Desert Ruins

By Xie Wenting in Turpan Source:Global Times Published: 2016/9/7 19:38:39 Last Updated: 2016/9/8 16:38:39


A tourist takes photos on the central avenue of the ancient city of Jiaohe. Photo: Cui Meng/GT

Ruins of the ancient city of Jiaohe. Photo: Cui Meng/GT

Under the cover of darkness, about 40 tourists were marching among the dilapidated walls of an ancient city in Turpan, Northwest China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Cellphones were turned off; talking was not allowed; the group was expecting to see the mystery and glamour of the ancient city of Jiaohe, the chief city of the Jushi people of the 1st century BC, in awe and in silence.

The central avenue was lit by candles. Once tourists passed by, staff members at the tourism administration would immediately snuff the candles to avoid a fire.

This night tour, according to Zulpkar Seyit, director of Jiaohe tourism administration, is a newly launched program to attract tourists.

"During the day, it's so hot that most tourists only walked a few steps inside the ancient city of the Jiaohe and then left for a cool place. At night, when the temperature drops, they can stay here longer and fully appreciate this ancient town. So we launched the night tour program in April," Seyit told the Global Times.

In the summer daytime, the temperatures of Turpan can reach about 50C. At night, the heat is comparably more bearable.

According to Seyit, most of the people who are willing to stay at Jiaohe for a longer period are history lovers and foreigners. "I hope more people can develop an understanding of its history through a comprehensive tour of it," he said.

The old city which looks like a willow leaf is the best-preserved and largest earthen city in the world. It was included into the World Heritage List in 2014.

Ancient voices

The tours are held every Friday and Saturday night.

The maximum capacity for the night tour is about 70 people. The start time for the tour varies every day, as the tourists can only kick off the tour when the sun is down.

In the hot summer season, people have to wait until around 10:30 pm and they gather at the main entrance, said Seyit.

There is a performance session, specially designed for night tourists.

But not every tourist has the chance to see the show. Only those who follow instruction and made their way to the very north of the ancient city where dozens of temples stand can see it. This area used to be the city's most prestigious area.

Before the show, tourists are required to sit on the carpet, with their shoes off for the performance.

"Close your eyes to feel the poetry, nostalgia and spirit that the city once had," said the hostess.

Following her words, the tanbur, a traditional Turkic instrument, was played with the performer singing traditional Uyghur songs.

While the center of the stage where the performer stands is surrounded by candlelight, the light is so faint that the face of the singer can hardly be seen. Thus, the sound seems to come from the disused temples echoing from centuries past.

The whole performance lasts around 30 minutes and it mainly consists of singing and poetry reciting. The songs are all Uyghur and so are the musical instruments.

At a normal performance, clapping is a way to pay tribute to the performers. Here, no matter how much you admire the show, you are forbidden from making any sound throughout the time.

"The performance was terrific. While I didn't understand any of the lyrics, they did strike a chord with me," said Alex Cui, who has toured the ancient city of Jiaohe twice.

Last time when Cui paid a visit to Jiaohe, he felt so exhausted under the scotching sun that he was in no good mood to see the city. While this time he said he eventually "connected with the history."

"Under our feet, our predecessors are buried. I feel so close to them. This is such a miracle, just thinking in the past the monks were chanting on the same land where we are now standing," he said.

Ancient city

Geng Shuo, from the School of Archaeology and Museology of Peking University, described the city's history.

"The reason that the ancient city of Jiaohe was preserved so well is because the city was abandoned in the 14th century," he said.

According to Geng, the old city quickly expanded in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), and about 50,000 people resided there during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong (685-762).

The location of Jiaohe was carefully chosen. It was at an important fortress along the ancient Silk Road. Unlike other cities that rose from the level ground, Jiaohe distinguished itself by building on a soil precipice.

"The precipice is 1,775-meter long that runs from north to south, and spans about 300 meters at its widest point. The height of the precipice is about 30 meters. This precipice served as a natural barrier," he said, adding that the city got the name Jiaohe (river crossing), because historically, there were several rivers intersecting under the city.

For Geng, one unmissable feature of Jiaohe is the unique structural method architects adopted in building the houses and avenues. The houses and avenues were dug downward from the original earth.

The central avenue marked the chief division in Jiaohe, Geng noted.

"Temples were north of the central avenue. The middle area held government offices. The east part of the city was the warehouse district and ordinary residents lived in the northeast and south," he said. 

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