Tuesday, October 25, 2005


China is a nation of mountains; not just in the west with the awesome Tibetan Plateau, but all the way to the east coast as well. But as well as dizzying heights, there are also sobering lows. The Turfan Depression is the second lowest point on earth (second only to the Dead Sea in Israel), culminating, as it were, at 154m below sea level in a salt-encrusted puddle of mud at Aydingkol lake. The town of Turfan (or Turpan as it's called by the local Uighurs, or Tulufan by the Chinese) sits on the northern branch of the Silk Road and has the distinction of being the hottest place in China, though at this time of year it's quite pleasant. Much closer to my heart (actually just below it in my stomach) are the grapes and raisins for which the area is famous for. The whole area around the town, as well as peoples' gardens, is full of vineyards, although they look quite forlorn at the moment because the harvest is already over. Due to the hot, dry climate the raisins produced in Turpan are the sweetest, most delicious you will ever eat. Needless to say I have been stuffing my face.

Although Turpan and the western province of Xinjiang are politically part of China, ethnically, linguistically and culturally they are closer to the Central Asian "Stans" than the Orient. This is where the Oriental and Caucasian peoples meet and mix, a fact you can see by observing the faces of passers by on the street where the remnants of the Tocharians (a kingdom that existed in the area some 2500 years ago where they spoke a language related to German and Irish) can be seen in the occasional head of brown hair and blue eyes. The relentless march of modernisation is also held in check by the donkey carts that trot along the dusty roads and wizened old ladies sitting in doorways sorting this years raisin harvest.

During the heyday of the Silk Road the area was an important staging post for merchants as is demonstrated by the massive remains of two cities that thrived in the area before being razed by Genghis and his horde as they passed through. Again, the dry conditions have helped preserve the remains of the fragile mud-brick buildings and so you can spend hours getting lost in the labyrinth of crumbling walls and alleyways. The ruins, especially of Jiaohe, would certainly be world renowned if they weren't so inaccessible, or have so much competition from other incredible sights in China.

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