This is a corner of China that very few know about. Xinjiang the old Silk Road Province is China’s largest and home to the Uygur minority. A fiercely independent Muslim minority whose rich culture has occupied this part of the ancient Sill Road for centuries. The cities the Uygur have created reminisce the Middle East rather than China with their smoky night markets and intricate bazaars. Xinjiang is too many surprises mostly desert. A big beautiful desert that is, filled with shimmering sand dunes, stunning mountains chains, and pristine blue high-altitude lakes. Come explore a different side of China, a unique, complex and amazing part. This is the Autonomous Region of Xinjiang.
The Gate to Xinjiang
Technically in Gansu province, UNESCO Dunhuang has been the gates to the wilds of Xinjiang. Here is where the border of Imperial China began and a perfect first stop for those traveling overland into Xinjiang from Beijing.
Dunhuang is also one of my favorite places in China. Its ancient Buddhist heritage is fascinating and some of the best preserved on the planet! Although Dunhuang really needs its own complete guide to be written as there is so much to see here, I felt it was necessary to add it to Xinjiang as it’s the perfect starting point to the province!
Make sure you visit the shimmering sand dunes and Buddhist caves that are home to some of the oldest and best-preserved Buddhist frescoes on the planet here in Dunhuang. When I titled this as the “Gate to Xinjiang” I meant it! As this really is where the ancient Chinese empire ended, and the wilds of Xinjiang nomad land begin. You can even see the original gate nearby to Dunhuang that traders used to cross on the Silk Road.
Turpan and Jiaohe
Leaving the remnants of ancient China behind and arriving in the first stop along the Northern Silk Road is the town of Turpan. Turpan will transport you back in time and you will definitely feel as if you have left China.
Here the streets are smoky from Kebabs, locals don the Uighur Muslim cap and often have beards. Many of the buildings are also in an Arabian or Central Asian fashion. Walking the streets this becomes ever more present when Adhan, the Muslim call to prayer blasts through the air from the nearby mosque.
Nearby to Turpan, there are several fascination sights. The most famous of these are the ruins of Jiaohe. Jiaohe was constructed by the Chinese empire as a garrison to protect the Silk trade routes during the Han Dynasty. It’s a massive ruin that you can spend the vast majority of the day exploring.
Another incredible sight is the flaming mountains. These colorful mountains were given their name because during the midday heat a mirage creates the illusion that the colors in the mountains truly look as if they are on fire. There is also a Chinese folk legend of the monkey king blowing the fire out, regardless of its folk origins they truly are with seeing and photographing.
The Capital of Xinjiang, Urumqi
Sprawling and modern Urumqi is not what you expect when you get this far into Xinjiang. This concrete jungle has a very little history, but it is a necessary stop for its world-class museum, delicious spicy food, and decent accommodation. Urumqi is also the transport hub for Xinjiang with great connections across the province.
A visit to the Xinjiang Autonomous Museum should be on all Xinjiang travelers itinerary. Its free and houses a 3800-year-old Indo European mummy known as the Loulan Beauty. Contrary to what many believe, European decedents had settled this region in search of new lands along the Silk Road. The museum is also packed full of information on the Uighur Minorities history and culture.
The Capital of the Uighur, Kashgar
Technically closer to Damascus and Jerusalem than Beijing is the capital city and cultural heart of the Uighur Minority, Kashgar. This city is why most come to Xinjiang, and for good reason! Kashgar is another planet. Middle Eastern style bazaars, animal markets selling camels and sheep, historic mosques and a very large Uighur population.
Wondering the old city of Kashgar could just be the best and most authentic experience on the Silk Road. Not much has changed in the old city and a lot of the traditional building still stand to oppose the mass Chinese district opening nearby.
Kashgar Grand Bazaar
The best place to get lost in the labyrinth of Kashgar is the cities grand bazaar. The grand bazaar is packed full of spices and Uighur products. You will hear Muqam music playing and women shopping for Hijabs, the scene is spectacular and will most likely be your most memorable experience in Kashgar. The market is at its liveliest on Sunday but visiting any day of the week is great.
Kashgar Sunday Livestock Market
On Sundays the livestock market begins on the outskirts of Kashgar. Here traders from nearby Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan bring all sorts of animals to be sold. Often you can see Bactrian two hump camels, flat bottom Kyrgyz sheep and even Yaks from the Tibetan plateau being auctioned off in one bewildering chaotic sight!
Abakh Hoja Mausoleum
Just outside of Kashgar is the Abakh Hoja Mausoleum, the holiest Muslim sight in the region. The stunning Muslim architecture is a testament to the Islamic heritage of the region.
Visiting in the evening you will see many worshippers and families come here to relax and embrace the Uighur heritage. It’s a relaxing place worth visiting for this reason alone!
The Karakoram highway to Tashkurgan
This is the road Marco Polo once took on his adventure into China. It’s a dramatic highway that leaves the Xinjiang lowlands and ascends into the Pamir Mountains. You pass by stunning blue glacier lakes, incredibly deep mountain valleys and remote yurt minority villages.
The highlight before reaching Tashkurgan is Lake Karakul. Karakul sits at the base of Kongur Mountain. Here you can stay overnight in a local Tajik Minority Yurt and sip yak butter tea while watching the stars. It’s also possible to try riding their Mongolian horses into the nearby mountain passes.
Arriving at Tashkurgan the first thing you will notice is the castle looming above the town. Once a stronghold to control the trade routes between China and the Hindu Kush, this castle is well worth visiting because of its history and amazing mountain views from its summit.
I tried hiking in the area and was arrested several times… I don’t recommend doing this as it’s a sensitive area.
The next stop is the Pakistan border at the Khunjerab pass if you decide to continue onto Pakistan. See my guide to the Karakoram Highway into Pakistan HERE!
Hotan and the Southern Silk Road
This was the original Silk Road, the one that created it all. Venturing through the desert along the foothills of the Himalayas you will pass by many ruins and decrepit towns that have been long forgotten.
Because of the history and ruins it’s well worth traveling the Southern Route, it also feels much “older” than the modern Northern route, but with saying that the Southern Routes proximity to Tibet has made it a very sensitive area that requires extensive (Expensive) permission to visit many of its sights.
On the route’s largest city Hotan, you can visit with ease. The city welcomes visitors especially those who are curious about the regions famed White Jade. Hotan also has a few very exotic bazaars which have a very authentic feel to them. Continue this route and you can technically make it all the way back to Gansu, but it’s a long, dusty and bumpy road, perfect for those who love the Off the beaten track experience.