May 31 – Turfan, China – Dave

A day for sightseeing here in Turfan, a city that’s fast becoming an essential stop for Silk Road tourists.  The only problem is that the Chinese (at least as far as we have seen in our short time here) have a knack for reducing extraordinary tourist locations to seedy disappointments.  Indeed the Australian couple we met in Kyrgyzstan (remember Shane the surrealist artist and his pharmacist wife Christine?) had told us they’d fled China after a few weeks, unable to endure any more  “major let-downs”.

When a location demonstrates tourism potential the M.O. is to fence and gate it, concrete as much surface area as possible, cram in thousands of shops selling shoddy souvenirs and then permit tour guides to scream at their groups through portable amplifiers that would impress Ozzy Osbourne.  I know – China isn’t unique in this – but as with everything else, they do it with astonishing energy and on such a vast scale.  Hopefully time and experience will lead them to undo some of the damage and create tourism experiences more sympathetic to the wonderful locations.

Having had my rant, the first location we visited today was actually very cool –  the ancient city of Jiaohe – in its time an important Silk Road waypoint, but overrun and largely destroyed by Genghis Kahn and the boys.  UNESCO have been involved in its excavation and restoration, so the ground hasn’t been entirely concreted over and, as you’ll see below, the numerous shops don’t actually encroach on the ruins…

…which, given their age (some dating back to the 6th century) and Genghis Kahn’s attention, are still extensive and impressive and convey a sense of what it must have been like to live there.

We then headed back into Turfan to see the Karez water system – a massive network of tunnels and canals that have for over 2,000 years channeled the water from the distant Tain Shen mountains and turned this corner of a vast, arid plain into a fertile oasis.

Sadly, this was the most concreted, retail infested, noisy and cheesy tourist attraction we have visited so far.  Even Walt Disney would have thrown up.

A simple visit to some of the actual tunnels would have been great, but alas…

So we hurried on to visit the Emin Minaret – the tallest minaret in China – and the adjacent mosque (we are, after all, still in Muslim Uighur territory even though we’ve been nearly 2 weeks in this colossal country)…

And finally, we visited some of the vineyards for which Turfan is justifiably famous.  While the vines are indeed green and beautiful and the villages we passed through quite charming, the fenced and gated tourist area was without question the cheesiest location so far.  Note the clever use of concrete (for the short-sighted among you it’s everything in this picture except for the visitor, the water and the shrubs).

Seeking solace we hurried to the ‘Western Bar’ to sample the wine – which could have been used to anti-foul yachts.  However, some other visitors seemed to find our reactions (and maybe appearances) amusing…

Despite the disappointments, Turfan is an extraordinary place.  The scale of the Karez water system is mind-boggling and the resulting greenery a testimony to millennia of ingenuity and back-breaking work – plus it’s a welcome break from the endless desert roads we’ve been traveling.

Best to you all, Dave

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