Getting here from Dunhuang was not easy. I took a 150 km minibus ride to Liuyuan where I caught a night train that dropped me off at Daheyan at 3:30 AM where I had to find another minibus in pitch black darkness to get to Turfan, 35 kms away.
The Turfan (or Turpan) depression lies below sea level and receives practically no rain. It is a very hot and inhospitable place but men have built up an oasis here by bringing ground water through underground irrigation channels connecting long lines of wells leading to the surrounding hills. Some of the "karez" were built 2 000 years ago and have been maintained ever since. A similar system of wells called "qanat" has been in use in Persia for an equally long time.
With water comes an abundance of fruit, particularly melons, apricots and grapes. Grapes grow so well here that they provide shade for the city center streets. The local population is overwhelmingly Uighur and Muslim. Consequently they use all those grapes to make raisins instead of wine. Several ancient sites in the region attract enough visitors to make the tourist industry a major source of income. Prices are very reasonable however. My dormitory bed here at the Oasis hotel cost only 2.70 US$. Other travellers staying here and I formed a group of six to hire a minibus for a day's sightseeing.
Ruins of the ancient city of Gaochang
The Han Dynasty built military outposts in the depression in 90 BC after decades of fighting for control of the oasis with the Hsiung-nu who remained a serious threat for two centuries. A large garrison was maintained by the Han in the fortified town of Gaochang (known as Kiu-che by the Han and as Kara Khoja by the Tang) 45 kms east of Turfan. Another was installed in Jiaohe (originally called Yark Hoto) 18 kms west of Turfan.
Restored prayer hall symbolically joining a square base with a round dome.
Gaochang became a renowned Buddhist center and was visited in the seventh century by the famous monk Xuan Xang who brought back sutras from India and translated them in the Big Goose pagoda built for him in Xi'an. Further evidence of the well established Buddhist past of this region can be seen in the Bezeklik caves about 20 kms north of Gaochang.
Dried mud brick walls, still standing after a thousand years!
In 840, the Turkic Uighur tribes centered on the Orkhon river (south of Baikal), who had adopted Manicheism and had become somewhat civilized as consequence of their century old alliance with the Tang, were overcome by the more primitive Kyrgyz tribes from the upper Ienissei. They massively moved to the Tarim basin oases, of which Turfan, where many converted to Buddhism or Nestorianism.
The road towards the hills
In 1209, Bartchouq, king of the Uighur joined the mongol empire by marrying Genghis Khan's daughter Al'altun. Religious tolerance was maintained in the Tarim basin where Buddhism, Nestorianism, Manicheism and the mongol cult to Tegri were all practiced without discrimination until the last Djaghatai prince Khizr Khodja overcame the Uighur and imposed islam on them under penalty of death around 1390. A few years later he gave his daughter in marriage to equally fanatical Tamerlane. It is in that time frame that Gaochang and Jiaohe were abandoned.
Harsh sunlight simmering on the erosion patterns of the "Flaming Hills" gave them their name. They are mentioned by that name as a formidable obstacle to cross in the classic novel "Journey to the West" relating Xuan Zang's quest of Buddhist scriptures in the 7th century. The Bezeklik caves are in a gorge on the other side of this mountain.
Going up a dry river gorge to the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves.
More than 100 caves have been hewn out of this cliff face between the 6th and 9th centuries by Buddhist monks who farmed the valley below. They were abandoned at about the same time as Gaochang and Jiaohe after the Muslim takeover of the region in the late 14th century.
The caves have been badly pillaged by European archaeologists and particularly by Albert von Le Coq who was responsible for the wholesale removal of murals and sculptures to Berlin where most were destroyed during world war II.
Now, islam is the predominant religion of the land. The only places of worship I saw around Turfan was this active City Mosque and a historical mosque and minaret on the outskirts of town.
Here are the Minaret and Mosque built by in simple Afghani style by Emin Khodja in 1778.
In the late 1940's, a Kazak named Osman led a rebellion of Uighurs, Kazaks and Mongols and established an independent Turkestan Republic which they later abolished in return for Chiang Kaishek's promise of real autonomy. Naturally this promise was not kept, the Chinese returned in force and executed Osman in 1951 after the communist takeover. At that time, 90 % of Xinjiang's population was Uighur. The communists built a railway to Urumqi and flooded the province with Han immigrants by giving them advantages denied in Han China and now the Uighur population is on the way of becoming a minority.
These Uighur in the Turfan market seem happy enough but I wonder how many of them are aware that they are undergoing a cultural genocide!
Very few Chinese settled in the hot and dry Turfan depression where there is still a majority of Uighur people.
Climbing out of the Turfan depression we reach the cooler Bogda Shan Plateau where the Chinese settled in their city Urumqi which was the end of the road until the railway was extended in 1990 to join with the Almaty-Novosibirsk Turksib line at Aktogai in Kazakstan.
Unfortunately I have only a few pictures of Urumqi because have lost a whole roll taken here. The modern Chinese city of Urumqi is somewhat out of place surrounded by ancient Uighur Xinjiang.
Han immigrants are flooding in and tall cranes are furiously busy here as everywhere in China.
I spent about a week in Urumqi to get a visa for Kazakstan and to try to get visas for other destinations on my planned route. As a matter of fact, I think that I spent more time negotiating visas with various bureaucrats than sightseeing on the ex-soviet empire portion of this trip.
I had the good fortune to make friends at the Xinjiang University. I enjoyed exchanges with them on a number of topics. We had this photo taken one night after an excellent Uighur style chicken dinner with my friends Ilham, Lui Yong Jun and Turgun with his daughter Nazira.