|"Some of Turpan's surrounding sights are fascinating and others are a waste of time. The only way to see them is on a tour- local drivers WILL find you and these generally work best."
- Lonely Planet
Well said. A sneaky travel agent named Ahmatjan found me before I even arrived in Turpan- he got on my bus before it pulled into town, forced me to start talking to him, and I later cautiously handed him money for a tour. This was all on the 12th. I had signed up for a local driver to take me and two other travelers, a Taiwanese and an Austrian, around to whatever sights we wanted, and a night staying "with a local family." Really, I had no idea what I had gotten myself into, and figured that if the other travelers were sketchy, I could just count my Y200 as loses and bail.
But, I got lucky. To begin with, the other two people were very, very nice. The Taiwanese was a woman named Lijun who was very pretty and fun and the Austrian was her boyfriend, Johannes, who was tall and hilarious and fluent in four languages. They met while he was spending a year studying in Taiwan. Lijun and Johannes were both really great to travel around with and took good care of me, for which I was very grateful. On top of that, our driver was pretty cool, too. Though he did the usual things of steering us to his friends for meals or to look at buying things, he was funny (often making fun of me- his Chinese was hard for me to understand! and I'm gullible!), friendly, and interesting.
Our first and last sites of the day were by far the best. First we went to the Jiaohe Ruins, an ancient city set on a small plateau bound by two small rivers. It was really interesting- you could walk along paths through the ruined buildings and get pretty close to everything. At the end of the city was a large monastery, where you can still see Buddhist figures.
Our last site was a town called Tuyoq where you had to pay Y30 to get in (admission? to a town?) and couldn't take any pictures (written on a city wall in chalk was the threat of being charged Y10/picture). But, the town was authentic, with no one trying to sell you souvenirs- only a few locals tried to get you to buy dried fruit. We hiked up a hill, from which we a) took pictures and b) got a good view of the buildings and the vineyards. The brown of the dirt homes and the bright green of the nearly-ready-for-harvest grape crop made for a very pretty view. We also walked out to some Buddhist caves. Though we only were able to look into three of them, and though they don't contain nearly as much paintings as at Dunhaung, it was neat to see because it lacked all the celebration and tourists and guides that swarmed Dunhuang. Additionally, these caves were very interesting because on the paintings that remained, the faces of every single Buddha figure (and some caves literally had hundreds of little Buddhas) had been deliberately scraped out. The man who was enforcing the no-picture rule (in these caves, the threat was Y5000 fine/picture) explained it was Muslims who scratched the paintings. The accuracy of this was never confirmed, but it's interesting to consider.
In between these two sites, we went to one of China's worst tourist sites (a "karez"- the water system that the Uighurs dug underground to take water from the mountains across the desert to their crops and cities- which was turned into a Disneyland/souvenir market combination), had lunch in the famous Grape Valley at a local family's home/restaurant where we managed to avoid getting ripped off by asking the prices on the price-less menu beforehand (the food was really awesome though), and drove through the famous Flaming Mountains which did not seem to be on fire whatsoever. We also drove out to the desert, where we hiked to the sand dunes and the locals laughed at us from afar for being so fascinated.
At night, we ended up with another local family, as planed. To our surprise, there were four other travelers there already- which perhaps made for a less authentic experience, but also a more fun and reassuring one too (knowing we weren't the only ones). It was like a youth hostel in someone's backyard, with bunches of grapes hanging overhead. The food the women made was delicious- the handmade noodles here, like what we also had at lunch, were amazing. And when it finally got dark, I saw more stars then I've seen since being up in the mountains. We slept on a cement platform behind the house, where we also sat cross-legged to eat, on mats with blankets over us.