Turpan itself is being gradually transformed by the Chinese government into a fairly characterless place. This type of statement is probably going to apply to every town of a significant population that we visit in western China and perhaps throughout the entire country. The supposedly efficient but certainly tasteless transformation of cities that took place under the Soviets earned the those places the dubious distinction of having been “Russified”, and there should probably be an equivalent term for the “progress” imparted by the Chinese government on its preferred cities – I propose to use “Hanified” when discussing such things, at least on this blog. Turpan is certainly not completely Hanified – while the city center is riddled with boxy, grey buildings that have aged badly and far sooner than they should have given their relatively recent construction, there are also still some very pleasant avenues shaded by grapes on arched trellises and lined with karez-fed open water channels. But the real draw to Turpan is not Turpan itself, but numerous historical sites scattered through the Turpan valley. Turpan was an important city on the silk road and these civilizations have been here seemingly since time began, the years of history have stacked up and left plenty to see and learn from. In this sense, Turpan is a remarkable place to visit but the town is not the kind of place one feels a desire to relax in for long after the nearby sites have been seen. One negative about the scattered historical sites around Turpan is that there is no convenient mode of transportation, no easy way to visit each place. The only real option to reach sites east of the city, some of which are nearly 70 km away, is via taxi. When we arrived in Turpan in the afternoon, Brett was in the process of coming down with the severe chills and pains that Angie had previously had on our bus from Almaty to Urumqi. This complicated things as Brett was soon confined to the hotel bed making it difficult for us to arrange a taxi for the next day (based on Angie’s experience with this illness, we assumed that at least the fever would be gone by tomorrow). However, we were soon visited by a man who claimed to be the hotel tour agent but who was probably just the taxi booker who paid the hotel to tip him off when a western tourist checked in. He insisted on 380 yuan for a taxi for the day and after about 30 minutes of hard bargaining Angie agreed on 270 yuan, a feat for which she was quite proud. We had intended to rent bikes for the second day, as there are fewer sites to the west of the city and most are about 10km away, but we were unable to do this as all of the bike hire businesses were closed for low season. In the end we organised another taxi at a lower rate than the first (this day involved significantly less time and distance).
Tuyoq Tuyoq is a small Uigher town nestled at the sandy beige foot of the deep red Flaming Mountains and is surrounded by green karez-irrigated fields of grapes, a step back in time if you can overlook the admission fee kiosk and paved car park near the entrance gate. The buildings are all of adobe and stone, similar to others we had seen in central Asia, though these homes are also topped with upper floors of beautifully patterened bricks designed to allow free air flow for the drying of grapes.
The main mosque exudes a dusty humbleness that fits the town, but also retains that elegant structure that all beautiful mosques have. A karez-fed aquaduct system runs through town its channels equipped with adjustable weirs and dams to control and direct flow. In the hills above the town are ancient Buddhist caves from a time before Islam came to these parts, but we were unable to climb up and have a look due to the instability of the hillside path. Still, we could view the obviously man-made caves roughly 60% up the side of the steep Flaming Mountain foothills just above Tuyoq. Also in the town was the beautiful blue domed Mazar, a mausoleum for the man who brought Islam to the area built in the style of a central asian juma mosque. It is a holy sight for Muslims, seven pilgrimages here once thought equal to one pilgrimage to mecca. We were not allowed to visit this site. During our casual walk through town an elderly local women hurriedly corralled Brett to her dried fruit stand, half requesting and half demanding that he assist her to fix an umbrella above the stand. The overwhelmingly obvious fact that Brett does not speak Uigher did not deter her from continuously barking out orders. If Brett failed to guess the intentions of these verbal directions, she resorted to gesturing wildly with her hands. If that too failed to penetrate the thick skull of this clearly physically able but hopelessly dimwitted assistant, she would next take the twine/rope/umbrella in her own hand and complete the task or indicate how it should be done. Brett was of course a well-intentioned assistant who attempted to obey as best as possible and eventually the umbrella was fixed both to the table and the adjacent building in a way which was more or less satisfactory to the woman. As we walked off down the path, she hurried behind us to give Brett a handful of various dried grapes as thanks, and there began our new love of various local types of dried grapes (or raisins/sultanas, but make no mistake that these put to shame any raisin/sultanas we’d previously had). The region is well know for its grapes and its large variety of grapes and they come in all shapes, sizes and colors and everyone we tasted had incredible flavor. The entire Turpan valley is filled with drying buildings and vineyards filled with grapes supported by home made, old tree stands. It appeared that most of the grapes grown end up being dried and we definitely enjoyed eating them.
Gaochang Ruins Gaoching initially seemed like a square kilometer of stone piles surrounded by an old stone fortress wall. Such is the impression one gets upon entering the main gate on the eastern side of the city, a part where nearly no structures remain in any form which might suggest a former house or building. But as we walked further into the city we saw many interesting ruins – a former lecture hall, the central palace, and the mostly preserved large main temple – and the form of the old town came into view. The temple was the best preserved of the remaining buildings and although there was some evidence of restorative work in the central part of the main worshiping area, most appeared to be original. There are men at the front gate offering donkey taxi rides to the temple at the other end of the city, but it was an easy decision to walk. Unless you are unable to walk a couple kms on flat ground or are enthralled by the idea of a donkey taxi there’s no reason to pay the 40 yuan per person demanded.
Bezkilik Thousand Buddha Caves The caves are set on a mountain side in a valley of the Flaming Mountains – a startlingly beautiful setting that would have placed residents in a comfortable location next to a life-giving stream in an otherwise deadly hot and arid place. How could the caves of Bhuddist ascetics not be here? Only a selected number of the caves open for viewing, but the paintings were in decent condition and interesting to see. Many of the caves had been damaged by thieves, most notably in the form of German, British and Russian archaeologists who cut murals off the walls and, in the quite accurate description of the Chinese government placards, “stole” these priceless works (many of which were destroyed during WW2 in Germany, the remainder having never been returned and now are on display in St. Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum). The faces of some of the Bhudda and bhodasatva figures on the walls were also scratched out back when Islam first came to this region, the depiction of live animals or people being banned in that religion. There certainly could have been more damage during Mao’s cultural revolution, but you’re not likely to find that discussed at a place funded by the Chinese government. Despite the damage, that which remained was beautiful. There were several cave chambers with their thousand Buddha ceilings still mostly intact, with only the larger murals at the ends of the long caves having been carted off to Germany.
Astana Tombs The Astana graves have yielded some truly remarkable archeological finds, many of which are viewable at Xianjang’s best museums. Sadly, there is not much left to see at the grave site itself. In total you can enter three graves at Astana, the first containing the glass-encased mummified remains of its two occupants and the other two containing paintings on the back wall of the graves. If you are interested in the Astana graves you’d be better off visiting the Turpan Museum, where many of the items recovered from the excavations are on display and much more information is on offer.
Flaming Mountains The mountains are uniquely beautiful, dark red sand and jagged rock that rises from the ubiquitous and flat beige sand below. At times they might be huge, hulking aged dunes, the remnants of what was, and other places the sharp rock that presses out of the earth might be newly forced upwards, as yet unworked by the wind, rain and ice. The valleys steeply slope down to streams that are impossibly present in this dusty rocky terrain where temperatures commonly top 50C and without which this just might be the lifeless, uninhabitable end of the earth or even Hell itself.
The only disappointment of this place was the circus-like atrocity of a tourist trap that the Chinese have built here, the point at which all taxis drop anyone who wants to see the Flaming Mountains – whether you be someone wanting to walk in the outdoors or the typical Chinese tourist who apparently prefers to view his wilderness from behind an iron fence with iron statues and tethered tame camels and donkeys in the foreground.
Jiaohe Ruins Jiaohe was a fort town built in what is pretty much a perfect location for a fort town: The entire city sat perched atop a tall arrowhead-shaped plateau with a rivers running on either side and joining at the arrowhead’s tip. In addition to the ideal natural protective barriers the city’s residents also built large brick wall and gates. Still, like most world fortifications, these measures proved inadequate when Chingis Khan to town and the city that had been in place since at least 1800 BC was never rebuilt after the mongol horde destroyed it. But the ruins of this brick and adobe town still remain and unlike the Gaoching ruins, there is still much to see here. Jiaohe was probably the highlight of our visit to the Turpan region, the multitude of partly eroded old adobe buildings very much appearing more as a vacated city than just oddly distributed masses of rock and mud. The temples and monasteries, stupas, government building, residences and streets were all intact and the wind whipped up a constant cloud of dust of the same color as the buildings, giving the entire place an eerie feel. It was easy to envision a living city here in these ruins.
Karez A karez is a method of channeling mountain meltwater trapped in alluvial fans to arid regions using a system of vertical wells and horizontal underground canals. This is an ancient system developed in Iran that later spread to and is still used in western China and Afghanistan. In Turpan the water is directed from the Tian Shan mountains into town through an underground tunnel system, all of which were hand dug and some of which stretch up to 25km underground. Water trapped in upper alluvial fans is transported via gravitational flow to Turpan and its surrounds which lie below sea level. There is an interesting mini museum just west of Turpan that describes the history, design and importance of the system to the area. While not extensive, we found this to be informative and it was nice to understand the origin of that water you see flowing through the towns.
Emin Minaret The Emin minaret is 44m tall, a spire made of only bricks of the local earth, but patterned quite beautifully with these bricks. While we had a look at the minaret, we did not pay to go in the gate – it seemed foolish to pay just to get a little closer to something you are not allowed to enter. Rather than take the bus to Emin Minaret, we opted for the 30 minute walk through the old town streets of Turpan’s mostly un-Hanified south. This walk through the town, looking at the old buildings and walking along side the karez-fed streetside canals, was probably more enjoyable than the glimpses of the minaret.
Turpan Museum The Turpan museum is treasure trove of regional artifacts from ancient times and is well worth a visit. There are displays on artifacts dating back to 3000-2000 BC, coins, mummified remains from a number of sites including the Astana Tombs and much information on places we had visited such as the Astana Tombs, Jioahe, the Bezelik Caves and Goachang. This museum is very informative and should definitely be on any Turpan itinerary.