The small oasis town of TURPAN (吐鲁番, tùlŭfān) is an absolute must-see if you’re in Xinjiang. Long a Silk Road outpost, it has been a favourite with adventurous travellers for some time, and before the travails of 2008 this little place had seen its stock rise considerably. Residents covered many streets and walkways with vine trellises, converting them into shady green tunnels (partly for the benefit of tourists), but have also managed to retain a relatively easy-going manner even in the heady economic climate of modern China.
The town is located in a depression 80m below sea level, which accounts for its extreme climate – well above 40°C in summer and well below freezing in winter. In summer the dry heat is so soporific that there is little call to do anything but sleep or sip cool drinks in outdoor cafés with other tourists or the friendly locals. To ease the consciences of the indolent there are a number of ruined cities and Buddhist caves worth visiting in the countryside around the city, testimony to its past role as an important Silk Road stopover. Rather surprisingly, despite its bone-dry surroundings, Turpan is an agricultural centre of note, famed across China for its grapes. Today, virtually every household in the town has a hand in the business, both in cultivating the vine, and in drying the grapes at the end of the season (a Grape Festival is held at the end of August). Note that if you come out of season (Nov–March), Turpan is cold and uninspiring, with the vines cut back and most businesses closed – the surrounding sights, however, remain interesting, and at these times are almost devoid of other tourists.
Turpan is a largely Uyghur-populated area and, in Chinese terms, an obscure backwater, but it has not always been so. As early as the Han dynasty, the Turpan oasis was a crucial point along the Northern Silk Road, and the cities of Jiaohe, and later Gaochang (both of whose ruins can be visited from Turpan), were important and wealthy centres of power. On his way to India, Xuanzang spent more time than he had planned here, when the king virtually kidnapped him in order to have him preach to his subjects. This same king later turned his hand to robbing Silk Road traffic, and had his kingdom annexed by China in 640 as a result. From the ninth to the thirteenth century, a rich intellectual and artistic culture developed in Gaochang, resulting from a fusion between the original Indo-European inhabitants and the (pre-Islamic) Uyghurs. It was not until the fourteenth century that the Uyghurs of Turpan converted to Islam.