Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self. - Cyril Connolly
Monday, November 12, 2007
The China Chronicles - Turpan
Turpan is an interesting city. Interesting in that you cannot fathom why people ever endured settling here, let alone continue to fight the desert and the elements to keep living here. At 505 ft. below sea level, it is one of the most harsh environments on earth, and yet people have lived in this basin for thousands of years. At some point, you just wanna yell - "Get out of the pool!"

Luckily for us, the end of September is one of the more reasonable times of the year for their climate, and it was not too uncomfortable when we arrived.

One of the key reasons to the enduring success of Turpan, is their development and use of the karez for irrigation, cooling, water, etc. They are literally the lifeblood of Turpan, but they came at a heavy price in terms of the manpower needed to build them.

I'm going to borrow a photo from Wikipedia to show you how they work:

See the lines with all the little dots running down into town? At the base of a mountain range where the alluvial fan starts to drain, they begin to dig shafts down to the water table ever 60 meters or so and create an underground tunnel to transport the water underground using gravity. This way, it avoids evaporation and can be used as a water source miles away from its origin. Digging these things by hand more than a thousand years ago, given that there are more than a thousand of them in Turpan alone, is quite a feat of engineering. You can see the little mounds dotting the desert in straight lines everywhere.

We visited the Karez museum in Turpan, and while it was really just a bunch of displays explaining the engineering, and a stairway down into the tunnels to see the water, its effects are pretty apparent in all the fields and crops they continue to grow in a desert climate.

Not much to look at, but you get the idea. Imagine digging a couple hundred miles of these things.

Before I show you all the wonderful things they do with this water, let me give you an idea of how harsh the conditions are. We drove about an hour and a half outside of town up into the foothills of the Flaming Mountains. They're called the Flaming Mountains for two reasons (1) They're red - d'uhh, and (2) It's REALLY hot here! We set out to hike to some more Buddhist cave paintings through the village of Tuyqo in the Gaochang gorge.

The people in this village live a nearly stone age existence. Seriously, you could easily imagine Jesus Christ walking down the street. It's that basic.

A simple life

Not so basic that they don't have a few of life's luxuries - a closer look shows a satellite dish and TV on the top of the mud roof.

Modern Luxuries

This is a lifestyle in which livestock live in a room of the house:

Goats in the back yard

And those mud bricks you see are literally that - mud. They measure annual rainfall here in millimeters. A hard thunderstorm and the entire village would simply melt. I hope you can also understand why, that when an earthquake hits this region - thousands die. These homes just crumble and the mud slides are horrendous.

These are some freshly made bricks drying in the sun:

Drying Bricks

We hiked through the main village:

Typical Village Homes

And continued about a mile along the gorge on a wooden walkway that they had built lining the one water source coming in to the village from the mountains.

The Valley

To get to the caves:

Although not nearly as dramatic or well preserved as the Mugao Grottoes, they were well worth the hike, and their setting was pretty spectacular.

In the river valley below, they had dammed parts of the river to create a flood plain to grow rushes. They used them for everything from roofing materials, to animal feed to making baskets. With the complete lack of rain, most people sleep outdoors on their roofs, or under lightly thatched patios.

All in a Day's Work

Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the things that does grow well in this hot, rocky soil - are grapes. And this region is famous for its grapes, which are dried and sold as raisins the world over. We saw these brick grape drying houses dotting the hillsides and valleys everywhere:

A grape drying house

Back in Turpan, we visited the Karez Museum, and the adjoining vineyard. Where, while they have clearly mastered the skill of growing grapes in a harsh climate;

A Grape Arbor

Nature's Bounty

...they have a LONG way to go in learning how to make wine. After touring the vineyards, we were quite looking forward to tasting a sample of their wares, and headed to the wine garden expectantly. Not wanting to post photos of folks I know personally without their express permission, I can't show you the grimaces of pain and disgust on people's faces after taking a sip of this swill, but trust me - it was plonk. Literally undrinkable, and one of the more expensive alternatives we were presented with. We all solemnly vowed to order beer at dinner.

This is one thing that if it says "Made in China" on the label - take a wide pass.

Chinese Wine

Looks are deceiving!

Next up: The Ancient City of Jiaohe.
posted by Broadsheet @ 1:30 PM  
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