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Xinjiang Province, 187km (116 miles) SE of ?rumqi

Early European visitors were preoccupied with the overwhelming heat of this delightful oasis town. Set in the Turpan Depression, 154m (505 ft.) below sea level at its lowest point at Lake Ayd Inkol (Aiding Hu), the town experiences midday temperatures hovering above 45°C (113°F) during the summer months. The American journalist Lattimore found some relief: "Over the central streets, which are at once passageways and market-places, are trellises, covered with mats, gourd-vines, and the branches of willows and poplars. In the checkered shade the people step softly, loose-robed and barefooted or slipper-shod; as they chatter in Turki, guttural but soft, the eyes of women flash under stenciled eyebrows and the teeth of men flash from black beards . . ."

The green fields that surround Turpan are sustained by the karez irrigation system, thought to have been introduced in Persia 2 millennia ago. A web of 1,610km (1,000 miles) of covered water channels brings water from the mountains to the north and west of Turpan. Keeping the karez clear requires considerable effort, and locals are proud of this ongoing engineering achievement. Turpan is surrounded by significant ancient sites, all readily accessed by car or minibus. Often an independent kingdom, it has maintained a strong sense of local identity, and observes a relaxed and tolerant version of Islam.

The annual grape festival, which runs in late August for about a week, brings fruit vendors, winemakers, and loads of tourists from around China. It's a fun time to visit -- as the city becomes a lively, teeming mass of humanity, you can sample unlimited grapes on the trellis-lined streets or Turpan and witness a fantastic fireworks display on the night before the festival officially kicks off.

Warning: In contrast to its torpid, laid-back feel, Turpan has an unfortunate but deserved reputation as a town in which you should be wary of your belongings; petty theft and pickpocketing (usually while you are being distracted) are rife. Leave your valuables in the hotel safe and be very aware of your personal space.