Far, far from the sea coast, deep in the heart of the largest continent on the Earth, there is a land of mountains, deserts, grasslands, and forest. This is Xinjiang, the eastern part of Central Asia, a place full of stunning landscapes, ancient history, unique culture, and hidden gems. One of these hidden gems is Turpan, a small city in the middle of nowhere, known as the lowest place in this part of Asia, the second-lowest in the world. Let’s travel to Turpan and reveal its secrets, by an exciting journey to this off the beaten area in the world!
Where is Turpan
I remember a long time ago when I was a student in primary school. As I always like to share, geography has been always my favorite subject in school. We have studied about many key points on the surface of the Earth, most of which are now off the beaten places to travel, far from the popular tourist destinations. And Turpan was a name clearly remained in my mind, as one of the lowest places on the planet.
Turpan (Turfan, Tulupan, in Chinese 吐露盘) is located in the eastern part of Xinjiang, south of the easternmost branches of Tianshan Mountains. It is only about 80 km far from the geographical center of Asia, which means really from the ocean since Asia is the largest continent on the Earth. And geographically, its most significant feature is the so-called Turpan Depression.
It is a literal “hole” (although unseen by a human eye, since it is too flat), whose bottom is situated at 157 m below the sea level. It is the second-lowest place on the planet, after the Dead Sea in Israel and Jordan (which is 430 m below the sea level). Now there is a drying lake on the bottom of the depression, called Aiding Lake. And the city of Turpan is located some 25-30 km north of the lake, already slightly higher than the sea level.
For those, who are not too much into geography, probably Turpan Depression and Aiding Lake would be of much interest. There are no „stunning views”, no amazing natural formations, only merciless heat in the summer, reaching sometimes up to 50︒C. And silence, with a unique feeling to be in such a spot on the planet (not too much people go to visit it). But this could be enough to ignite a little geographical passion.
However, Turpan has much more than this unique feature to reveal. It is a place with a long, ancient history, and you can see its traces all around the city. Let’s make a short historical journey of Turpan and the surrounding area.
History of Turpan
Thousands of years ago, the first known humans reached this remote and deserted place. Since then, many kingdoms and civilizations left their traces here, forming a long timeline of history. A famous name, which gradually appeared from the deserts and the giant mountains became strongly tied with the area of Turpan. It was the Silk Road, of which Turpan has become an important trade center.
But let’s look in more details, how has everything developed here. As usual, I will try to arrange it shortly by periods.
Ancient times (to 209 BC)
Since unknown times, various groups of people have left their traces in the area of Turpan. For most of them, nobody knows who were they, where they came from and what has been their language. But others were known- mainly Persian speaking people, such as Saka, Tocharians, and the so-called Jushi people. Jushi established their own kingdom with capital Yar (Jiaohe), located only 12 km west of the modern Turpan, and it is what remained as the most important trace of that age in this area.
Han and Xiongnu Empires (209 BC to 220 AD)
This age was marked by fierce competition between two main East Asian powers- the nomadic Xiongnu Empire and the Chinese Han Empire. So there were several periods, during which Turpan area and the city of Yar passed in the hands of Xiongnu, then Han, then again Xiongnu, again Han, and only a few short intermediate periods of independence. Finally, both these strong empires fell, and a new age began.
Post-Han and Early Turkic era (220 to 640)
After the fall of Han and Xiongnu, Turpan was a partially independent area with Yar as a capital, and another rising city- Khocho (Gaochang). At 487 a local Turkic kingdom of Tiele was established, conquered by Ruanruan tribes at 541, and only some 13-15 years later- by the Gokturks, thus becoming a part of their Gokturk Khaganate. But this khaganate soon fell too, and a Kingdom of Karakhoja (again a Turkic kingdom) remained in the area, with Gaochang (Khocho) as a capital, until the next Chinese conquest.
Tang Empire and its competitors (640 to 809)
The Tang Chinese conquered Turpan and most of the modern Xinjiang. Until 792, this region flourished in peace, with highly increasing of the commercial trade between Tang and the western nations. But the crisis came with An Lushan Rebellion in the second half of the 8th century, and during the chaos, the Tibetan Empire conquered Turpan. Its times passed too, and the next conquerors were the Uyghurs, who initially had a large Uyghur Khaganate, but after been defeated by the Kyrgyz, part of them settled in Turpan and established a smaller Uyghur kingdom- Karakhoja.
Uyghurs and Karakhoja Kingdom (809-1389)
During all these centuries (as you can see- 580 years!) Turpan enjoyed relatively peaceful times. A few new empires ruled over large portions (or whole) of Xinjiang, and Turpan’s Karakhoja Kingdom, with capital Gaochang, not only survived all of them but remained prosperous. Yes, the kingdom paid its price for it, becoming a vassal to these empires: Karakhanids, Western Liao (Qidan) and then- the Great Mongol Empire.
But this strategy didn’t work when the Mongol Empire divided and various new daughter empires emerged from it. And the main reason was religion. Until its end, Karakhoja Kingdom was predominantly a Buddhist area. But when the Moghulistan Empire conquered it in 1389, its rulers imposed Islam, and put Karakhoja to an end, destroying the ancient Yar City. Since then, Yar remained as deserted ruins, made alive just since the recent years as a tourist site.
Moghulistan and the Oirats (1389 to 1759)
The Islamized Mongols of Moghulistan ruled over the most of Xinjiang more than 2 centuries. This empire was not always united, but often divided between local rulers, so Turpan was most of the time again as a Moghulistan’s independent kingdom.
But in the second half of the 17th century, the Oirat Mongols conquered most of today’s Xinjiang, including Turpan- somewhere by force, somewhere peacefully by treaties, as in the case of Turpan. However, at the same time, China in the east was rising, with the new Qing Dynasty coming to power.
Qing Empire (1759-1912)
The armies of Qing defeated the Oirat Empire and conquered the whole Xinjiang. But they allowed some autonomy of some regions, and Turpan was one of them. When Qing conquered Xinjiang, Turpan’s population was mainly Muslim, and its leader Emin Khoja joined the Chinese. In return, the Chinese now only supported him but also sponsored the building of the mosque with the highest minaret in China- Emin Minaret, which is now one of the main and important places to visit in Turpan. However, in the later years, Turpan gradually lost its autonomy and became a regular part of Qing.
Modern China (1912 to present day)
After the fall of Qing, the whole area of Xinjiang was in a real mess. Two times parts of Xinjiang declared independence under local warlords but then were quickly defeated by other competitors (not only Han Chinese). And after 1949 and the establishment of the Communist People’s Republic of China, the locals, in general, welcomed the Communists, who made peace and stability by force in the whole Xinjiang.
Since then, Turpan is one of the big cities in Xinjiang Autonomous Region, currently very safe and prospering, with growing tourism development. Yes, as in the whole Xinjiang, it is achieved not without strong police control everywhere, but at least the peace and safety are fact and an important condition for normal life and travel.
During the whole of this long history, in its war and peace, one thing remained as a witness- the Silk Road. And Turpan has become one of its important jewels.
Our journey to Turpan
After I researched all of this about Turpan, we decided to make Turpan a mandatory destination on our trip to Xinjiang that we started to plan. And since Turpan is located in the eastern part of Xinjiang, and we were coming from the east, it became our first place to visit in our Xinjiang itinerary.
We got the train from Guangdong province in South China and traveled two nights, passing through various landscapes- from lush, green subtropical to vast desert wilderness. Finally, in the last morning, we were traveling through an endless yellowish-brown plain, with distant mountains on the north. And suddenly, this empty plain changed. There were a lot of vineyards, appearing everywhere, and as we soon learned, it was one of the symbols of Turpan. We approached Turpan North Railway Station, got down from the train and our Turpan journey began.
First impressions of Turpan
It was a clear and bright sunny morning, without a single cloud in the sky. We went out of the railway station and I was a foreigner passed my first police check in Xinjiang. Yes, it was one of the things that every foreigner traveling in Xinjiang should get used to. But everything was quick and simple and we were ready to enter the city, looking for a public bus.
However, there was another surprise- the public buses start at 10:00 am (and now it was only 7:30 am)! Yes, although Xinjiang is a part of China and uses Beijing time, here the locals live in their own time, around 2-3 hours later than in Beijing. So we could only find a taxi, which took us to our hostel through the empty streets, while the locals were still sleeping.
Dap Youth Hostel
So, first, we arrived in our hostel, which had to be our „base camp” for our Turpan itinerary. It was Dap Youth Hostel (达卜青年旅舍)- now the best hostel in the city, where you can meet foreign travelers from all over the world, find new friends and discuss each other’s experience in these far distant lands.
The hostel is a small complex of traditional local style houses, surrounding a nice yard, covered by vineyard trellis. There is also a nice traditional table on a platform, where you can relax in the vineyard shadow. The personnel is very friendly and helpful, and they can arrange many trips to the nearby sites, most of which are only reachable by car.
So, we put our luggage in our rooms and were ready to start exploring the city.
What to see in Turpan
Yes, it was the first thing that I had to plan for our two days journey in Turpan. As I always do, I wanted to identify the main and essential symbols, landmarks and everything else which presents best this city, and it had to be arranged within a two days itinerary.
Turpan Museum (吐露盘博物馆)
Naturally, Turpan Museum had to be our first destination, because it gives a good initial presentation of the city.
Turpan Museum is located in the southern part of the city center and it is arranged in a three-story modern building. It presents various historical artifacts, as well as even some pre-historical, like dinosaur bones, eggs, and other fossils. You can see some remnants of all the historical periods, mentioned above in this post.
But maybe the most mysterious and even creepy is the exhibition on the third floor. There you can see several mummies, exposed in showcases. A few of them are couples, but there is also a baby mummy. They are dated from various historical periods, some of which are more than 2500-3000 years old.
Entrance fee: free
Emin Minaret (苏公塔)
It is an important symbol of Turpan. As I mentioned above, it was built in the second half of the 18th century by Emin Khoja, a local Uyghur warlord, fighting together with the army of Qing against the Oirats. His son Suleyman built this minaret with the mosque, so it is also called Su Gong Ta, in honor of his name. It is known as the mosque with the highest minaret (40 m) in China and is designed in a unique local style.
There is a large yard around the mosque and the minaret. You can’t enter the minaret itself, but you can enter the mosque, which has a large hall and many small cells with holes, through which the sunlight penetrate inside. Outside, you can see a silent cemetery, small ritual halls and even a well- all this remaining still in the time and the summer heat.
Entrance fee: 50 CNY
Emin Minaret is located in the southeastern suburbs of Turpan, about 7-8 mins by taxi from Turpan Museum or 20 mins on foot. I chose the second option and walked first on a local street with Uyghur houses, where you really have an impression like you are somewhere in Turkmenistan, rather than China. Finally, before reaching the mosque, I walked through vast vineyard fields, which are everywhere, surrounding the city. And it is one of the landmarks of Turpan.
The vineyards of Turpan
There is a special arrange vineyard tourist site near the city, called Grape Valley. But in fact, the vineyards are all around Turpan, so if you want to see them- just go out of the urban areas and walk. The only difference between the Grape Valley and the other vineyards are the local attractions and amenities, designed especially for tourists (and of course, the entrance fee). But, I think the main essence of this landmark is the vineyards themselves, so you would not miss anything if just choose a random vineyard out of the city to walk. And if you anyway prefer some better-arranged vineyards, you can also find them in the other places to visit, such as in Karez Wells.
Karez Wells (坎儿井)
This is an ancient water supplying system of Turpan. The plain, slightly sloped from the north to the Turpan Depression in the south, appeared to be very proper for the establishment of water wells and canals construction. There are hundreds of wells (or just their remnants), discovered in the area, through which the water from Tianshan enters unto the underground canals.
And now there are two sites in Turpan, representing these wells- a new and an old one. We chose the old Karez Wells site since it presents a well-arranged museum, where you can get a good picture about the whole system (so when you go there by taxi, tell the driver that you want to go to the old Karez Wells!). And you can also go down to one of the underground canals (yes, it is renewed and arranged with a pale violet light) to feel the mystic environment beyond the Earth’s surface. Besides, you can also enjoy a splendid vineyard around its museum.
Entrance fee: 40 CNY
Yar (Yarkhoto) City- Jiaohe (交河故城)
Then we went to Yar City (Yarkhoto), called in Chinese Jiaohe, which is mandatory to visit for every traveler in Turpan. As I mentioned above, it has been a flourished capital and a prefecture center of a few ancient kingdoms, existed in this area for more than 2500 years ago. And it has been destroyed in 1389 by the Moghuls, so now only its silent ruins have remained, on more than 12 km west of Turpan.
The city has been built on a prolonged plateau between two rivers, so it is raising significantly over the surrounding area. First, we arrived at the parking lot of its site, where our journey began with a presentation of Yar and its history. Then, there is an open-air electric bus, which guides the visitors to the city ruins, passing by a small „Yar Village”. This village is good to stop, but it is nothing special since it is a new tourist construction with some local ethnic artifacts. Yet the main place of interest is the Yar (Yarkhoto) City itself.
When we arrived at the main gate and started walking on the alleys through its mysteriously deserted ruins, we didn’t expect how long is this city. Its plateau has a shape of a ship, around 30 m high and 1,6 km long. It took more than an hour to reach its furthest point- a ruin of an ancient Buddhist pagodas complex. There are ruins of many temples and Buddhist shrines, government buildings, public squares, as well as totally unrecognizable constructions. Everything is yellowish, in a desert color, still in time. The impression is really indescribable.
Entrance fee: 40 CNY
Aiding Lake (艾丁湖)
For those who are interested in geography, or at least impressed, Aiding Lake is another place, mandatory to visit. It is around 35 km south of Turpan, and it is the bottom of the Turpan Depression. We hired a driver (for 150 CNY), who took us to this site. There was an entrance gate 2 km north of the main place, and finally, we arrived at its parking lot. Needless to say, in summer it can be extremely hot. When we arrived, it was „only” 44︒C, but it may rise above 50!
The first thing that you can see on the bottom of the Turpan Depression is a hostile plain, covered by dry, hard grass. There is a small lake, some 100 m south of the parking lot, with a sign „Aiding Lake” (艾丁湖), however, it is not the natural lake itself, but only a small piece of it, artificially protected and supported against drying.
The lowest place in the bottom of the Turpan Depression is a kilometer further inside. There is a wooden alley, built over the dry grass, leading to this point. And there is a big globe, built in the point, marking the Kota 157 below the sea level. You can walk through the grass further, but it is difficult without long trousers- the grass is too prickly. On the other side, wearing long trousers is too hot in summer. Anyway, walking on the bottom of the Turpan Depression could be a strange, but exciting experience.
Entrance fee: 26 CNY
The center of Turpan
Yes, the modern city of Turpan itself is worth to walk and explore. Especially its most beautiful street- the pedestrian Qingnian Street (青年路), which is covered by the deep shadow of grapevine trees like a tunnel. We asked locals and they said that the grapes are free to eat, if you are enough high to pick them. We didn’t try, but just that’s what locals usually do when you can. Yet Turpan is famous as „the city of grapes”.
Until recently, there has been an area, when at evening there were a lot of street food stalls and even live dances and performances in the open air. Now I asked the locals, and they said there is no more such „Turpan nightlife activity”, but there is still some evening open-air street food that you can find on the East Circumference Road (Dong Huan Lu- 东环路), near the small park beside the Turpan Museum.
More places to visit around Turpan
That’s what we visited during our 2-days itinerary in Turpan. But there are a few other places, really worth to explore if you have more time.
Flaming Mountains (火焰山)
There are a lot of „Flaming Mountains” around Xinjiang and the neighboring areas. The name is derived from the image of such kind of mountains- absolutely dry, with slopes highly eroded by nullahs like grooves, like „flames”.
But what makes Turpan’s Flaming Mountains famous and „different”, is a popular Chinese story, called „Monkey King”, which is filmed not only in China as „Journey to the West” TV series, but also in the West as „Monkey King” movie. And the local Flaming Mountains are a well-known scene in this story, attracting thousands of tourists to see these places of the Monkey King’s adventures. Distance from Turpan: 30 km. Entrance fee: 40 CNY.
Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves (柏孜克里克千佛洞）
It is an ancient Buddhist center near the Flaming Mountains, where the Buddhist worshipper used to do their religious rituals. The caves are artificial holes in the complex of religious constructions, painted by Buddhist murals. Currently, only 57 caves are preserved. Distance from Turpan: 40 km westward. Entrance fee: 40 CNY.
Gaochang Ancient City (高昌古城)
This is the other ancient city, whose ruins stay still under the sun, quite similar to Yar (Yarkhoto). Gaochang (also named in Uyghur „Karakhoja”) has been a capital of Karakhoja Kingdom (see the history above), and like Yarkhoto has been suffering war destructions and was gradually abandoned. Distance from Turpan: 43 km, from Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves- 20 km (southward). Entrance fee: 70 CNY
Astana Ancient Tombs (阿斯塔那墓)
It is an ancient cemetery, where the wealthy people of Gaochang (Karakhoja) Kingdom were buried. And it is not just a complex of tombs, but you can also see a lot of ancient artifacts, related to that age. Distance from Turpan: 36 km. Entrance fee: 40 CNY.
Tuyuq Village (吐峪沟)
It is a really unique village, where you can see the original local Uyghur life and culture. Also, it is known as a religious Muslim center, where the Uyghur pilgrims go for worship. And its houses and other constructions are mostly in old traditional style. Add to this the beautiful valley, full with vineyards, and it makes Tuyuq Village worth to visit. Distance from Turpan: 58 km. Entrance fee: 45 CNY.
Kumtagh Desert (库木塔格沙漠)
It is a small sand desert, located far east from Turpan (so it requires maybe a one whole day to visit). The dunes, the sand color and the whole environment (including camels) make this place a classical image of a sand desert. Worth to visit, although it is arranged more for tourist, unlike the much larger Taklamakan Desert. Distance from Turpan: 96 km. Entrance fee: 30 CNY.
How to reach Turpan and travel around
So, there are two main ways to reach Turpan. First, you can fly to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, then by bus or train for 2-3 hours you can arrive in Turpan. And the second way is by train from the east of China. There are trains to Urumqi or Kashgar, which stop in Turpan. And there are two railway stations in Turpan- the old Turpan Station, which is 45 km northwest of the city, and the new Turpan North Station, which is only 8 km north of the city, much convenient. See more about the transportation in China here.
Check out your transport options to Urumqi:
Once arrive in Turpan, you have two options to travel around the city, within the city- by taxi or by bus. Taxis are very cheap and comfortable, with an initial price of 7 CNY, and since the city is not so big, your final taxi fee would be quite low. By taxi, you can visit Turpan Museum and the center of the city, Emin Minaret, Karez Wells and Yar (Yarkhoto)- Jiaohe Ancient City.
The other option is by public bus. Yes, it is cheaper than the taxi- only 1 CNY, but not so convenient. It is good to use if you want to visit Turpan Museum or Emin Minaret. Maybe the most convenient bus, related the sites within Turpan, is No. 102.
For more distant places to visit- Aiding Lake, Flaming Mountains, Tuyuq Village, etc., which are more than 30 km far from Turpan, you need to hire a local car with driver. Our Dap Hostel, where we resided can help for it and arrange a car with an English speaking driver for 250-400 CNY (which you can share, since it is per car, not per person), depending on the destination that he goes. Yes, we found a car with a driver for only 150 CNY outside, who took us to Aiding Lake, but he couldn’t speak English. For me, that’s no problem, since I speak Chinese, but for most of the foreigners, it may be inconvenient.
Accommodation in Turpan
As everywhere in China, only certain hotels and hostels can accept foreigners- only those who have such a license. We chose Dap Youth Hostel because it is the most popular one, and as I said, we could meet other foreign travelers and share our experience. But there is another hostel in the city- White Camel, which as I heard is good too, however, it is older than Dap Youth Hostel and now not such popular. Beside these two places, there are a few more hotels, but in general, they are more expensive. See more about the accommodation in China here.
Check out your accommodation options in Turpan, in Booking:
We finished our 2 days itinerary in Turpan and had to proceed our Xinjiang trip further. So, our driver that we found took us to the old Turpan Railway Station, where we got the train to Kashgar. Thus we left Turpan, full of impressions, wondering what else Xinjiang has to reveal!
Get more impressions of Turpan:
Check out some travel books about Xinjiang and the Silk Road:
Disclaimer: Journey Beyond the Horizon is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon and affiliated sites at no additional cost to you.