It’s hot in Turpan. Temperatures reach over 120 degrees in summer and the area is often referred to as China’s Death Valley. This stop on the ancient Silk Road is located in the inhospitable deserts of the Tarim Basin in China’s Xinjiang Province, about 90 miles from the provincial capital Urumqi (our first stop).
Turpan is a depression—the world’s second largest—that is actually located about 500 feet below sea level. The discovery of fertile soil and ground water here popularized the city as an oasis and its been site of human habitation for well over 2,000 years. Chinese scientists believe that there could be an enormous ocean beneath the sand here that is 10 times the water in all five Great Lakes in North America.
Primarily know today to Americans and Europeans (if at all) as a stop on the Silk Road, if you dig one layer deeper (pun intended), you learn that it is known locally primarily for the ingenious underground irrigation tunnels dug there in antiquity and maintained for centuries. It’s also famous regionally for grapes, turned into raisins, grown there as a result.
Based on that description, visiting tourists may be surprised by the number of fascinating things to do in Turpan and in the region around it.
The Karez System is the name for the 3,000 miles of underground irrigation tunnels and related wells that bring water to the surface, dug originally over 2,000 years ago. They’ve been maintained ever since, bringing snow melt water to Turpan, using only gravity (via carefully calculated inclination of the tunnels), from the nearby Tianshan mountains.
Some tunnels are only 30 feet below the surface, others more than 300 feet below. Because Turpan is the hottest place in China, digging these tunnels underground was essential to avoid evaporation, while also keeping the water free from unsanitary pollution. But the human labor involved in digging and maintain them, using only rudimentary tools, was staggering.
I visited the Turpan Karez Paradise museum, which used life-sized models to visualize how the wells were originally dug, maintained, and used by famers for irrigation, and by other residents for drinking water. The museum also contained a room displaying ancient digging tools, lamps and other essential ancient tools used in their construction.
I was surprised by how excellent, extensive and modern the Turpan Museum is, perhaps because I was only vaguely aware of Turpan myself before visiting there. Housed in an impressive three-story building constructed in the 2000s, the museum has, as far as I could tell, three foci.
The first is an extensive exhibit hall telling the history of the Turpan area, from the very earliest, geologic, pre-human history up through modern times. A second, a favorite of children, was a large hall showing the various dinosaurs that had once lived there. This hall included very impressive life size replicas of dinosaurs, as well as re-assembled skeletons of fossils actually found in the region. The third area, which I did not personally visit, is apparently dedicated to ancient coins and manuscripts.
Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves
Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves is a complex of Buddhist cave grottos dating from the 5th to 14th century in a river gorge in the Flaming Mountains outside Turpan was the single site with which I was most familiar before coming to Xinjiang and the one I had been most excited to see.
I thought of this an internationally famous tourist site of historic importance. I had read about how the first modern, European scientific explorers/treasure hunters had (in-)famously looted it of some important manuscripts.
I had expected the beautiful Buddhist murals painted on the insides walls and ceilings of dozens of grottoes dug into the cliffside would still be intact, as I had seen photographs of them in a 1945 issue of National Geographic magazine taken by an American at the end of World War II. As I understood it, these individual, decorated grottoes had been commissioned originally by merchants trading on the Silk Road, who thought commissioning such cave decorations by the resident Buddhist monks there would bring them good luck on their travels along the treacherous Silk Road. (This was the point where the merchants would leave the comparably civilized Chinese portion of the Silk Road and enter the more wild and dangerous Central Asian and European sections.)
Because I thought that back story was so compelling, and those 70-year-old magazine photos so captivating, I was really struck by our local guide’s ambivalence about it. He seemed in no hurry to get there, and not particularly enthusiastic about it. When we arrived, I understood why. The portion of the site open to visitors was limited. It had been extensively renovated, and what was original had been badly damaged (most recently, apparently, by Maoist fanatics during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, I was told). It was a big letdown, especially after the extended drive required to get there and back.
The Flaming Mountains are barren, red sandstone hills in the Tianshan mountains that, as you drive through them on the modern highway, are photogenic in their vibrant reds, especially at dusk. By reputation, it is the hottest place in China, if that’s a draw for you as a tourist.
The highway that runs through them is dotted with scenic pull-off areas where you can stop and take in the views and/or take photographs. The downside of these areas is that, this being China, they are inevitably littered with Chinese cigarette wrappers, Chinese beer cans, and Chinese water bottles.
Ancient City of Jiaohe
In striking contrast to the let-down of the Thousand Buddha Caves, the Ancient City of Jiaohe, which I’d never heard of before I visited, was staggeringly impressive and an out-of-the-blue surprise located just 10 miles from Turpan.
For defensive purposes, the city was originally built 2,000 years ago on an extensive, plateau-like, leaf-shaped island located in the middle of a river (now long since, a dry, gorge-like riverbed).
It became an important stop on the Silk Road. It was abandoned after a ruinous invasion by Genghis Khan and the Mongols in the 13th century. What remains today are surprisingly extensive, preserved ruins of extensive building complexes. In 2014, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
When you enter the area today, after paying admission there is an introductory museum with an excellent scale model recreation of the original island city. If and when you go, be sure to bring plenty of water. To really explore fully these extensive ruins on this large plateau requires a good long time, walking around them under a hot sun where there is little or no shade, and no vendors selling water or anything else.
If you’ve been, what is your favorite thing to do in Turpan?