Touring Xinjiang’s Historical Sites Around Turpan, China

Thousand Buddha Caves (©Coen Wubbels)

I traveled for thirty hours by bus traversing one of the world’s largest deserts – the Taklamakan Desert – and got off in the middle of nowhere in a town called Turpan. I was intrigued by the region for two reasons:

  1. The extremes of landscape: a vastness of dry, empty, yellow-to-red-hued plains and mountains void of vegetation with the lowest point being the Turpan basin at 505 feet below sea level, which receives practically no rain. Yet there are extensive, fertile farmlands and even a grape valley.
  2. Once upon a time the Silk Route crossed the region, which therefore has a rich history. Ruins of ancient cities and religious centers stand testimony to those halcyon days and there is one particular feat of engineering I want to see: underwater canals.

The region has numerous sites and tour operators in Turpan offer day-long bus tours to all of them. Each agency has its own itineraries, and  sites can be added or skipped depending on the travelers. I signed up with a group of six. Together we agreed on which stops to cut (none of us wanted to be running around all day), after which five stops remained. It’s easy to get an overkill on history and/or culture on these types of tours, so I selected the three that appealed to me most. During the other two stops I simply stayed behind in the bus, took a rest and read up a bit on our next stop, which worked perfectly.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • Traveling in remote regions attracts you.
  • You love the desert, or grapes.
  • You want to visit once-important stops along the Silk Route.
  • Good for anybody who loves visiting historical sites.

The Astana-Karakhoja Tombs

Murals with copied designs of ancient cloths (©Coen Wubbels)

The tombs are not far from the ruins of Gaochang, which from the 4th to 13th century was an important stop on the Silk Road’s northern route. 456 tombs have been excavated (intriguingly, the kings’ tombs remain undiscovered), of which 3 are open to the public.

To see them I walked down six-meter-long slopes to the chamber, which contains two mummies and murals depicting humans and landscapes. The arid climate plus the high percentage of salt in the soil have preserved the mummies extremely well. They were accompanied by jewelry, musical instruments, pens and ink, coins and lots of other attributes the dead might need in another world.

All these artefacts, however, have been taken to a museum in Turpan where they can be preserved better. Some of these works of art include embroidered cloths whose designs, copied in a mural, you can admire outside the tombs, which I thought was a neat idea.

The Bezeklik, or Bizaklik, Thousand Buddha Caves

The site dates from the 4th century and for some 700 years this was the Buddhist center of the Western Regions (currently Xinjiang and parts of Central Asia). The most attractive part of this site is the location: a collection of mud-brick retreats constructed on the cliffs of the Mutou Valley.

Partly destroyed mural (©Coen Wubbels)

57 caves are open to the public today. I looked around in wonder. How many monks must have lived here to decorate so many caves with frescoes depicting 1000 Buddhas (hence the name of the site), or scenes of royal families and of daily life?

Unfortunately, throughout the ages the caves have been plundered and destroyed (some frescoes can still be seen in a London museum) but still, what is left was enough to let my imagination go back to the history and cultural wealth of those days.

The Karez Irrigation System

Replica of tools to dig the karezes (©Coen Wubbels)

Some 2,000 years ago the Xinjiang people constructed canals to irrigate their lands. In order to prevent the irrigation canals from drying up under the ruthless sun, they constructed them underground. The waterways start in the Tianshan Mountain and flow downhill to villages and cities with a minimal gradient so no pumps are needed and gravity brings the water where it is needed. There are some 3,000 miles of canals (locally called karezes) in this province alone and some are as long as 13 miles.

It is an impressive feat of engineering. In a museum I studied the drawings of how the work was accomplished, admired the ancient tools and instruments. I walked down one of these two-meter-high karezes and felt for myself how incredibly little space these workers had to dig these karezes. The workers were not only highly skilled but as a result had a high status and were paid well.

Small part of a karez system underground (©Coen Wubbels)

The karez irrigation system explains how it was, and is, possible to have fertile farmlands in such a dry and hot basin. Having access to water brought lots of prosperity, which was visible in the sites I had seen today.

Even today some 850 canals are still in use, irrigating, among other places, the grape valley and honey melon plantations for which the region is famous. It was time for a lunch stop in that grape valley and to taste the locally produced dishes.

Practical Information

  • Turpan lies in northwest China, in the province called Xinjiang. It has no airport but you can take a plane to Urumqi and from there the train or a long-distance bus to Turpan, which will take some 2-3 hours.
  • In Turpan are various tour agencies to book a tour to the historical and cultural sites in the area.
  • Other stops than the above-mentioned ones during a sightseeing tour around Turpan may include the ruins of the ancient city of Gaochang, visiting a vineyard in the Grape Valley (ask to visit the old one, not the new one), stopping at China’s hottest place of the Flaming Mountains, and visiting the ruins of the ancient city of Jiaohe.

All photos by Coen Wubbels.

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