Kucha is located in the center-west of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, at the southern base of the middle section of the Tianshan Mountain Ranges, and on the northern edge of the Tarim Basin. It was the political, economic and cultural center of the ancient Wester Regions, as well as the only place where the four great civilizations of the world converged. It bears the reputation of the “Entertainment Capital of the Western Regions”, the “Home of Song and Dance”, the birthplace of world-renowned Kucha culture, and a stunning gem of the ancient Silk Road. Several of its monuments are inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List: the majestic Kizil Gaha Beacon Tower, a “red sentry-post” that has stood for thousands of years: the magnificent temple complex of Subashi, where the great Tang monk Xuanzang once lectured for several months; and the world-famous Kizil Cave, which is three hundred years older than the Mogao Caves of Dunhuang.
Kucha is the hometown of Kumārajīva, one of the three major translators of Buddhist scripture in ancient China, and a maestro of music, Sujup. It is also the birthplace of two forms of intangible cultural heritage: the Samar Dances and the Twelve Muqams (types of melodies). The famous line of poetry “The Qiang flute resounds in Longtou, playing the barbarian dance songs of Kucha” is testament to the popularity of Kucha’s music throughout the Central Plains during the Han and Tang dynasties. This city boasts a number of majestic sights: the mysterious Grand Canyon of Tianshan; the yardang of the Red Stone Forest that were beautifully crafted by the forces of nature; the Big and Small Longchi Ponds, embedded like gems in the Tiansan Mountain Ranges; a poplar grove known to the locals as “the essence of life”; as well as a kind of apricot whose honey-like sweetness is so renowned that Kucha is at times referred to as the “hometown of China’s little white apricot”. Kucha is also the main gas source of the country’s “West-to-East Gas Pipeline”, an important base for the development of Tarim oil and gas; a transportation hub connecting northern and southern Xinjiang; as well as southern Xinjiang’s main trade and logistics center and tourist transportation point. It is one of the small to mid-sized cities in China with the greatest potential for investment.
Travel over one thousand years back in time and appreciate the fusion of cultures in the warm and welcoming city of Kucha!
The Ruins of Subashi Temple in Kucha City
The Largest Extant Buddhist Temple Ruins in Xinjiang
The Subashi Buddhist Temple, also known as the “Great Cakra Temple”, is the largest group of Buddhist temple ruins in Xinjiang. It is located at the southern foot of the Queletag Mountains, about 20 km to the northeast of Kucha. It comprises two complexes, one east and one west, that look at one another across the Kucha River. Built around the 3rd Century AD, it flourished from the 6th Century to the 10th Century. When Xuanzang traveled westward past the ancient kingdom of Kucha, he noted that the temple was still “flanked with statues of Buddha, boasting almost superhuman craftsmanship”. In the mid-7th Century (AD 658), after the Protectorate General to Pacify the West was re-stationed in Kucha, the kingdom became a gathering point for senior monks, in turn contributing to the development of Buddhist culture there. In the late Tang dynasy (9th Century AD), the use of the temple began to gradually decline; it was eventually abandoned by the 13th or 14th Century. The eastern complex is composed of a Buddhist temple, the monks’ living quarters, as well as three towers: northern, central and southern. There are more architectural ruins in the western complex. It too has northern, central and southern towers, as well as a temple to the south. Archeological excavations at the Subashi Temple ruins have been fruitful, unearthing pottery, copper coins, iron ware, wooden slabs, stone wares and scriptures. In 1903, Japanese Buddhist abbot Ōtani Kōzui led a team of explorers to Kucha. During their expedition, they excavated a wooden box featuring a painted image of a winged boy in the ruins of the Subashi Buddhist Temple. The box and its lid also represent the vivacious “Sumuzhe” songs and dances, which were extremely popular in the ancient kingdom of Kucha. In 1978, a tomb was excavated at the base of the middle tower of the western complex. Inside, archaeologists discovered women’s bones and grave goods, which are now stored in the Kucha Museum. On June 22, 2014, at the 38th UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting in Doha, Qatar, the Subashi Temple Ruins were successfully incorporated into the World Heritage List as part of the “Silk Roads: the Routes Network of Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor”, having been nominated by China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Kizil Gaha Beacon Tower
The Oldest Beacon Tower Ruins on the Silk Road
The Kizil Gaha Beacon Tower is located 10 km northwest of Kucha City, only a few kilometers away from the Kizil Caves. It was built during the reign of Emperor Xuan of Han (1st Century BC), after the Protectorate of the Western Regions was re-stationed in the ancient city of Wulei. It acted as a military alarm in the Han dynasty and an important part of the Great Wall defence system during the Han and Tang dynasties. The presence of fire at night or smoke in the day atop the tower indicated approaching enemy battalions. From head-on, the Kizil Gaha Beacon Tower resembles an oblong that gradually tapers from the base to the top to form a trapezoid shape. It has a total height of 13.5 m and is made of rammed earth. Atop is a watch tower; remains of a wooden palisade can still be found. It is the oldest and best-preserved military beacon tower along the middle segment of the ancient Silk Road. On June 22, 2014, at the 38th UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting in Doha, Qatar, the Kizil Gaha Beacon Tower was successfully inscribed into the World Heritage List as part of the “Silk Roads: the Routes Network of Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor” nominated by China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
The Mysterious Grand Canyon of Kucha’s Tianshan Mountain Ranges
A Stunning Gem on the Golden Tourist Line of the Ancient Silk Road
The Tianshan Mysterious Grand Canyon is located at the southern foothills of the Tianshan Mountains, 64 km north of Kucha. At this tourist destination, one can simultaneously wonder at the depths of the canyon and the breadth of the mountain ranges. It has a historic atmosphere – one can sense the souls that lingered here in ancient times. At the bottom of the canyon, the terrain rises and falls like a turbulent sea. The path back to the peak winds in all directions, and everywhere one looks is more beauty to behold. The valley is clement in winter and summer; water can be heard trickling from the spring at all times of the year. The whole gorge resembles an enormous dragon lying down, sipping from the Kucha River, crashing its tail down upon the Tianshan mountaintops, and controlling the elements with its breath. This site exudes a powerful sense of mystery. What’s even more awe-inspiring is that, on a cliff about 35 m high and 1400 m from the mouth of the canyon, one can find the ruins of the Thousand Buddhas Cave from the 6th Century. This cave stands out from the other 300 Buddhist grottoes discovered in the ancient Western Regions in terms of its textual records and paintings.
The Yardang Landforms of Kucha
An Inextinguishable Flame at the Depths of the Mountain Ranges
On the road northward from Kucha, one’s gaze is greeted by never-ending natural scenery. On a 66-kilometer drive, you will gasp in awe at the yardang formations of the Saltwater Ditch Scenic Area that pierce the heavens. However, among these towering shapes, the most eye-catching are no doubt the undulating rock faces of the Red Stone Forest. These slanted vermillion rocks rose out of the ground to form an overlapping stone forest as a result of the movement of tectonic plates. They are interspersed with other mountain bodies of different colors, creating a majestic sight to behold. Photography enthusiasts and painters from China and abroad come here all year round to create art.
Duku Highway (Kucha Section)
A Scenic Route Down the Backbone of the Tianshan Ranges
The Duku Highway that runs from Dushanzi in the north to Kucha in the south, is the earliest incarnation of National Highway 217. More than half of the 561-kilometer long highway spans the precipitous peaks of the Tianshan ranges and crosses the deep canyon, linking many settlements of ethnic minorities along the way. It was appraised by China National Geographic as “a scenic route down the backbone of the Tianshan ranges”. This absolutely unforgettable highway that winds through the mountains is as awe-inspiring as it is steep. Not only does it abound in natural beauty – it is also a monument to human determination, crystallizing a decade of hardships on the part of tens of thousands of workers. This is a majestic road that brings together all the stunning sights that Xinjiang has to offer.
In the Kucha section of Duku Highway, people can also take in the magnificent landscape of the Keziliya Mountain, with its breathtaking red stone forest. The highway continually snakes down one side of the Kucha River until the “flame zone” on the southern foot of the Tiansham Mountains. There, the river gives way to steep rock walls, lush green grass, violent profusions of golden blossoms and sparse pine trees. The valley is filled with the fragrance of wild flowers, while its towering peaks are capped with snow. The cliffs on either side of the road are like blades; their height differs by a margin of more than 100 meters.
The Big and Small Longchi Ponds Scenic Area
Gems Embedded in the Tianshan Ranges
Encircled by mountains 144 km north of Kucha City, there are two natural lakes made of melting alpine snow, commonly known as the Big and Small Longchi Ponds. Located at 2300 m above sea level, close to National Highway 217, they offer tremendous views.
The Longchi Ponds have a combined aquatic surface area of approximately 2 square kilometers. The mountaintops are covered year-round in a thick blanket of snow and are home to a prized ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine: the snow lotus. At the foot of the mountain are resplendent cedars and cypresses, lush grass, trickling spring water, as well as herds of cattle and sheep. Shepherds’ dwellings dot the landscape and one can occasionally spot snow chickens, Mongolian gazelle and snow leopards. The eastern part of the pond is flat, with luxuriant grass on its banks and clear blue water that reflects the snowy peaks. This spectacular scenery makes it a popular resort for tourism in the summer. At the crack of dawn, the hillside pine forest is swathed in warm pastel hues and the lake is dyed red. As day shifts to night, the color of the water transforms again – this time, from azure to deep blue. At times the hills are enveloped in fog and clouds that cast a light drizzle, and then they part, revealing a bright blue sky.
Eating barbecued meat, drinking yoghurt, listening to folk songs and enjoying the beautiful scenery from a yurt on the grasslands, visitors may come to the conclusion that this is heaven on earth.
The Poplar Grove of Kucha
The “Essence of Life” in a “Sea of Death”
The National Tarim Poplar Forest is 80 km away from Kucha City. Here, the mighty Tarim River, poplar trees and desert landscapes come together to form a feast for the eyes. It is the oldest, largest, best preserved and least denatured poplar reserve in the world. Populus euphratica is an ancient tree species left over from the 3rd Century and transformed by desertification. It is a precious as the ginkgo, extremely robust, and it is thought of as a living fossil. In spring small green buds burst forth from this type of poplar, creating an image of imminent prosperity. In the middle of summer, Populus euphratica is covered in a shawl of luxurious foliage and colorful blossoms. In autumn, one can contemplate the noble poplar reflected in the water, or standing tall in the desert – a dignified display of vitality. In the snowy winter, the unyielding poplar dresses in silver like a lone hero in the desert, inspiring sights of awe from visitors. If you don’t visit Xinjiang, you will never know the beauty of life represented by Populus euphratica.
The Little White Apricots of Kucha
As Sweet as Honey
Kucha is known as the “Hometown of the Chinese White Apricot”. In May 2014, the little white apricots of Kucha were officially registered as a landmark agricultural product by the Ministry of Agriculture. There are dozens of apricot varieties in Kucha, including ginkgo, dabian apricots, butter apricots and pepper apricots. However, the most famous is “xiaobai”, or “little white apricots”. Every June, the first ripe apricots drop to the ground with a thud, marking the beginning of the apricot season in Kucha. No matter the season – even when the apricots are green and sour, even when the pomegrantes hang seductively low on the trees – the Kucha people still affectionately refer to their hometown as an “apricot orchard”, demonstrating the place that these fruits hold in their hearts. “Akximix” is the Uyghur word for these apricots. These translucent yellow, smooth and hairless apricots have a delicate taste free of dregs. With their refreshing sweetness and enchanting fragrance, it isn’t hard to understand why people say that “the little white apricots of Kucha are sweet as honey”.
Kucha Folk Customs (The Samar Dances of Kucha)
“Singing and Dancing Giant Pandas”: An Intangible Heritage
Samar dances, also referred to as “singing and dancing giant pandas”, originated in the ancient kingdom of Kucha over 2000 years ago. They were included in Xinjiang Autonomous Region’s first batch of intangible cultural heritage. In Cave No. 38 of the Kizil Thousand Buddha Caves, you can find frescoes of these dances. Samar performances combine song and dance with acrobatics. It is a dance form that evolved from ancient Kucheans’ rituals for receiving guests. To the rhythm of suona and iron drums, dancers move while carefully balancing copper plates, copperpots or small porcelain bowls weighing up to 5 kg on their heads.
The Earthenware of Kucha
An Art Form Combining Clay and Fire
Kucha earthenware is primarily produced in household pottery workshops, where potters basically use word-of-mouth to impart their skills. The shape and color of earthenware is influenced by the historical traditions and cultural characteristics of the Uyghur people. These objects fully reflect the Uyghur people’s unique aesthetic vision and creative talents. They also demonstrate the impact of the collision of Chinese and Western cultures along the ancient Silk Road, as well as the fusion of multiple ethnic cultures in Xinjiang. They act as important sources that illustrate the history of cultural exchanges between eastern and western civilizations in China’s Western Regions, and are particularly valuable when it comes to elucidating the many sub-branches of Chinese culture.
Youtube: China Cultural Center in Stockholm