Beijing Getaways: Urumqi and Turpan Guide
Something Old, Something New: Urumqi & Turpan provide a glimpse of Xinjiang's former glories
Xinjiang is a land of superlatives. It is the largest and driest Chinese region, containing the Earth's hottest place, coldest place, longest inland river and lowest marsh.
In ancient times the famous Silk Road covered this vast region with a complex network of trade routes, stretching in their entirety from modern-day Xi'an to the Middle East and India. It is these mercantile arteries, long since disappeared, which have given the Xinjiang of today its unique east-west culture, stunning relics and fascinating ethnic diversity.
The Silk Road was neither a single road, nor did it only carry silk. While huge quantities of silk did pass from east to west along its myriad trails, many other products were transported too. More important, and with a far more permanent effect, was the east-west exchange of ideas. This included the diffusion of religions (Buddhism, Islam and Christianity) into the East, while the West learned from the ancient civilization that gave it paper, printing and gunpowder.
It is impossible to establish a firm date as to when the Silk Road was first used, and trade across Asia dates way back into prehistory. It is well-documented that the Chinese and the Roman empires were trading as early as the 1st century BC. Always at the mercy of regional politics, the volume of international trade along the Silk Road rose and fell until the mid 14th century. The collapse of the Mongol dynasty in 1368 signaled the end of the last great age of the Silk Road, and within 150 years east-west naval trade had begun.
Xinjiang itself has had a turbulent history. It first passed under Chinese rule in the 1st Century BC when the emperor Wu Ti sent a Chinese army to defeat the Huns and occupy the region, then known as Xiyu or "west region". Since this time Xinjiang has been conquered and ruled by the Uzbeks, Tibetans, Uyghurs, Arabs and Mongols, as well as the Chinese.
In the 19th Century Russia and Britain played out part of their "Great Game" in Xinjiang, each vying for supremacy in the no-man's land between the Russian and British Empires, through espionage, intrigue and political brinkmanship. In 1949, Xinjiang came under Chinese Communist rule, and today Xinjiang's Han Chinese and Uyghur populations are roughly equal.
Xinjiang is a province with spectacular geography. The great Altai, Tian Shan and Kunlun mountain ranges encircle the province to the north, west and south; to the west lies a barren plateau. The level land, divided by the Tian Shan in central Xinjiang, comprises Dzungaria, a grazing region to the north, and the huge, inhospitable Taklamakan desert (meaning "enter but never return" in Uyghur) to the south.
When the Silk Road entered Xinjiang from Gansu Province it broke into 3 main routes. These routes traversed desolate desert areas and wound over snow-capped peaks. Xinjiang was more dangerous than other sections of the route for the traveler and presented many perilous challenges. Today, the only physical evidence of the Silk Route are numerous, miraculously preserved sites and relics, often forgotten and half-buried in the ever-shifting desert sand, and places such as Urumqi, Turpan, Kashgar and Yarkand, whose names, along with Samarkand and Tashkent, will forever be associated with this legendary route between eastern and western civilizations.
Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang Province, now resembles many other large Chinese cities, complete with shopping malls, shiny, high-rise office blocks and wide boulevards filled with taxis. However, the large Uyghur population still gives Urumqi a unique feel, and the various mosques, food markets, and open air restaurants serving traditional Uyghur food make this relaxed city an interesting place to stay for a day or two. Check out the bustling Wuyi Night Market for some great streetside snacks.
Of particular interest to the traveler is Urumqi's Xinjiang Autonomous Museum, which has a section devoted to Silk Road history. Artefacts on display include silk, pottery, porcelain, terra-cotta figures, weapons, scriptures, and even some mummies discovered in the vast desert. The museum also has various ethnic exhibits including clothing, household utensils, handicrafts, hunting tools, and musical instruments, as well as a Uyghur house and various yurts.
Close to Urumqi is Heavenly Lake (Tianchi in Chinese), one of Xinjiang's most famous scenic spots, located halfway up the ice-clad Bogda peak at 1980 meters above sea level. A moraine lake hemmed in by majestic snow-crowned mountains, Tianchi is breathtakingly beautiful and a great place to get back to nature. Many hotels and travel agencies in Urumqi offer one-day tours, usually consisting of a boat ride on the lake, or a ride or walk along the lakeshore.
The small city of Turpan, situated close to Urumqi, is important in Xinjiang history, since nearby Gaochang was once capital of the Uyghurs. It was an important staging post on the Silk Road, and also a centre of Buddhism before being converted to Islam in the 8th Century. Today, the ruins at Gaochang are well worth a visit, as are the nearer Jiaohe ruins, which date back to the Han Dynasty. Walking amongst the broken buildings and along the decaying thoroughfares, it is easy to visualize the former glory of these ancient centers of civilization.
Despite the intense heat (Turpan is China's lowest and hottest place). Turpan has been made livable by the construction of vines and trellises, providing avenues of shade from the sun. There are few cars here and donkey cart is the most common and popular mode of transport. The heat means that no one is in a real hurry to get anywhere and it is pleasant just to sit in the shade with a cool drink and watch the world go by.
Turpan is most famous for its fruit. Every household has a ventilated barn on the roof, and some of the world's finest grapes are produced here. 70% of the 500,000 population here are Uyghur and the residents here are generally a very friendly bunch - the food is good, the living is cheap and the wine, while not your average Cabernet Sauvignon, is not bad either. Fruit growing continues to form an important part of the local economy, and underground aqueducts (kharez) still provide irrigation as they did hundreds of years ago.
In addition to the ruined cities, two other highlights of Turpan are the Emin Tower (Emin Ta) and nearby Flaming Mountains (Huo Yan Shan). The attractive Emin Tower, just two kilometers east of Turpan, is both a mosque and minaret tower that was built in 1778 by the local Muslim ruler, Emin Hoja. The Flaming Mountains get their name from the fact that on summer evenings they shimmer with the reflected desert heat and appear to burn; situated on the northern edge of the Turpan basin, and stretching over 100 kilometers, the mountain range is part of an intensely hot and arid landscape. This is where China's hottest ever temperature was recorded, so take plenty of water!