At the karez oasis

The word ‘oasis’ usually conjures images of date palm trees surrounding a rare source of water in a desert, perhaps with some camels…which is partially correct when it comes to the karez oasis near Turpan (sometimes written Turfan), located in the Gobi Desert of far northwest China.

Jiaohe, near Turpan, China

The adobe ruins of Jiaohe — an important city at one time
on China’s “silk road” — near Turpan

The oasis creates a literal blossoming of fertile fields and starkly contrasting greenery in the middle of an otherwise rocky, barren land. It was also just one of the fascinating places I experienced in May 2007 as a writer and back-up photographer on the BYU-Hawaii Concert Choir’s three-week tour to China and Mongolia.

The first stop in our itinerary took us to Urumqi, capital of the Uyghur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, which is made more fascinating because approximately 70 percent of the people there — and seemingly the ones we mostly met — were Uyghurs [note, there are variant spellings of the word], an ethnic Turkic people of Middle Eastern heritage who are citizens of China.

One day during our stay in Urumqi our hosts took us on a field trip to Turpan, which is located about 100 miles out into the desert and is said to be the hottest place in China, temperature-wise. As our buses got farther away from the city center with its International Grand Bazaar and mosque (most Uyghurs are Moslems), we passed through miles and miles of lunar-like landscape — even seeing a few camels along the way — which made the abrupt transition to the bright green grape fields and arbors at the karez oasis that much more dramatic:

Grape arbors at the karez oasis near Turpan

Grape arbors shade visitors to the karez oasis museum near Turpan

Karez‘ is not the name of the place, but the name of the 2,000-year-old series of gravity-fed irrigation systems that bring water from deep bores and the distant snow-covered Tianshan Mountains. In addition to the vertical wells, it consists of underground and open canals, and small reservoirs that makes the desert bloom. At one point, in fact, the regional system included over 172,000 wells and water flowing through almost 3,200 miles of underground canals.

Indeed, along with the Great Wall of China and the Grand Canal from Hangzhou to Beijing, the karez is considered one of China’s most important ancient achievements…and the fact that it still works all these centuries later makes it a modern ecological wonder. Apparently, similar systems are also found in Afghanistan and Iran.

An underground canal in the karez near TurpanWhy underground? Starting approximately two millennia ago clever engineers figured out that burying the canals [pictured at right] as much as 30 feet below the surface would keep the water from freezing in the brutally cold winters, and greatly reduce evaporation in the searing summer heat while helping protect the water from pollution. We were there in middle spring and it was already hot on the surface, but it felt relatively cool under the grape arbors and down in the karez tunnels.

At the edge of the karez the farmland abruptly turns back into barren desert, where adobe drying towers quickly convert the green grapes into raisins.

The canals running along the floor of the tunnels are not particularly large, but their impact on the nearby fields is truly impressive, and contemplating all of the human efforts that went into creating the karez is a testimony to human ingenuity and effort.

— Photos by Mike Foley

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