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Tuyugou Valley, Turpan

Written by Kelly PangUpdated Jan. 15, 2021


  • Small Uighur valley with an array of historic sites spanning 3,000 years and lots of vineyards all within a day's tour.
  • Situated in the Turpan Depression that is the second or third lowest point on the planet.
  • By road, the southern Mazar Village of the valley is about 70 kilometers or 43 miles from Turpan, and the northern Subeixi Village is about 75 kilometers from Turpan.
  • The cave at the Al-Sahab Kahfi Mazar in Mazar Village is considered holy by many people. They say it is described in the Koran.
  • Thousand Buddha Grottoes is older than the Bezeklik Grottoes. There are some remaining Nestorian and Buddhist artworks.
  • Vineyards like Grape Valley. People can have meals and buy produce.
  • Location of ancient Caucasian archeological sites older than the Astana Tombs.
  • Scenic desert canyon and some hiking paths.
  • A road that goes through the valley makes transportation between sites convenient.


Tuyoq village and tuyugou canyon

The little Tuyugou Valley is relatively unknown and is little visited by regular tourists. In Uighur language, it is called Tuyoq. It is close to Turpan and is only about 70 kilometers away by road. It is 15 kilometers directly east of Gaochang. Few tour groups go there though some of the the sights, the history, and the people are interesting. However, it is a Muslim religious pilgrimage site. It is a more primitive Uighur agricultural valley, with vineyards and fields in the northern and southern valleys and a narrow ravine that connects them. The ravine has a stream and some good natural scenery and hiking. The canyon and area around it were once inhibited by Gushi Caucasian people who left large graveyards with thousands of graves of the same scale as the more recent Astana Tombs that has mainly Chinese graves. The southern mouth of the valley has big Uighur mosques older than the Emin Minaret and a cave thought by many to be described in the Koran. About a kilometer from the cave shrine is a group of grottoes called Thousand Buddha Grottoes that have some Buddhist and Nestorian artwork. The southern end has lots of vineyards and orchards, and people can have a meal in Uighur houses and restaurants. The little valley is only about 12 kilometers long, but it has sites like the better known places around Turpan.

Traveling north to south, Tuyugou's attractions are the Subeixi Village of Uighurs and the Gushi or Yuezhi people archeological site that is about 3,000 years old near Subeixi Village. Further south, there is a narrow ravine about 300 meters wide or so that has a stream. A road called County Road X065 follows the stream a little higher up in the ravine and about 200 meters away to the west of it. It makes transportation easy since it connects the whole valley. At the southern mouth, the valley opens out over the Turpan Basin. There are about 4 Uighur villages in an agricultural area about 8 kilometers or 5 miles long and about a kilometer or less wide in the southern mouth of the valley. The Uighur houses or restaurants amid the fertile vineyards are places where you can meet the people and have a Uighur meal and buy food. You can hike on the Flaming Mountain canyon sides and take wonderful pictures of this harsh environment of stone, mud brick houses and irrigated vineyards. About 8 kilometers south of the valley is another Yuezhi graveyard called the Yanghai Tombs. In 2008, it was in the world news because a Caucasian mummy 2,700 years old was found with pot next to it. There were also equestrian equipment and a harp that showed that he probably rode horses and played his harp.

For many local Muslims, the famous site in that southern valley is a cave in Mazar Village or "Mazacun" in Chinese. It is called the Al-Sahab Kahfi Mazar. They believe that a miracle that is described in the Koran happened in a cave there. The world "mazar" is an Arabic word that means "place to pray." For many Uighurs, it is a holy shrine. Some local Muslims say a dog defended the mosque during the Cultural Revolution so that it wasn't damaged. It is an old pilgrimage site. Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter.

Mazar Village is a small Uighur town, but it isn't quite a regular Uighur town, because people have to pay a fee to get in. It is a little like a Uighur theme park. It has been purposely made to look ancient and rundown. There is a gate where visitors have to pay a fee to get in. It looks like a dusty old town in the Middle East. Though it is an actual place people live, the people are used to being photographed by the tourists who visit it, and the kids might demand money for any photos. The people earn money from the tourists by selling goods and serving meals in their houses An eye-catching feature in it is a green mosque with green minarets that rise above the reddish houses. It looks out of place, like something out of a movie. The sides of the Flaming Mountains of the valley are reddish.

About a mile from the Moslem shrine, there is a Thousand Buddha Grottoes with about 40 grottoes. About three were open for tourists, and they have patches of Buddhist and Nestorian Christian works of art. Lately, they have been closed. There is no telling when they might be open. This grotto complex is said to be about 80 years older than the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Grottoes that are about 20 kilometers away to the northwest. The Bezeklik Grottoes are said to date from 400 AD, but it is said that these date from the Western Jin Dynasty (265-316). However, there was less to see inside. Still, the site has been less built up than the Bezeklik Grottoes so that even the sight of rectangular openings in a cliff face is kind of strange.

Touring Tuyugou Valley is sort of like a mini-Turpan tour, because by going from one end to the other people can visit sites and scenery like the more famous places around Turpan.


Tuyoq village and tuyugou canyon

The Turpan Depression is the second lowest spot on earth. Along the northern rim of the depression, there is a range with high mountains and snow capped peaks called the Bogda Mountains. In between the Bodga Mountains and the basin is a ridge that goes east and west for more than 100 kilometers called the Flaming Mountains. The ridge averages about 500 meters (1,600 feet) above sea level. Most of the northern basin is  at about sea-level. The highest peak is next to the valley. It is has an elevation of about 831 meters above sea level. The ridge formed the northern boundary for travelers going east and west who were skirting the arid desert. Tuyugou Valley is one of several river canyons in which rivers pass through the Flaming Mountains on their way into the basin. These canyons were important both for water and for travel access between the basin and the area to the north. Perhaps this is why there were Yuezhi people settlements around Tuyoq Valley thousands of years ago.

The Yuezhi were little known to historians until recently, and there is still much to learn about them. But so many graves and mummies have been found all over Xinjiang that predate any other human remains or artifacts that it is assumed that Caucasian Indo-European people were the first settlers in Xinjiang about 4,000 to 3,000 years ago. Artifacts said to be about 20,000 years old have been found in Xinjiang, but little is known about those people. It isn't clear if the Yuezhi who lived around the Tuyugou Valley were related to earlier Causasians whose tombs have been found in Xinjiang.

A people called the Yuzhi 禺氏 or Niuzhi 牛氏 are described in Chinese historical books about 2,200 years ago or so. They were said to supply jade to the Chinese. The Yuezhi people warred with a people called the Xiongnu who also attacked the Chinese. The Yuezhi farmed, raised cattle, rode horses and grew a variety of crops that were at that time unknown in China such as barley, wheat and grapes. They brewed wine and lived in a large area around northern Xinjiang. In 177 BC, the Xiongnu attacked and defeated them, and there was an exodus of them to the west and south. However, maybe some stayed in the area because Tocharian writings and documents have been found around Turpan that date from the time of the Silk Road trade. It isn't clear if the Tocharians were descended from the Yuezhi.

The Han defeated the Xiongnu about 100 BC and started trade with western countries about the same time. The Han wanted to control the trade and to protect it from rival empires. The cities of Gaochang and Jiaohe were used by the Han Dynasty in the middle of the 1st century BC for forts and garrisons. The Han Dynasty ended in 220 AD. It was in the Western Jin Dynasty times (265–316) that people started carving and painting in the caves. There were both Nestorian and Buddhist paintings. There is evidence that Tuyoq had a lot of Christians.

The Tang Dynasty ruled the area and was defeated about the year 856. Around that time, a group of Uighurs fled to the area after another people called the Kyrgyz conquered their main territory around Mongolia far to the northeast. The Uighurs took control of northern and western Xinjiang. Initially, the Uighurs in the area were a combination of Manichian, Buddhist and Nestorian Christian. About the year 1209, the Uighurs submitted to Genghis Khan of the expanding Mongol Empire. Silk Road trade through the area was comparatively prosperous under the Mongols. Many Mongols converted to Islam, and Moslems were transferred from the western regions of the Mongol Empire to the east. Moslem traders also moved eastwards. Then about the middle of the 14th century, the Mongol Empire collapsed. In 1383, Muslims conquered Turpan and forced the people to become Muslims. Islam became the dominant religion.

An archeologist and explorer named LeCoq discovered the ruins of the Buddhist cave temples in Toyoq about the year 1905. He also explored the Bezeklik Grottoes nearby. He said that in Tuyoq he found Buddhist temple construction in front of the rectangular openings that clung  "like a swallow's nest to the almost perpendicular slope of the mountainside." He found Nestorian, Buddhist and Manichean writings in a library together with Chinese scrolls and writings in other languages including Persian. The Manichean religion was a major religion a long time ago, but it is almost extinct now. Since then, the grottoes have been damaged by earthquakes and intentional destruction. Now there may be little left to see of the original artwork but patches of paintings with the faces rubbed out. During the Cultural Revolution, people came and destroyed a lot of the grottoes.

Touring Activities

  • Walk around in the towns and on the Flaming Mountains.
  • Photography.
  • Have meals at Uighur houses or restaurants. Buy the local produce.
  • If the Thousands Buddha Caves are open, you can see it.
  • Hike a little.

Travel Essentials

Tuyoq village and tuyugou canyon

1) Location: Tuyougou Valley's 吐峪沟 (Tuyoq in Uighur language) Mazar Village (Mazacun in Chinese 麻扎村) is about 70 kilometers west by road from Turpan. The Subeixi Village 苏贝希村 on the other side of the canyon is about 76 kilometers away from Turpan by Road G312. It is about 2 kilometers south of Road G312.

2) Travel:

Buses: Buses to Tuyoq leave Turpan several times a day. It only costs about 10 RMB since the distance isn't far. The last bus back may leave early in the evening. Make sure about bus schedule times for returning to Turpan and be aware that the buses might not show up or change their schedule.

Taxis or private drivers: might charge 200 or so for a day's tour of sites. If there are more people in a vehicle or a tout is setting up a tour, the charge is less.

3) Bargaining with touts or drivers: The area is known for people changing prices on tourists and tricking people. So clearly negotiate prices before starting out. There are lots of touts and drivers trying to arrange tours, so you can ask around. A tout is someone who looks out for tourists and tries to sell something. They even wait at the bus stops. Make sure that the drivers agree with the prices that a tout offers. Be clear about whether the ticket fees are included or not.

4) Fees: About 25 or 30 RMB to enter Mazar Village. The Thousand Buddha Grottoes may also have a fee if they are open. Lately, they have been closed.

5) Touring time: about 8:30 am to 8:30 pm.

6) Local travel: A road called X065 follows the bottom of the canyon north to south. If you want, you can hire local people to take you around on their motorcycles or other vehicles. Try to bargain firmly about prices for this before you get on.

7) When to go: It is warm or hot between May and October, and harvest season is between July and October.

8) Be wary: Turpan is known of pickpockets and people robbing from tourists.

9) Photography: In Tuyugou, it is best to not photograph people up close without asking permission. If you do take a photograph, they might demand payment.

Nearby Attractions

About 15 kilometers directly east are the Gaochang Ruins that had a big Chinese community in the first millennium. The Jiaohe Ruins a little east of Turpan are much better preserved than Gaochang. Next to Jiaohe is a museum about the Yuezhi or Cheshi people who inhabited the area and left tombs with Caucasian mummies before the Silk Road era. The Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Grottoes are open and tourists can see a lot more artwork. Most of the faces in the paintings are damaged. The art portrays a multi-racial society. If you are interested in seeing some Caucasian mummies and artifacts, the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region Museum has an exhibit.

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