Turpan is located in the middle of Xinjiang and close to Hami to the east, Bayingolin to the west and south, and Urumqi to the north. It is an olive-shaped intermountain basin in the east of the Tianshan Mountains, surrounded by mountains on all sides. The Aydingkol Lake in the south Turpan, 155 meters (509 feet) below sea level, is the second-lowest depression in the world.
Turpan has been the center of a fertile oasis in Xinjiang for centuries. It was not only an important commercial and cultural center on the Great Silk Road but also a strategic post on the ancient caravan route’s northern branch, with a large number of historical remains as well as unique landscapes. It was said to be nicknamed the Shining Pearl of the Silk Road. At that time, the places where the Silk Road passed were Gaochang City (located 46 km southeast of Turpan) and Jiaohe Town (10 km west of Turpan).
The city owes its prosperity to the ancient Karez, an irrigation system of the Uyghurs. Every year, the melted water from the slopes of the Tianshan Mountains, flowing down the Turpan valley, is stored through a system of underground irrigation canals with a total length of about 5 kilometers, preventing it from evaporation at high temperatures. It should be noted that the Turpan oasis irrigation system ranges among such feats of Chinese engineering art as the Great Wall of China and the Grand Canal.
Turpan has a dry continental climate. The annual average temperature is 14℃ (57.2℉). It is reckoned that there are 152 summer days on average, and 28 broiling days with a temperature above 40℃ (104℉), so it is also famous for being the hottest city in China. Therefore, Turpan is called “the Fire Land” by the locals, not only because it is the hottest city in China and one of the driest places in the world, with only 35 mm of rain on average per year. In summer, due to the high temperature during the day, so many excursions to the city’s landmarks and the surrounding area should begin at dawn.
Although the high temperature can be oppressive people can also get some benefits from it. The abundant sunshine gives the fruits ideal conditions to grow: figs, pomegranates, as well as peaches, and melons. The fruit here is widely known for its high sugar content, especially the grapes, and the Grape Valley is a good place to enjoy the grapes of hundreds of varieties. Not without reason, Turpan is called the “Grape Capital” of China.
Apart from that, the locals are quite fond of sand therapy which has a history of hundreds of years. People lie or sit under sheds, burying their bodies in hot sand about 50℃ (122℉) to 60℃ (140℉). It is said to be a good way to treat rheumatism and skin ailments. There is a Sand Therapy Center in the northwest of the city which is popular among visitors.
The locals are friendly and hospitable. Despite its climate, Turpan is one of the most densely populated cities in Xinjiang. It is home to about 250,000 people. The major part of the population (70%) is the Uyghurs, followed by the Hans (22%) and the Huis (7%). Many of the families are involved in wine production or activity associated with the grape business. The city’s daily life differs much from that of the other cities in Xinjiang. Because of the heat, the city has some kind of siesta in the afternoon, and towards the evening it has the active life started.
Since Turpan is mainly a Muslim city, there are a lot of mosques, both medieval and modern ones. It is prohibited to come in shorts to the mosques, and women should cover their heads.
Turpan is an important city along the ancient Silk Road and the transportation here is very convenient. Today, it is considered one of the hubs between Xinjiang and eastern China. Turpan Jiaohe Airport has flights to more than a dozen domestic cities such as Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Xi’an, Changsha, and Urumqi. In addition, Turpan also has its railway station, Turpan North Railway Station, and the high-speed railway from Lanzhou to Urumqi will stop in Turpan. Turpan Airport is only 500 meters away from Turpan North Station, and there is a shuttle bus for quick transfer. Also, taxis and intercity buses serve the people. Except for these usual vehicles, there is a special ‘donkey taxi’ here. It is a kind of flatbed drawn by a donkey. Visitors can sit and ride on the vehicle to get a broad overview from a leisurely look around the city.
When traveling to Turpan, the following sites are must-sees:
5 must-see sites in Turpan and its surroundings
1. Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves
Chinese Name: 柏孜克里克千佛洞
Location: In the Flaming Mountains, 40 km northeast of Turpan town.
Opening hours: 08h00-20h30
Ticket: 40 RMB/person
Recommended length of visit: 2-3 hours
Situated in the middle of the Flaming Mountains, on the cliffs of the west bank of the Mugou Valley, the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves have the most caves and the richest frescoes of any of the surviving caves in Turpan.
The caves were first excavated in the latter part of the Northern and Southern Dynasties and lasted for seven centuries in the Tang, Song, and Yuan Dynasties. Historically, the grotto murals have been repeatedly vandalized. Today, the remaining murals and sculptures are still gorgeous. The exquisite frescoes, ancient documents, and other unearthed cultural relics here have witnessed the once glory of Turpan as the center of Buddhism on the Silk Road.
There are 83 caves, of which 57 remain, of which more than 40 have frescoes, and only seven are open for viewing.
2. Jiaohe Ancient Town
Chinese Name: 交河故城
Location: 11 km west of Turpan town
Opening hours: 09h00-21h00
Ticket: 70 RMB/person
Recommended length of visit: 2-3 hrs
The former city of Jiaohe is located 13 kilometers west of Turpan City, named after the two rivers that surround the city, which meet to the south of the city.
Classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the city has survived 2300 years of weathering and is one of the best-preserved cities in the world of earth construction.
Benefits from the drought and rainless climate of Turpan, the main structure of the Jiaohe city architectural layout have been miraculously preserved. The total area of the ancient city is 470,000 square meters, and the existing architectural relics are 360,000 square meters, and it was divided into temples, dwellings, official offices, and other parts, with buildings made entirely of rammed earth and a layout similar to that of Chang’an in the Tang Dynasty.
3. Tombs of Astana
Chinese Name: 阿斯塔那古墓群
Location: 35 km southeast of Turpan town
Ticket: 40 RMB/person
Recommended length of visit: 30 minutes – 1 hour
Located about 40 kilometers southeast of Turpan City, Astana Ancient Tombs are the public cemeteries of officials and people in ancient Gaochang city and countryside, which were formed in the 3rd to 8th centuries AD. It mainly buried Han people, and also buried some local ethnic minorities, such as Turks, Xiongnu, Gaoche, Zhaowu, etc.
Originally, the Chinese began to settle in the Turpan Basin as part of the development of early trade with the West along the Silk Road in the early 1st century BC in the Han dynasty. Around the 5th century, they already formed a large community in Gaochang. At the same time, Gaochang was also an important military outpost and controlled the Silk Road.
There are 3 tombs open to the public but photos are prohibited. The corpses in the ancient tombs were naturally air-dried and did not rot. What is shocking is the completeness of these mummified corpses, and some even have eyelashes visible! In addition, the paintings and clay figurines unearthed in the ancient tombs are like new ones, and there are even intact ancient foods.
4. Emin Minaret in Turpan
Chinese Name: 苏公塔
Location: Located in the Turpan town
08h00 – 21h00 (21/04 – 20/10)
10h00 – 18h30 (21/10 – 20/04)
Ticket: 40 RMB/person
Recommended length of visit: 2 hours
With a height of 44 m, this minaret is the tallest in China. It was founded by the famous Qing Dynasty general Emin Khoja to honor his exploits and express devotion to Allah in 1778, hence the name “Emin”.
The conical shape of the tower, which is evenly contracted from the bottom to the top, is within easy reach. The surface of the tower is layered with 15 geometric patterns, including triangles, quatrefoils, water waves, and rhombuses, in an endless cycle of variations and a strong Islamic architectural style and takes travelers right into the heart of the Middle East.
At the very top of the minaret, a spiral staircase connects a small platform. From the platform, you can enjoy a breathtaking view of the city and its surroundings on one side, a beautiful oasis of greenery and on the other, an endless desert as well as the ruins of an ancient city.
5. Karez Wells
Chinese Name: 坎儿井
Location: Located in the Turpan town
Opening hours: 08h00 – 17h00
Ticket: 40 RMB/person
Recommended length of visit: 3 hours
The Karez Wells is a series of wells connected by a gently sloping underground channel originating at the foot of the Tianshan and Flaming Mountains. A large amount of rainwater and the melted snow water from mountains are the source of power for the Karez wells. Water is collected by vertical wells and led through underground channels to the oasis of Turpan where the water is managed for irrigation and daily use. The vertical wells near the water source plunge 100 meters deep, while downstream they do not exceed 10 meters. Karez reduces the evaporation on the ground and does little harm to the surface, thus protecting natural resources and the ecological environment effectively. The system embodies the Chinese wisdom that people and nature co-exist in harmony, and is well recognized as a major contribution to human civilization.
This underground irrigation canal system includes a total of 1,600 kilometers of tunnels in the Turpan district. It allows the population of Turpan to benefit from a stable water supply throughout the year.
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