Not many places around the world has ancient sites and structures around every corner, as it seems in Turpan. Read of our visit to their historic sites from the Silk Road.
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By Kevin McFarland
Visited June 2017
Situated in a blazing environment 154 meters (505 feet) below sea level with mountains of fire extended around its perimeter, Turpan nevertheless remained relevant in its two-thousand year history. Turpan is an ingenious town filled with ancient wonders and miracles that are alive to this day. It was here, a couple thousand years ago, where merchants and caravansary stopped by to trade and barter along the ancient Silk Road. Turpan was also an important crossroads for three vital routes - east towards China, north towards Mongolia and Kazakhstan, and south towards India and Iran. Therefore, it makes sense that Turpan is filled with ruins from days of long ago, ranging from ancient cities, tomb complexes, pagodas, and Buddhist grottoes. But how did this unbearable and forsaken land become an oasis to weary travelers?
Observing the desolate and depressing terrain surrounding the town, you can find the Tianshan Mountains to the north, the Taklamakan Desert to the south, and the Gobi Desert to the east. As mentioned in the previous post, the underground irrigation system called the Karez Wells really serve as the lifeblood to this region. Without it, its history may be vastly different. It was here where one of the largest and most wealthy cities on the ancient Silk Road was founded. Turpan also became a center for religious thought and practices with ancient grottoes dotting the countryside. The dry environment has also played a key role in restoring the remains from the Silk Road. Unlike many other Silk Road sites around the world that have been lost in time, Turpan offers a living museum of a slice of the Silk Road. Sites ranged from the Jiaohe and Gaocheng ancient cities, Bezeklik and Tuyoq caves, and the Astana tombs, each offering a tantalizing glimpse into Turpan's glorious past.
Turpan is dotted with remains from the Silk Road glory days, many remarkably preserved thanks to the arid and dry environment. The most spectacular remains are those of Jiaohe, a vast and ancient network of roads, temples, living quarters, and palaces. Founded and built in the Second Century B.C., the Jiaohe ruins are often considered by many scholars as the oldest and best preserved ancient earthen ruins in the world. The surroundings are also quite surreal, with clear views of the Flaming Mountains in the foreground and the Tianshan Mountains in the background. My favorite aspect about this unique site is the fact that the entire city was constructed from upwards to downwards - like a giant, living sculpture. After 2200 years, this ancient 'sculpture' is still breathtaking where many of the complexes and roads can still be made out.
We visited these ruins around 2 in the afternoon, a huge mistake considering the mercury read 45 degrees Centigrade (113 degree Fahrenheit). Regardless of the heat, we bought our tickets priced at 70 yuan and headed to Jiaohe. Recent development, alongside a huge burst in tourism, has changed the landscape surrounding the ruins. A new visitor center equipped with AC and a theater welcomes visitors, and an electric cart transporting them 800 meters to the entrance zooms by every couple minutes. We saved our money and instead walked a short 10 minutes to the gate. This tourism infrastructure is common in China, especially for places recently receiving international acclaim as did Jiaohe in 2014 when it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Upon entering, the first thing we noticed, besides the intense heat, is that the ruins were entirely elevated from the earthen rock it was built into. Walking up an earthen ramp to the ruins, an ancient city appeared before our eyes. The shapes, sizes, and styles we observed stayed true to the test of time. At nearly 2 km in length, we walked in amazement the ancient alleyways, trying to comprehend what life might have been like here 2200 years ago. After a little more than an hour though, our water ran dry and we headed back for the exit. These ruins are completely overwhelming in size, a treat to the senses. It gives a much better understanding of the history of Turpan and that of the Silk Road too; despite the barren landscape and blistering heat, never underestimate the ingenuity of human minds.
Situated a further 50 kilometers from the Jiaohe ruins are an ancient and vast tomb complex dating back to the fourth and sixth centuries. Housing the remains of the inhabitants of the Gaochang Empire, a kingdom that formed after Jiaohe vanished, more than 1,000 tombs have been discovered. Once again, in thanks to the arid environment, many of the remains were intact and well-preserved, whether it be textiles, pottery, food, or mummies. As of today, three of the tombs are open for viewing, with one of them displaying a couple wrapped in cloth. The preservation of these mummies were fascinating; even the fingerprints and goosebumbs can still be made out. The other two tombs showcased some ancient artwork on the walls ranging from Buddhist ideology to animal designs. The Xinjiang Museum in Urumqi, Xinjiang's capitol, displays an impressive collection of finds from the Astana Tombs. Even though only a few tombs were opened, we still were impressed at the size of the complex and its historical significance.
Hidden in the back streets nearby the Astana Tombs is a giant pagoda of ancient origins. Named the Taizang Pagoda, not much additional information can be had of this place. Scholars concluded it was constructed in the 6th Century during the heyday of the nearby Gaochang Kingdom and it also remains as being the biggest and most well-preserved Buddhist structure left from the ancient Silk Road. The size is quite large, at 20 meters high, and is box-shaped, containing numerous niches on the walls where Buddhist objects were likely placed. The mystery and origin of such a large structure remains puzzling, a fact that intrigues me so much. Not many places around the world has ancient sites and structures around every corner, as it seems in Turpan.