Turpan Travel Guide
Around since the days of the Silk Road, it is amazing Turpan ever existed as a city, let alone a settlement.
With only 14 millimetres of rain per year, agriculture shouldn’t be possible here, but it has been participated for over 2,000 years, thanks to a Han Dynasty aquifer which tapped the water table beneath this bone-dry place.
Its history as a Silk Road hub will intrigue you, and its proximity to many attractions in the Gobi Desert makes this a wonderful place to spend time on a trip along this storied trade route.
Come check out our Turpan travel guide as we cover the best things to do in Turpan.
Learn about the long and storied past of Turpan by spending a few hours walking the halls of the Turpan Museum. Within its walls, you’ll find a modest but comprehensive collection of natural and human artifacts going back to prehistoric times.
There are a few exhibits worth noting: the first deals with the human history of the Turpan area, showing off Stone Age implements and the first signs of organized civilization in the days of the Han Dynasty when this region was claimed by the rulers of China.
The second shows off the fossilized remains of a giant rhino, which roamed these plains approximately 20 million years ago. With a height of over 15 feet high and a weight of 30 tons, it would have been a fearsome beast to encounter.
Finally, don’t miss their ancient mummy exhibition. Due to the extremely dry conditions of the Gobi Desert, a number of perfectly preserved bodies were found in graves in the area. Objects they were buried with, such as paintings and jewellery are displayed alongside the cadavers, which are as much as 3,200 years old.
In the Turpan area, there are a number of cities which were once vibrant and prosperous but now sit silent and empty. The Ancient City of Jiaohe is the first of these – during the days when the Silk Road was busy with traders, it served as a rest stop and hub of commerce in the region.
That is until the Mongols controlled the region – slowly, people began to flee the city. By the 14th century, nobody remained. While it was composed of rammed earth walls, the lack of disruption between its abandonment and today, as well as the very dry climate, kept it in pristine condition.
After you had walked its wide avenues lined with homes for commoners and the wealthy alike, move onward to the Ancient City of Gaochang. Founded around an oasis, the walls of this settlement outside Turpan was a sore sight for many travellers on the Silk Road.
Founded in the 1st century BC to help defend the western perimeter of Han Dynasty China, it prospered as a service centre for traders for many centuries until it also was abandoned due to ongoing warfare between the Mongols and local Uyghur tribes.
The city is less together than Jiaohe, but many of its walls remain standing, thanks to the climate of the Turpan region.
Missed out on seeing the Thousand Buddha caves in the Dunhuang region? While in Turpan, make sure you check out the Bezeklik Caves, as they contain a number of murals and frescoes meant to illustrate themes and stories in Buddhism.
Among them are vivid depictions of Hell, as well as other which show devout Buddhists in mourning. As amazing as these works are, refrain from touching them, as human sweat can irreparably damage many of these works.
Want to get an idea how people could call such a dry, inhospitable region home before the onset of modern technology? Check out the ancient workings of the Turpan water system. Built to harvest the water in aquifers deep below the desert in the Han Dynasty, the ancient wells were renovated during the Qing Dynasty just a few hundred years ago, and they continue to supply water for the city to this day.
The channels, when put together, add up to over 5,000 kilometres in length, making it one of the three most impressive civil works in China’s history, alongside the Great Wall and the Grand Canal, which ran between Beijing and Hangzhou.
The Turpan region is majority Uygur, making Islam the chief religion. While in town, be sure to check out the Emin Minaret. Built in honour of a Uygur general in the late 18th century, this 144 foot high stone tower is the tallest traditional one in Xinjiang.
While the interior staircase is closed for safety reasons, the Islamic geometric patterns on its exterior make this feature well worth seeing.
Get in touch with the hottest region in China by heading straight into the heart of the Flaming Mountains. Taking on a ‘flaming’ appearance due to the reddish soil which composes these sandstone hills, it can get quite hot here literally – many times during the summer, the mercury will approach the upper 40s (in Celsius). If you go at these times, take plenty of water and ensure your vehicle has an air conditioner that works.
Finally, make an effort to arrange a visit to a Uygur Ancient Village while in Turpan. You’ll need a guide to go, as visits are only allowed on an appointment basis. Once you are in, though, you won’t just be impressed by its peaceful nature, but by the generosity and kindness shown by residents.