Gaochang ruined ancient city near Turpan

A two hour flight north up towards The Mongolian border and the oasis desert town of Turpan which despite being one of the hottest and driest places on earth where ground temperatures of 89 degrees have been recorded has sustained life for thousands of years because of water running down via the nearby Flaming mountain range sited to the North. This is Las Vegas, neon in the desert but no gambling or shows.

Today it is known throughout China as a major grape growing area but there are still signs of the Buddhist people of the first century AD before Islam came to dominate this region. The deserted tenth century city of Gochang once accommodated 30,000 people at the foothills of the nearby blistering Flaming mountain range and the adobe outer and partial town walls still stand in recognisable form to a great extent though it was abused by local farmers and others for many years for crop growing.

It is difficult to imagine much has changed in the village streets nearby where old men lounge about on outside beds under shady trees to avoid the midday temperature of 39 degrees, dilapidated bits of machinery or furniture lay strewn outside crumbling homes or barns where energy is difficult to raise.

Further away but not that far lie the tombs of past residents designed in their traditional manner, access to the tomb is reached by a sloping passage into the tomb area with increasingly higher walls on each side as you descend. Behind where the body is lain, one wall displays image chosen by the deceased many years in advance to depict, for example, an image to remind him of her of home or perhaps to send a moral message obout how to live ones life, A large dome of earth sits above the tomb when the entrance is closed to assist recognition should access be needed for other family members though this would have helped grave robbers seeking valuables such as the coins inserted into all orifices when the body was prepared for burial. One site still holds two mummies whose condition has been well preserved by the dry conditions of the area.

Further into the Flaming mountain range a further number of impressive tombs are to be found overlooking a green oasis along the river which would have given life to the town of Gochang mentioned above. These either extend out of the mountain side, half protrude or are completely underground. In barrel-shaped rooms about twenty feet long walls on each side are covered with Buddhist images and stories in varying states of disrepair. The colours are often still quit fresh though lead-based red has reverted to black. Many have had the eyes gouged out or damaged by those who wished to prevent the Buddhist faith being further promulgated.

Even more interesting and better preserved is the Yar island site from the second century BC, a UNESCO site outside Turpan. Early tribes dug down into the softish soil to create an underground city of 6.000 inhabitants with living space, pagodas, stupas and steep-sided passage ways for protection from the blistering sun. Water from the two rivers which surround the site were crucial for existence and advanced techniques were employed all over the city to bring glacial waters from the Tien Shan mountains 3,000 metres away to the Karen underground water channel system which is partially open to visitors and indeed it is the first time we have encountered Chinese tourists en mass, flags, selfies, the works.

Here's hoping there not all on our overnight train tonight heading for the Buddhist caves of Dunhuang tonight

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