Touring Xinjiang’s Historical Sites around Turpan, China

It took thirty hours to traverse the Taklaman, the world’s largest desert, by bus. I got off in the middle of nowhere, in a town called Turpan.

The region captivated me for two reasons

1. The extremes of the landscape. I stood amidst a vastness of dry, empty, yellow-to-red-hued plains and barren mountains. The lowest point is the Turpan basin at 505 feet below sea level, which receives practically no rain. Yet there are also extensive, fertile farmlands and even a grape valley.

2. The Silk Route once crossed the region and (thus) has a rich history. Ruins of ancient cities and religious centers stand testimony to those halcyon days. There is one particular feat of engineering I want to see: underwater canals.

There are many historical sites around Turpan and I couldn’t see them all, so during my sightseeing tour I focused on the three that appealed to me most.

1. The Astana-Karakhoja Tombs

The tombs are not far from the ruins of Gaochang, which from the 4th to 13th century was an important stop on the Silk Road’s northern route. 456 tombs have been excavated, 3 of which are open to the public. Intriguingly, the kings’ tombs remain undiscovered.

To see them I walked down six-meter-long slopes to the chamber that contains two mummies and murals depicting humans and landscapes. The arid climate plus the high percentage of salt in the soil have preserved the mummies extremely well. They were accompanied by jewelry, musical instruments, pens and ink, coins and lots of other attributes the dead might need in another world.

All these artifacts, however, have been taken to a museum in Turpan where they can be preserved better. Some of these works of art include embroidered cloths whose designs, copied in a mural, you can admire outside, which I thought was a neat idea.

Travel Guides for China

(click on the images to look inside)

2. The Bezeklik, or Bizaklik, Thousand Buddha Caves

The site dates from the 4th century and for some 700 years this was the Buddhist center of the Western Regions (currently Xinjiang and parts of Central Asia). The most attractive part of this site is the location. The collection of mud-brick retreats constructed on the cliffs of the barren Mutou Valley is stunning.

57 caves are open to the public today. I looked around in wonder. How many monks must have lived here to decorate so many caves? Walls and ceilings were covered with frescoes depicting 1000 Buddhas, scenes of royal families, and daily life.

Unfortunately, the caves have been plundered and destroyed (some frescoes can still be seen in a London museum. However, what is left was enough to let my imagination go back to the history and cultural wealth of those days.

Additional Reading on Xinjiang

3. The Karez Irrigation System

Some 2,000 years ago the Xinjiang people constructed canals to irrigate their lands. To prevent the irrigation canals from drying up due to the ruthless sun, they constructed them underground. The waterways start in the Tianshan Mountain and flow downhill to the villages and cities with a minimal gradient so no pumps are needed. There are some 3,000 miles of karezes in this province, some as long as 13 miles.

It is an impressive feat of engineering. In a museum I study the drawings of how the work was accomplished, admire the ancient tools and instruments. When we go down a two-meter-high karez, we realize how little space the workers had. They were understandably highly skilled, had a high status, and were paid well.

The karez irrigation system explains how it is possible to have fertile farmlands in such a dry and hot basin. Some 850 canals are still in use to irrigate, among other places, the grape valley and honey melon plantations for which the region is famous.

Practical Information about Visiting the Historical Sites around Turpan

  • Turpan lies in northwest China, in the province of Xinjiang.
  • In Turpan are various tour agencies to book a tour to the historical and cultural sites in the area.
  • Other stops during a sightseeing tour may include the ruins of Gaochang, a vineyard in the Grape Valley (ask to visit the old one, not the new one), the Flaming Mountains, and the ruins of Jiaohe.
  • The downside of these tours: I was not impressed by the ridiculously expensive restaurants for lunch. Plus, when entering or exiting sites you have no choice but to walk along endless rows of stalls selling souvenirs.

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Photos by Coen Wubbels. Follow our overland journey on or on Instagram.

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