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Turpan

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The 'lowest, sweetest, hottest and driest'

Located in a depression approximately 80 meters (262ft) below sea level, Turpan is a dry and extremely hot city. Nicknamed the "Oven", temperatures in the summer soar to 40 degrees(104F). In contrast, winters are bitterly cold, with temperatures dropping to -15 degrees (5F) and most visitors try to avoid the cold season between November and March. Despite the extreme weather, visitors enjoy coming to this relaxed and friendly town. 70% of the population are Uighurs and they make a concerted effort to make visitors feel welcome. The locals have even covered the main walkways and paths with vine trellises which transforms normal streets into charming green tunnels.

A "glistening pearl" along the Silk Road, Turpan is dubbed "the lowest, sweetest, hottest and driest" place in China, which vividly portrays its unique natural features. Endowed with very rich natural resources, the total Turpan Prefecture area spans 6,728 square kilometers, which makes up about 4.2 percent of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Numerous grapevines, orchards, karez, as well as ancient cities, minarets, graveyards, thousand-Buddha grottoes and ancient Islamic buildings, abound throughout the region.

Turpan, which means "rich and endowed place" in Turkish, is suited to the middle of Xijiang. Known as "Gaochang," "Xizhou" or "Huozhou" in historic records, Turpan has become the political, cultural and economic center in western China early in the Han Dynasty (206BC-AD220) more than 2,000 years ago. As a famous town of military importance, Turpan was built as the capital of the ancient Cheshi Kingdom. It is also the one of earliest places to open to the outside world. Since the Tang Dynasty (618-907), external exchanges with other countries have taken place. Businessmen, monks and ministers from China, India, Persia and the Mediterranean gathered and interacted with each other in Turpan, leaving behind numerous stories and legends. 

Turpan's distinctive features prevent it from being confused with any other region. Local people have pinpointed the region's four "bests" to present its unique natural conditions, which epitomize Turpan's geological and climatic characteristics. 

  'The Lowest'

The Turpan Basin is China's lowest point. With an altitude of more than 4,000 square kilometers here is actually under the sea level, among which more than 2,000 is 100 meters under the sea level. The basin slopes from the north to the south. The lowest area in the basin is Aiding Lake, located 155 meters below sea level -- the second-lowest place in the world after the Dead Sea.

The bottom of Aiding Lake is flat with shallow waters. The lakebed is 40 kilometers long from east to west and 8 kilometers wide from north to south. The water is only 1 meter deep at its deepest point. The lake now occupies a much smaller area than before, with bitter salt water remaining only in the western part. The water's mineral content is as high as 200 grams per liter. As a result of strong evaporation for many years, niter and salt mines have collected at the bottom of the lake.

  'The Sweetest'

The Turpan Basin is also known for producing some of the sweetest fruit in the country. Geologically, a blocked basin, rare cloud formations and high temperatures are considered unique if they all appear in the same place. And Turpan is endowed with all of these factors, which, in turn, produce abundant thermal energy. This natural condition has furnished the region with a top environment for agriculture and gardening.

Statistics show that there are more than 300 clear days in Turpan, with only one to three days with 80-percent cloud coverage, and Turpan is frost-free for an average 268 days per year.

Since the seedless grapes produced in Turpan are said to be the sweetest in the world, Turpan is called the "sweetest place" by friends from around the planet. Since the 1960s, 300 new strains of grapes have been introduced from abroad for trial planting, substantially enriching the basin's grape variety. 

Hami melon is another special local product in the Turpan Basin, boasting such fine-quality varieties as Crisp Red-Core, Black Eyebrow, Honey Sweet, Paotai Red, Bag of Sugar and Golden Dragon. Many Hami melons are exported abroad and sold to other places in China. They are reputed as the most precious fruit.

In addition, the land also abounds in watermelons, pears, apricots, peaches, pomegranates, mulberries, figs, sand dates, etc. The fruit bumper harvests bring about a thriving processing industry.

Turpan raisins have also long enjoyed their fame as the "green pearls of China" for their color, mellow taste and flavor. Dried Hami melons, dried apricots and preserved are also very appetizing. All such products are favorites among tourists.

  'The hottest'

Dubbed the "Fire State", Turpan is the hottest place in China. Statistics show that the highest temperatures once reached 49.6 degrees Celsius and that the earth's surface topped 89.2 degrees. In fact, it can get so hot in the area that locals "hard boil" eggs in the hot sand and bake pancakes on the burning stones.

For more than 100 days per year, the highest temperatures in a single day can exceed 35 degrees and over 40 days can reach more than 40 degrees. There is even a folktale about a county magistrate who had to do his office work while immersed in a tub of cold water to keep cool.

But how can human beings possibly survive under such a harsh climate? The answer lies in the region's low humidity. Although it is very hot, the weather is not stuffy and high temperatures are sharply reduced in the shade. Meanwhile, temperature disparity is huge -- usually by up to 20 degrees. While the weather is scorching at high noon, the mornings and evenings are quite cool. Therefore, it is common to find locals moving beds out of their homes in the evenings to sleep in the open air.

The Turpan spring usually comes 40 days earlier than in other places in Xinjiang. The seasons most suitable for tourists are usually four months longer than those in other places in Xinjiang.

"Wear fur in the morning, but gauze at noon; hug the stove while enjoying melons" is a popular saying in Xinjiang. The first half of the saying depicts the huge temperature disparities in a single day, while the latter half is a description of common but interesting phenomena in Turpan. Hami melons and watermelons in Turpan can be preserved until the following spring. Watermelons are therefore also available in the winter: A fire is kindled in a stall for warmth as the seller sells his watermelons.

  'The Driest'

Besides its tremendous heat, Turpan is also the driest place in China, with an exceptionally low annual precipitation rate. Tuokexun County in the southwest part of Turpan has annual rainfall of only 3.9 millimeters, and Shanshan County in the east, just 25 millimeters. Located in the center, Turpan city gets just 16 millimeters of rain. But the region's evaporation reaches 3,000 millimeters per year. Snowfall in Turpan is even less common, averaging less than 2 millimeters.

The heavy but infrequent showers in Turpan come mostly in the summertime. Locals joke that if you stand properly between the big raindrops in Turpan, your clothes would not get wet.

However, the all year round, snow on the Bogda Mountain provides enough water for the development of life and agriculture.

Due to the serious lack of rain and snow, the Turpan Basin has, since ancient times, relied on an underground water irrigation system. The Karez -- the region's famed irrigation system -- creates a unique scene in Turpan. The system skillfully draws water from underground via a string of underground channels.

Thanks to the region's unique and favorable natural conditions, such as sparse rainfall and a dry climate, historical relics and ruins, both above and below ground, have been preserved for a very long time

Lying to the north of the Flaming Mountain, the Bizaklik Thousand Buddha Caves is one of the most important Buddha grotto relics in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. It was built during the Northern and Southern dynasties (386-589) and for 700 years, it remained the Buddhist center of the Western Regions (the area including what is now Xinjiang and parts of Central Asia).

Not far from Bizaklik Thousand Buddha Caves sits the ruins of the Ancient City of Gaochang. The ancient city of Gaochang was first built in 1BC and was destroyed by war by the end of 13AD. It is the largest set of ancient city ruins ever found in the Western Regions. After over 2,000 years of exposure, the outline of the ancient city still exists, and the city wall stands imposingly at the foot of the Flaming Mountain.

The Ancient City of Jiaohe, situated to the west of Turpan, is another set of ruins from an ancient city on the Silk Road. Jiaohe was the capital of the former Gushi Kingdom, which was first built in 60BC to the west of Turpan City. It has a long history of about 2,300 years. It is the largest and best preserved ancient city built from compressed earth anywhere in the world. As early as 1961, the Ancient City of Jiaohe was listed as the first group of Key Cultural Relics Units under State Protection. When traveling there, be sure to take plenty of drinking water as you will walk for several kilometers on dry, barren land.

Other sites to see include the Karez System, a delicate irrigation system devised by the smart Xinjiang people 2,000 years ago, and the Emin Minaret  the largest ancient Islamic tower in Xinjiang.