The train glides into Turpan, the doors open and a wall of heat normally only found inside a fission reactor greets me. It’s the evening and the temperature is a bone dry 47 degrees. A bit like sticking your face into an oven on gas mark 6 to see if it’s heated yet.
Despite being thousands of kilometres from the nearest coastline, Turpan sits at 154 metres below sea level in the second deepest depression in the world. Daytime temperatures are hitting low to mid 50’s. Maybe I’ll crack out the shorts for that one then.
Winters here on the other hand are bitter as Siberian winds arrive dropping the temperature to -20 and below and then some for the wind chill. Spring time brings dust storms so I’m guessing there are a couple of days in late autumn when the climate is agreeable.
On my way out of the station, I meet a Ahmed, with light skin, fair hair and pale green eyes, he looks more Russian than Chinese, and speaks perfect English. He’s never taken a lesson and had learnt everything from watching movies apparently. He’s Uighur as it turns out and also a tour guide with an amazing knowledge of the history and culture of the area, and has a car as a bonus. I’m dropped at the hostel and arrange to meet the next day to tour the surrounding sites scattered far and wide around Turpan. The hostel’s a bare bones affair with no air con and a heat radiating off the walls that could grill bacon. Luckily they’ve given me a duvet in case it’s not warm enough for me.
The area around Turpan is one of the largest raisin producing regions in the world. The surrounding countryside is covered in vineyards with adobe drying houses scattered around. Despite the dry arid climate, Turpan is home to one of the engineering marvels of the ancient world, the Karez System – hundred of kilometres of underground aqueducts that have existed for thousands of years to bring water down from the distant mountains and turn the scorched earth green.
After travelling through long kilometres of grapes we reach the Flaming Mountains, so named because of the orange and red hues of the rocks that glow in the sun. Apt considering the already soaring temperature despite only being 7:30 in the morning. In fact they’re a bit murky today as fair amount of dust is blowing in from the desert.
We pass through an impressive gorge and reach the ancient village of Tuyoq, inhabited for thousands of years and home to the most sacred shrine for Uighur muslims – seven trips to this one is equivalent to one to Mecca apparently. There are also some 2nd century Buddhist caves in the cliffs close by which have somehow resisted centuries of attempts to destroy them by both muslims and the Red Book waving zealots of the 1960’s, mostly due to their apparent haunting by the spirits of massacred monks. Who said realism was dead?
The countryside contrasts with stark barren mountains on one side and lush green vineyards at the other. The ancient Buddhist caves at Bezeklik weren’t so lucky as the caves at Tuyoq, local and passing muslim people have sabotaged the huge wall murals depicting scenes from the sutras and the life of Buddha. Portraits of living things (plants, animals, people) are considered haram and in their zeal for kuranic purity, any offending portion of these once amazing paintings dating from the 6th Century were chipped and ripped from the walls. What was left was largely looted by European and Japanese treasure hunters in the early 20th Century and then suffered further damage from bombing campaigns during World War II (I can’t think what anyone would have even been targeting way out here). Still, there are enough remains to get an idea of what once was, and the setting is dramatic enough.
We visit some other villages and sites, stop for some lunch at a local hangout and then, early afternoon, arrive at the 1600 year old remains of the garrison town of Jiaohe on the edge of the desert. A thermometer nailed to a shady tree proudly proclaims that the temperature is currently sitting at 55°C which just pips my previous record of 54°C. The site was built on an island between two (now dry) river beds and built of mud and adobe. The city spread over around six square kilometres now mostly just the remains of walls and streets to wander along. The heat is radiating off every surface, my two litres of water has gone before I’ve even reached the far end and I’m feeling like I’m wandering about in a heat induced stupor. I’m sparing a thought for those ancient soldiers that used to have to stand out in this in full battle dress standing guard over the town.
Last stop for the day is the impressive Emin Minaret built in the 18th Century and standing 44 metres high, it’s the tallest in China and one of the tallest mud brick structures in the world.
I’m on an overnight train to the west this evening, and fortune has it that as I mention this to Ahmed he tells me that it’s from a different Turpan station that lies an hours taxi ride to the south in the desert. Nothing like Chinese travel to keep you on your toes …