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Faces of the Desert


Turpan is situated in a blazing environment 500 feet below sea level. The Uyghur people here are a wonderful people that deserve to be treated in an equally wonderful way.

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By Kevin McFarland

Visited June 2017

Situated in the heart of Xinjiang lies Turpan, a hospitable, lively, and colorful destination. Remarkably, the landscape here suggests otherwise. Situated 154 meters (505 feet) below sea level (the second lowest spot on earth) and also China's hottest location, with deserts seemingly extended forever in the south and east and forbidding mountains to the north, it is nothing short of miraculous that the locals have lived here and thrived for thousands of years. The desert heat is unbearable at times (it reached 113 degrees one of the days we were here) with the dry wind blistering our lips, but if we take a panoramic view of the surroundings, the greenery found is absolutely surprising. How did this steamy depression of intense heat become become an oasis to weary travelers, both now and a thousand years ago on the Silk Road?

Part of the answer to this riddle is an ingenious invention that has been used for generations - the Karez Wells. Quite possibly one of the greatest feats of engineering in the ancient world, but also completely hidden, these wells serve as an underground irrigation system to the inhabitants. Transporting runoff water from the Tianshan Mountains, nearly one hundred kilometers to the north, through underground, horizontal, passageways and tunnels, the locals are able to quench the dry land. As of today, there are an astonishing 1,100 wells totaling over 5,000 kilometers in length! The landscape around Turpan has changed significantly due to these wells, where vineyards and trees abound. This is quite simply a a miracle when one considers the environment.

Who Live Here?

One of our greatest joys in visiting Turpan was the friendliness of the local Uyghur population. The Uyghurs constitute the majority of the population of Xinjiang, a people group descending from many regions such as Eurasia and the Middle East. Therefore, they look and act more Turkish than Chinese in more ways than one, such as appearance, language (they use an Arabic script), and religion (they practice Islam). As our first stop in Xinjiang, we heard numerous reports of the dangers of this region and people, to the point where many travelers are apprehensive of taking the long journey here. I don't want to get into the complicated politics of the region, but the Uyghurs feel their culture is being stripped away at the expense of the Chinese government. Over the last several years, some clashes broke out between the Uyghurs and Hans, causing a bevy of negative reports to come out of this region and into China and the rest of the world. It truly is a misunderstood part of the world, but the kindness the locals showed deleted every false notion in an instant.

When we first arrived in Turpan, we took the bus to the center of town and just started walking. We didn't want our first impressions of Xinjiang to be the controlled tourist traps or museums where they present to us a forced ideology, but rather the local and real experiences. Heading out of downtown, we walked one of the backstreets filled with Uyghur children, housewives, workers, and merchants. The charm in traveling is sometimes finding the place that no one will travel to. The children were infectiously friendly and outgoing as almost everyone waved at us and shouted "Hello" before bursting into an hilarious laughter. The adults were equally friendly, although more shy than their younger counterparts. We struck up some conversations naturally, and found the local population to be kind and pure, with a thirst for knowledge. The beautiful faces we encountered and the contagious laughs we heard will be stored deep in our memories for years to come.

Time-Tested Architecture

Before arriving in Xinjiang, we knew we were in for a treat for architecture. The arid environment, ancient traditions, and religious identity mixed together seamlessly to form some of the most unique displays of houses, towers, and structures we have encountered in our travels. Most of the structures in Turpan are created from dried, earthen material, giving the whole streets, alleyways, and villages a sense that we have stepped back centuries in time. One such village we visited, the Tuyoq Village 50 kilometers to the east of Turpan, is filled in every turn and corner with truly unique dwelling places. Lived in for centuries, this tiny village is also an extremely holy site for Muslims. The locals claim that seven visits to Tuyoq is equivalent to one visit to Mecca. Whether this claim holds true is unknown, but one thing we do know is that every intrepid traveler should make the journey out here at least once before it is too late. The Uyghurs remarkably unique way of life is sadly on the edge of extinction.

Located near the center of Turpan lies one of the greatest examples of Islamic architecture in China - the Emin Minaret. Built in the 1770's shortly after the Muslim region of Turpan was overtaken by the Qing Dynasty, the Emin Minaret stands as the tallest of its kind in China. Built with delicate craftsmanship, observing the brickwork truly amazes. Like all of the surrounding settlements, this structure was built with local brick and wood, giving it an ancient yet sophisticated appearance. The architecture in Turpan is varied, ranging from minarets to mazaars, and once you overlook the monotony of the mud brick, a beautiful and living landscape unfolds.

The Joy in Food

Turpan shares a common characteristic found throughout the world - the love for food. While visiting Turpan, we couldn't help but to taste and dabble their numerous local specialties. We found the bagels and bread hearty and essential for our journey. The assortment of melons were sweet and delicious (3 yuan for a whole watermelon!). The melons were in plentiful supply as villagers were handing out slices to passerby's for free in the heat of the day. But perhaps the food highlight were the raisins and other dried fruits such as mulberries, cantaloupe, and blackberries. Honestly, the California raisins hold no light to the ones produced in the Turpan Depression. One afternoon in Tuyoq, we enjoyed a local meal in a family's home, where they presented us in banquet-style a variety of fruits, nuts, and bread, topped off with a delicious and flavorful bowl of hand-pulled noodles and lamb. Whether it be their smiling faces, unique architecture, or tasty treats, the Uyghurs of Turpan exceeded all expectations of hospitality and generosity.

The Future for Turpan

What does the future hold for Turpan, a town at the crossroads of a rapidly changing environment? The tourism business is expanding rapidly with nearly every sight requiring an entrance fee. Also, being such close proximity to Urumqi (2 hours by train), it is definitely on the radar of the Chinese government. When we wanted to head out of town to our next destination after a wonderful visit of Turpan, we found ourselves in the situation with no means a getting to the railway station, which was an hour away with our train leaving in an hour and a half. A local man generously offered to drive us there with a discounted price, so we hopped on board, thankful for his help. However, after an hour on the road, the police stopped our car and interrogated the driver. They found out he is an unlicensed driver to transport tourists, and was informed he would be fined with a possible revocation of his license. We were sitting at the checkpoint with time dwindling and our train to Kashgar leaving literally in minutes. The police finally allowed the driver to drop of us at the station followed by his quick return to the them. We barely, as in a couple minutes, made the train. Although we felt relieved from a seemingly inevitable situation of missing the train, we couldn't help but to pity the situation our driver faced that day. The future of this driver, and the future of so many of local Uyghurs, remains a mystery. This is a wonderful people that deserves to be treated in an equally wonderful way.

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