The Giant Buddha Temple

The city of Zhangye once served as a bustling trading hub along the ancient Silk Road and, as such, it was one of the first Chinese cities to be exposed to Buddhist influence. The Giant Buddha Temple stands as a testament to the profound impact that Buddhism had on this city. With a name like the Giant Buddha Temple, it shouldn’t be too hard to guess what this place is famous for! Originally built during the Western Xia Dynasty (1038-1227), the temple is home to the largest statue of the Reclining Buddha in China. The eponymous Giant Buddha statue is 33 metres (108 ft.) high, 49 metres (161 ft.) wide, and 24 metres (79 ft.) long. To put that into perspective, it is over five times the height of a giraffe and about as long as the average blue whale! The temple itself is also one of the largest remaining relics of the Western Xia Dynasty, a mysterious empire that was led by a Turkic people known as the Tanguts.

According to legend, a member of the imperial Tangut clan named Sineng decided to become a Buddhist monk and was traveling in the area surrounding Zhangye when he heard heavenly sounding music. Following the sound, he came to the foot of a mountain where a numinous light was shining. After digging at this luminous location, he unearthed a collection of Buddhist artefacts and among them was a statue of the reclining Buddha. Sineng interpreted this as a sign of divine approval and vowed to build a magnificent temple in honour of this sacred statue.  Five years later, his wish came true when in 1103 the Western Xia Emperor Chongzong provided the funds necessary to begin building the temple on the grounds of a pre-existing temple, which had been known as the Jiaye Rulai Temple. This original statue is reputedly hidden deep within the belly of the much larger Reclining Buddha statue that takes pride of place within the temple today.

Nowadays, the temple complex is separated into three main areas: the Buddha Hall, where the giant Reclining Buddha is located; the Buddhist Art Exhibition Hall, where various Buddhist paintings and sculptures are exhibited; and the Sutras Exhibition Hall, where the original sutras collected within the temple are displayed. The giant statue of the Reclining Buddha was carved from clay that was plastered over a wooden frame before being painted and gold-plated, which gives it an uncannily lifelike appearance. Directly behind the main statue, there are statues of the 10 principal disciples of Shakyamuni Buddha. The sides of the hall are similarly home to statues of the 18 arhats, who are regarded as legendary guardians of Buddhism that supposedly possess supernatural powers. Alongside these vivid statues, the walls of the Buddha Hall are no less magnificent, as they have been covered with colourful murals that depict scenes from both the Mountains and Waters Sutra and the classical Chinese novel Journey to the West.

The Sutras Exhibition Hall, also known as the Hall of Scriptures, is currently home to over 6,000 volumes of ancient Buddhist sutras that have miraculously managed to survive within the temple. Some of these dusty tomes have actually been written in powdered silver or gold, making them exceedingly valuable and rare. After all, diamonds may be a girl’s best friend, but only the Diamond Sutra will help you achieve enlightenment!

Alongside the main temple halls, the temple complex itself is also home to two unique buildings: the Clay Pagoda and the Shanxi Guild. Originally, there were five pagodas in Zhangye known as the Five Element Pagodas, which were built in accordance with the traditional Chinese concept of the Five Elements. Now the 13-storey-high Clay Pagoda in the Giant Buddha Temple and the Wooden Pagoda in the Wooden Pagoda Temple are the only two that remain, making them important historical relics of the city’s ancient past.

The Shanxi Guild
The Shanxi Guild

Unlike the Clay Pagoda, the Shanxi Guild was technically never part of the original temple but has since been incorporated into the complex. The Shanxi Guild was founded in 1724 during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) as a place for traveling merchants from Shanxi province to network with one another and to feel more at home in this far flung city. These Shanxi merchants, more commonly known as the Jin Merchants, were astute businessmen who began by trading salt, which the imperial government permitted them to do so long as they provided food to imperial troops stationed within the frontier regions. This is why so many Shanxi merchants ended up in the remote western regions of China, such as Gansu province. Today, the Shanxi Guild still contains a well-preserved gate, theatre stage, audience tower, bell and drum tower, memorial archway, wing rooms, and hall. Wandering through these ancient buildings, you’ll effortlessly be transported back to what life was like for traveling merchants in this isolated oasis town.

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The Great Mosque of Xi’an

Nestled within the Muslim Quarter in the city of Xi’an, the Great Mosque is the largest of its kind in China and, alongside being a popular tourist site, remains an active place of worship to this day. What makes this mosque particularly unique is that it combines traditional Chinese architectural features with Islamic ones, looking from the outside like a typical Chinese temple but bearing the hallmarks of an Islamic mosque within its interior. According to historical records engraved on a stone tablet within the complex, the original mosque was built on this site in 742 AD, during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). This mosque was built in order to accommodate the many merchants and travellers from Central Asia who settled in Xi’an, the then capital of China, and introduced Islam to the country.

The current mosque, however, was constructed in 1392, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and was renovated numerous times thereafter, meaning that many of the structures we find today date back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. At the time of its construction, the mosque lay just outside of the Ming Dynasty city walls in a neighbourhood that was designated for foreigners, but today this area has been incorporated into the city proper and can be found close to the city’s famed Drum Tower. 

Sprawling across an area of 12,000 square metres (14,352 sq. yd.), the Great Mosque of Xi’an contains over twenty different buildings. Unlike a typical mosque, it is made up of pavilions and pagodas, and is laid out much like a Chinese temple, with successive courtyards following a single axis. The major way in which it differs from a Chinese temple, however, is that its grand axis is aligned from east to west in order to face Mecca, rather than from north to south in accordance with traditional feng shui[1] practices. In-keeping with Islamic tradition, the mosque is richly decorated with geometric and floral motifs, but contains few depictions of living creatures, the only exception being occasional images of dragons. Fabulous works of calligraphy are displayed throughout the complex, some of which are in Chinese, some of which are in Arabic, and a handful of which are in a fusion of styles referred to as “Sini”, which consists of Arabic text written in a traditionally Chinese calligraphic style. 

The complex is made up of four successive courtyards that lead up to the main prayer hall, which is backed by a fifth and final courtyard. Each courtyard is lined with lush greenery and contains a signature monument, such as a pavilion, screen, or freestanding gateway. After all, in a complex this expansive, you need something to help you stand out! In the first courtyard, the signature monument comes in the form of an elaborate style of wooden gateway known as a paifang, which is 9 metres (30 ft.) in height and is topped with a brightly coloured glazed-tile roof. This paifang is matched by a similar one in the second courtyard, although this is not its central feature. That honour is reserved for the two stone steles[2] that stand opposite this paifang, which have each been carved by a famous calligrapher. The first was written by Mi Fu of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), while the second was inscribed by Dong Qichang of the Ming Dynasty.

Step through another elegant roofed pavilion and you’ll find yourself in the third courtyard, which is known as the Qing Xiu Dian or “Place of Meditation”. This courtyard is home to the illustrious Xingxin Tower or “Tower of the Visiting Heart”. With a name that romantic, you know it must be something special! This spectacular brick tower is over 10 metres (33 ft.) in height and serves a particularly unique function within the mosque. Traditionally mosques built before the Great Mosque of Xi’an would have a minaret, where the call to prayer would take place, and a separate bangke or “moon watching” pavilion, which was a staple of traditional Chinese temples. The Xingxin Tower, however, was the first of its kind to combine both of these functions, representing another merge between the traditionally Chinese and Islamic features of the mosque.

The fourth courtyard is home to yet another beautiful pavilion, which is known as the Fenghua or “Phoenix” Pavilion. Built during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), the pavilion was so named because of its resemblance to a phoenix spreading its wings. Alongside being a beautiful addition to the mosque, the Phoenix Pavilion serves a very special purpose, as it blocks a direct view to the prayer hall at the western end of the courtyard. The prayer hall, which is the main focus of the entire complex, is the only part of the mosque that is not open to the public and is still used today by the local Hui Muslims. Prayer services are held in this hall five times per day and the hall itself can hold upwards of 1,000 people at any given time. Behind the prayer hall, there are two circular moon gates that lead to the fifth courtyard, where two small manmade hills have been constructed for the ceremonial viewing of the new moon. 

[1] Feng Shui: This theory is based on the premise that the specific placement of certain buildings or objects will bring good fortune.

[2] Stele: An upright stone slab or pillar that bears an inscription and usually marks a burial site, like a tombstone.

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The Hu Family Mansion

Nestled within the bustling city of Tianshui, the Hu Family Mansion looks somewhat out of place among the modern shops and skyscrapers that surround it. It once served as the private home of the wealthy Hu clan and was originally constructed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) by an official named Hu Laijin, with the help of his son Hu Xi. What makes the Hu Family Mansion so unique is that it conforms to a traditional style of Chinese architecture known as a “siheyuan” or “quadrangle courtyard”, which is extremely unusual in northwestern China.

Nowadays, it has been opened to the public and decorated with gorgeous period furnishings, with detailed descriptions of every room’s function clearly signposted. From the rich jade-green bamboo that grows within its courtyards to the intricate woodcuttings that bedeck its interior, the Hu Family Mansion was designed to be as aesthetically pleasing as possible and is a real feast for the eyes. Wandering through this tranquil mansion is sure to give you a clear idea of the simple yet scholarly lifestyle enjoyed by many Ming Dynasty officials.  

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The Yuquan Taoist Temple

Located at the base of the Tianjing Mountain in the city of Tianshui, the Yuquan Taoist Temple is a colossal complex that sprawls up the mountainside, covering an area of nearly 170,000 square metres (203,318 sq. yd.). The temple was originally built during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) under the rather uninspired name of Beishan or “North Mountain” Temple, but its name was eventually changed to the Yuquan or “Jade Spring” Temple during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The name was derived from a local spring, which supposedly sprouted water that was so clear and beautiful that it resembled lustrous jade. In-keeping with its aquatic name, you’re sure to be blown out of the water when you see how beautiful this temple complex is!

Tragically the original temple was almost completely destroyed during the collapse of the Song Dynasty, but it was restored to its former glory during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and underwent over 30 extensions from then until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). The final renovation project took place during the 1980s and left the temple with more than 90 separate buildings. The temple complex itself is peppered with lush cypress trees, some of which are over 1000 years old, and contains two very famous stone tablets: one of which was inscribed by Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan and founder of the Yuan Dynasty; and the other by an illustrious Yuan Dynasty calligrapher named Zhao Mengfu. The most notable features within the temple are arguably: the Spirit Official Hall, the Jade Emperor Hall, the Doumu Hall, the Three Qing Hall, the Jade Spring, the Immortal Cave, the Three-Immortal Cave, and the Dai Temple.

The Spirit Official Hall is the first part of the temple that you come to after entering and is dedicated to Spirit Officer Wang, the Supreme Patron God of Taoism. According to Taoist tradition, Wang is ranked among the top five hundred spirit officers and supposedly possesses the ability to suppress demons. That’s a pretty impressive skill to have on your CV, even for a deity! Unfortunately he pales in comparison to the inhabitant of the nearby Jade Emperor Hall, where one of the most holy deities in the Taoist canon is consecrated. The Jade Emperor ranks among the highest deities in the Taoist pantheon and his hall is more like a miniature temple in its own right, which is a testament to his importance. It consists of a main temple hall, two side temples, a pavilion, a bell tower, a drum tower, and an archway. Every year, on the 9th day of the first month according to the Chinese lunar calendar, a magnificent temple fair is held in this hall in honour of the Jade Emperor’s birthday. Talk about extravagant!

It seems, however, that even the Jade Emperor has competition! The Three Qing Hall is dedicated to the “Three Qing” or the Three Pure Ones, which are unequivocally acknowledged as the highest ranking deities in Taoism and are sometimes referred to as the “Taoist Holy Trinity”. According to traditional Taoist theory, the way of the Tao produces One, One leads to Two, and finally Two creates Three. The first of the Pure Ones, Yuanshi Tianzun, represents One, since he oversaw the creation of the universe out of nothingness. Once their job was completed, Yuanshi Tianzun manifested into the second of the trinity, Lingbao Tianzun, who classified the elements into their rightful groups and separated the Yang from the Yin. During the final stage of creation, known as Two creating Three, Lingbao Tianzun manifested into Daode Tianzun, who preached the Law to all living beings and thus brought about civilisation. The Three Pure Ones are a distinctly abstract concept, as they each represent both a deity and a heaven. That being said, to avoid confusion, they are often depicted as elderly sages sat upon thrones.

While she may not have achieved the illustrious status of the Three Pure Ones, the Doumu Hall is dedicated to the goddess Doumu, who nonetheless ranks quite highly within the Taoist pantheon and is considered to be the mother of all stars. In fact, she is thus believed to have absolute power over the future of all things in the universe, so don’t underestimate her importance or you’ll sorely regret it! During the early Yuan Dynasty, the hall was often referred to as the “Big Dipper Platform” because it was used by a Taoist priest named Liang Zhitong to worship the stars and the Big Dipper. In other words, a trip to this hall at night may just leave you feeling starry-eyed! Near to the Doumu Hall lies the titular Jade Spring, where crystal clear spring water has supposedly flowed for hundreds of years. It is rumoured that this spring water is not only extremely refreshing, but can also treat a variety of eye-related diseases, meaning it is sometimes nicknamed the Mingyan or “Brightening Eyes” Spring.

At the back of the temple complex lie the Immortal Cave and the Three-Immortal Cave which, though they may sound similar, serve slightly different purposes. The Immortal Cave was originally used by the Taoist priest Liang Zhitong to practice special Taoist rituals and he was supposedly buried in this cave after achieving immortality. We’re not quite sure why an immortal person would need to be buried, but we’re happy to leave it a mystery! The Three-Immortal Cave, on the other hand, is a hand-carved cave that commemorates the three legendary founders of the temple: Lü Dongbin, one of the Eight Immortals of Taoism; the aforementioned Liang Zhitong, who achieved immortality during the Yuan Dynasty; and Ma the Immortal, who was another Taoist priest that supposedly achieved immortality during the Qing Dynasty.

The Dai Temple is located in a completely separate part of the temple complex and was constructed during the Qing Dynasty, making it the youngest part of the temple. It originally consisted of two ancestral halls: one for Lord Zhou, and one for Lord Tuo. It was eventually rebuilt as the Dai Temple and is primarily dedicated to one of the Four Heavenly Emperors of Taoism: Dongji Qinghua or the “East Pole Emperor of Blue Essence”. More importantly, however, this section of the temple is home to a gruesome display of statues that are designed to represent the many tortures that immoral people will face in the underworld. It’s the ideal place to visit if your friends and family have been behaving badly!

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Yumen Pass

Towering over the western end of the Hexi Corridor, Yumen Pass was once a major gateway along the Great Wall and an integral part of the ancient Silk Road. Alongside Yang Pass, Yumen Pass served as the main pathway to the mysterious Western Regions. The pass’ long and colourful history began during the early Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), when the western border of the country was ceaselessly invaded by the nomadic Xiongnu people, the arch nemeses of the ruling Han Chinese. Rather than meet the formidable Xiongnu warriors in battle, the early Han rulers resorted to marrying off their daughters to Xiongnu leaders in a feeble attempt to broker peace. As they say, all is fair in love and war!

When Emperor Wu rose to power in 141 BC, he was appalled by this cowardly policy and replaced it with his own strategic military agenda. In 121 BC, fierce counterattacks led by the celebrated military general Huo Qubing eventually drove the Xiongnu troops out of the west and allowed Emperor Wu to secure the western frontier. By 111 BC, the Emperor had established Yumen Pass and Yang Pass, which strengthened the border and thus helped to prevent further invasions from the Xiongnu. As time went on, it became a major trading post along the northern branch of the Silk Road. Silk, porcelain, tea, and a variety of luxury wares all passed through its humble gates. “Yumen” literally translates to mean “Jade Gate”, and it is believed that the pass is so-named because of the many jade caravans that passed through it.

According to an alternative legend, there was once a region in the west of Gansu province known as “Mamitu” or “Horse Loses Its Way”. Numerous caravans carrying jade from Hotan to Dunhuang were forced to travel through this region before arriving at Yumen Pass. The region was a mess of marshes, ravines, gullies, and weeds, making it desperately difficult to navigate. As if that wasn’t complex enough, the extremely hot weather meant that it was virtually impossible to cross during the day so many caravans chose to travel at night. The darkness, coupled with the region’s unusual topography, meant that even the most experienced merchants would frequently lose their way.

There was once a caravan that often traversed this route carrying jade and silk. One day, as soon as it entered Mamitu, the merchant became hopelessly lost. As if by magic, a wild goose suddenly dropped down in front of them. A kind-hearted boy scooped the goose up in his arms and decided he would carry it until they had escaped the treacherous Mamitu region. After some time, the wild goose turned to the boy and said: “Please give me some food, and I will help you find your way”. The boy realised that the goose had dropped not because it couldn’t fly, but because it didn’t have the energy to fly. He immediately gave the goose some food and water. Once it had eaten its fill, the goose flew into the sky and guided the caravan to the small city of Fangcheng. 

It was not long before the caravan once again became lost in Mamitu. As the wild goose flew over them, he promptly stopped near the young boy and said: “Once I have guided you to Fangcheng, please promise to give me the finest piece of jade you have. I will place it in the highest tower, and it will shine so brightly that you will never lose your way again.” The boy told the merchant, but the merchant was reluctant to part with his precious cargo. After the goose had helped them, he refused to give up the jade and thought the matter was over. Who would have thought that, not long thereafter, he and his caravan would become lost in Mamitu yet again!

This time, however, it was much more serious. They were unable to find water for several days and, as they slowly weakened from thirst, they realised that they would surely die if they could not find their way soon. At that moment, the goose appeared and shouted down to the merchant: “Your caravan is hopelessly lost! Give me the jade you promised, and I will lead the way to safety.“ The merchant turned to the young boy, who advised him to kneel down and swear to the wild goose that he would keep his promise. The merchant promptly followed the boy’s advice and the goose kindly guided the caravan out of Mamitu.

Once they had arrived in Fangcheng, the merchant picked the largest piece of luminous green jade he could find and gave it to the goose. The goose flew to the top of the highest tower in Fangcheng and embedded the jade there. When night fell, the jade would shine in the moonlight and guide caravans through Mamitu. From that day forward, not a single caravan became lost, and Fangcheng became known as the Jade Gate Pass.

The Han Great Wall near the Yumen Pass

Unfortunately, towards the end of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the trade route through Yumen Pass was gradually supplanted by the northern route via Hami and the pass fell into disuse. Nowadays, all that is left of this venerable military gate and trading post are a smattering of ruins, which are located approximately 90 kilometres (56 mi) from the city of Dunhuang. At the grand old age of over 2,000 years, it was considered so integral to the country’s history that it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014. The complex is entirely built of rammed earth and, due to years of neglect, all that remains today are the gatehouse, a beacon tower, and a small portion of the Han Dynasty Great Wall. In many ways, its desolation is part of its charm. After all, as the poem “Song of Liangzhou” by Wang Zhihuan goes: “Don’t complain that the willows do not thrive there, you should know that Spring never comes to Yumen Pass”.  

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The Yellow River

Known simultaneously as “China’s Pride”, the Yellow River has occupied a controversial space in the country’s history. At an estimated length of 5,464 kilometres (3,395 mi), it is the third longest river in Asia and the sixth longest in the world. It originates from the Bayan Har Mountains in Qinghai province of western China and crosses through nine provincial level regions before finally emptying into the Bohai Sea near the city of Dongying in Shandong province. While ancient Chinese civilisation would have been unable to develop without it, its turbulent waters have led to some of the most devastating natural disasters in human history.


The Yellow River’s long and winding path through the country can be roughly separated into three sections: the segment northeast of the Tibetan Plateau; the Ordos Loop; and the North China Plain. Characterised by clear waters and shimmering lakes, the upper reaches of the river flow mainly through pastures, swamps, and knolls between the Bayan Har Mountains and the Amne Machin Mountains of Qinghai province. As the river leaves Qinghai province and enters Gansu province, it passes through a series of 20 narrow gorges. A number of hydroelectric plants have been established in this region in order to take advantage of the river’s extremely fast and turbulent waters.


The river continues in a roughly northeastern direction until it reaches the town of Hekou in Inner Mongolia, where it turns sharply south and forms the Ordos Loop. From there, it travels south through the Loess Plateau, creating a natural border between the provinces of Shaanxi and Shanxi. It is in this section that the riverbed suddenly tapers down from 300 metres (984 ft.) in width to 50 metres (164 ft.), forming the magnificent 15 metre-high (49 ft.) Hukou Waterfall. As the river winds through the Loess Plateau, it causes substantial erosion and thus accumulates a vast amount of mud, sand, and silt. It is in this section that it takes on its iconic ochre hue, earning it the name of the Yellow River. In many ways, this sediment is both its blessing and its curse.

The Yellow River in Ordos Loop


As the river heads east towards the Gulf of Bohai and meanders through the North China Plain, it provides a colossal 140 million people with water for drinking and irrigation. The mineral-rich sediment makes the surrounding farmland incredibly fertile, which frequently results in an abundance of crops. For this reason, agricultural societies were able to survive along the rivers’ banks over 7,000 years ago, and it has been vital to the survival of people in northern China. The myriad of Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron Age archaeological sites found within the river’s drainage basin attest to the major role it played in the development of ancient Chinese civilisation.


However, in the slower reaches of the river, the sediment is deposited at random in large heaps and eventually forms small subaqueous dams, which in turn elevate the riverbed. This has created the infamous “river above ground”, as high levees are now required to keep the river within its banks. Historically, during times of flooding, the river has broken out of its levees and changed its course entirely, causing mass devastation to the surrounding countryside in the process. The rushing waters would burst forth and inundate everything in their path, including farmland, towns, and even cities. From the year 595 BC to 1946 AD, before the advent of modern dams, it is reckoned that the river shifted its course 35 times and flooded a shocking 1,593 times!


In its darkest hours, the Yellow River has been either solely or partially responsible for three of the deadliest floods in recorded history: the flood of 1332, which killed an estimated 7 million people; the 1887 flood, which caused the death of anywhere from 900,000 to 2 million people; and the 1931 floods, which resulted in the death of between 1 to 4 million people. While the floods themselves caused a substantial number of deaths, it was the ensuing famine and pestilence that drove the death toll to such staggering heights. In spite of the incredible danger that the river posed, a surprising number of these floods were actually manmade.


From the Warring States Period (c. 476-221 B.C.) onwards, sabotaging levees, canals, and reservoirs became a standard military tactic to deliberately flood areas and cause problems for the opposition. In fact, the devastating flood of 1938 was caused by the Nationalist Government, who blew up the levees at Huayuankou and flooded the provinces of Henan, Anhui, and Jiangsu in a vain attempt to halt the progress of the advancing Imperial Japanese Army during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945). The plan tragically backfired and resulted in the loss of vast tracts of farmland, the death of approximately 800,000 people, and the displacement of nearly 3 million refugees.


In its time, the Yellow River has been responsible for the rise and fall of dynasties; the reaping of bumper harvests and the absolute devastation of crops; the birth of a civilisation and the death of millions of its people. It is the lifeblood that runs through the country, as important to China as the Nile is to Egypt. Yet its power should never be underestimated. After all, as the old Chinese proverb goes: “Water can not only float a boat, it can also sink it”.

The Yellow River in Shanxi Province

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Turpan

The city of Turpan, also known as Turfan, lies about 180 kilometres (112 mi) southeast of the regional capital of Ürümqi, on the northern edge of the deep Turpan Depression. The Bogda Mountains, an eastern extension of the Tian Shan Mountains, rest to the north, while Qoltag Mountain rises to the south. Its unusual location means its climate is pretty unique, with long hot summers and cold brief winters.

On average, temperatures can range from −7 °C (18 °F) in January to 32 °C (90 °F) in July, but extremes of an icy cold −28 °C (−20 °F) in winter and a swelteringly hot 48 °C (119 °F) in summer are surprisingly common. The long hours of sunshine and characteristic dry heat have earned Turpan the grand title of the “Flaming Continent”. So skip the tanning beds, because you won’t be needing them in this sunny city!

The city’s 570,000-strong-population appear to take the heat in their stride, and most of them belong to the Uyghur ethnic minority. In fact, though at a glance the terrain may appear to be harsh and unforgiving, Turpan actually rests at the centre of a fertile oasis and was once an important trade centre along the northern branch of the Silk Road. Proof that you should never judge a book by its cover, or a city by its weather!

Historically speaking, the area surrounding Turpan has been inhabited for over two thousand years. Originally, during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), it belonged to the Gushi Kingdom, later to be known as the Jushi and Cheshi Kingdom. The capital of the Cheshi Kingdom, a city known as Jiaohe, came under the control of the Han court during the 1st century, but the entire region was eventually annexed by the Gaochang Kingdom during the 6th century.

In 640, during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the region was conquered by Emperor Taizong and Turpan became one of China’s frontier towns, flourishing as a stopover for merchants, monks, and other travellers on their way to the west. By the 13th century, the region had come under Mongolian control and Turpan enjoyed its greatest period of commercial prosperity. Yet the higher you go, unfortunately the further you have to fall!

Tragically, when Mongol rule collapsed, the Turpan Depression was divided into three independent states and the area wasn’t properly united until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). During this recovery period, Turpan suffered greatly during the wars between the Qing imperials and the resident Dzungar people. During the 18th century, a new city known as Guang’an was built next to the old Muslim city of Turpan and this eventually became the site of modern-day Turpan.

Nowadays the abundant sunshine and high temperatures in the city mean that it’s the ideal place for growing several types of fruit, particularly grapes and melons. The Grape Valley is just 11 kilometres (7 mi) northeast of Turpan and has produced the best grapes in the country for over 1,000 years, earning it the nickname “Green Pearl City”. It boasts over 13 varieties of grape, which visitors are welcome to admire and, occasionally, sample!

Aside from the sumptuously sweet fruit, the scorching heat in Turpan has other benefits. Sand Therapy is a practice that dates back over hundreds of years and involves burying people in 50 °C (122 °F) to 60 °C (140 °F) sand in order to treat various ailments, including rheumatism and skin disease. There is even a Sand Therapy Centre in the northwest of the city, which is immensely popular with locals and tourists alike.

Yet perhaps Turpan’s greatest claim to fame is its prestigious heritage and the historical relics that surround it. The Jiaohe Ruins are located in Yarnaz Valley, just 10 kilometres (6 mi) west of the city, and date back over 2,300 years. They are considered one of the most well-preserved ruins of an earthen city in the world and were made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014.

This heritage site also includes the ruins of Gaochang, another ancient city located at the foot of the Flaming Mountains about 46 kilometres (29 mi) southeast of Turpan. It was once another major city along the Silk Road and was initially built during the 1st century BC. Mummies of both Caucasian and Mongolian ancestry have been found in the Astana Tombs just 4 kilometres (2.5 mi) north of Gaochang and may indicate that it was one of the first multi-ethnic cities in the world.

Not far from these ancient ruins, the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves are a set of cave grottos dating back to between the 5th and 14th centuries. As Buddhism was one of the first religions to be introduced to the area via the Silk Road, Xinjiang witnessed the earliest development of this style of cave art in China. Of the 83 original caves in this complex, only 57 remain and most of these date back to between the 10th and 13th centuries.

About 10 kilometres (6 mi) to the east of Turpan, the Flaming Mountains rise up in the sandy desert. Their unusual name is derived from the burnished red colour of their bedrock, which gives the mountains the appearance of being aflame when hit with direct sunlight. With summer temperatures regularly reaching in excess of 50 °C (122 °F), these mountains are widely considered the hottest spot in China and certainly live up to their fiery name!

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The Gao Family Mansion

With a history stretching back over 400 years, the Gao Family Mansion is the ideal place to experience what ancient life would have been like in the rapidly expanding metropolis of Xi’an. Its entrance is an unassuming gate on the side of Beiyuanmen Street in the city’s bustling Muslim Quarter and it offers a slice of tranquillity amongst the lively chaos of this popular dining area. This venerable mansion was originally established during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and served as the former residence of a scholar-official named Gao Yuesong. During his illustrious career, Gao Yuesong achieved the second highest mark in the imperial examination and was awarded with this mansion by the reigning Chongzhen Emperor for his loyal service as an imperial official. His story might be worth mentioning next time you talk to your boss about Christmas bonuses!

Gao Yuesong’s mansion was often a hive of activity, as he regularly hosted events with prominent writers, thinkers, scholars, and performers. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to enjoy his luxurious home for long, as he tragically died at the age of 31. His family, however, continued to live in the mansion for seven generations and many of his descendants went on to have successful careers as officials within the imperial government.

The mansion itself sprawls over an area of over 2,500 square metres (26,910 sq. ft.) and is made up of 86 rooms, 56 of which are currently open to the public. The entire complex is separated into two courts, the north court and the south court, which in turn each contain four small courtyards. Wandering through this labyrinthine complex, visitors will be met with rooms lavishly decorated with period furnishings and walls beautifully bedecked with traditional Chinese paintings. Alongside being a popular tourist attraction, the Gao Family Mansion serves as the offices for four different organisations, including the Xi’an Chinese Painting Academy.

Nowadays, the Gao Family Mansion acts as a beacon of ancient culture in the city of Xi’an. Every day, performances of traditional Chinese opera and Shadow Puppetry take place on its main stage. Shadow Puppetry is a type of performance that uses simple colourful figures made from leather or paper to act out its stories and is believed to have originated in Shaanxi province during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). In-keeping with this local flavour, both the opera and shadow puppet shows at the mansion utilise the local dialect of Shaanxi province and the stories they tell revolve around popular folk legends. These lively performances are complemented by classes on the traditional Chinese art of papercutting and peaceful tea ceremonies at the courtyard teahouse.

Make your dream trip to The Gao Family Mansion come true on our travel: Explore the Silk Road in China

The 8 Immortals Temple

With their ability to bestow life and overcome the forces of evil, the 8 Immortals have captured the imagination and admiration of people throughout China for centuries. Think of them like the original Chinese superheroes! They have been a focal feature of Chinese mythology since the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) and have been particularly influential when it comes to the indigenous Chinese religion of Taoism, although their identities weren’t strictly fixed until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Each of them carries a special magical item, which are regarded as holy articles in Taoism.

The 8 Immortals are traditionally known as: Han Zhongli, who clasps a fan that can bring the dead back to life; Zhang Guolao, whose sacred item is an unusual drum made out of a bamboo tube; Han Xiangzi, who is often depicted playing his flute; Li Tieguai, who heals people using the special medicine in his magical gourd; Cao Guojiu, who is rarely seen without his imperial jade tablet; Lü Dongbin, who wields a powerful sword; Lan Caihe, who carries a basket of flowers; and He Xiangu, who delicately holds a single lotus flower. They are predominantly male, although He Xiangu is the only woman among them and Lan Caihe’s gender is often left ambiguous.

Outside of the 8 Immortals Temple in Xi’an, a stunning mural recounts a famous legend known as “The Eight Immortals Cross the Sea”. According to this fabulous legend, the 8 immortals were on their way to attend a conference that was being held by a goddess known as the Queen Mother of the West, who is renowned in Chinese mythology for her magical peaches that can bestow immortality. Their journey, however, was unexpectedly brought to a halt when they encountered an ocean in their path. The typical mode of transport for an immortal in this instance would be to ride on a cloud, but the 8 immortals couldn’t resist the chance to show off their powers!

Rather than simply conjure up their celestial clouds, Lü Dongbin suggested that they should each use their unique skills to get across. In some depictions, the immortals are shown literally skidding across the waves sat atop their sacred items, but the mural outside of the temple recounts the version of the story in which they transformed their sacred items into various different fantastical animals, which they then rode. This enthralling tale gave rise to the Chinese proverb: “The Eight Immortals cross the sea, each one reveals their divine powers”, which is used to describe when everyone uses their unique skills and expertise in order to achieve a common goal. In some instances, however, people use this proverb to refer to a situation where each person is striving to outshine their peers and assert their superiority. Even when it comes to divine deities, it’s still all a matter of perspective!

In-keeping with the grandeur that surrounds these mythical figures, the 8 Immortals Temple is the largest Taoist temple in Xi’an and has a particularly special historical pedigree. In 1900, an international military coalition known as the Eight-Nation Alliance was formed by Japan, Russia, Britain, France, the United States, Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary as a response to the ongoing Boxer Rebellion, which had been responsible for the deaths of numerous foreign missionaries.

In that same year, the alliance’s armed forces invaded and occupied Beijing, forcing the ruling Emperor Guangxu and his mother Empress Dowager Cixi to flee to Xi’an. They sought refuge within the 8 Immortals Temple, which is now occasionally referred to as the 8 Immortals Palace because it briefly served as the residence of royalty. After Emperor Guangxu and Empress Dowager Cixi were able to safely return to Beijing, they donated substantial amounts of silver to fund the renovation of the temple and a board inscribed by Empress Dowager Cixi herself still hangs within one of its halls. While it is believed that the temple was originally built during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), most of its existing structure dates back to these renovations made during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).

Alongside the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower, the temple can roughly be divided into three sections. The first section is made up of five halls that are dedicated to a Taoist deity known as Wang Lingguan. The second section is formed of two halls, with the back hall featuring colourful painted statues of the 8 Immortals. The third and final section simply consists of the Main Hall, which is where the tablet inscribed by Empress Dowager Cixi is housed. Inside this hall, locals and visitors alike make offerings to Taoist deities, with particular emphasis on a high-ranking goddess known as Doumu or “the Mother of the Great Chariot”.  To the west of this hall lies a hall for the immortal Lü Dongbin and a hall for the deity Yaowang or the “King of Chinese Medicine”, while accommodation for the resident Taoist priests can be found to the east.

At the centre of the temple courtyard, visitors can cross over the Bridge of Meeting Immortals, which was built in memory of Wang Chongyang, the legendary founder of the Quanzhen sect of Taoism. This venerable master of Taoism is also intimately connected to the 8 immortals, as he was supposedly enlightened by none other than Lü Dongbin. It’s a small spiritual world after all!

While they are not represented by individual halls within the temple complex, the 8 Immortals Temple is also the place where locals in Xi’an come to pray to the hundreds of other Taoist immortals, who are each responsible for a different area of human life. In many ways, they have been said to resemble the patron saints of Catholicism. On the 14th day of the fourth month and the 9th day of the ninth month every year according to the Chinese lunar calendar, worshippers will converge on the temple for the 3-day-long temple fair and the Double Ninth Festival respectively. During both of these festivals, the temple will be fragrant with the sweet smell of incense as vibrant worshipping ceremonies take place throughout its many halls.

Make your dream trip to The 8 Immortals Temple come true on our travel: Explore the Silk Road in China

Gaochang Ruins

The Gaochang Ruins were once the site of an ancient oasis city built on the northern edge of the unforgiving Taklamakan Desert. They are located at the foot of the Flaming Mountains, about 46 kilometres (29 mi) southeast of Turpan, and have miraculously survived for over 2,000 years. They were incorporated into the Silk Road UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014 and, thanks to renovations and preservation projects, have since enjoyed a much deserved facelift! Though they may not be in as good a condition as the Jiaohe Ruins, which are about 40 kilometres (25 mi) to their west, they still maintain a certain inimitable charm.

The city was built during the 1st century BC and was ruled by the Cheshi (Jushi) Kingdom, until they surrendered control of the area to the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) around about 50 BC. It played a focal role as one of the main trade hubs and oasis towns along the Silk Road, making it a prized asset that the Han court was keen to protect. It became the capital of the Gaochang Kingdom (531-640) during the 6th century but returned to Chinese control in 640, when it was conquered by Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). However, this would prove to be short-lived as the Tang court was forced to withdraw its military forces from the area in 755. Like a property in Central London, Gaochang’s prime location meant it was incredibly valuable and hotly contested!

By 803, the Uyghur ethnic group had taken control of the city and it became part of the Kingdom of Qocho (856-1335). In 1209 this kingdom came under the suzerainty of Genghis Khan and eventually became part of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), but was seized by a rival Mongolian kingdom known as the Chatagai Khanate from 1275 to 1318. When the Yuan Dynasty eventually collapsed, the trade route that ran through Gaochang was disrupted and war broke out between the Mongolians and the Uyghurs. This warfare greatly damaged the city and this, coupled with the disruption of trade, led to the city being gradually abandoned.

Although the city was left in bad shape, much of the additional destruction happened long after it was deserted. Initially Muslims from outlying areas destroyed many of the Buddhist frescos within the city that depicted human or animal forms, believing them to be blasphemous. Then, over a period of time, local farmers took wall paintings from the temples and soil from the walls of the earthen buildings, as they made good fertiliser. So remember, if you happen to sample any of the locally grown vegetables, you’re quite literally enjoying the taste of Gaochang!

It wasn’t until the late 19th century that the archaeological value of the region was discovered, and soon archaeologists from across the globe flocked to the area to marvel at the ruins. Many of the relics excavated in Gaochang are now scattered throughout museums in London, Berlin, St. Petersburg, and other far-flung cities, but many more still remain within the city’s dilapidated walls.

In its heyday, the city boasted an impressive population of approximately 30,000 people and was undoubtedly one of the livelier towns along the Silk Road. Its colossal earthen walls once towered in at over 11 metres (38 ft.) in height and it was separated into three parts: the outer city, the inner city, and the palace city. The inner city was protected by a secondary inner wall, which has since vanished, but large portions of the outer wall still remain. The palace city at Gaochang’s northernmost point was once arguably its most magnificent edifice, but now contains only the massive cornerstones of the ruined imperial palace.

On top of being a centre for trade, it was once an important religious site and, during the Tang Dynasty, it became one of the foremost Buddhist cities. In 630, while on his pilgrimage to India, the renowned monk Xuanzang even gave lectures there. At one time, the city was host to numerous monasteries, including a Confucian college and a Nestorian church, and over 3,000 monks made a home within its walls. Nowadays all that remains of this illustrious heritage are the ruins of two major temples in the southern part of the outer city. The temple in the southwest still has remnants of a gate, a courtyard, a sermon hall, a sutra[1] depository, and the monks’ living quarters, while the temple in the southeast only consists of a tower and a series of well-preserved murals.

Mummies recovered from the Astana Tombs, just 4 kilometres to the north of the ruins, were discovered to be of both Caucasian and Mongolian descent, which suggests that Gaochang may have been one of the oldest multi-ethnic and multi-religious cities in China. Murals in the nearby Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves also depict both Central Asian and Chinese monks. So who knows, you might recognise your great-great-great-great-great-grandfather in one of the frescos!

 

1. Sutra: One of the sermons of the historical Buddha.