Saturday the Karez system and ancient city of Jiaohe

We had a free morning so decided to visit the Turpan Museum. On the way we came across Jason who was is not only our Chinese guide but, during our long drives, has become our Mah Jong tutor. We have enjoyed the game so much that we asked him to give us some advice on the game equipment. Jason said he had identified a shop selling Mah Jong and it was en route to the museum. He has been extolling the virtues of the Mah Jong table, so we went along to view one. It was amazing! No committed Mah Jong player worth his salt would be without one! It is a table approximately two foot square with a hole in the middle. Instead of the ‘chore’ required of us fledgling types in mixing up the pieces prior to play, this beast swallows the pieces through the hole in the middle of the table, shuffles them and efficiently delivers them in suitable wall formation, ready for the next game!
Magic! Regrettably not magic enough for us to pay the £500 necessary to enable us to put Newark Cottage on the map as the Mah Jong Mecca in East Peckham….

The a Museum of Turpan was, like all the other museums we have visited in China, a very modern, well presented institution. It housed a number of interesting exhibits including some excellent dinasaurs from the Gobi Desert
and a number of mummified bodies with their associated artifacts found in local ancient burial caves. It was well worth the visit.

After lunch in the Turpan version of John’s cafe under cover of the sun deflecting grape vine, we set off for what was described as underground irrigation tunnels. Ho hum I thought. Not a riveting way to spend an afternoon, but I am up for most things. How wrong can you be.

The Karez irrigation system was introduced to the area 2000 years ago to
provide the water necessary to enable people to live in this parched desert environment. It is a system found in other parts of Asia. Turpan is surrounded by mountains where snow exists throughout the year. A Karez or head well was dug on high ground where snowmelt collects in the mountains and a long underground tunnel was then dug to conduct water down to the the village farmlands where it was desperately needed. A system of vertical wells were then dug every few metres along the path of the tunnel (there were many) where the water was required. The wells were fed by gravity. Each tunnel ended in a pond. Once the pond was full the wells filled. Because the water flowed through the underground tunnels it did not evaporate in the intense heat of the area. Turpan owes its existence to the the wells – originally there were many thousands, all constructed by hand. There are now 615 as electric wells were created in the 1950’s to support the increasing population. The Karez system is considered to be one of the three great ancient projects of China, along with the Great Wall and the county’s canal system. What a feat!

Our second and most challenging trip of the day was to the ancient city of
Jiaohe. Once again it was really interesting, but instead of being in cool underground tunnels we were out in the open in over 100 degree heat. Even the water we took to drink got really hot!!

Undaunted we set out to look at the ruins of Jiaohe, a city built by nomads who saw the potential of the location – an area of high ground 1.6 km long by 300 metres wide caused by a river dividing at the north end of the site. Here they dug out their city. First enclosed courtyards and then designed cave type houses within the courtyard. No courtyard opened out on to the main thoroughfares that are still visible today. There were the remains of temples and administrative buildings. There was a ‘forest’ of the roots of 100 stupas. The city originally housed 6,500 people. It was an awesome sight only eclipsed by the intense heat.

Who were these people who could not only exist but devise a house building system in this hostile, energy sapping environment?

We returned to base exhausted and remained close to barracks for dinner. The energy to go further afield had evaporated!1

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