It is considered one of the greatest Uyghur engineering feats and has been nicknamed “The Underground Great Wall”. It is the reason that cities like Turpan exist and is still a primary source of water for many Taklamakan Desert towns.
Uyghur Karez (坎儿井) are a modern marvel, but because they are located meters below the ground they often don’t receive the credit they deserve. It’s a shame, really, because I would dare to say that the karez are more impressive than it’s above-ground brother – The Great Wall of China.
How to Get Water in the Desert
It’s a classic problem for desert dwelling people both now and in the past. How do we get the water we need to survive?
It’s especially problematic for those living in the Turpan Depression, an area of Xinjiang
that can reach temperatures whose surface temperature can reach as high as 80°C (176°F). Because evaporation makes above-ground channels impractical, a new method had to be developed to transport mountain runoff to the flat land.
This is where the Uyghur Karez enter the scene.
By digging at the shallowest part of the underground reservior – fed by snow melt from the nearby Tianshan – the ancient Uyghur were able to channel the water toward their homes. As you can see in both diagrams, they constructed the underground channel using a series of shafts to dispose of the rock and ventilate the space.
These shafts usually average about 10-30 feet, but some go as far down as 100 feet.
Photo courtesy of Karez Documentary
It seems simple enough, but when you consider that they didn’t have any of the modern instruments or construction tools that we have today, it’s absolutely fascinating.
How does this look from above ground? While driving along highway 312 toward Turpan, it will look like giant ant piles or gopher holes lined up in a neat row. A birds eye view would look something like this:
Photo courtesy of SciencePhoto
Quick Facts on Uyghur Karez
- In Turpan alone, there are over 1,100 karez that span the length of an estimated 5,000km
- Currently the Uyghur karez still provide over 30% of Turpan’s water supply
- Karez function on gravity alone – no pumps are required
- The word “karez” literally means “well”
- By comparison, it took 600 prisoners at a German war camp an entire year to dig to freedom in 1944. Their tunnel – although impressive – was only 200 feet long.
Visiting the Karez
In Turpan it is actually possible to visit what is known as the “Karez Museum” west of the city center. Here you can get a brief history of the karez as well as a chance to walk through one of the tunnels.
Unfortunately while the karez are a marvel of human ingenuity, the museum is not. A hefty entrance fee of 40元 grants you access to a poorly designed karez model and only about 50 feet of actual karez. Most of the signs are all in Mandarin and Uyghur script, so knowledge of those languages is necessary to fully appreciate the museum.