One of the remotest cities on Earth ¡ª more than 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) from the ocean ¡ª Turpan is a charming and verdant oasis town, located in an area known for its hot climate and harsh desert terrain.
Turpan has been blessed with well water and, through the ingenuity of its inhabitants in ancient times, has an intricate irrigation system that allows fruit cultivation, in particular juicy melons and plump grapes. Wine is also produced in limited quantities in the region.
Just outside Turpan is the ancient city of Gaochang, with its partially-standing walls. It was one of the earliest free-trade zones, a once-wealthy city that welcomed influences and visitors from far and wide and was known for its religious tolerance. Visitors can explore the full city precincts aboard mule-pulled carriages, which travel along the once-grand streets of Gaochang.
Also within easy striking distance of Turpan are the dramatic Flaming Mountains. Deep within the mountain range are the renowned Bezeklik Caves, reached by twisting road, with their fabulous cave paintings. The caves were once richer in content: earlier this century, plundering European archaeologist-adventurers carried off cartloads of priceless artifacts to the West.
An earlier visitor to the area, the Italian explorer Marco Polo, was more interested in learning than stealing. He was most impressed by the beauty of Turpan ¡ª and pleasantly surprised to find it produced a drinkable wine.
Such is the importance of the grape to the local economy that a festival is held every year to honor the fruit; visitors can also pay a visit to Grape Gorge, an area dedicated to the sale of grapes and raisins. Small cafes along the street offer cold beer and the standard fare of spicy mutton kebabs grilled to perfection on small charcoal-fired barbecues.
Close to the city, the striking sandstone Emin Minaret is one of many such mosques in daily usage by the Muslim Uigur population of the city. Many are open to appropriately dressed visitors.