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Notes on the Geography of China: Turpan

China's hottest spot, and its coldest: they're both here in Turpan. That's the Uighur name; the Turkic is Turfan, which is the usual English transliteration. They both mean "lowland," alluding to the Turpan Depression, at its lowest point about 500 feet below sea level.

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China: Turpan picture 1

The city of Turpan is a hundred miles to the southeast of Urumqi, and the road is testimony to what the Chinese do best. The population in Turpan is split between Uighur and Han, but the signs are artful in assigning hierarchy: by place to one group and by size to the other.

China: Turpan picture 2

The route passes through a gap at the eastern side of the Tian Shan.

China: Turpan picture 3

It then opens up to the flat basin.

China: Turpan picture 4

We're below sea level.

China: Turpan picture 5

You might think that a below-sea-level basin would be protected from strong winds, but it's not so.

China: Turpan picture 6

It does have that Dead Sea atmosphere.

China: Turpan picture 7

Despite the desolation, the place is famous for grapes.

China: Turpan picture 8


China: Turpan picture 9

The vines are typically planted in troughs, perhaps to make irrigation easier.

China: Turpan picture 10

Along with wine, raisins are produced. They're air-dried in brick structures like this one.

China: Turpan picture 11

The bunches are hung over fixed pegs.

China: Turpan picture 12

The irrigation water comes from karez, the local name for what on the other side of Asia are called qanats. Once, there were about 1,800 of these tunnels in Xinjiang. Now there are about 600, of which 400 are here in Turpan.

China: Turpan picture 13

Once, Xinjiang had a cumulative total of 5,000 kilometers of these tunnels, dug and maintained through 172,000 access wells. Average length: 5-20 kilometers.

China: Turpan picture 14

A bit of tunneling. This is the Yengi Karez, reportedly dug in 1300 and recently producing 48 liters per second. It's a shorty: three kilometers long, with 110 access wells. Its deepest well, naturally at the head of the tunnel, is 63 meters deep.

China: Turpan picture 15

The government has made this technology a tourist attraction.

China: Turpan picture 16

Turpan's icon, however, is probably the Sugong Ta or Mosque, with its Emir Minaret, built in 1778 and named for Emin Khoja, a general.

China: Turpan picture 17

The minaret is strikingly similar to those far to the west. See, for example, the pictures from Khiva, Uzbekistan.

China: Turpan picture 18

Another angle, with a restored cemetery.

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View from the roof over to the modern city.

China: Turpan picture 20

Interior of the mosque, similarly a dead-ringer for those farther west.

China: Turpan picture 21

Semi-restored, the adjoining prefectural residence.

China: Turpan picture 22


China: Turpan picture 23

Main street of the modern part of town.

China: Turpan picture 24

Get off the main street, and things get simpler fast.

China: Turpan picture 25

There's not a lot of street appeal, but there's plenty of privacy.

China: Turpan picture 26

Behind the walls.

China: Turpan picture 27

Even utilitarian apartments have trellising for shade, greenery, and fruit.

China: Turpan picture 28

Inevitably, the most ostentatious buildings are mosques.

China: Turpan picture 29


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