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Turpan Travel Guide

Turpan, the oasis town, is a living testament to human ingenuity and perseverance. Watered by a system of irrigation tunnels known as Karez that draw melt-water from the Himalayas into the blistering Turpan Basin, which, at 154 meters (505 feet) below sea level, is the second lowest point on earth after the Dead Sea. Outside of town, old Silk Road ghosts roam the desert among the Ruins of Jiaohe and the Baizeklik Thousand Buddha Caves. Natural splendor abounds as well, from the austere beauty of the desert to the stunning vista of the Flaming Mountains. Local majority Uighur culture is also on display, both in authentic forms on the streets and in the vineyards as well as in a more contrived fashion inside local restaurants and hotels, where Uighur-themed "exotic" song and dance shows are staged for the pleasure of tourists. For a sense of the dignified historical depth and breadth of local Muslim Uighur tradition, visit the Emin Minaret and Mosque.

Major Attractions

Grape Valley

Picture of Grape Valley

Located close to Flaming Mountains. The area around Turpan is known for its wealth of fruit orchards and vineyards and in the late summer, the grapes are ripe and this is a wonderful time to visit the valley. The Valley itself consists of a trail of thick vines and trellises surrounded by stark desert.

There is a winery here and some well ventilated brick buildings for hanging grapes. Two types of wine are produced in the area: a rich dark red port-like drink, and a lighter more fruity white wine. Both wine and raisins are exported in large quantities from Turpan.

There is a grape festival here in August with singing, dancing and eating! Backed by the mountains and lying alongside the river, Grape Valley is a pretty little spot to stop for a rest and something to eat and drink. Inside the complex, there are dining halls serving Uigur food and ethnic handicrafts.

Flaming Mountains

Picture of Flaming Mountains

Named because in the evenings the red clay mountains reflect the heat and glow of the desert and seem to burn. Situated on the northern edge of the Turpan basin, and stretching over 100km long and 10km wide, this is an intensely hot part of the desert without a single blade of grass to be seen for miles.

In the severe heat of July, the mountains seem to be on fire in the burning sun and become a purplish-brown colour. Hot steam rises upwards from the burning cliffs and it is no surprise that this is where the hottest temperatures in China ever, were recorded!

Make sure you go prepared for this spectacular spot with ample drinking water, a good sun block and a hat to stop your head from frizzling!

Emin Pagoda

Picture of Emin Pagoda

Just 2km east of Turpan, is both a mosque and minaret tower that was built in 1778 by the local Muslim ruler, Emin Hoja. Also known as Sugong Tower (Sugong Ta) after Emin's Chinese name, the minaret was built in a simple Islamic style. It is circular, 44 meters in height, and 10 meters in diameter at the base. You can view the surroundings from the roof of the mosque. As for the mosque, although it is rather bare inside, services are held every Friday and on holidays.

Jiaohe Ruins

Picture of Jiaohe Ruins

The ancient ruined city of Jiaohe (Jiaohe Gu Cheng) lies 10km to the west of Turpan, situated on an island in the middle of river waters flowing through the Yarnaz Valley-the name itself means "at the confluence of two rivers."

Abandoned in the thirteenth century after Genghis Khan's Mongol hordes laid it waste, the ruins of this once-prosperous Silk Road city make for a fascinating day trip out of Turpan. The island rises some thirty meters above the surrounding desert and, along with the river waters, provided a natural defensive barrier against attacks; hence the city, unlike so many of its time, was built without a protective wall. Founded some 2,000 years ago, the site retains clearly distinguishable temples, pagodas and other buildings, including a Buddhist monastery at the center of the city.

Like many Silk Road cities, Jiaohe experienced degrees of independence and subjugation, having been at various times the capital of the Cheshi Kingdom, an outpost of Tang Dynasty China (starting in 450 AD), a prefecture of the Uighur Empire of the 8th and 9th centuries, and a dominion of the Kyrgyz.

Today, it's an amazing place to explore and contemplate the vast span of history that has seen many a city rise to heights of glory only to fall back into the desert sands.

Gaochang Ruins

Picture of Gaochang Ruins

The ancient city of Gaochang is a sublimely impressive sight, likely to spur thoughts of the grand sweep of history and the insignificance of one little tourist standing in the middle of the vast desert, snapping digital photos of crumbling ruins that date back to the 1st century BC. Unless, of course, you visit at the same time as a huge Chinese tour group, in which case sublimity is likely a lost cause.

Even then, Gaochang is worth a whirl, whether you walk or drop on a donkey cart from the entrance gate. At the center of the city, you'll find the remains of the old Buddhist monastery, covered in niches that each used to house a Buddha. Less well-preserved than Silk Road sister city Jiaohe, it's still a humbling and pleasant experience to wander the ruins beneath the clear desert sky, contemplating the transitory nature of being, the rise and fall of civilizations, and the nature of the tourism industry in the 21st century.To add an extra dash of memento mori to the experience, head to the adjacent Asanta Graves, final resting place of the Tang Dynasty rulers of Gaochang.

Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves (Bozikeli Qian Fo Dong)

Picture of Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves

On the northwestern side of the Flaming Mountains facing a river valley about 15 kilometers north of the ruins of the ancient city of Gaochang and 45 kilometers east of modern Turpan. These caves are one of the largest Buddhist grotto complexes in Xinjiang, with 77 shiku (caves carved to house Buddhist images) containing frescoes and statuary ranging from the naive to the masterly.

Unfortunately, the site has suffered waves of despoilment, whether from vandals and thieves, Muslims seeking to eliminate traces of Buddhism after Islam swept across Central Asia, overzealous Red Guards, or avaricious European explorer-archaeologists. The most notorious of the latter, Albert von Le Coq, removed a number of frescos from the walls of Bezeklik and sent them off to Berlin, where those that weren't destroyed by World War II bombs can be seen in museums.

In addition to the caves, you can take camel rides into the Flaming Mountains and desert, visit a strange Journey to the West-themed park (complete with large statues of characters from the classic Chinese tale of the Monkey King and his adventures) and, of course, take in the often breathtaking desert landscape.

How to Get in?

By Train

Turpan, which is less than 200 km from Urumqi, is the last stop along the Lanzhou-Urumqi rail line. It takes between 4 and 5 hours to reach Urumqi. Although booking train tickets in Turpan is fairly easy, considering the location of the railway station (about 60 km north of the city) rail is not the most convenient means of transport to or from Turpan.

By Road

Bus is a better alternative to train for traveling around the neighboring cities and towns, including Urumqi (daily), Hami (daily), Korla (daily), Aksu (twice a week), and Kashgar (three times a week). Since the new highway has been completed and put into use, the time to drive between Turpan and Urumqi has been substantially shortened to around two hours.

Every 30 minutes, there is a minibus to Daheyan, where the railway station for Turpan is located. The local bus station is near the bazaar.Travelers are advised to either ask a travel agent to arrange tickets or to get to the station early to buy in person.

Best Time to Come

The grape harvest season, namely July, August and September, is the best time for tourists to visit. Due to unique geographical conditions, the city enjoys long hours of sunshine and scarce rain.

The average temperature between June and August is 30 degrees C. In a year, there may be a 5-month period of sustained heat above 35 degrees C. The temperature of the ground surface can reach 75 or even 82.3 degrees.

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