Gaochang

Admission:

RMB 20

Hours:

How to get there:

Mini-bus, tour bus or car from Turpan. Often done in combination with a visit to the Bezeklik Caves.

The ancient city of Gaochang (Gāochāng, 高昌) is a sublimely impressive sight, likely to spur thoughts of the grand sweep of history and the insignificance of one little tourist standing in the middle of the vast desert, snapping digital photos of crumbling ruins that date back to the 1st century BC. Unless, of course, you visit at the same time as a huge Chinese tour group, in which case sublimity is likely a lost cause. Even then, Gaochang is worth a whirl, whether you walk or drop RMB 20 on a donkey cart from the entrance gate.

At the center of the city, you'll find the remains of the old Buddhist monastery, covered in niches that each used to house a Buddha. Less well-preserved than Silk Road sister city Jiaohe, it's still a humbling and pleasant experience to wander the ruins beneath the clear desert sky, contemplating the transitory nature of being, the rise and fall of civilizations, and the nature of the tourism industry in the 21st century.

To add an extra dash of memento mori to the experience, head to the adjacent Astana Graves, final resting place of the Tang Dynasty rulers of Gaochang.

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