Turpan is… Well, it is an ugly city with low quality construction thrown up by the Chinese government:
But the people are lively and fun… And I’m laying the groundwork for a broader discussion of the region. For that effort to make sense, it will help to understand the people and how things look in the region:
Exploring the streets of Turpan:
Scooters, not cars, are the primary form of mechanized transportation in much of Xinjiang. In Turpan, the situation is no different:
Entering the central market area… The man on the ground was practicing very elaborate calligraphy:
Walking through the main market area in the center of the city… See those burned out buildings on the left? Those will become relevant in a future posting on the conflict in this region:
One will notice on the outskirts of Turpan just how green the region is…
After all, this region produces so many grapes that Turpan has “Grape Street” running down the middle as a celebration of this:
With daytime temperatures in the summer hitting 130 degrees Fahrenheit, The Taklamakan Desert, in which Turpan lies, is one of the most inhospitable regions on the planet. So, what makes all of this greenery possible? The answer lies with an elaborate water system in Turpan known as karez, which is the Uighur word for “well”. Although hardly anyone has heard of it, the system has been compared to the Great Wall of China in its scale and engineering.
Water flowing through a karez… Notice how clear it is:
This region happens to be the second deepest inland depression in the world (after the Dead Sea) with more than 4,000 square kilometers of land below sea level.
That is the secret to the success of the karez system. The desert is surrounded by mountains – the Tian Shan Mountains and the Flaming Mountains – and as water flows off of the mountains, tunnels excavated down to below the water table at the base of the mountains convey this water toward the valley floor. As the elevation is so low, the water is constantly running downhill, driven by gravity rather than pumps. And because the system is underground, there is not the loss of water due to evaporation.
Below is a model of how the system looks:
What is extraordinary is that some of these systems are over 2,000 years old and they are still in use today.
Simply digging a tunnel of more than twenty miles (the approximate distance from the mountains to Turpan) on one’s hands and knees is an overwhelming task in and of itself. But, the construction of a karez tunnel is more complicated than that.
The elevation and incline of the tunnel must be perfect. Make it even slightly too low or too high and the water will just sit there and won’t flow down the tunnel… The only way to get the elevation correct is to dig multiple shafts along the way to determine where the water table is. So, the builders would dig down to the exact point they needed and would then expand the tunnel out in the direction of the last shaft they had dug. So, as if worrying about getting the elevation and incline of the tunnel perfectly correct were not enough, the builders would also need to perfectly line up the sections of tunnel being excavated so that they would meet in the proper place. The construction looks like this:
The result of all of those shafts is a series of little mounds snaking across the surface of the desert to wherever the ultimate outlet is… These are still used as every few years it is necessary to venture down the tunnels to clear out rocks and sand that have accumulated. In the picture below several karez tunnels are visible:
The outlet for one of the karez tunnel systems… The start of this tunnel is many miles away up in the mountains:
The water flowing out of the outlet pictured above and out into the city:
Inside one of the karez tunnels that was being repaired… In Turpan alone, there are thousands of karez, so you can imagine the amount of effort that was required when these were originally built:
A path down to another outlet of the karez system… The water was clear, cold and very refreshing:
One of the wells in Turpan used to access fresh water in the karez system:
Unfortunately, like many other things in China, the karez system is in danger of extinction. Eager for water to support the Han Chinese being moved into the area and too impatient to go through the effort of constructing karez, the Chinese government has been pumping large amounts of water directly out of the ground. This is causing the water table to drop below the carefully calibrated levels needed for the karez to function. As a result, many karez are running dry. In the eyes of the Chinese government, there is also an added benefit of the Uighurs being made reliant upon the government for their water needs. The loss of self-sufficiency in obtaining water is another method of control.
This destruction of the karez system infuriates the Uighurs.