Kuqa (also known as Kucha) is not a pretty place. This former Tokharian Buddhist city-state on the trail of the old Silk Road is dirty and poor. It’s divided between an Uyghur Old Town in the west and a Chinese New Town in the east. Expect to see a lot of donkey carts, dusty strip malls, and cramped tour buses passing through to other destinations along the Silk Road.
In the past, Kuqa was the one of the 36 kingdoms of the Western Regions of China, and was one of the largest and most prominent kingdoms in this desert area. Over the centuries, it traded hands between the Tang Chinese, the Tibetan Kingdoms, the Uyghurs, between periods of independence.
What to see
The Kizil Caves: First and foremost are the Kizil Caves (or Grottoes). These caves are the oldest major Buddhist cave complex in China, dating back to at least the 3rd century AD, and remaining in use until the 8th century.
There are 236 cave temples at Kizil, and a full 135 of them are still relatively intact. Surprisingly, there is still quite a bit of Buddhist artwork that can be viewed here — though a fair bit of it was removed in the early 20th century and taken to museums around the world. When you visit, you’ll need to pick up a guide to open the individual cave doors for you. Hiring an English-speaking guide is extra.
The Markets: The other main things to check out are the Friday and the Sunday bazaars that take place in the old town. They may not be as large as some other bazaars on the Silk Road, like Kashgar’s, but they’re still an impressive display as merchants from all around come into the city to sell their wares.
Getting in/out of town
Buses and trains are the main order of business, and there are connections through either method to the next stops on your Silk Road travels.
Where to next:
If you’re heading east, it’s the city of Turpan
If you’re continuing on west, it’s the famed market city of Kashgar.
|Kuqa Railway Station|
Kuqa Railway Station
There's not much train service to Kuqa, due to it's fairly remote location. Service runs mainly to Kashgar, Urumqi, and Turpan.
Kuqa Railway Station, Aksu, Xinjiang, China
|Kuqa Bus Station|
Kuqa Bus Station
The Bus Station at Kuqa isn't a major terminal, and so in some cases you may find yourself buying a ticket and waiting for a passing bus in order to catch a ride. Service runs to Kashgar, Korla, Urumqi, Yining, and Hotan.
|Kezi'er Thousand Buddha Cave|
Kezi'er Thousand Buddha Cave
This is one of the few Buddhist grottoes in China that predates the Mogao Cave complex. Some of the artwork has been removed to different galleries and museums around the world, or defaced by iconoclasts, There are some 236 caves in the complex, though not all of the mare open. Cave 17 is one of the highlights, with some fantastic murals, while other caves display some stunning lapis lazuli decorations.
Kezi/'er Thousand Buddha Cave
|Subashi Gucheng Temple|
Originally established in the 4th century, Subashi Gucheng is a beautiful ruinous site amidst the desert backdrop. The city was devastated by fire in the 9th century and then gradually abandoned after the 11th century as the populace converted to Islam. It still held some Buddhist relics even up until the 19th century, though the site itself has turned to ruins.
You can find photos and reviews of Subashi Gucheng on TripAdvisor here: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g528738-d530724-Reviews-Subashi_Gucheng_Temple-Kuqa_County_Xinjiang_Uygur.html
Kuqa, Aksu, Xinjiang, China
|Grand Canyon of the Tian Shan|
Grand Canyon of the Tianshan
This gorge slices nearly 6km through the deep red rock of the earth. It's about a 90 minute drive north of Kuqa. You can hike the gorge, though make sure to check weather conditions before leaving, as flash floods are a real danger. As with any hike, take plenty of water.
The Kuqa Bazaar is a weekly bazaar taking place on Sundays, that draws in people from the surrounding countryside to sell their wares. You'll find an incredible mass of people here, all set up and spilling out around the grounds of the Mosque.