Ancient cities of the Gobi Desert
From the boom town of Urumqi, we cross over the Bogda Shan and dip down into the Turpan Depression (500 feet below sea level). We are on the edge of the Gobi Desert, but as everywhere in Xinjiang there is evidence of rapid development and industrialisation. A new high-speed railway is being constructed that may one day link Beijing with Western Europe.
Turpan is an oasis that is fed by water from the Tian Shan mountains. It hardly ever rains here and the temperature can soar to over 40 in the summer, but the water arrives cool, having been channeled by an ancient system of underground canals called karez. As usual in China, this has been turned into a tourist attraction. It is worth seeing, but we are told that the canals may not survive in working form for much longer as water pumps are used to irrigate the vineyards these days.
The true treasures of Turpan lie outside the town in the desert. These are the ancient Silk Road cities of Gaochang (Karakhoja) and Jiaohe (Yarkhota). Each was founded in the 2nd century BC, becoming major centres of trade and culture from the 7th to the 10th centuries AD. They are very different in size and construction. Gaochang is huge and surrounded by massive mud-brick walls. Little remains within the walls, apart from the remains of some Buddhist temples. We were told we would be taken around it in a donkey cart, but found that these had been replaced by stretch golf buggies. We got over our disappointment when we realised how large the site was and how easily we were taken from one area to another in a buggy.
Jiaohe (Yarkhoto), on the other hand, is built on a leaf-shaped plateau with sheer cliffs dropping down to rivers on two sides. Whereas Gaochang was basically a mud-brick city, Jiaohe was carved out of the rock-hard soil and is better preserved. It is spectacularly situated and once we got beyond the viewing platform not far from the entrance, we found we more or less had the place to ourselves.
Another extraordinary find near Turpan, only discovered by Western scholars in the early 20th century, is the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves: 77 caves decorated with frescoes by Buddhist monks from the 4th to the 10th centuries AD. Unfortunately, since their discovery the caves have been pillaged by treasure hunters and vandalised by Red Guards – amongst others. However, the few that remain are worth the visit and the setting is wonderful.
We had heard much about the Uighurs’ love of music and while in Urumqi we asked our guide if it was possible to hear a performance of traditional music. Yes, it was possible – in Turpan. Perhaps we should have been suspicious when we found out how expensive it was, but lunch was to be provided so we assumed that accounted for the cost. Our fears increased when we were shown into a large, empty air-conditioned theatre called the Turpan Experience. We were seated at a table near the front and Uighur food was produced. We consumed our (perfectly acceptable, but unexceptional) meal in splendid isolation. After an hour, a large group of Chinese tourists arrived and no sooner had they started their food than the show began. Not a musical instrument in sight, but plenty of loud music, bright costumes and Bollywood-style dancing. It was too entertaining for us to feel completely cheated.
Turpan’s gastronomic delight is grapes and, above all, raisins – the sweetest we have tasted. We sample some local wine. The language barrier meant that we ended up with a sweet wine rather than a dry one, but it would have made a very acceptable dessert wine to go with one’s Christmas pudding. On our last evening, while killing a couple of hours before driving to catch the night train to Dunhuang, we stretch out under the vines of a grape farm. Before they serve us supper, we lie back watching the light filter through the vines.