About 73km north of Kucha are the Grottoes of Kizil. To go there you see the desert valley of Muzat River. There are about 230 caves and grottoes cut into the steep walls of the mountains along the river. A few are open to public.
The first grottoes of Kizil were already build in the 3rd century AD. So this are the oldest Buddhist Grottoes in China. The murals are very interesting. The early ones show the influence of Indian and Greco-Baktrian art. Only in 7th century Chinese influence is evident, when the Tang-Dynasty-Emperors conquered the area of Kucha. Contrary to the Longmen Grottoes (Luoyang) or Yungang Grottoes (Datong) there are not many scultures but mainly paintings.
Many of the paintings show Buddhist stories about the live of Buddha. The paintings are mainly not very well preserved. Red color has turned to black and golden parts are now red. Kizil was an early aim of the European, Russian and Japanese explorers. It was here, when Albert von Le Coq (a German "archaeologist") found an easy way to cut the murals from the walls in the bedinning of 20th century. He and others took tons of murals and sculptures to European museums.
The caves are high in the mountain walls. You have to climb many steps, which might be very exhausting specially in the heat of noon.
Taking fotos is strictly forbidden. You are not allowed to take big bags or cameras up to the caves.
I am not sure, whether to recommend the visit of Kizil Grottoes or not. When I was there it was very hot and I thought, the few grottoes I saw, were not worth the effort to climb the steps. On the other hand it was still quite interesting. and some of the murals are really wonderful!
If you want a closer view on the frescoes and finds of Kizil and Turpan than you should visit the Museum für Asiatische Kunst in Berlin, Germany. For more please see this website, where there is also information in English and other languages:
Museum für Asiatische Kunst, Berlin
Even though I have not seen them, I do not want to forget to mention, that there are many ancient Buddhist grottoes in the mountains near Kucha. Kucha has been a flourishing center of early Buddhism from 3rd century till the end of Tang-Dynasty (around 900). As Kucha is located at the big karavan route from India (via today's Pakistan or Kashmir) to China, Buddhists monchs had to pass through Kucha on their way to China. The famous monchs, who brought Buddhism to China, are all mentioned in the tales about early Kucha.
Some of the grottoes around Kucha:
Kumtura, 30km south of Kucha
Simsim, 45km northeast of Kucha
Ar Yi, 60km north of Kucha
About 20km north of Kucha are the ruins of a big city: Subashi. The ruins cover a big area on both banks of Kucha River. Two very big Buddhist monasteries have been here and mainly monchs lived in this city from early 4th to 12th century AD. With some fantasy you can see big stupas and halls. And if you are lucky (I was not, but one of my travelcompagnions was) you can watch big Iguanas in the sun.
On the east bank of Kucha River is the Old Town located. There are two bridges to this part of the town. One which leads directly to the main square and one, which is on the highway to Kashgar. The first one was under construction in June 2007. So we had to drive an interesting detour on mudroads with old adobe houses.
Directly at the bridge is the big square, where a daily bazaar is held.
The old town has many small roads. Some of them cannot be used by cars. It is a nice and quiet expience to explore all those little ways. Sometime the beautiful doors are open and you can get a glimpse into courtyards with colorful flowers and friendly people, who may invite you to come in and admire the wonderful and clean house.
Kucha has two parts: the modern Chinese town and the Old Uygur Town. They are located on both sides of the Kucha River: New Townon the Eastern side and the Old Town on the Western. New Town consists mainly of drab Chinese buildings from the 1970s and 1980s and some modern highrise buildings. Today Kucha has about 100.000 inhabitants.