Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region – Turpan, China: Day 1

From Urumqi, an hour long bullet train ride took us to the oasis town of Turpan in the Taklamakan Desert. This was the target of our trip to Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region as just outside Turpan can be found ancient Silk Road settlement ruins, 1700 year old tombs, 1400 year old Buddhist caves and sandstone mountains made famous in the novel Journey to the West (one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature). The city itself felt more open and relaxed than Urumqi (although there were still police stationed at the hotels that accepted foreigners).


This is the image I want to remember from our visit to this area and not the police presence

We spent two days in Turpan and hired an English-speaking driver for both days at a cost of 1000 RMB (just under $200 CAD or $150 USD). We covered a lot of ground on the first day; managing to visit the Flaming Mountains, Bezeklik Caves, Gaochang Ruins, Astana Tombs and had enough time to stop for a late lunch and a stroll through a village in the Tuyuk Valley. Incredibly, we were usually the only tourists at each of the places we visited. Completely unheard of in China where hoards of tour groups with their selfie sticks swarm any remotely interesting tourist site! Looks like May is a good time to visit. Not too hot and no crowds. Win-win! Hope you’re ready for an onslaught of photos of incredibly pretty places!

First stop – the Flaming Mountains before the day got too hot. The mountains are sandstone and are described in the novel Journey to the West as being on fire during certain times of the day when the sun and shadows looks like they are flickering red hot.


Flaming Mountains


A tree in a desert looks like this


View of Flaming Mountains in the morning light


Looking down into the valley from the Flaming Mountains


My girl will find the one tree for miles and climb it


GoPro photo of us


Second stop – just below the Flaming Mountains are the Bezeklik Caves that was once part of a Buddhist monastery in the 6th-14th centuries. There are 77 rock cut caves that hold painted murals of Buddha. Sadly, they suffer significant damage from the local Muslim population and many murals were removed by early European and Japanese explorers. Unfortunately, no photos were allowed inside the caves.


Looking down onto the caves


Terrace from which some of the caves can be accessed


View of the caves on the cliffs

Here’s a little video Marc shot. Follow the little swinging arms:)

Third stop – the Astana Tombs which was once the cemetery of the ancient city of Gaochang. Not all of the tombs have been excavated or made open to the public but what was open was pretty cool. The children got up close and personal with a couple of mummies in one of the tombs. They don’t seem to be overly traumatized by the experience;) Again unfortunately, no photos were allowed inside the tombs.


Guardian statues outside the tombs


Stairs leading down into one of the tombs


Fourth stop – the extensive Gaochang Ruins, a garrison town that was founded in the 1st century AD as a Chinese colony, came under Uyghur rule(who were Buddhists at the time) in the 8th century AD, and eventually abandoned during the early Ming era. What remains is just a faint shadow of what was once there. It is currently a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of the Silk Road UNESCO World Heritage Sites.


To cover all of Gaochang it is best to take one of the electric shuttles that run on these brick roads (available for 35 RMB per person). We saw bikes for rent too but not sure what the fee for those were. The benefit of being the only tourists is that we had our own personal shuttle that drove us around the complex, stopping and waiting at various points so that we could explore and take photos.


Difficult to tell what this use to be


Most of the site has boardwalks to keep tourists off the crumbling ruins


Temple complex


Musician at one of the walls of the temple complex


A great city once stood here


Found on the outskirts of city. Perhaps this served as storage?


They are so similar


Ruins of someone’s home


One of the most special memories of our visit here will be of us walking around this site as the only tourists on a beautifully sunny day while a musician plays traditional music in the background:

Fifth and final stop for the day – late lunch and a stroll through a village in Tuyuk Valley. This village has existed for at least 2000 years. Incredible right?


The village tucked in the valley


Lunch stop at a local family’s home


Women in the family (the men were at prayer at the mosque)


It was mulberry season. These men were taking a snack break from whatever they were doing. They happily offered us handfuls to try. There was the black variety we were use to and a white variety that was new to us. The white ones were like liquid syrup bombs.


Entrance to a home in the village


A home in the village. The day bed type set up seems very common in the area and seems to serve multiple purposes from lounging to eating to sleeping.


Roads and homes in the village


The whole village


The hills just outside the village contain shades of red, green and yellow. The cave like holes you see in the centre of the photo are Buddhist caves similar to the Bezeklik Caves but are not yet open to the public.

Day one in Turpan was incredibly magical, transporting us to a time and place beyond China. Excited to hear about Day 2?



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