Gansu, Qinghai and Xinjiang spread across the Chinese northwest in a dizzying agglomeration of desert, grassland, raging rivers and colossal mountains. Despite the region’s impressive size, which alone would form the eighth-largest country in the world, it contains just four percent of China’s population – a baffling statistic considering the staggering ethnic variety found here. Lowland Xinjiang is home to the Uyghur, a predominantly Muslim people who speak a language closer to Turkish than Chinese. In Xinjiang’s mountains live communities of Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Tajik, making for the curious existence of occasional blond-haired, blue-eyed holders of Chinese passports. Qinghai forms the northern edge of the Tibetan Plateau; with transport to Lhasa often restricted, the province is popular with travellers looking for an accessible window into Tibetan culture. In Gansu, there are large communities of Mongolians – also keen adherents of Tibetan Buddhism – and Hui Muslims, as well as lesser-known groups such as Bao’an and Salar.
The Chinese of old considered that these saiwairen – peoples from beyond the pale – threatened the safety of the Empire itself; today, the relatively unrestricted use of local languages and religions in these areas could be taken as a sign of China’s desire to restore goodwill and nurture patriotism in the minority peoples. However, the degree of actual autonomy in the “autonomous” regions is strictly controlled, and relations between Han China and these more remote corners of the People’s Republic remain fractious in places, most notably Xinjiang.
Tourism across the Northwest focuses on the Silk Road, a series of historic towns and ruins running from Xi’an in Shaanxi, through Ningxia, Gansu and Xinjiang, and into Central Asia. The Northwest also offers opportunities to enjoy China’s last great wildernesses – the grasslands, mountains, lakes and deserts of the interior – far from the teeming population centres of the east. Gansu, the historical periphery of ancient China, is a rugged region of high peaks and desert, spliced from east to west by the Hexi Corridor, historically the only road from China to the West, still marked along its length by the Great Wall – terminating magnificently at the fortress of Jiayuguan – and a string of Silk Road towns culminating in Dunhuang, with its fabulous Buddhist cave art.
Qinghai, the remote borderland plateau between Tibet and China proper, has monasteries, mountains, the colossal Qinghai Lake and a route to Tibet via the highest railway in the world. Qinghai is also the source of China’s greatest rivers: the Yellow, Yangzi and Mekong rivers all originate in the mountains here.
Guarding China’s westernmost passes is Xinjiang, where China ends and Central Asia – once known as Chinese Turkestan – begins; a vast, isolated region of searing deserts and snowy mountains, formerly the most arduous section of the Silk Road. Here Turkic Uyghurs outnumber Han Chinese, mosques trade places with temples and lamb kebabs replace steamed dumplings. Highlights include the desert town of Turpan and, in the far west, fabled Kashgar, a city that until recent decades few Westerners had ever reached.
Travel can be hard going, with enormous distances and an unforgiving climate. Winter is particularly severe, with average temperatures as low as -30°C in Qinghai and Xinjiang. Conversely, in summer, Turpan is China’s hottest city, with temperatures exceeding 40°C. Despite the rugged terrain and the great expanses, however, facilities for visitors have developed considerably in recent years. The rail network has been expanded, roads improved, and new airports constructed. Finally there is the possibility of travel between China and its Central Asian neighbours – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan are all connected by road or rail from Xinjiang.