On the outskirts of Turpan, a small city in Xinjiang, China, you’ll find the ruins of the ancient city of Jiaohe, dating back 2,300 years.
Xinjiang is an autonomous territory set apart from the rest of China, both geographically and culturally. It’s home to the Turkic Uighur people, who speak the Uighur language and practice Islam. “Jiaohe” is the Chinese term for the ancient city; in Uighur it’s known as “Yar.” The broader region is often referred to as China’s “Wild West,” a nod to its separate and often volatile history.
Once a stop along the Silk Road, Jiaohe is perched atop a cliff between two river valleys, forming a natural fortress. The city had only two doors - it was otherwise walled in by steep cliffs more than 30 meters high. This oasis inside the arid Tarim Basin passed through many hands, including those of the Muslim Hui, before its abandonment following a 13th-century sacking at the hands of the Mongols, led by Genghis Khan.
A World Heritage Site, the city is one of the oldest and best preserved in the world. The area’s remoteness and dry, desert climate have been key to Jiaohe’s preservation. In the summer, Turpan is one of the Earth’s hottest places; in 2008, it recorded a temperature of 152 degrees.
Visitors to Jiaohe will find Uighur merchants selling raisins outside the fortress’s crumbling walls (grapes are a local specialty). Definitely buy some—they’re very good. Once within the walls of the city, you can wander down its central and side avenues and poke your nose into what were once residences and temples, many hundreds and thousands of years ago. The site has paths but is generally quite empty, which means that no one will notice if you wander off to sit against a wall to stare out beyond the stretch of lush green trees into a barren landscape that blurs into the horizon.