Turpan, Xinjiang, China تۇرپان

Oh man, it’s way too hot outside.

Turpan (Chinese: Tulufan 吐鲁番) is located 200 km southeast of Ürümqi (Wulumuqi 烏魯木齊), the capital of Xinjiang province 新疆. Ürümqi is already the most landlocked city in the world — it’s far from every ocean. If this lack of water isn’t already enough, Turpan is located in a depression that’s the one of the lowest places in the world. (Though not quite as low as Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression or Israel/Palestine/Jordan’s Dead Sea.) That makes it pretty darn hot, and the low-altitude Ayding Lake has pretty much dried up. Oh, and it’s also surrounded by desert, though Turpan itself is an oasis city. Now why’d I decide to come in August?!

Also, if you’re not familiar with this area of the world and you’re wondering about these names: Xinjiang is officially a Uyghur autonomous province. Uyghur people have far more in common with everything west of China than China itself: they speak a Turkic language like neighbouring Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan and far-away Turkey, and the people look… not Chinese: imagine a mix of everyone between Turkey, Pakistan, and Russia. Not only is that geographically true of Central Asia, it does sort of explain the physical traits of the population.

So it was really weird to get off of a train from Dunhuang and immediately be surrounded by people looking nothing like Chinese people, many following Islamic dress, speaking something that sounds like Turkish, with signs written in the Arabic alphabet. Is this really China? The only giveaways are the bilingual signs and the fact that my only able means of communication here is Mandarin. Even the way people measure time is different: despite being in the same timezone as Beijing, people use “Xinjiang time” (-2 hours) unofficially, due to how far west it is. The sun sets around 10 pm Beijing time!

It’s over 40°C (100°F) outside, the hottest place in China. Can I go inside for some air conditioning now?

Joining up with some other Chinese backpackers, we hired a taxi driver for a day. In addition to Uyghur, Akbar spoke fluent, weirdly-accented Mandarin and non-functionally broken, natural-sounding English. Huh, guess that’s what happens when your native language isn’t tonal. Nevertheless, he was quite enthusiastic… and thankfully cranked up the A/C.

Our first stop was the ruins of Yar City (Jiaohe 交河). Capital of the former Jushi kingdom (during China’s Han and Jin dynasties) and dating back nearly 2000 years, it was built on the top of an island/cliff with a steep, grape-filled valley below. Well, “build” might not be the right word! The city was created from the top down, with roofless buildings and roads carved down and dug from the once-flat plateau. Given the dry, hot climate here, the city is remarkably well preserved. I have to admit, if I saw a picture of this without context, I’d have thought this was the Middle East.

Amongst the streets, there’s a residential neighbourhood, a government building neighbourhood, and Buddhist shrines — the only structures built up instead of carved down — scattered all about. It also speaks to the Silk Road past, given the dominant religion now versus then; Yar City was abandoned in the 1300s after a Mongol defeat.

Already dying from thirst, we returned to Turpan to check out the way they get water: through a local system called a karez. To feed its agricultural needs, wells were dug from way out by the Tian Shan mountains, collecting the water runoff underground. These wells were then connected underground via channel, which then flows gently downwards (thanks to the geographical depression) towards the city of Turpan. It’s pretty ingenious, and with over 1000 karez systems and 5000 km of underground channels dug in a 200 year period of the Han dynasty, a massive piece of work. Much of this system is still used today, although the amount of water has been notably decreasing.

So looking at holes in the ground and underground rivers, set in a touristy museum setting, isn’t exactly riveting stuff. But look at the result! (We feasted on fresh grape juice, conveniently sold right under the trellis.)

Despite being surrounded by such dry, inhospitable lands, Turpan has been made into a highly productive oasis of abundance. We saw that on our next stop, the Grape Valley. While we didn’t enter the touristy grounds, the amount of free grapes, watermelons, and canteloupes (specifically Hami melons 哈密瓜, originating from nearby Kumul/Hami 哈密) we were given, along with what we saw was on sale, just drove the point home — this is the time of year where Xinjiang’s practically drowning in fruit. If you don’t mind carrying it and if you’re able to eat it all, you can get a giant watermelon or half a kilo of grapes for like 5 yuan each — less than a dollar. (I guess that’s the one advantage of coming in August!) I settled for all the freebies.

Around 3 pm, the most sweltering part of the day, Akbar got a little cheeky and took us to the Flaming Mountains 火焰山. (“If you’re going to see them, you might as well see them when it’s actually burning hot!”) Made famous in the fantasy retelling of the journey of the monk Xuanzang 唐三藏 to India in Journey to the West 《西游記》, the Flaming Mountains were created when his companion the Monkey King 孙悟空 accidentally knocked a kiln over in heaven onto the mountains. Having to escort Xuanzang through this impassable obstacle, the Monkey King tricks the Iron Fan Princess 鐵扇公主 into giving him the right fan to put out the flames. (I only wish I had a fan that strong!) There’s a tourist trap in front of the mountains set up that celebrates the story.

Sooooo the real mountain range obviously isn’t on fire, but it’s pretty clear where the inspiration comes from for the story: it’s bright red with flame-like striations. As we drove through the surrounds, the scenery only got more spectacular, while the temperature got even hotter. Seeing several people in the distance actually try to climb one of the mountains seems absolutely mind-boggling.

Hidden within the Flaming Mountains is the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves — more cave art along the lines of the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang. Unfortunately, German explorers hacked away most of the art, taking it back home — only to see it all destroyed in the bombings of World War II. While the caves themselves don’t offer much nowadays, the fact that it’s built in such beautiful yet inhospitable scenery is a marvel.

We returned to Turpan, exhausted. Exhausted and overheated. We stayed that way for the next two days, barely moving — other than a quick jaunt to the air-conditioned museum, showcasing Central Asian methods of mummification, fossils of dinosaurs found in Xinjiang, and treasures from the Silk Road. The only times we were outside of air conditioning? Food.

Uyghur cuisine is best known for naan and lamb skewers. Of course, both of these require setting fires, and so it’s not so common to see this eaten in the daytime: laghmian (pulled noodles) generally takes the place of that. In the afternoon, it’s so hot that everyone in town seems to be in a heat-induced stupor, napping on wooden daybeds (or in the backs of trucks) in the shade. And Turpan’s got a lot of that! It’s truly a beautiful city, shaded everywhere by grape leaves or trees. There’s even a whole avenue completely shaded by trellises, and the section of town I stayed in was similar.

At night, the city comes alive, with night markets hawking all sorts of food — especially the skewers. Coated in copious amounts of cumin, it tastes nothing like other Chinese skewers. Succulent and fragrant, yet utterly simple, it’s actually one of my all-time favourite foods — not impossible to find in North America, but far more authentic and cheaper here! Only 2-4 yuan — that’s like 60 cents or less per skewer.

Then… back to the air conditioning. Well, maybe spare a minute to walk out the door and grab a whole cluster of sweet, sweet grapes for free — as long as your arms are long enough!

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