9:37 am: the high-speed train departs from Ürümqi station, heading 167km southeast of the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. We arrived in Turpan approximately one hour later, hopping on the bus to the ancient city of Jiaohe (Yar City), in the Yarnaz Valley, 10 km west of Turpan.
Nestled within the rugged landscape of Xinjiang, lies an archaeological gem that transports visitors through the annals of history. The Jiaohe Ruins, perched atop a plateau overlooking the Turpan Basin, whisper tales of a civilization that thrived against the harshest of natural elements. At 154 meters below sea level, this is the lowest elevated city in China and the second-lowest place on Earth after the Dead Sea.
The city is situated within the Yamariz River Oasis, to the north of the Turpan Basin, and at the southern foothills of the eastern Tian-shan Mountains. Bordered by the Yemushitage (Yanshan) Mountain to the south, it occupies an elevated terrace, 30 meters above the riverbed, encircled by the natural defenses of two river branches. The swiftly flowing waters carved out steep cliffs creating an impenetrable city wall that encases the ruins. The distinctive terrace, resembling the shape of a willow leaf, extends from the northwest to the southeast, measuring 1,750 meters in length and 300 meters at its widest point, encompassing an expansive area of 37.6 hectares.
Having arrived in China in mid-September, the temperature soared with the midday sun blazing us at 34°C and the parched earth beneath my feet radiated heat through my thick rubber sole boots. I quickly learned that Turpan is one of the hottest places in China, where it goes by the nickname “Huo Zhou”, which means “a place as hot as fire”. With summer temperatures often exceeding 40°C, the average yearly temperature is actually 14°C, which shows that this incredibly dry area has a large daily, as well as annual, temperature difference. Shade is a precious commodity while touring the ruins, so our guides made sure water bottles were constant companions.
I was eager to start the journey uphill into the ruins. Stepping into the largest, one of the oldest and best-preserved earth building city in the world, one can’t help but be captivated by the city’s history and its enduring importance, that stretches back thousands of years. On June 22th, 2014, Yar City was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List, during the 38th UNESCO World Heritage Committee gathering held in Doha, Qatar.
While the ancient city of Jiaohe boasted several entry and exit points in the past, today, the sole entrance lies in the southwest corner of the plateau, accessible via a ramp leading up into the city. And thus, from there we started hillwalking.
1. Construction and layout
At a first glance from a distance, the ruins of Jiaohe seem to resemble natural geological formations rather than the work of human hands. Yet, upon approaching them, it becomes clear that these structures were once inhabited by a thriving community — specifically, Buddhist residents, as the presence of a Buddhist temples is unmistakable.
Over the course of time, the city of Jiaohe experienced both a decline in power and an erosion of its once-magnificent beauty. However, in the middle of the 9th century, a renaissance of sorts occurred when the Uyghur people rebuilt and reoccupied the city. Buddhism, the predominant religion among the Uyghur until the eventual ascent of Islam in the following centuries, played a central role in the life of Jiaohe. This enduring influence is palpable through the remnants of monasteries and the serene stupa grove that still grace the landscape today.
The city was meticulously designed around a north-south avenue, where various functional districts were laid out in a well-organized manner on either side.The community that lived in Jiaohe was diverse, including merchants, craftsmen and religious leaders. The long central street bisected the city, effectively dividing it into two distinct sections. The western portion was designated for the common people, while the eastern part was reserved for the residencies of the ruling elite.
The city encompassed the Residential District, Warehouse District, Administrative District, Temple District, Tomb District, and the expansive Large Courtyard District. Beyond the city limits, sprawling cemeteries, which date back to the Jushi Kingdom and the Jin and Tang dynasties (from the 1st century BC to the 10th century AD), can be found flanking the northern and western edges of the elevated terrace, spanning over 2 square kilometers.
Among these ancient dwellings, many featured a unique architectural design with two stories, one rising above the ground and the other concealed beneath it, allowing for exploration into the subterranean basements of certain structures. Locals excavated the terrain to create enduring structures and subterranean chambers, while the excavated soil was used to construct rooms above ground. The subterranean chambers offered a refuge from the relentless desert sun in summer and the biting winds of winter. The above-ground rooms served as living quarters and kitchens. The residences were built using a variety of materials, including mud bricks and wood. The walls were up to 10 meters high and 12 meters thick and were built using a technique called “rammed earth”.
The relentless desert sun casts intriguing shadows upon the intricately carved structures, creating an ever-shifting tapestry of light and shade. The subterranean chambers offer a refreshing respite from the scorching heat, a glimpse into the architectural ingenuity of the past, and a chance to appreciate the cool serenity that must have once enveloped these spaces.
2. A standing symbol of cultural exchange
Yar City provides an invaluable window into the evolution and exchange of urban cultures, construction techniques, the diffusion of Buddhism, and the rich tapestry of multi-ethnic cultures that thrived along this ancient trade route.
The city’s layout and its diverse ruins constructed with varying techniques bear witness to the extensive cultural exchange that occurred between Central China, the Western Region and Middle Asia. Icons like the central Buddhist Pagoda, the Grand Buddhist Temple and the Forest of Stupas illuminate the transmission and flourishing of Buddhism within the Turpan Basin.
The city’s urban planning echoes Central China’s administrative districts and the arrangement of dwellings along roads and side streets. Simultaneously, its alignment of the main temple entrance, central avenue and south city gate along the city axis, as well as the construction of the Northeast Buddhist Temple and the secondary road along the city’s other axis, mirrors the layout of Central Asian cities.
The use of rammed earth as a traditional building technique, recessing structures into the ground akin to cave dwellings in Shaanxi and Gansu, and the “stacked mud” method prevalent during the Qocho Uyghur period and still employed in Xinjiang today, all converge within the Jiaohe ruins.
Continuing to build on the Silk Road’s legacy of bridging cultures, 10 years ago, China launched the Silk Road Economic Belt Initiqative, now called the Belt and Road Initiative. To celebrate the achievements of the past decade and chart the way forward, a third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation is being held in Beijing today and tomorrow.
3. Battling the sands of time and nature’s force
As a visitor walking through the ancient ruins, you are transported to an era when bustling streets, ornate temples, and residential quarters thrived within the protective embrace of this desert fortress. With each step along the well-preserved paths, you can imagine the daily life of the city’s inhabitants — families residing in multi-story houses, traders haggling in marketplaces and monks tending to their spiritual pursuits in serene temples. The ancient city layout, marked by meticulous urban planning, beckons you to explore its residential, administrative, and religious districts.
Yet, as you tread carefully on the designated pathways, you’ll also witness the ongoing battle between time and preservation. Since its decline, the remnants of the city have gradually succumbed to decay. Today, the site faces formidable natural challenges: relentless gusts of wind carrying dust and sand that scour the walls and flood the streets and courtyards. The erosion of the cliffs by floodwaters, posing an imminent risk of collapse, stands as the most pressing and severe threat to these historic ruins.
The need to safeguard these ancient treasures has led to the establishment of paved routes and watchful eyes of surveillance cameras, ensuring that the city’s history endures for generations to come.
As I gazed upon the ancient ruins, I found myself entranced by the enchanting scene before me. The azure sky framed the distant mountains, adding an aura of mystique to the ancient remnants that stood resilient under the scorching sun. And thinking of the powerful creativity and resourcefulness of ancient people, embracing the weather conditions and strategically building this giant ancient sculpture on these grounds, I couldn’t help but admire how Jiaohe is an exceptional illustration of human resilience and of humanity’s symbiotic relationship with nature.