There is so much diversity in China that there is no way I can even pretend to understand her history, culture, beauty and her people. While I visited many places and have around one thousand slides documenting my trip of 2002, I decided to share only some of my impressions and/or descriptions of the selected sites in no particular order. Please remember, the following is not, by any means, a guide or an account of my numerous adventures in China: for both I would need to write a book. 

Have fun browsing through this section of my website and let me know ( if you have any comments!


Interactive map of China 

This is an interactive map with the sites described in this presentation. If you want to visit them, please click on a selected name and enjoy your trip!

One of the Seven Wonders of the world, the Great Wall, stretches over 6,700 km crossing mountains, deserts, grasslands and plateaus from eastern China to as far as Lop Nur in the West. While its best preserved sections from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) are admired by thousands of tourists marveling every day at their size (at average: 10 m high and 5 m wide), not many realize that its construction started almost two thousand years earlier. At the beginning the Great Wall was a number of separate walls protecting various states of China from their enemies, mostly from nomads to the North. In 221 B.C. the Qin Dynasty emerged as the strongest power among the Warring States (475-221 B.C.). Its emperor, who unified China (this name is derived from the name of his Dynasty) for the first time, in 214 B.C., named himself “The Commencing [First] Emperor,” Shi Huangdi. He is the one who is credited with building the Great Wall although, in reality, he connected the existing separate walls into one defensive system on the northern border.

It took approximately ten years to connect, construct and finish the Wall stretching at the time from Linzhao (in the eastern part of today's Gansu Province) in the west to Liaodong (in today's Jilin Province) in the east. Over 300 000 soldiers plus countless conscripted laborers and convicts in exile worked on this project under a watchful eye of General Meng Tian. In the 6th century, almost 800 years later, over 1.8 million people were forced to construct just a “small” section (ca. 450 km) of the Great Wall between Nankou, Beijing, to Datong, Shanxi. 

Chinese emperors thought nothing of sending millions of their subjects to their death. More than million laborers died with the construction of the Great Wall. It is said that “each stone in the Great Wall cost a human life.” The Wall was to protect China from fearless nomads, especially those known as Hsiung-Nu who bothered China under the Qin and Han Dynasties. The Hsiung-nu were a nomadic tribe who formed a strong confederacy located in Mongolia, Xinjiang (China) and Kazakhstan before they were pushed westward. 

They are believed to be of Turco-Mongolian origin and are known to the Westerns as the Huns of the later period. In somewhat twisted way, the Hsiung-Nu “contributed” to two main achievements of China: building the Great Wall (against them) and establishment of the most famous international highway of antiquity - the Silk Route (Chinese search for allies against them). While today the Hsiung-Nu are long forgotten, the marvels of Imperial China still attest to their power and remind us that history of China is about continuous struggle between nomadic “barbarians” and sedentary
“civilized” world of the Chinese Emperors. 

The 14th century Chinese presentations of the Hsiung-Nu nomads based on earlier originals. 

The “Shan-yü” is an abbreviated title of the Hsiung-Nu leaders such as Mo-Tun (208-175) who organized their state as a nomadic army led by two dignitaries referred to as the kings of the right (West) and of the left (East). 

Hsiung-nu Cauldron, Institute of Archaeology Museum Chisinau, Moldova


August 2002… The Great Wall of China… Thousands of tourists were busy sweating while climbing to the top so they could take a picture and, at least, send a text message to those who could not be there. Little children seemed not to have any problems jumping a few steps ahead of their parents reminding them that old age starts much earlier than at 80. Ten steps, one click were the order of the day. There was no time nor there was a desire to watch other climbers while on the quest to conquer the world.  However, in this throng of faceless and desperate tourists one young couple was impossible to miss. 

She was a beautiful, young woman with a perfect figure nicely clothed in short shorts with a white t-shirt accenting not only her full chest but also smooth, gold tan of her skin. Long, dark hair cascaded on her shoulders, revealing natural tones of blackness with each and every move she made. Her brown eyes flashed fire at the object of her attention - her boyfriend. He, a young man in his 20s, dark and handsome, was walking quietly, his muscular body towering over her but avoiding any contact with his stunning companion. She screamed, he answered, but their words disappeared in the multilingual noise of archaeology zealots until, at the top of the wall, she turned to him, shouting in American English: “You… you brought me here, to China, to the top of the Great Wall just to dump me?!” He calmly replied: “Yes!”

EWA’S COMMENT: I must give credit to the guy… Not many men can propose in style but breaking-up in style is unheard of! Sorry ladies, I don’t know his phone number. 

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There are only a few cities that can compete with this capital of the Shaanxi province for a title of “the greatest city” in the world with regard to its history, architecture, size and beauty. There are many fabulous structures that can be admired in Xian today such as the Bell Tower, Drum Tower, Big Goose and Little Goose Pagodas, Great Mosque etc. 

The City Walls from the Ming Dynasty built on the foundations from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) are among the best-preserved walls of this type in China. Since many sections are gone today one cannot walk around Xian just by following the Walls but you should try to see as much as possible. The Walls attest to China’s past glory but also, at times, show you poverty of some Chinese people living in slums of the ruins - definitely something that no government is willing to “advertise.” 

The Forest of Stone Stelas is an extraordinary exhibit of stone records of the Chinese past from the Han Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty. Over 3000 stone “books” are exhibited here making it the “heaviest” library in the world. Most records are devoted to the Silk Road which had its beginning in Xian in the 2nd c. B.C. The Museum, opened on the site of the Temple of Confucius, is a tribute to many cultures, languages, and religions, which have constituted the mosaic of the Chinese civilization. 

However, the purpose of my trip was to experience ancient China so I focused on two archaeological sites described below.

Emperor Shi Huangdi, his tomb and his "Terracotta Army".

Xian has witnessed the rise and fall of many Chinese dynasties governed by often cruel rulers, the most famous (or infamous) of them being Emperor Shi Huangdi. This probably most influential emperor of China is credited with such achievements as standardization of the Chinese writing, taxes, and weights, “building” the Great Wall, and constructing one of the most, if not the most, spectacular tombs in the history of humankind. While this tomb remains mostly unexcavated (the Terracotta Army is only a small part of the whole complex), its location (35 km east of Xian) and description (e.g., Sima Qian, a historian in early Han Dynasty) are well known to both archaeologists and amateurs. He ordered its construction at the age of 13 planning to be buried there in his jade (from Yarkand and Kotan - western China) “clothing” stitched together with gold threads, encased in a bronze sarcophagus in the middle of the central mercury lake. Mercury is a known mummifying agent and the best the Emperor could do without an elixir of immortality for which he searched most of his life. This is not just a tomb for a powerful ruler - it is a whole underground city at his service including, as the legend goes, many of his women, servants, officials, and a whole army; some sacrificed or buried alive for this purpose, others “re-made” in clay. 

More than 700,000 workers were conscripted to build the tomb, many of them were locked inside so the mystery of its treasures and construction would be preserved for eternity. It must be remembered that Emperor Shi Huangdi’s enormous contributions to the development of Chinese civilization came at terrible price paid by his subjects who were kept uneducated, tortured, killed and/or buried alive. He burned thousands of books so they might not get any ideas about bettering their lives and changing the regime. He did not spend more than one night at the same place afraid of assassination and always was guarded by the most loyal of his army, hiding away even from his own generals. After his death, the tomb was sealed and cursed because, as the legend says, people have been afraid that Shi Huangdi could have found the elixir of life at the last moment and could have risen again. Who knows, this might still be the reason why his funerary complex remains seemingly untouched (there is a report that it was looted just 30 days after the fall of the Qin Dynasty), in spite of its expected wealth. On the other hand, the reason might be more pragmatic - Shi Huangdi took his fears to his grave and in order to protect his eternity many booby traps have been installed ready to extinguish any would-be wanderers. 

The tomb is described as a walled city with a palace, cemetery, etc., situated in a scale model of the Chinese empire with its mountains, lakes of mercury and even a flowing river. The ceiling of this pyramid-shaped mound of the tomb was designed as sky with countless pearls and precious stones arranged in zodiac and star patterns. Illuminated by numerous lamps fed by whale oil stored in huge tanks, the stars and planets sparkle in the darkness, playing with their reflections in the silver waters of the imperial China. 

At the present moment only a part of Shi Huangdi’s army has been excavated after its discovery in 1974 by local peasants digging a well. One of them became a permanent fixture of the Terracotta Army Museum greeting visitors in a small bookstore, signing autographs, always happy to have his picture taken. As for the Terracotta Army … there is no way to describe how spectacular this discovery is, how enormous in its size, and how magnificent in its stoic glory. The people and animals seem to be sculptured in clay with an appearance of true individuals posing for the eternity. They are arranged in battle formations with wooden chariots and real weapons ready to defend their Emperor. It is estimated that there are over 8000 of such terracotta figures, many of them left intact by archaeologists under the roofs that did not cave in under the pressure of thousands of years. In addition, there are many other burial pits waiting for excavations. They belong to the entourage of the Emperor, his subjects, animals, and rare birds - some of them replicas of living beings, others buried as sacrificial tribute to Shi Huangdi. This is one of the very few archaeological sites in the world whose story cannot be told through pictures, movies and narrative descriptions. This must be seen in person in order to even attempt to comprehend the enormity and grandeur of this project. 

Banpo Neolithic Village

There is one more place near Xian that is worth a trip, both for knowledge and for somewhat peculiar entertainment: Banpo Neolithic Village. After seeing other attractions of Xian this small Museum may not seem to be very impressive with its mud houses, storage cellars, kilns, graves, pottery etc. until one realizes its date: between 4500 and 3750 B.C. 

Many artifacts made out of stone, wood, and clay are either exhibited in showcases or arranged on the site itself. For some strange reasons it is believed that the Banpo society was a matriarchal community so, appropriately, one may want to visit its “restored” village nearby. I skipped this part after learning that Neolithic matriarchs were ‘removed’ from the Matriarchal Clan Village with their subtle Neolithic clothing complemented with high heels, sheer stockings, and perfect make-ups.

Xian is also famous for its fabulous food as “the capital of table delicacies” and of entertainment. As tacky as it sounds, “The Tang Dynasty Dinner Show,” is actually a lot of fun especially after realizing that the Chinese Opera screeching music is not a part of the show (of later date than the Tang Period). With all respect to the uniqueness of the Chinese Opera best experienced in Beijing, the Tang Show is more catered toward Westerns who can enjoy similar beautiful attire worn by amazingly skilled artists performing combination of acting, dancing, singing, acrobatics and mime art. The Beijing Opera is the must but be thankful that the Chinese entrepreneurs are well aware of its shrieking/screaming affects on Western tourists and limited it to less than two hours instead of customary six. On the other hand, one must always remember that you are in China not to experience what you know but to enjoy the unknown and unusual. Xian offers both. 

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While Chengdu, a capital of Sichuan province, boasts a 2300-year history, its modern version is too much about bad planning and destruction of all what was good by replacing it with communist style (or its lack) architecture. There are still some places worth visiting in an attempt to re-capture the past of China such as Wenshu Yuan (God of Wisdom Temple)… or to laugh your head off in the bizarre underground museum of the People’s Park. This “museum” exhibits, among other things, a life-size statue of Saddam Hussein, a miniature life-pig (dirty but sweet) and an “artist’s” rendition of American cowboys, aliens, Indians, Taj Mahal, New York, Rome, etc. I’m still not sure what was the intended purpose of this Museum but, by default, it became the Museum of Horror due to “quality” of the exhibit, which makes you laugh at the weirdest of “artifacts” and their presentation. This is the experience not to be missed! However, pictures are difficult to take because the “speeding” train takes you too fast through the darkness of the Halloween “magic” so only a shark with its bloody teeth, a screaming dinosaur or a dragon, and an astronaut somehow survived on the film. Anyway, you get an idea…

However, the biggest attraction of Chengdu is definitely The Giant Panda Breeding Research Base (ca. 12 km from the city center). Still under construction since its opening in 1990 this base is to cover more than 230 hectares to provide these beautiful animals with as much playing and breeding ground as possible (there are usually 10 to 20 pandas living there). 

It is estimated that there are about 1000 pandas still roaming freely in the southern side of Qinling Mountains, Mingshan Mountains, Qionglai Mountains, Major-Minor Xiangling Mountains and Liangshan Mountains. Most of their natural habitat (4/5) is gone “thanks” to modern civilization. The Chengdu Research Base is the only one that guarantees you a glance at these fantastic creatures since those which are in other zoos around the world are usually lonely and sleepy. 

The easygoing giant panda is rather a recluse whose main activity is eating (mostly bamboos) and sleeping whenever it feels like doing so. Basically, they are quite lazy, sometimes even too lazy to find a good bed. The panda shows some energy only as a cub playing with its siblings or as an adult chasing after the other sex in search of love or lust but always for a short-term marriage. This happens, the most, once in a year time. However, pandas can be also quite playful “dressing” up and assuming “seductive” positions stretching their bodies to relax with “open” bellies “ready to scratch.” However, I would not recommend this activity since scratching back can be very painful - long and strong claws are not trimmed on regular basis and teeth are too sharp for love bites. They behave often as a perfect lady, sweet and tame, unless they are in danger or on their biological clock. At other times, when drinking too much fresh water (almost a compulsive behavior when thirsty), the panda starts staggering like a drunken human but definitely much cuter. It is believed that the panda drinks so much of water at one stop because it sees its image in the water and wants to find its cause. 

As interesting and adored as these animals are, there is still no agreement how to classify them: some believe that they are related to raccoons (see, e.g., red panda), others find bears to be their close relatives, and yet they might be of their very own family. For more information see In the meantime just enjoy a few pictures of pandas including a red panda, a very shy and too fast (for a picture) relative of raccoons. They all share mask-like markings on their faces and cuddly looks. 

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Is Tibet the lost or forgotten mysterious land of Shangri-La where at the high altitudes (mostly between 3600 and 5000 m) a hidden community of this famous lamasery existed in perfect peace and unity with nature? While this question may never be answered, the truth is that for many Westerners this is still the place where a spiritual trip might begin or one might be fulfilled. 

Unfortunately, its capital, the holy city of Lhasa, is losing its magical powers with more and more visitors commercializing this - once supposedly ideal - community since its opening in 1980s. Unfortunately, modern visitors are becoming more intoxicated with just the fact of being there than with a long history of its culture and its people struggling against hardships ever present at this  “Rooftop of the World.” Unfortunately, Lhasa is more ethnic Chinese than native Tibetan (5 to 1) and none of the tourist attractions might disguise this reality. 

There are many places to see in Lhasa, the city founded in 633 by King Songtsan who also erected in its center the Jokhang, a shrine of Buddha, for his Indian wife Princess Bhrikuti. Its most famous feature is the Potala palace built in the 17th century by Ngawang Lozang Gyatso, and after 1642 the home of the Dalai Lama who, of course, is no longer there. This thousand-room structure overlooking the northern part of the city is converted into a museum with thousands of visitors per day with no room for any spiritual experience. For some spirituality, you better try other Buddhist sites such as Norbulingka, summer palace of the Dalai Lama, and several monasteries, Sera, Drepung, and Nechung located just outside the city (see Lhasa attractions at

I must admit I felt lost among thousands and thousands of Buddhas looking at me in the darkness of their shrines while I was trying to learn basics about the Tibetan Buddhism in the crowd of international visitors. Many of them should not be there because their delicate sense of smell, high altitudes, and cavalier attitude (“I don’t need any oxygen!”) resulted in throwing up on the holy floors of numerous shrines - definitely not a spiritual experience. Others had to try to “sneak” a picture of yet another Buddha pretending that their expensive cameras actually are worth something in the lightless conditions of monasteries fogged with offerings of yak butter. Many complained about anything and everything searching for the lost guides who were obviously fed up with screaming foreigners and searched for some peace in the dark niches of the old architectural wonders.

My pragmatic approach to what was supposed to be a great spiritual experience must have been noticed by some monks who, instead of granting me everlasting happiness and health with each and every passing of a “tourist blessing”, must have cursed me for a shorter period of time. It started with one of the monasteries where a small hole in the wall is to bring good luck for eternity as long as you can put your finger into it while walking for approximately 8 m with your eyes closed. Well, I should have known better that with my luck the hole would have an adverse reaction on me - not only did my finger found the hole but it did it with such a force that my long fingernail became its tragic victim, bleeding profusely after half of it ended up (hopefully not for eternity) in the “luck outlet.” The observing monks loudly commented on my good fortune, which should have increased with a beaded bracelet promptly bought in the next shop. To make a long story short, the bad luck followed me for next two years until the bracelet fell into pieces in one of not-so-good looking and smelling restrooms in Tehran. Thus, I can honestly say that my bad luck went down the toilet. Next day, I was given a true good-luck beaded bracelet from one of my female friends in Tehran (see Iran).

But back to Tibet… While I failed at discovering any spirituality in me, I succeeded at discovering kindness, curiosity and beauty of the Tibetan people. Once I realized that my knowledge of Turkic languages was more helpful than pretending to speak a few words of Mandarin, I had fantastic time trying to befriend not only omnipresent entrepreneurs but regular people enjoying their everyday activities whether visiting a zoo, or trying to win a price in numerous street contests. 

Their hospitality is so typical of semi-nomadic or nomadic pastoralists whom I encountered during my other trips (see Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Uzbekistan). I wish I could have stayed with them longer to learn more about true Tibet that just a glimpse at famed monasteries. An important practical advice - stay away from yak milk in any shape or form! 

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Dunhuang, one of the most important cities in the history of China, is situated in the Gansu province, at the edge of the Gobi desert. While the city itself does not have much to offer except for a new airport opened in August 2002 (I could not help myself - I had to take a few pictures of proud citizens of Dunhuang welcoming the first plane there and showering startling passengers with flowers!), it is a great base to visit three major attractions of the area: the line of watchtowers protecting numerous caravans traveling across China and beyond; the Buddhist Caves; and the Dunes of the Singing Sands (Mingsha Shan) with its Crescent Lake. 

The city was founded in 111 B.C. by Emperor Wudi of the Han dynasty as a military stronghold on the legendary Silk Road assuring Chinese control over the routes to the West. The Hsiung-Nu, against whom the Great Wall of China was built, were among the bravest of the nomads who have bothered China for thousands of years. They and many others could not have passed such an easy prey as caravans moving slowly on the fringe of the Gobi and Taklamakan deserts. Thus, the line of beacons with the Yang Guan Pass (ca 65 km southwest of Dunhuang) and Yumen Guan Pass (ca 90 km northwest of Dunhuang) was erected to protect the flow of goods including such valuable commodities as silk, gold and silver, exotic animals, spices, fragrances, etc. 

There is not much left of both passes, nor of once impressive walls with their beacons and signaling towers. The shifting sands of the desert claimed most of them, the same way as they claimed many caravans and even whole armies in the past. The blowing wind over broken walls and piles of old wood and bricks used once to signal danger to those who dared to leave security of Dunhuang still remind the visitor about those who lost their lives in this eerie surrounding of nothingness. Those who left the heavenly empire of China in search of wealth faced hell for many miles to come until they could reach Kashgar. 

Silk, silver, gold, and other attractions of the West and the East were not the only goods which were carried on along the Silk Road. From the very beginning of its existence, the Silk Road was also the main highway for exchanging ideas and knowledge, sharing experiences and ideologies. The commercial and intellectual prosperity of Dunhuang attracted people of many different backgrounds including growing population of Buddhists. By the 4th century A.D. some of them started to look for more solitude near the Dunes of the Singing Sands (Mingsha Shan) with its Crescent Lake. With hundreds of tourists climbing up majestic mountains of sand and sliding down in not so majestic way, it is hard to imagine that once this place was sought for its spiritual qualities. The first cave was carved nearby, at a long cliff, Mogaoku, by a Buddhist monk, Yuezun, searching for solitary meditation high up the cliff face. Although this one is gone today, it was followed by many similar caves which were cut, decorated and maintained for the next thousand years in the area. They overwhelm any visitor with their artistic expressions in many styles, with the intricate designs and figural presentations telling stories of the past, present and future, and with enormous amount of Buddhas: small, huge, carved, painted and sculptured. They are everywhere: the largest of them is 34.5 meters high and the smallest one is only 2 centimeters “short.” It is estimated that the artwork of the Mogao caves would cover 25 km of gallery space. 

Of course, one cannot forget about ca. 50 000 manuscripts which once were stored in the library of these caves. Unfortunately, many of these manuscripts and paintings have been stolen by foreign travelers and today can be seen at the best institutions of learning such as the British Museum and the British Library in London, the Musée Guimet and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, and the National Museum of India in New Delhi. They are the most important resources for studying not only the history of Buddhism and Buddhist art, but also of cultural, social, economic, and even political history of the area. In many ways, the Dunhuang caves seem to be more spiritual and more “Buddhist” in their nature than monasteries of Lhasa. However, I still believe that the true soul of this region is to be found in the ghastly remains of old walls and beacons deep into the desert rather than in artistic visions of the Buddhist monks. On the other hand, they complement each other beautifully. 

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Only a very few people would recommend a trip to Urumchi as a tourist destination since the only “attraction” of this city seems to be drab stalinisque type of concrete architecture that can be seen in any communist country. However, this city is an important crossroad for seeing true attractions of the Xinjiang province where different Turkic languages are spoken and the Middle Eastern food competes with Chinese dishes. There is only one thing worth seeing in Urumchi - its Museum which contains one of the best-preserved and unusual mummies in the world. This is the reason why I was desperate to see the city. 

Tarim Basin Mummies (also known as Urumchi/Taklamakan/Chinese mummies) have been found by Chinese archaeologists in 1970s but, for various reasons, this discovery has been one of the best-kept secrets until 1988 when Professor Victor Mair visited this Museum. He was simply astounded to find there not only perfectly preserved mummies but mostly because they looked Caucasian, not Chinese. These Caucasoid mummies have been reported by European travelers such as Aurel Stein in previous centuries but due to their remarkable state of preservation they were thought to be quite modern. Imagine everyone’s surprise when, after research initiated by Dr. Mair, it appeared that the oldest mummies can be dated as early as ca. 2000 B.C. 

The Taklamakan Desert, where these mummies have been found, is one of the most ferocious deserts in the world. People who have been living on its peripheries have been aware that many towns, caravans etc. have disappeared under the sand due to terrible sand storms and unpredictable geographical conditions influenced by high mountain ranges (Tien Shan to the north, Kunlun Mountains to the south, Pamirs to the west) surrounding it. They have lived very modest lives by cultivating wheat and millet, and herding cattle, sheep, and goats. As many Indo-European and Altaic people of the region they could have been originally pastoralists who cherished their horses. When they died, they were buried in different types of tombs (depending on the time period) with majority of them seemingly constructed in such a way as to facilitate process of natural mummification (shallow graves, bottomless coffins, wooden planks, etc.). Human interference in preservation of these mummies can also be seen in the use of some fatty substances to probably work as an anti-bacterial agent and, in one case of a horse burial, removal of a bone from foreleg in order to stuff the skin with reeds. 

These Caucasoid looking mummies have blond, red and light brown hair with facial features similar to those of the ancient Celts and other Indo-European speaking people who were of the same origin. Some of them had body decorations (tattoos, paintings, etc.), many were fond of their clothes, especially long conical hats. It is very interesting that their weaving techniques are quite similar to those found among the Celts hundreds years later in Europe.  Most of them seem to die of natural death but there are others who were terribly mistreated with body mutilations, gouged eyes, and even buried alive (“The Scream Baby”).

It is believed that they were speaking one of Indo-European languages and the best candidate is the Tocharian language (actually there are two dialects to this language) recorded by the Buddhist monks of the area in much later period. This language is similar to the oldest Indo-European language recorded in writing (cuneiform) - the Hittite language of Anatolia in the second millennium B.C.  One of the most recent discoveries with mummies is a cemetery known as the Xiaohe Tombs in Lop Nur. Since I was not allowed to take pictures, the enclosed images are a small selection from various Internet sources.

One day at Urumchi, just to see the mummies, is more than enough. Pack your bags and travel toward the east (I had to miss Kashgar to the west). For a leisurely time and some hiking, boating etc., you can stop at Tian Chi - a beautiful small, deep-blue lake with Tien Shan (Heavenly) Mountains in the distance. Here, nomadic yurts and friendly Turkic people welcome any guests for short and long visits. However, your destination point should be Turpan and its surrounding. I totally fell in love with Turpan County inhabited mostly by the Uighurs (another group of Turkic people) who enjoy seemingly worry-free life in this hottest place in China. This is where the best of China meets the best of the Turkic nomads, and both of them are “served” on nomadic carpets with grapes hanging everywhere and red wine flowing freely with every meal. 

You can visit a small, Middle Eastern looking bazaar (a miniature of the famous one at Kashgar), or you can have a short trip to admire Emin Hoja Minaret built in 1777 with its intricacy of 15 different brick patterns to make this simple Afghani style minaret more interesting and better fitting into spectacular environment of the Tien Shan mountains and the Flaming Mountains nearby. 

Stay longer and you can see the Gaochang ruins where, in the 9th century, the Uighur established the capital of their Karakhoja kingdom after leaving Mongolia (see Mongolia for more information). This city was erected already in the 1st c. B.C. when it became a very important stop on the Silk Road. Some of its inhabitants were buried in the Asitana tombs nearby (only 3 are open for tourists) and are very well mummified. The city is well preserved but you need a guide or a good map in order to recognize various structures within. 

On the way from Gaochang to the Bezeklik Caves don’t forget to stop and admire the Flaming Mountains. “The Flaming part” can only be seen in the morning which is a great time to visit this place before local entrepreneurs with their camels show up to “handle” a few “lost” tourists. According to the Chinese legend from the Ming Dynasty, the Monkey King kicked off the oven and charcoals fell from the heaven to the Turpan Basin creating the Flaming Mountains. However, I prefer the Uighur story of the horrible dragon who demanded little children (or young virgins - both males and females) as his choice of food. Needless to say, an Uighur hero was able to kill the monster whose blood colored the mountains and eight scars of the mutilated dragon are now valleys in the Flaming Mountains. The Grape Valley is the one which represents almost paradisiacal existence (don’t pick the grapes unless you are prepared to pay heavy fines!) for me. Here, you can enjoy huge variety of different grapes, fresh and dry (raisins), and visit one of the most important invention of humankind - the karez (qanat) irrigation system.

Both the Persians and the Chinese claim its discovery some time in the first millennium B.C. but the one in Xinjiang is the most complete, stretching at its best for over 5000 km. The karez system is constructed in such a way as to extract groundwater in the dry mountain basins - here melting snow of Tien Shan. Vertical wells are to collect water, provide ventilation and access for necessary repairs. They might be as deep as 100 meters and are connected at their bottoms through underground canals distributing water from high to low grounds (using gravity) to finally bringing it up to irrigation channels of the fields.  No need for pumps and always nice, cool place to run away from the heat of the desert!

Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves on the cliffs of the Mutou Valley were the Buddhist center for the city of Gaochang. Unfortunately, 57 caves that are still there (over 80 original caves) have been very much destroyed by vandals of the last seven centuries and many murals were removed to the West, particularly to Germany by Albert von Le Coq. The remaining ones are still worth visiting in the beautiful scenery of the valley in order to be prepared to a trip to Dunhuang. 

An ancient city of Jiaohe (Yarkhoto), marketed by local guides as “the best preserved earthen city in the world,” is yet another worthy destination of Turpan valleys. It stands on an island between two rivers as a garrison town established during the Han dynasty to defend the borderlands. At one point, Jiaohe was home to 6500 residents and 865 soldiers. 

The city was finally abandoned at the beginning of the 14th century since it had never recovered from its devastation by the most famous nomad of them all: Chenghiz Khan. Its ruins are more pronounced that the ones of Gaochang so enjoy a long stroll through old streets, residences and temples. 

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NOTES: Most of the pictures are taken and copyrighted by Ewa Wasilewska, a few (e.g., mummies, carpets, artifacts, banner photos) have been borrowed for educational purposes from different Internet sites.
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