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China: Karez

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Karez > China > Asia

[Visited: July 2010]

As soon as I heard about the karez, the underground water system used in Turpan to irrigate the desert land, I was keen on seeing the system with my own eyes. I asked around, but the few people who understood my question, were only able to point me to the karez museum on the outskirts of the desert city. I gave in, and decided to go there - hoping that from the museum, I would be able to find the real karez as well. So it was that I cycled out of Turpan on another hot and sunny morning towards the Karez museum.

Picture of Karez (China): The ingenuity of the karez explained in a museum

From the outside, it seemed like one big tourist trap, and I double-checked at the entrance to make sure that this was, in fact, the Karez museum and not the water-wonderland amusement park that can also be found in this same area. I walked underground, and in the small museum dedicated to the ingenious water irrigation system, I got a much better idea of how it worked. Devised as early as the 3rd century BCE, it taps the water coming from the Tien Shan mountain range in the vicinity of Turpan, and leads it down through underground channels. At various points, there are access shafts allowing for maintenance, resulting in the typical wells visible from the outside. The reason for making the karez underground is that this is the hottest region of China. Evaporation and sand getting into the water is prevented by not exposing the water to the elements.

Picture of Karez (China): Trees reflected in water coming down the mountains in a karez

The length of karez system near Turpan totals a staggering 5,000+ kilometres, with over 1,000 wells. The system was created to provide Turpan, an oasis and as such, a major resting place on the Silk Road, but also sitting right on the border of the infamous Taklamakan Desert, with water. After visiting the rest of the museum, which has a real karez running through its basement - with some strategically located shops right next to it - I asked at the entrance where I could find the wells in the neighbourhood. The question was not understood, so I decided to go cycling up the mountain. My hope was to spot the wells myself. After having seen the explanation and a model of the surroundings, that seemed very likely. But when I finally got higher up the valley, and after cycling around and searching for the wells, I realized this search was not all that easy - and unfortunately had to give up my search for the karez. I had a train to catch.

Picture of Karez (China): Stream of water coming down the mountain through a karez
Picture of Karez (China): A karez used for underground transportation of water
Picture of Karez (China): Tunnel next to a karez giving a better idea of their functioning
Picture of Karez (China): Shops right next to a karez
Picture of Karez (China): Mao among the items for sale in one of the shops of the Karez museum

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