Most of Turpan's most dramatic and impressive sights dot the desert. Over its 2,000-year history, the focus of commercial and cultural activity has shifted several times, often following the shifting courses of the melting snows of the Tian Shan. These sites are best taken in by hiring a minibus. They often wait outside the hotels and tourist cafÃ©s, offering their services. While the ride itself is cheap, usually around RMB 40 per person for the day, most of the sites have their own prices for admission.
To avoid the midday heat, most tours start out at the crack of dawn. The first stop is usually the Gaochang Ruins, 46km east of Turpan. Dating back to the 7th century during the Tang dynasty, Gaochang, once the capital of a local ruler, hold remnants of the Uyghur's pre-Islamic past. A large Buddhist monastery stands above the southwestern corner of the walled city. Most people walk or hire donkey carts to ride around the crumbling mud-brick structures where the whispering desert wind evokes a sense of endless time.