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Settlements in the Turpan Basin predate the Han dynasty; the inhabitants have ranged from Indo-Europeans (possibly Tocharians related to the mummies in Ürümqi’s museum) to the Chinese and Uighurs.

In the mid-9th century, the ancestors of the Uighurs were forced from their homeland in Mongolia, with one group eventually settling in Gaochang (Khocho). The city was the Uighur capital until 1250, and saw the Uighurs transform from nomads to farmers, and from Manicheans to Buddhists (they eventually converted to Islam in the 14th century).