Turpan is an important stop along the Silk Road, with a history dating back to two thousand years ago. After witnessing the rise and fall of countless kingdoms and cultures, Turpan is today a multicultural city where Uighur and Han Chinese live in relative peace. As there’s a lot to see here, this itinerary will help you visit the most important places of interests in and around the city within a day.
The first point of interest takes you almost an hour out of Turpan, into a picturesque gorge dotted with caves. Much like its more famous cousin, the Mogao Caves, the Bezeklik Caves are a historical and cultural treasure trove of Buddhist wall paintings and sculptures. It’s definitely smaller in scale, which makes for a short tour inside. You might also spend a quick 5 minutes talking selfies in front of the large statue of Xuanzang, the Monkey King, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing. Unceremoniously located behind the car park like an expensive afterthought, these characters are deeply rooted in the Chinese psyche because of the Ming-era Chinese classic, Journey to the West.
This leads to the second place of interest, the Flaming Mountains. Just a short 10-minute drive from the Bezeklik Caves, this massive wall of barren rock was the scene of an epic battle between the Monkey King and the Ox King, as narrated by the novel. In real life, the Flaming Mountains is set in the Turpan Depression, where temperatures can reach up to 50°c in summer and plummet to -10°c in winter. Another theory to its name comes from the wavy rock structure resembles flames, which kinda makes sense if you were an imaginative writer looking for exotic places to write about.
As with many places deemed tourist-worthy, the authorities have built a nice visitor centre charging a hefty entrance price. You can see the mountains from almost anywhere, and there really is no reason to enter the park if you’re tight on budget. However, for the ticket price, you get to visit a small underground geological museum, and stories from the Journey to the West. Aboveground, you’ll pass a huge but dubious thermometer stuck into the ground, announcing that the temperature is peaking over 50°c, and further up, huge scattered statues of characters from the novel pose for selfies, backdropped ingloriously by the majestic mountains.
Grape Valley (葡萄沟, Pu Tao Gou)
After visiting the amusement-park-esque site, continue the tour at the Grape Valley (葡萄沟, Pu Tao Gou), a lush valley of grape vines and raisin drying huts impossibly situated in the middle of a desert, and surrounded by barren, craggy cliffs. Irrigated by remarkable underground canals called Karez that carried fresh water from the nearby Tianshan (“Heavenly Mountain”) range, you’ll find that this area is much cooler than the exposed hell that is the Flaming Mountains.
The Grape Valley offers more than just vineyards and raisin huts. Your driver will also stop by 5 points of interest, each decorated with manicured gardens and sheltered by grape vines.
- Grape Manor: explore the sprawling gardens and indulge in a spot of fruit tasting
- Home of Apandi: read stories of an Islamic icon, Apandi, while learning about the way of life of the locals
- Folk-Custom Park of Darwaz: Learn and relive the folk customs of the local inhabitants
- Wang Luobin Art Museum: Read all about the famous music composer and national icon, Wang Luobin
- Amusement Park – More gardens and grapes. You’ll probably be a bit sick of them by now.
At the Folk-Custom Park of Darwaz, you can climb up a flight of steps leading up a cliff face, to reach a lookout point facing the valley. It’s a tiring climb up, but the 270 degree views are stunning!
The Grape Valley is also the best place to buy raisins fresh from the local farmers. You’ll visit a small market for lunch, so check out the raisins on sale. I heartily recommend trying the Ma-nai-zi (Mare nipple grape) or Wu-he-bai (White seedless grape). The listed price is cheaper than that in the Kashgar Sunday bazaar, so go ahead and buy some back. You won’t regret it!
Jiaohe Ancient City
From the Grape Valley, you’ll visit the Jiaohe ancient city. Dating as far back as 108 B.C., Jiaohe was the capital city of the Anterior Jushi Kingdom. After a millenia of occupation by various ruling factions, it was abandoned in the 14th century.
The ruins deserves a day to explore on its own with a guide. Unlike many ancient cities, Jiaohe stands out as one without a city wall. That would have been pretty redundant, given that the city was elevated and defended by steep cliffs all around. Also unlike other cities of the time, buildings were seldom made of wood, but was carved into the ground. This city was built to be defensible against the constant threat of invasion.
With the afternoon sun setting soon, you can take a 30 minute stroll down the central boulevard and marvel at the well-preserved buildings before heading back to the visitor centre.
You’ll be taken to the Karez Museum next, where you’ll get a chance to go underground and follow a short stretch of canal that still channels water down to the oasis. Don’t worry, you won’t need to crouch low and crawl – the tunnels have been expanded to fit large Chinese tour groups.
The Karez are an amazing man-made marvel that changed the whole landscape of Turpan. At its peak, the tunnels stretched for over 5,000m, dating back to as early as 103 B.C. Beside serving to irrigate the town, the canals also kept locals cool and sheltered from the scorching weather outside.
Emerging from the Karez, make a beeline to your driver. The day’s not over yet, not until you’ve visited the Emin Minaret, located 2km outside Turpan. The 44m mud-brick tower stands out against the surrounding countryside and was built by Duke Suleman in 1778, to honour his father, Emin Khoja. Unfortunately, visitors cannot climb up to the top. This is the last stop for the day, so take all the photos you want. After this, it’s time for a steaming hot dinner of lamb and noodles back in town!
Information on the places of interest
- Entrance Fee: ¥40
- Opening Hours: 9.00am to 5.00pm (peak season)
- Entrance Fee: ¥90
- Opening Hours: 8.00am to 9.00pm (peak season), 10.00am to 6.30pm (off-peak)
Jiaohe Ancient City (Yarkhoto)
- Entrance Fee: ¥115
- Opening Hours: 9.00am to 6.00pm
- Entrance Fee: ¥30
- Opening Hours: 9.00am to 5.00pm
- Entrance Fee: ¥50
- Opening Hours: 8.50am to 8.00pm
Where should you stay?
Most accommodations in Turpan are typical Chinese-run hotels or smaller guesthouses. If you’re a backpacker, you’re in luck though as there’s a popular hostel in the city. The DAP Youth hostel might sound like a party place, but it’s a pretty peaceful retreat from the dusty streets outside. Inside, grapevines hang from the trellises, shading guests from the worst of the afternoon sun. There’s also a lot of useful tips in travelling independently around the area without engaging a guide.
You can also check out Booking.com for the latest deals:
With so much to see and do, a day offers travellers a mere glimpse into the history and culture of the region. You’ll want to spend two or three days if you can afford the time.
The best time to visit is between July to September, when the grapes are in harvest and days are longer. It’s also easier to move around in scorching heat than frigid cold. After exploring Turpan, you can take a bus to Ürümqi or Hami, or board a train headed to Dunhuang (stop at Liuyuan and hire a long-distance taxi to get there). If you’re keen to explore more stops along the Silk Road, check out a 14-day itinerary for backpacking in Xinjiang.