Turpan Overview

The oasis town of Turpan (Tǔlǔfān, 吐鲁番), also known as Turfan, is a living testament to human ingenuity and perseverance. Watered by a system of irrigation tunnels known as karez that draw melt-water from the Himalayas into the blistering Turpan Basin, which, at 154 m (505 ft) below sea level, is the second lowest point on earth after the Dead Sea, Turpan's famed grape vines and relaxed vibe make it a favorite stop on the increasingly popular Xinjiang tourist circuit.

Long a key stop on the Silk Road, today's Turpan hosts tour-busloads of Chinese tourists and smaller groups of Western backpackers. It's also a significant Uyghur agricultural town, thanks to the karez system, the origins of which date back to around 100 BC. Grapes are the primary crop, and vines run along trellises throughout town, creating shady passageways and welcome escape from temperatures that can soar in excess of 70°C (158°F) during the hottest months. The karez provide another cool getaway, too: The underground channels are accessed by wells dug into the bedrock, and one can actually descend part of the way into some of them, taking advantage of the earth's natural air conditioning.

Outside of town, old Silk Road ghosts roam the desert among the ruins of Jiaohe and the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves. Natural splendor abounds as well, from the austere beauty of the desert to the stunning vista of the Flaming Mountains. Local majority Uyghur culture is also on display, both in authentic forms on the streets and in the vineyards as well as in a more contrived fashion inside local restaurants and hotels, where Uyghur-themed "exotic" song and dance shows are staged for the pleasure of tourists. For a sense of the dignified historical depth and breadth of local Muslim Uyghur tradition, visit the Emin Minaret and Mosque.

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