from The Journey to the West depicting the four protagonists: Sun Wukong, Xuanzang, Zhu Wuneng, and Sha Wujing. Summer Palace, Beijing, China ( Rolf Müller/Wikimedia Commons )
Xuanzang and Faxian: Two Chinese Monks who Completed the Journey to the West
Whilst Wu Cheng’en’s novel is a work of fiction, it is based on the historical figure of Xuanzang, a Buddhist monk from the Tang Dynasty who journeyed to India via a land route. Whilst Xuanzang’s journey was made famous due to Wu Cheng’en’s novel, he was not the first Chinese monk to make such a journey. Several centuries prior to Xuanzang, the monk Faxian also travelled to India by land. Both these monks would have travelled along the Silk Road, as did those who brought Buddhism from India to China. Buddhist structures and monuments can be found along the Silk Road, including the Flaming Mountains.
Illustration of the monk Xuanzang (11th Century) ( Wikimedia Commons )
The Bezellik Thousand Buddhist Caves
In the Mutou Valley at the western end of the Flaming Mountains is a complex of Buddhist cave grottoes known as the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves. Today, there are 77 known grottoes, the oldest of which can be dated to the Tang Dynasty. The construction of these grottoes continued up till the 13th century. Of these grottoes, 40 of them still have murals inside them.