Go west young man. (September 2014)


In Turpan there are two time zones. Beijing time, for the tourists, trains and hotels. Then there’s local time, which is two hours behind Beijing time, and for everyone else. And because of the heat, there is also siesta time.

Turpan is in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous region and covers an area of 1.66 million square kilometers.  It’s also the second lowest spot on earth, next to the Dead Sea. There is a big Muslim influence and many of the road signs and shop fronts are in both Chinese and Sanskrit.

Being an oasis town it was also a major stopping point along the Northern Silk Road.

We arrived at the Turpan rail station at 6:30am where we were met by our guide Xaia, pronounced Shi, and were then driven 40km to Turpan city and our hotel. After a shower and a rest, we started the day’s activities.

First was Flaming Mountain, which gets its name from the red colour of the stone.

This is a very apt name, especially under the searing heat of the summer sun, when temperatures an reach into the high forties.

Next was the Bezeklik or Thousand Buddha Caves. These are the poor cousin of the Mogao Caves we had just visited at Jiayuguan. The caves had been both pillaged and desecrated by Europeans and the locals Muslims.

The German Albert Von Le Coq (1860-1930) repatriated many of the sculptures and painting to Berlin. He carved and hacked away over 360 kilograms of artifacts, wall-carvings, and precious icons. A lot of these artifacts were subsequently destroyed during WW2.

Next was a visit to Grape Valley, just 10 kilometers east of Turpan. It’s an 8km by 2km stretch of fertile land sandwiched between the Bogda Mountain on the north and Kurultag Mountain on the south.

Grapes and mulberries have been growing here for more than 2000 years. There is reportedly over a hundred varieties of grapes grown in this area. However only 10% is used for wine, the rest is eaten fresh or dried.

The vines grow almost horizontally on the trellises and ripen in the shade, rather than in the scorching  sun.

Drying houses cover the hillsides as dried grapes get a much higher price than fresh. A farmer may only get 5 Yuen for 1kg of fresh grapes, however 1kg of quality dried fruit could fetch him up to 100 Yuen.

The temperature was hotting up and Xaia suggested we had a break and resume our site seeing at 5pm, when the weather was cooler.

When I read in our itinerary that we were going to see an irrigation facility I thought that it would be some high-tech engineering extravaganza.

This was far from the truth.

The Karez or wells is an ancient irrigation scheme, started during the Han Dynasty (206BC – 220AD)

There are over 1,100 Karez covering 5500 km in the Turpan Drepressio, the longest is 50km while the shortest is 5km.

A Karez is created by digging wells down to the water table, near a village. This might initially be 2m deep, then more wells are dug at 10m intervals, always down to the water. Then the vertical shafts are joined by a horizontal tunnel at the water table. This tunnel is usually only 1.2m high.

This process continues until the water source is located.

All the work was done by hand and many lives were lost due to tunnel collapses or drowning, when the water level suddenly surged.

The last Karez was dug in 1973, after that the water ran out.

There is oil in the Turpan region and much of the ground water has been contaminated due to constant drilling and subsequent oil seepage.

The water is used for drinking and irrigation, with many of the vineyards being supplied by water from the Karez.

In the middle of October they bury all the vines in clay. This is to prevent them dying off in the winter, when the temperature drops down to minus 15 degrees over night.

Turpan is an area of extremes.

The Ancient City of Jaime, 10 kilometers west of Turpan, was a Buddhist city of 7,000 inhabitants. It was built over 2,400 years ago, then destroyed by the Muslims in the fourteenth century.

Built on an elevated island, with a river on either side, it was a natural fortification, measuring 1,700m by 300m.

As with many ancient fort cities the farmers would leave the city, to work the fields during the day, then return to safety of the fort at night.

Because of the intense heat in Turpan there was only one storey built above ground and two below.

There are temples, lookout towers, administration buildings, houses for the common people and a palace for the king.

It took over three hours to drive to Urumqi, then on to The Grand Canyon of Nanshan, our first stop on day two.

This is obviously a popular spot for wedding snaps as there were at least a dozen bridal groups being photographed.

There was a couple that seemed to be without a photographer and I was asked to take their photo.

The Grand Canyon of Nanshan is in fact a reservoir created by damming a mountain river. There were stunning mountain views from some angles, that’s if you avoided the walkways and obligatory tourist glitz.

This is a racially mixed area with a large population of Uyghur, a Muslim minority in China.

There have been some tensions between the Uyghur and the Chinese authorities recently and we were stopped on four occasions at police checkpoints.

We then drove back to Urumqi and spent an hour in the Grand Bazaar.

The Bazaar is not that grand, despite the fact it’s the largest bazaar in the world. It’s more like a huge department store with individual store holders selling a range of tourist style souvenirs. The place was rather quiet, so I guess the locals agree.

Urumqi, like Turpan is part of China’s western development plan.

In order to relieve the overcrowding in Eastern and Southern China the government is trying to entice people to move west. There are acres and acres of new apartment blocks being built in expectation of the exodus from the east. Road and rail links are also being built with a new Bullet train from Xi’an to Urumqi, due to be completed next year.

A year too late for my liking as the Bullet trains are a far better option than the overnight rattlers we had been on recently.

We had an evening off and decided to walk around the city. On our wanders we discovered a rather bohemian cafe that served cold beer and good pizza. We were a bit over rice, noodles and strange cuts of meat by this stage. There was a rather unusual sign, hanging out the front, that seemed to be making light of the authoritarian rule.

I hope that the officials are more open minded in the west.

Urumqi was our last stop in China and the weather had really warmed up. Despite that we were told to bring warm clothes for our trip to Heavenly Lake.

Many tourist attractions in China are run by private companies and you are compelled to use their transport and facilities.

Heavenly Lake was no exception.

The private companies have a monopoly and you pay every step of the way. We paid to park the car then paid to see the lake. The entry fee was 100 Yuen, 90 Yuen of that goes towards the 56km, round trip on the shuttle bus.

Private vehicles are prohibited for day trippers.

Politics aside, it’s a beautiful natural lake surrounded by soaring, snow capped, mountain peaks.

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