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Review: Turpan

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Turpan, China

Forget the town, visit the sites....

  • By SilverTraveller ESW

    2493 reviews

    Ribbon Ribbon Ribbon Ribbon Ribbon

  • May 2008
  • Husband

45 people found this review helpful

Turpan is located in the second lowest depression in the world, 500’ below sea level. It is very hot. When we were there daytime temperatures were over 40°C. It is also a very dry area. Despite this it is in a fertile oasis and grapes flourish. Many farms have mud buildings with holes in the walls, which are used for drying the grapes and turning them into raisins.

A network of underground channels (KAREZ) bring melt water from the Tienshan mountain. Some of the tunnels are 2000 years old. Much of the network is still operational with 1,100 wells and about 3,000 miles of channels in use for domestic and irrigation purposes.

The irrigation system is made up of vertical wells, underground canals, above ground canals and small reservoirs. Melting snow in the Tianshan mountains flows by gravity along a series underground canals, about 2m high. Vertical wells provide ventilation, and access for digging and maintenance of the karez. The line of the karez can be traced above ground by the piles of earth from digging the wells. The narrower surface canals are planted with trees on both sides to prevent evaporation.

A visit to the karez in Turpan is a popular (and different) tourist attraction.

The pedestrianised streets are lined with trellis with vines growing up them which provide much welcome shade. Anyone caught picking the grapes is fined.

The main tourist attraction is the EMIN MINARET with its massive, highly decorated yellow brick minaret. When it was built in 1778 it was the only Islamic tower in China. It is made from sun dried bricks arranged to form striking patters up the tower. Adjacent to it is Su Gong Ta Mosque with a central prayer hall holding 1000 worshipers. Outside is a small muslim graveyard.

Most people visit Turpan for the ancient sites in the desert. There are the remains of two old cities near Turpan which are popular tourist attractions.

JIAOHE is probably the largest, oldest and best-preserved earth-built city in the world. Dating from about 100BC it was the capital of the Cheshi kingdom and seat of various provincial governments. It is built on a defensive site between two rivers. It was abandoned after destructive Mongol invasions in the C14th.

At its height it had a population of over 6,000 and was an important Buddhist centre with many temples as well as a military and administrative centre. The desert climate means many of its structures have survived. There is a way marked route through the ruins to protect them from erosion by too many feet. You enter through the gateway and up the main street lined with the remains of houses to the main temple.

GAOCHANG was founded 2000 years ago as a military fortress and garrison town along Silk Road with high walls and deep moats. It covers a larger area than Jiaohe but the remains are in less good condition as the old walls have been used as fertiliser on land. It housed 30,000 inhabitants; 3,000 monks and had over 40 Buddhist monasteries. It was burnt down during wars in 14thC and abandoned. Donkey carts provide tours around the site – welcome in the heat of the sun.

ASTANA-KARAHOJA TOMBS were the public cemetery for the residents of Gaochang. Most look like humps of gravel. Of the 500 tombs only three are open. The tombs were entered down a slope into the tomb chamber. The dead were wrapped in cotton or silk clothes and placed on a simple wooden bed at the back of the chamber surrounded by personal belongings and food. The backs of the chambers were decorated with paintings of figures, birds, animals, flowers and landscapes. One of the tombs has two mummified bodies of local dignitaries Photography is not allowed in the tombs.

The drive to BEZEKLIK CAVES along the Flaming Mountains was good. The caves dating from 5th-9thC are built into the side of a cliff along the Mutou valley. Many statues and frescoes were destroyed during religious clashes with Islam, robbed of their treasures at the start of the 20thC and further damaged during the Cultural Revolution. It was a splendid setting but we were disappointed by the caves, especially after those seen earlier during the trip.

We also had a trip to TUYAQ VALLEY. This is not yet on the standard tourist tour. The traditional rural village is in a lush green oasis in a deep valley running through the Flaming Mountains. There is a lovely walk along the side of the valley to the 3rdC Thousand Buddha Caves, which are reached by wooden steps up the hillside. The caves were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution so there is little left of them. But they were worth visiting for the walk and the views.

We were booked into the Oasis Hotel in Turpan.

This was the only bad place we stopped in during our four weeks in China. It looked pleasant from the outside but was sad and run down inside when we stayed in 2008. We understand the management has said it will be refurbished. The ground floor appeared better than the upper floors. We were on the second floor and the room was in desperate need of a deep clean and redecoration. The bathroom needed replacing and the towels were thin, stained and didn’t dry you. We use better towels on the dog at home. Bed linen was clean but unironed. English at reception was limited (and not up to requests for decent towels). It may be that things will change if the refurbishment takes place but be very certain before going here.

Our pictures of Turpan are here.

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