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Notes on the Geography of China: Turfan

China's hottest spot, and its coldest: they're both here in Turpan. That's the Uighur name; the Turkic is Turfan; they both mean "lowland". So while we're at it, this is China's lowest spot.

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It's a hundred miles to the southeast of Urumqi, and the road is testimony to what the Chinese do best. The population in Turpan is split between Uighur and Han, but the signs are artful in assigning hierarchy: by place to one group and by size to the other.

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The route passes through a gap at the eastern side of the Tian Shan.

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It then opens up to the flat basin.

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We're below sea level.

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You might think that a below-sea-level basin would be protected from strong winds, but it's not so.

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It does have that Dead Sea atmosphere.

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Despite the desolation, the place is famous for grapes.

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The vines are typically planted in troughs, perhaps to make irrigation easier.

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Along with wine, raisins are produced. They're air-dried in brick structures like this one.

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The bunches are hung over fixed pegs.

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The irrigation water comes from karez, the local name for what on the other side of Asia are called qanats. Once, there were about 1,800 of these tunnels in Xinjiang. Now there are about 600, of which 400 are here in Turpan.

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Once, Xinjiang had a cumulative total of 5,000 kilometers of these tunnels, dug and maintained through 172,000 access wells. Average length: 5-20 kilometers.

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A bit of tunneling. This is the Yengi Karez, reportedly dug in 1300 and recently producing 48 liters per second. It's a shorty: three kilometers long, with 110 access wells. Its deepest well, naturally at the head of the tunnel, is 63 meters deep.

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The government has made this technology a tourist attraction.

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Turpan's icon, however, is probably the Sugong Ta or Mosque, with its Emir Minaret, built in 1778 and named for Emin Khoja, a general. As the lighting rod suggests, the mosque has come under the sanitizing hand of the government.

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The minaret is strikingly similar to those far to the west. See, for example, the pictures from Khiva, Uzbekistan.

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Another angle, with a restored cemetery.

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View from the roof over to the modern city.

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Interior of the mosque, similarly a dead-ringer for those farther west.

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Semi-restored, the adjoining prefectural residence.

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Main street of the modern part of town.

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Get off the main street, and things get simpler fast.

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There's not a lot of street appeal, but there's plenty of privacy.

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Behind the walls.

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Even utilitarian apartments have trellising for shade, greenery, and fruit.

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Inevitably, the most ostentatious buildings are mosques.

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