Turpan: a sweet oasis in the middle of the flames

Culture, Travel | by Sascha Matuszak
Posted: September 2nd, 2011 | Updated: July 4th, 2014 | Comments

China is a gargantuan nation where even the smallest municipalities can have larger populations than many a European or American city. With so much space to cover and so many stories to tell, it's all too easy to just focus on the next big adventure and trying to discover the "real China," but sometimes the real China is what's right in front of you, down the alley where you might head out to buy water and toilet paper every other day, and not on that 12-hour hard seat trip through the jungles of Guangxi. In City Watch we strive to uncover some of these little-known cities with a lot to offer, if only you know where to look. >>>

The Tarim Basin in Xinjiang is surrounded by ancient Silk Road trading towns and few are as unique as Turpan, the hottest and lowest city in China and the source of the best grapes and melons in the country. Turpan was a typical frontier town in that it changed hands dozens of times over the centuries. The oasis town was never as tied to ethnicity as it was to commerce. Money is what ruled Turpan, not religion or patriotism or anything else. Only money. So why Turpan? Geography, plain and simple. Turpan was the closest Turkic city to the Chinese heartland, so caravans going to and from the heartland had to come through Turpan. Also the intense dry heat and sunshine help increase the sugar content of Turpan grapes, making them the sweetest and most delicious around. Bam! Just like that, a commerce center is born.

Who or what is a Sogdian?

Turpan today is associated with Uyghurs and the Uyghur Kingdom of the late Tang to Yuan Dynasty that ruled this part of the world did have a large influence on Turpan culture, but it was the Sogdians who really put Turpan on the map in the beginning. Sogdiana is a swath of land known today as "the Stans". Ancient Sogdiana covered Uzebkeistan, Afhganistan, Tajikistan and Krygyzstan for the most part and the Sogdians were Eastern Persians who, according to all who dealt with them, were born merchants. The Sogdians became the traders on the Silk Road from the earliest centuries BC, after the Han Dynasty reached out west, to the 9th and 10th centuries, when Sogdiana underwent a crisis and began to fade into antiquity. But before the Sogdian's moved on, they built a trading empire that moved silk, horses, paper, grapes and slaves all across Asia, making them the most influential and powerful brokers of their time. They made Turpan their base of operations on the northern Silk Road and traded primarily with Chinese merchants—also famed hagglers—in all manner of licit and illicit goods. The Sogdians are also most likely responsible for the introduction of karez water systems, a line of wells dug into a hillside to pull out the run-off water and divert it to irrigation canals. The system was used in Iran and other parts of the Middle East that share Turpan's climate and the Chinese consider Turpan's karez system to be on par with Dujiangyan's Irrigation system and even the Grand Canal in terms of ingenuity and efficiency.

Everyone equal under the coin


The Sogdian influence still resonates in modern day Turpan. Sogdians, like other business-minded people, cared little for religious fanaticism or patriotic fervor so Turpan is home to both the Muslim Emin Minaret and the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves. Both are spectacular religious monuments, not just in Xinjiang but in all of China. The Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves are built into the Flaming Mountains, the hottest, reddest mountains in China. The caves are covered in murals from the Tang, Song and Yuan Dynasty, depicting kings, queens, sages and the hellish wheel of life all humans must suffer through. The minaret is significantly younger, built in the late 18th century to commemorate the Uyghur general, Emin Khoja. It is the tallest minaret in China, set in yellows bricks against red stone and stark blues skies.

The Uyghur in Turpan

Today the Uyghur make up more than 70% of Turpan's population and the culture of the city, although in the past Mongol, Sogdian, Chinese and Tibetan, is now firmly Uyghur. Turpan has the harsh beauty of a desert: deadly if you don't know how to use water and sand and brilliant in a tense way if you have your system down. Grape tresses lines the streets and lanes across Turpan, both shielding against the sun and the heat and providing a visual counterpoint to the bleak stone of the basin. At the very lowest point, just a few meters higher than the lowest point in the world, the Dead Sea in Jordan, the Uyghur have constructed a Grape Valley: 200 hectares of knotty grape bushes linked by vines dripping with fat, juicy, sweet grapes. (Now you know why the Uyghur migrants to the big cities sell dried fruit out of carts). The Uyghur may have been here before anyone else, led here by the legendary hero, Karakhoja, who slew a massive red dragon and turned his corpse into the Flaming Mountains. Since then the Uyghur have maintained an oasis life—complex irrigation, constant passers-through, wars for cash and control—and are just now moving from the traditional ways of living into the modern world. A lot of that has to do with "fruit tourism" (when travelers come for the watermelons and grapes) as well as general interest in the city.

Turpan is surrounded by the un-rotting ruins of a dozen civilizations. Ancient Tang Dynasty tombs near the village of Astana and Karakhoja house the bodies of dozens of ancient Han officials and their families. The heat and dryness has kept the corpses "fresh," so tourists arrive in droves to gaze upon the macabre scene. Nearby Turpan are two other ancient ruins, the Jiaohe and Gaochang ancient towns, both forgotten outposts easily accessible from Turpan via hired taxi. Be aware that travel to Turpan in the summer means intense heat and sunshine, while travel in the winter means intense cold and winds. Deserts are rough, unless you have an ancient oasis like Turpan to retire to.

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