Tracing a vague southern parallel to the Tian Shan 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, though most visitors skip this and head straight to Turpan, famed for its grapes and intense summer heat – despite which 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, but it is Kuqa, just beyond, which is more deserving of a stopover, thanks to its traditional feel and the 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 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.