The gigantic provinces of Gansu, Qinghai and Xinjiang spread across the whole of the Chinese northwest, an almost 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 only four percent of China’s population – quite a baffling statistic considering the region’s staggering ethnic variety. Xinjiang is home to, and indeed an autonomous province for, a large population of Uyghur, a predominantly Muslim people who speak a language far more proximate to Turkish than Chinese. The province’s deserts and mountains also harbour large communities of Kazakh, Krygyz and Tajik, making for the curious existence of occasional blond-haired, blue-eyed holders of a Chinese passport. Qinghai forms the northern edge of the Tibetan plateau; now that transport to Lhasa has been restricted and sanitized, the province is proving popular with those wishing to soak up a bit of “free” Tibetan culture. Over in Gansu, there are large communities of Mongolians and Hui Muslims, as well as lesser-known groups such as the Bao’an and Salar. Indeed, the Chinese of old thought the whole region was remote, subject to extremes of weather and populated by non-Chinese-speaking “barbarians” who were, quite literally, the peoples from beyond the pale – sai wai ren.
However, a Chinese presence in the area is not new. Imperial armies were already in control of virtually the whole northwest region by the time of the Han dynasty two thousand years ago, and since then Gansu and the eastern parts of Qinghai and Xinjiang have become Chinese almost to the core.
Today, the relatively unrestricted use of local languages and religions in these areas could be taken as a sign of China’s desire to nurture patriotism in the minority peoples and regain some of the sympathy lost during disastrous repressions under communism and in previous eras. Furthermore, in economic terms, there is a clear transfer of wealth, in the form of industrial and agricultural aid, from the richer areas of eastern China to the poorer, outer fringes of the country. On the other hand, the degree of actual autonomy in the “autonomous” regions is strictly controlled, and relations between Han China and these more remote corners of the Republic remain fractious in places, most notably Xinjiang, recently subject to a substantial amount of inter-ethnic strife.
Organized tourism across the Northwest focuses on the Silk Road, a series of historic towns and ruins running from Xi’an in Shaanxi province, through Ningxia, Gansu and Xinjiang, and eventually into Central Asia. The Northwest also offers chances to enjoy the last great remaining wildernesses of China – 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 terrain of high peaks and desert spliced from east to west by the Hexi Corridor, historically the only road from China to the West, and 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.
The Kunlun Mountains rise to the south of the Hexi Corridor and continue beyond to the high-altitude plateau stretching all the way to India. The ancient borderland between Tibet and China proper is Qinghai, perhaps the least-explored province in the whole of the Northwest, which has monasteries, mountains, the colossal lake of Qinghai Hu and, above all, a route to Tibet across one of the highest mountain ranges – and the highest train line – in the world. Originating in this province, too, are the Yellow and Yangzi rivers, the main transport arteries of China throughout recorded history.
Guarding the westernmost passes of the empire is Xinjiang, where China ends and another world – once known in the West as Chinese Turkestan – begins. Culturally and geographically, this vast, isolated region of searing deserts and snowy mountains, the most arduous and dreaded section of the Silk Road, is a part of Central Asia. Turkic Uyghurs outnumber Han Chinese, mosques stand in for temples and lamb kebabs replace steamed dumplings. Highlights of Xinjiang include the desert resort town of Turpan and, in the far west, fabled Kashgar, a city that until recently few Westerners had ever reached.
Travel can still be hard going, with enormous distances and an extremely harsh continental climate. Winter is particularly severe, with average temperatures as low as -15°C or -30°C in Qinghai and Xinjiang. Conversely, in summer, Turpan is China’s hottest city, sometimes exceeding 40°C. Despite the wild, rugged terrain and the great expanses, however, facilities for tourists have developed considerably in recent years. In nearly all towns, hotels and restaurants now cater for a range of budgets – and in general, accommodation is a good deal cheaper here than in eastern China. Where rail lines have not been built, nearly everywhere is accessible by bus, and more and more towns by plane as well. Finally there is the possibility of onward travel to or from China’s Central Asian neighbours – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan can all be reached by road or rail from the provinces covered in this section.