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The oasis town of Turpan (Tǔlǔfān, 吐鲁番), also known as Turfan, is a living testament to human ingenuity and perseverance. Watered by a system of irrigation tunnels known as karez that draw melt-water from the Himalayas into the blistering Turpan Basin, which, at 154 m (505 ft) below sea level, is the second lowest point on earth after the Dead Sea, Turpan's famed grape vines and relaxed vibe make it a favorite stop on the increasingly popular Xinjiang tourist circuit.

Long a key stop on the Silk Road, today's Turpan hosts tour-busloads of Chinese tourists and smaller groups of Western backpackers. It's also a significant Uighur agricultural town, thanks to the karez system, the origins of which date back to around 100 BC. Grapes are the primary crop, and vines run along trellises throughout town, creating shady passageways and welcome escape from temperatures that can soar in excess of 70°C (158°F) during the hottest months. The karez provide another cool getaway, too: The underground channels are accessed by wells dug into the bedrock, and one can actually descend part of the way into some of them, taking advantage of the earth's natural air conditioning.

Outside of town, old Silk Road ghosts roam the desert among the ruins of Jiaohe and the Baizeklik Thousand Buddha Caves. Natural splendor abounds as well, from the austere beauty of the desert to the stunning vista of the Flaming Mountains. Local majority Uighur culture is also on display, both in authentic forms on the streets and in the vineyards as well as in a more contrived fashion inside local restaurants and hotels, where Uighur-themed "exotic" song and dance shows are staged for the pleasure of tourists. For a sense of the dignified historical depth and breadth of local Muslim Uighur tradition, visit the Emin Minaret and Mosque.

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Situated on the old northern route of the Silk Road, Turpan's karez brought it water and life from the first century BC, as well as a steady stream of traders, adventurers, soldiers and merchants. The ancient kingdoms of Korla and Karashahr benefited from the early trade in goods between China and Central Asia, with routes extending all the way through Persia to Rome by the time of the Han Dynasty. Along with trade goods came religious ideas, with Persian Manicheanism, Nestorian Christianity, Buddhism and Islam all taking root in the wild lands known today as Xinjiang.

China sought to control the region and lucrative Silk Road trade and succeeded for a period, but after the fall of the Han Dynasty, regional Turkic tribes dominated, establishing a kingdom in Turpan in 487 AD that endured until 541. The Tang Dynasty re-established Chinese control over the region, but with their fall, the Turkic Uighur came to power, only to fall under the sway of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty.

Turpan and the region around it continued to slip in and out of direct Chinese control in following years, with restive Uighur and Kazakh often resisting and at other times accomodating China's recurring westward surges. By the time of the Qing, however, Turpan came firmly under control of the empire to the east, and though the fall of the Qing and the subsequent war with Japan and civil war loosened the state's grip on the region, Turpan and its environs have remained well within the established borders of modern China.

Today, Beijing's program of encouraging millions of eastern Chinese to go west, combined with huge improvements in transportation infrastructure and economic opportunities, have changed the face of the ancient oasis town. The Uighur-Han ethnic balance is shifting (not always without friction), but the romantic Silk Road desert feel of this unique destination remains.


The desert climate of Turpan is harsh and dry, with exceedingly hot summers and cold winters. Despite the puny average precipitation of only around 20 mm (1 in) a year, the areas ingenious underground irrigation system helps the desert bloom, and the long hot growing season makes for beautiful grapes and melons. July is the hottest month, with averages highs of 39°C (103°F ), while January is the coldest, ranging between highsof 26°F (-4°C) and lows of 4°F (-16°C).

Xinjiang guide | Turpan attractions | Turpan flights (Urumqi)
Turpan hotels | Turpan tours & activities
Turpan on the China Travel Blog