Turpan – Oasis in the desert

Friday 26 to Saturday 27 September

To really learn survival skills in the desert we visited the Karez (wells) Palace. Here they explained how water had been brought down from the hills in a series of channels. It is an ancient technique, also used in other desert areas such as Iran.

Starting at the village, a well is dug, perhaps 2m deep. Another well is dug 10m away, a little deeper perhaps 2.3m. An underground channel then joins the two wells. This process is repeated up the hill, each well 10m from the previous and a little deeper. This allows the water to flow on an almost straight channel and provides a continuous stream of water from the snow melt, the whole year around, with little evaporation.

The wells get increasingly deeper, to as much a 80m. It was a dangerous and uncomfortable exercise and each channel could take 2 to 5 years to construct.
When the water flows it is directed into a village reservoir. Many channels will feed a reservoir, which in turn is distributed to the villagers for drinking water and irrigation.

The water is cool and sweet, very drinkable.

So for the past 2000 years water has irrigated grape vines and there are hundreds of variety of grapes grown in the area. About 10% of the grapes go to wine. The balance is sold fresh or dried in brick air houses. The sultanas and raisins are delicious. We had a hard time choosing which varieties to buy.

Of course there is little value building new wells as the Chinese government owns the land so there is no return on the effort to build the well. Additionally oil is being extracted in the same area, which has a higher priority in the economy of China.

The scenery in this part of China varies from flat desolate lands to mountains that are equally desolate. No vegetation grows on the southern side of the Tian Shen heavenly mountains. The flat land is home to hundreds of wind turbines, although the day we drove through there was no wind, so they were still.

There is some magnificent scenery such as the flaming mountain with its brilliant red soil.

This area has been predominantly Muslim since the 12th to 15th centuries. The conversion came at the expense of Buddhism. We visited Buddhist grottoes that were carved out of the cliffs beside the rivers, that were places of worship from about 200BC. Much of the artwork has been defaced, firstly by Muslims who do not like images of people where they live or pray. Then explorers from Germany, France, Russia, England and the USA came and took great hunks of the murals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It seems most of the really interesting mural art work is displayed in the Indian museum in Berlin.

Another highlight in Turpan was the ancient kingdom of Jiaohe. The village was home to about 700,000 people from 220BC until the Muslims came. It is built on a narrow strip of land just before 2 rivers merge, each with very high banks. The houses, temples and other buildings were constructed of clay and were on three levels. The top level was above the ground with caves built underneath. The caves were interconnected creating an underground thoroughfare between various families’ sleeping chambers.

As well as defence, the underground caves provided a constant temperature where summer temperatures soar above 40C and winter temperatures drop to -15C.

The Southern gate was used for official ceremonies, whereas the East gate was used by the villagers to tend their crops across the river and for travellers on the Silk Road to enter the kingdom.

It was late in the afternoon so we enjoyed some magic photo opportunities.

In Turpan we stayed in an Islamic style hotel, but John’s cafe offered decent food with cold beer and espresso coffee. Here we shared experiences with other Silk Road travellers.