Turpan is our first city in the autonomous region Xinjiang which is the largest province of China. Uyghurs are the biggest ethnic group in Xinjiang. While whole of China runs on Beijing time, the Uyghures have their own time which is two hours behind Beijing time (but all official times are still Beijing time).
While the official language is Chinese the most common language spoken is Uyghur, a Turkic language similar to Uzbek but written in Arabic script. Uyghurs feel very much connected to Turkish people and sometime you get the impression you are rather in Turkey than in China (e.g. in some restaurants).
Xinjiang experienced some riots in the past. Today, one is faced with armed policemen every 100m-250m in the cities, many armed patrols, cameras everywhere (really everywhere!!!) and a lot of small and large (high tech) check points. Everybody has to identify him/herself. It is most import to carry your ID or passport with you all the time. Mobile and Internet are to a large extent restricted. We did no longer have access to WhatsApp, Google, our Blog, most Western News, etc.. We were very surprised when we realized that the internet restrictions did not work in remote areas like on the Taklamakan Desert highway (we had strongest 3G mobile without restrictions….).
Once we had to drive back a road for 1.5 hours after some police officers at a check-point did not allow us to continue this route. They forced us to drive the longer way on a motorway – according to them for our own safety. The gasoline stations are protected by barbwire and checkpoint gates with guards and cameras. Each driver must first register and wait for being let in to fuel. Passengers are not allowed to enter the area and must wait outside the gate. Motor bikers must get their gasoline in cans and then fuel their tanks outside. All important places and buildings are protected by barbwire, cameras and checkpoints.
We could not imagine anything like this before our travel to Xinjiang. One definitely gets a strange feeling in this environment. On the other hand we also felt save when driving and in particular when walking – on our own – around the cities. But nevertheless we were looking forward to leaving these extraordinary circumstances behind us.
Our Uyghur guide in Turpan was one of our best guides ever. He was very professional, open and interested. He took us to his favorite local restaurants. When we asked him if he thought our western stomachs could handle this food – he said. “You will only find out by eating it.” So we tried all he suggested – and we loved it. Valentin and Beatrice even tried delicious fresh yoghurt drinks. Fried beans with a lot of chillie and garlic, tomatoes cooked with eggs and noodle dishes were our favourites. Believe it or not – we were fine;-).
The Turpan area has a glorious history. The Emin Minaret of Turpan is one of the most well-known monuments of the Silk Road. It is the tallest minaret in China. Its design is beautiful – in particular with the right sun light.
The Silk Road brought wealth into trading posts with its trading and road-tolls. The caravans were covering a silk road section only (e.g. Turpan – Kashgar). They sold their goods and bought new goods on their way back to their cities. Consequently, the cities were large trading places and this resulted in prosperous cities along the silk road. In the Turpan area one can visit the remainders of two ancient cities, Goachang and Jiahoe. Many of these prosperous places were targets of barbarians or foreign kingdoms.
The ruins of Gaochang city stand isolated in the Gobi Desert. It was built in the 1st century BC and abandoned in the 17th century. There is not much left but still very impressive to see the remaining of such a large, ancient Silk Road city.
The people from Gaochang city were burried in the Astana tombs. Again, just a field with walkable tombs and fascinating paintings.
The ruins of Jiahoe city are even more impressive and beautiful. On a high cliff (30-50m) between two river beds, the local people built a city mostly into the sandstone on the cliff (1.6km long and 300m wide). It was built 200 BC and about 5,000 people lived there. The army of Dschingghis’ Khan destroyed the city in the 13th century.
Another fascinating ancient site are the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves. They are located on a cliff in one of the seven valleys of the Flaming Mountain. Originally 83 caves existed. Today 57 remain but most paintings are either stolen (by Germans, English, French and/or Japanese) or destroyed during religious clashes (moslems). But there are some fascinating paintings left which give an idea of how beautiful and glorious the site must have been in the past.