Turpan Travel Guide, Xinjiang
Turpan sits at the very center of Xinjiang, a desert bastion at the foot of the Tianshan Range. The area is commonly known as the "Turpan Depression", 328ft. below sea level, the lowest and the hottest place in all of China.
Thanks largely to the people here, this relatively small and economically unimportant place has blossomed in recent years, attracting numerous tourists and travelers, who come to experience the laid-back pace of life and to witness the desert.
The city itself, despite the intense heat, has been made livable by the construction of vines and trellises, providing avenues of shade from the sun. The heat means that no one is in a real hurry to get anywhere and it is pleasant just to sit in the shade with a cool drink and watching.
Turpan is most famous for its splendid grapes. Every household has a ventilated barn on the roof, and some of the world's finest grapes are produced here. 70% of the population here is Uigur, whihc makes it a Muslim oasis, with not much inside but a lot outside to explore.
Baizeklik Thousand Buddha Caves / Flaming Mountains / Karez Systems...
When to go?
July to October
Getting there and away
Less than 200km(4~5 hrs) from Urumqi, Turpan is the last stop along the Lanzhou-Urumqi line. Although booking train tickets in Turpan is fairly easy, considering the location of the railway station (in Daheyan, 40km & 1.5hrs north of the city), train is not the most convenient means of transport to/from Turpan.
Minibuses run between the train station and down town for around Y5, frequent as every 30 minutes.
A taxi ride is around Y80 to the train station from down town.
This is a better alternative for traveling around the neighboring cities and towns, including Urumqi / Hami / Korla (daily), Aksu (twice/week) and Kashgar (three times/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.
The local bus station is near the bazaar. Travelers are advised to either ask a travel agent to arrange tickets or go to the station in person to buy tickets in advance.
To travel around Turpan and the surrounding countryside, bus, bicycle and even donkey carts are options. Bikes can be hired from John's Cafe for Y5/hr or Y25 for a whole day. The Turpan Hotel also rent out bikes in summer.
6-seat minibuses can be hired for around Y300/day to cover the sights in the vicinity.
- Turpan Binguan - in south of the old city on Qingnian Nanlu,Y30~35/dorm, Y280/std. dbl., the only one in Turpan with a swimming pool(Y20), bike available to rent. John's Cafe is just opposite.
- Jiaotong Hotel - the cheapest hotel with a convenient location next to the long distance bus station, near the liveliest spot of the town, Y40~80 in Dbl with bath, Y15~25/dorm
- Oasis Hotel - on Qingnian Beilu, a luxury hotel with an old wings, Y25~30/dorm
For food, the best selection of places is around the crossroads of Qiunian Lu and Lao Cheng Lu. The Chipu Cafe is currently the pick of the crop round here, serving good Sichuan and Uigur food. Opposite the Turpan Hotel is John's Information Cafe. This place serves good western food and offers invaluable advice about travel in the region. You can also hire bikes and organize drivers and donkey carts there.
Basic Uigur staples such as noodles and kebabs and Uigur Rice, are available from the small stalls and restaurants around Lao Cheng Lu. If it is more upmarket Chinese food you are looking for, try one of the restaurants in the Oasis Hotel.
For local dining experience, head North of the Bus Station, near the Theatre on Gaochang Lu : big kebab (2Y a stick), lamb jiaozi (0.2Y a piece), noodle soup (3Y), hotpot or even popcorn... everything you need for a cheap, tasty and colorful diner.
- Bizaklik Thousand Buddha Caves/柏孜克里克千佛洞
The Caves stand high on the cliffs of west Mutou Valley under the Flaming Mountain, 45km east of Turpan and 15km north of the Gaochang Ruins. Of the 83 original caves, 57 caves currently remain. The murals cover an area over 1, 200sqkm in more than 40 caves.
As Buddhism was the first religion from abroad introduced to this area, Xinjiang witnessed the earliest development of Buddhist cave art in China. Soon after the religion's establishment in the region, Turpan became the Buddhist center on the Silk Road owing to its geographic location. Among the Buddhist caves found in Turpan, Bizalkik Thousand Buddha Caves are considered most valuable.
The heyday of the caves was during the end of the Gaochang state in the 13th century before the kingdom was moved to Gansu province, after which, Buddhism in Turpan began to decline in popularity with the introduction of Islam. Subsequently, the religious importance of The Bizalkik Thousand Buddha Caves became less apparent. Most of the statues and frescos here have either been destroyed by Muslims or by foreign adventurer-explorers. The caves of today are only a glimmer of their previous glory. Nevertheless the surrounding scenery is quite nice.
Admission fee: Y20
- Flaming Mountains / 火焰山
The mountain became very popular thanks to a classical novel, The Journey to the West/《西游记》 by the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) writer, Wu Cheng'en and its characteristic hero-The Monkey King/美猴王. The name was given as 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 10km east of Turpan city, stretching over 100km long and 10 km 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.
Admission Fee: Y20
- Gaochang Ruins / 高昌故城
46km southeast of Turpan near the 'Flaming Mountains' are the impressive ruins of Gaochang. Built in the 1st century B.C., it used to be a garrison town and later became a key point along the Silk Road. By the 7th century it held sway authority over 21 other towns and the practice of Buddhism led to the establishment of many monasteries and temples. In the 9th century, the Uigur established the Kharakhoja Kingdom here and Manicheamism flourished. The city was burnt down around the 14th century, during a period of warfare that lasted for 40 years.
The ruins originally consisted of three parts: the inner and outer cities and a palace complex. But most were gone.The best preserved parts in the ruins are two temples in the southwest and southeast corners of the outer section. In the southwestern temple, the front gate, courtyard, lecture hall, main hall, and monastic dormitories are relatively intact. The southeast temple has the only preserved fresco in the ruins.
Admission fee: Y23
- Jiaohe Ruins / 交河故城
One of the world's architectural wonders hides in Yarnaz Valley, 10km west of Turpan. Like a willow leaf, the ruins with a history of 2300 years lies between two rivers on a loess plateau atop a cliff of over 30m. The largest, oldest and best-reserved earthen city in the world, Jiaohe is 1,650m by 300m at its widest, with an area of 220sqkm.
As the capital of the former Cheshi State, Jiaohe distinguishes itself from other ancient cities by three features. First, it had only two city gates, the South and East Gates. The main South Gate vanished long ago, leaving a huge breach. The East Gate cut by the cliff was virtually non-existent. Second, the city faces cliffs on 3 sides, so there are no city walls commonly seen in other ancient cities. Third, all the buildings were dug from earth, wood was rarely used.
The relics features Tang Dynasty ( 618-907) architectural style. Houses were dug downward from the earth, and as no house gates faced the streets, military defense was apparently priority. Miraculously, owing to the arid climate and remote location, the ancient city of Jiaohe remains intact, leaving us a rare exemplar of an earthen castle.
Admission Fee: Y30
- Astana-Karakhoja Graves / 阿斯塔那古墓
The Astana-Karakhoja Tombs are part of the Underground Museum of Turpan and the Living Archives of Gaochang. Astana means capital in Uigur; Karakhoja was a Uigur hero who protected his people from a vicious dragon.
Located 42km southeast of Turpan city and 6km from the Gaochang Ruins, the tombs were the public cemetery of the ancient Gaochang residents, both aristocrats and commoners. 456 tombs were excavated, while the Gaochang king's has not been found yet.
The more than ten thousand cultural relics excavated are over 2700 books, epitaphs, paintings, clay figurines, and pottery, wood, gold and stone wares, ancient coins, silk and cotton textiles, the time recorded in the books ranging from 273 to 772.
The tombs are mainly those of the Han people while those of ethnic groups such as the Cheshi, Turki, and Hun are also represented. Tomb structure and placement indicate that while Han people were in the majority in the Gaochang, all nationalities enjoyed equality.
It is noteworthy that mummies here compare favorably with Egyptian mummies in both quantity and the quality, providing precious specimens for anthropology, history, medicine and ethnology.
Admission Fee: Y20
- Aydingkol Lake / 艾丁湖
Aydingkol Lake, 50km from Turpan City, is at the bottom of the deepest depression in China's land mass, known as Turpan Basin, lying 155m below sea level. Aydingkol Lake, along with the Flaming Mountains and Grape Valley are 3 outstanding natural landscapes in Turpan.
Shaped like a moon, the lake has a long history dated back about 250 million years. Today, the lake is comprised of 3 parts: the outer circle is an alluvial plane. The inner part is salt marsh, while the center of the lake is pure white and glittering salt rime. Neither birds nor fish inhabit its hostile environs, but one may come across gnats and hares from time to time. Occasionally, mirages are created by the refraction of the sun light.
The lake is highly mineralized and contains rock salt, Glauber's salt, glauberite, gypsum, etc. There is now a chemical plant on the lake front. In addition to the natural views, a karez, beacon tower and residential sites near the lake are of great archaeological importance.
Admission Fee: Y10
- Emin Minaret (Su Gong Ta) / 苏公塔
The largest extant old tower in Xinjiang and the only Islamic tower among the hundred famous towers in China. Standing 2km east of Turpan, Emin Minaret was built in 1777 in honor of the heroic Turpan general, Emin Khoja. A Chinese inscription explains that the purpose of building the minaret was to show gratitude to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and to commemorate exploits of Emin Khoja while the Uigur inscription on the other stele gave thanks to Allah.
Set against the azure sky, silvery Tianshan Mountain and the scarlet Flaming Mountain, Emin Minaret displays a pristine but dignified air. Only when you look up at the minaret will you find how crystal blue and high the sky of Turpan is.
Right beside the minaret stands Su Gong Ta Mosque, one of the largest mosques in Xinjiang. The grand mosque can accommodate 1000 people despite the inconspicuous appearance. The idea behind this is also intriguing; the mosque is neither so glaring as to defeat the minaret nor too humble as it is a worship center. The circular Emin Minaret and the square mosque are in sharp contrast without losing harmony.
Admission Fee: Y23
- Grape Valley / 葡萄沟
Turpan, a place truly flowing with milk and honey in the Turki language, is famous for its fruits. Among them, grape is the champion. Every August the sweet air heralds the vintage. The best place to enjoy the grapes is Grape Valley.
Located in the Flaming Mountain 13km of Turpan, the Grape Valley runs 8km from north to south, covered with layer upon layer of grapes.Escaping from the fiery Flaming Mountain, you may take a seat under the vintage frames, savor various grapes, enjoy the beautiful Uigar girls in their ornate costumes and be fully intoxicated with this refreshing palace of grapes.
Taking a walk along the grape corridor, you will find drying rooms on nearby slopes. Every year over 300 tons of raisins are made here.
Mellowness penetrates your heart as the sweetness of grapes melts in your mouth. The unique experience in the Grape Valley will leave you with an enduring memory.
Admission Fee: Y45
- Karez systems / 坎儿井
As one of the 3 ancient key irrigation projects along with the Ling Canal and Dujiangyan, Karez systems are the life source of Turpan. In a sense, without the karez, there would be no Turpan culture. According to records, the history of the karez in Xinjiang dates back to 103 B.C. Karezes have been found in Iran, the Sahara, etc., but the ones in Turpan are most intact. Currently there are still over 400 systems in the land.
Karez systems are very delicate irrigation systems made up of vertical wells, underground canals, above-ground canals and small reservoirs. Melting snow from the Tianshan Mountain is the source of the karez. Water is collected by vertical wells and conducted by the underground canals to the oasis, where the water is held in the ground canals for irrigation.
A karez reduces evaporation, avoids getting polluted and needs no other power equipment; it runs from high to low ground owing to gravity alone. Turban is the hottest place in China and the arid climate makes water all the more precious. A karez system helps to ideally solve this problem.
Karez systems also functions as the natural air conditioner for the locals, they sit on one while chatting or doing some chores.
Admission Fee: Y15
The easiest way to visit these sights around Turpan is to charter a 6-seat minibus for Y300-Y400/day. The local drivers, who cruise the streets of Turpan looking for travelers, have the best routes in mind.