Tracing a vague southern parallel to the Tian Shan mountain range, the road from Dunhuang, in western Gansu, to Turpan covers some of the harshest terrain in all of China – little water ever reaches this area of scorching depressions, which was dreaded by the Silk Road traders as one of the most hazardous sections of the entire cross-Asia trip.
The first major city you’ll hit on crossing from Gansu is Hami. Known across China for its melons (and to readers of Marco Polo, evidently happy with being given “temporary wives” here), this is a bit of a nonentity, although there are hourly departures from its bus station into the Tian Shan mountains – after an hour or so, you’ll be in the midst of superb alpine scenery, the valleys dotted with small tent communities. Next comes Turpan, famed for its grapes and for being the hottest city in the country; despite the heat it can be one of the most relaxing and enjoyable places in all China. The route then skirts along the Tarim Basin to the wealthy but dull town of Korla, though Kuqa just beyond is more deserving of a stopover, thanks to its traditional feel and the low-key Silk Road relics in the surrounding deserts. There’s then a long journey to Kashgar, via Aksu – the scene of a major terrorist bombing in 2010.
The road is in fairly good condition all the way, though given the vast distances involved, it makes much more sense to travel by train. Note that east of Turpan (itself rather far from its attendant station), there are only a couple of services per day in either direction.