Turpan Cultural Sites

Turpan, Xinjiang Autonomous Province, is a prefecture-level city of ethnic Uyghurs and Han Chinese with a reported population of 630,000 in 2015. There are no recent data on its population since then, but there are fewer overall numbers of Uyghurs in the city. The prefecture, itself, encompasses a staggering area of 70,049 km2 (27,046 mi2), is situated 505 feet below sea level, and is 2450 km (1525 mi) west of Bohai Bay as the crow flies. The Turpan depression is the second lowest point on Earth, the Dead Sea being the first, and is desert surrounded by the Bogda Shan mountains attaining a height of 5445 m (17,864 ft). Average rainfall is a mere 6.2 cm (2.4″) per year, with wide temperature extremes. Recorded summer temperatures exceed 47.8 ̊ C (118̊ F ) in summer and ground-surface temperatures have been recorded to reach 89̊ C (192̊ F). During our 2019 fieldwork in the Bogda Mountains, ambient temperatures hovered near this upper limit.

The conditions surrounding our 2019 field work were strictly dictated by the authorities, preventing us from imaging anything but cultural and field sites. The use of GPS tagged images was prohibited, and surveillance was (and continues to be) pervasive. These conditions were likely due to the internment of Uyghurs in the province (map from The Xinjiang Data Project).

What is, and will continue to be, memorable is a Uyghur traditional noodle dish – Big Plate Chicken. Authentic big plate chicken is cooked with a whole chicken, cut into small pieces with bones, feet, head, and skin still intact. It’s a simple, but delectable meal that consists of a spicy, aromatic chicken stew with chili peppers and potatoes, and hand-pulled noodles known as “belt noodles because they are about 6 cm in width. Of all the dishes we experienced in Xinjiang, the hand-pulled noodles that came from various Uyghur shop and Chinese hotel kitchens, alone, would warrant a return to the province.

Yar (Jiaohe) City, Yarnaz Valley

The ancient city of Jiaohe (Yarhotto) is located on a 30 m (98 ft) plateau in the Yarnaz Valley west of Turpan in the middle of a river. It is considered to be one of the world’s largest and oldest historic sites comprised of earthen buildings, dating back ~2,300 years. Jiaohe was the capital of South Chechi during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD), serving as the political, economic, cultural and military center. Regional conflicts during the 9th and the 14th centuries damaged the city, with its abandonment at the end of Yuan dynasty (1206–1368 AD) after the invasion of Ghengis Khan’s Mongols. The earthen city measures 1,650 m (5,413 ft) by 300 m (984 ft) at its widest, and was built over an area of 220,000 m2 (2,368,168 ft2), It was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2014.

The city was built with residences in eastern and western districts, while Buddist temples and stupas were constructed in the northern district. Tang dynasty records indicate the population reached 7,000 inhabitants. Graveyards a large, central government office is found in the southern part of the eastern district. This image shows ruins of the residential district.

Yar was an important central town on the Silk Roads beginning in the 2nd century BC to the 14th century where it safeguarded traffic along the Silk Roads. As such, a diverse group of ethnicities coexisted in the city. The entrance to the Grand Buddhist Pagoda is aligned with the city gate to the south and the Buddhist Temple in the northeast, along with the Forest of Stupas, is testament to the introduction and adoption of the religion in the Turpan Basin.

Ubiquitous surveillance is part of everyday life. Nowhere is an individual without the virtual presence of the surveillance state. The following are just two examples. In the short few days we spent in Dalonggkuo, near Jimsar, we witnessed the installation of steel traffic poles with two cantilevered arms oriented at 90̊ and an array of unidirectional and 360̊ camera at every intersection of a small village, the population of which couldn’t be more than a few hundred people. I was delayed in Beijing for an overnight stay on my return trip from Urumqi where three other passengers also missed their connections to the ‘States. One passenger had lived in China for several years, having married a Chinese woman, and taught English in a southern Province. To communicate with his wife during the day, he relied on WeChat. A few days before departing for Beijing to catch his flight, he jaywalked across a street and heard his phone ping. The ping wasn’t from his wife. Rather, the ping was informing him that he had jaywalked and his account had been debited a fine for the infraction. Surveillance was ubiquitous in 2019; and today…