The Northwest Travel Guide

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.

Gansu and Qinghai

The gigantic, naturally splendid provinces of Gansu (甘肃, gānsù) and Qinghai (青海, qīnghăi) sit side by side, far west of Beijing and the Chinese seaboard. Together they form an incredibly diverse expanse, from colossal mountains in the south to vast tracts of desert in the northwest. On a map, these provinces appear to be at the very centre of China, but this is only true in a geographical sense. Traditionally, the Chinese have regarded Gansu, the “closer” of the pair, as marking the outer limit of Chinese cultural influence.

Gansu’s population is relatively small – just 26 million – if comprising an extraordinary ethnic mix, including Hui, Kazakhs, Mongols and Tibetans. The province’s remarkable geography encompasses stretches of the great Yellow River, its waters dense with silt, and the Hexi Corridor, a 1000km passage sandwiched between the Tibetan and the Gobi Desert that narrows to a 16km-wide bottleneck at its skinniest point. Silk Road caravans trudged through the corridor, the Great Wall was built through it and even today Gansu’s main rail lines and highways are funnelled along it. Here too you’ll find some of the region’s most spectacular historic sites: the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang house the finest examples of Buddhist art in all China; there’s the country’s largest reclining Buddha at Zhangye; plus more rock art at Bingling Caves, near Lanzhou, and Maiji Shan, near Tianshui. The Great Wall snakes across Gansu to its end at the great Ming fortress at Jiayuguan, and in Gansu’s mountainous southwest is the fascinating Labrang Monastery and the Tibetan town of Xiahe.

A huge, empty landscape with a population of less than 6 million, Qinghai is in many respects a part of Tibet, covering the northern section of the Tibetan Plateau, with a strong minority presence – as well as Tibetans and Hui, there are Salar, Tu, Mongol and Kazakh people all living here. Qinghai’s unspoilt natural wilderness incorporates the enormous Qinghai Lake, which offers opportunities for hiking and birdwatching. Only the eastern part of the province around Xining has a long-established Han presence, though the splendid Kumbum Monastery, one of the four great Tibetan lamaseries, is located just outside the city.

Brief history

China made its first serious effort to expand into the western deserts, primarily as a means to ensure control over the Silk Road trade, during the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). Prefectures were established even though Gansu did not officially become a Chinese province for another millennium; during several periods, however, Chinese control extended well beyond here and into Xinjiang. Nevertheless, right into the nineteenth century the primarily Muslim inhabitants of this region were considered little better than barbarians, and the great revolts of 1862–77 were ruthlessly quashed.

Given that agriculture is barely sustainable in arid Gansu, since 1949 the central government has tried to develop heavy industry in the province. The exploitation of mineral deposits, including oil and coal, had a tentative beginning, followed by Mao’s paranoid “Third Line” policy in the 1960s, when factories were built in remote areas to save them from possible Soviet attack.

Geographically and culturally part of the Tibetan Plateau, Qinghai has for centuries been a frontier zone, contested between the Han Chinese, Tibetans and Muslims who dwelt in its pastures and thin snatches of agricultural land. Significant Han migration didn’t occur until the late nineteenth century, when it was encouraged by the Qing dynasty. However, effective Han political control was not established until 1949 when the Communists defeated Ma Bufang, a Hui warlord who had controlled the area since 1931. The area is still perceived by the Han Chinese as a frontier land for pioneers and prospectors, and, on a more sinister note, a dumping ground for criminals and political opponents to the regime, with hundreds of thousands held in Qinghai prison and labour camps.

The Bingling Caves

The excursion from Lanzhou to the Buddhist Bingling Caves, carved into a canyon on the Yellow River, provides an introduction to both the monumental religious art that filtered along the Silk Road, and also to the Yellow River itself. The caves are among the earliest significant Buddhist monuments in China – started in the Western Jin and extended by the Northern Wei, the Tang, Song, Yuan and Ming. Though the earliest wall paintings here have been virtually washed away, a considerable number of exquisite carvings survive, mostly in good condition, with some impressive restoration work in progress.

Reaching the Bingling Caves

The caves can only be reached by boat, and only then between April and early October when water levels are sufficiently high. From Lanzhou, the first stage of the expedition is a two-hour bus ride to the massive Liujiaxia Hydroelectric Dam, a spectacular sight poised above the reservoir. At the dam you board a speedboat, which takes a further hour to reach the caves and offers excellent views of fishermen busy at work and peasants cultivating wheat, sunflowers and rice on the dark, steep banks. Towards the end of the trip, the boat enters a dramatic gorge, where the river froths and churns between jagged hills that have been eroded into bizarre shapes by the wind and water.

Chongcao – Himalayan viagra

Over the past three decades, the impoverished edges of the Tibetan Plateau have remained stubbornly resistant to the economic development that has transformed the rest of China. However, this is finally changing, thanks to an unlikely commodity.

The caterpillars of the ghost moth live underground in high-altitude regions (between 3000–5000m elevation). While feeding on roots, the subterranean larva is attacked by a parasitic fungus, Cordyceps sinensis, which kills the caterpillar and erupts from its forehead in a stalk-like growth. When hand-collected and dried by nomads, the bizarre-looking fungus – half caterpillar, half stalk and known as chongcao (“insect grass”) in Chinese, or yertse kumbu (“winter insect, summer grass”) in Tibetan – has long been used in traditional Tibetan and Chinese medicine, where it is reputed to act as an aphrodisiac and improve a range of conditions from asthma to cancer.

As China’s middle class has grown, demand for caterpillar fungus has increased and prices have soared. The profits from this booming trade – prices can reach well over US$100 per gram, more expensive than gold – have started to improve the livelihoods of people across the Himalayan region. The practice of harvesting the fungus before it has released its spores has decimated the harvest elsewhere on the plateau, pushing prices ever higher in the places where the fungus is still relatively plentiful, as it is in the Tibetan fringes of Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan, encouraging locals to cash in while the boom lasts.

The Hexi Corridor

For reasons of simple geography, travellers entering or leaving China from the west have always been channelled through the narrow strip of land that stretches 1000km northwest of Lanzhou. With the Qilian Mountains soaring up to the south, and a merciless combination of waterless desert and bone-dry mountains to the north, the road known as the Hexi Corridor offers the only feasible route through the physical obstacles that crowd in west of Lanzhou.

Historically, whoever controlled the corridor could operate a stranglehold on the fabulous riches of the Silk Road trade. The Chinese took an interest early on, and early Great Wall-building efforts were taking place along the Hexi Corridor under Emperor Qin Shi Huang in the third century BC. Subsequently, the powerful Han dynasty incorporated the region into their empire, though the central government’s influence remained far from constant for centuries, as Tibetans, Uyghurs and Mongols vied for control. Not until the Mongol conquests of the thirteenth century did the corridor finally become a settled part of the Chinese empire, with the Ming consolidating the old wall and building its magnificent last fort at Jiayuguan.

Two cities along the corridor, Wuwei and Zhangye, offer convenient places to break the long journey between Lanzhou and the extraordinary Buddhist sculptures at Dunhuang, and have their own share of historic sights.

Dunhuang

An oasis town surrounded by inhospitable desert, DUNHUANG has been a backpacker favourite for decades, with two main claims to fame. Colossal sand dunes – among the world’s largest, reaching hundreds of metres in height – rise along its southern flank, while the nearby Mogao Caves boast a veritable encyclopedia of Chinese artwork on their walls. The town has become something of a desert resort for visiting these imposing sights, though there’s little to actually see in Dunhuang itself bar the well-presented City Museum (敦煌市博物馆, dūnhuángshì bówùguăn; April–Dec Tues–Sun 8.30am–6.30pm; free) on Mingshan Lu, which houses a small collection of scrolls, pottery and statues that survived the twentieth-century depredations of foreign archeologists.

Jiayuguan

Ninth-century poet on a leave-taking at Jiayuguan

One more cup of wine for our remaining happiness. There will be chilling parting dreams tonight.

To some Chinese, the very name JIAYUGUAN is synonymous with sorrow and ghastly remoteness. The last fortress of the Great Wall was built here by the Ming in 1372, over 5000km from the wall’s easternmost point at Shanhaiguan, from which time the town made its living by supplying the needs of the fortress garrison. This was literally the final defence of the empire, the spot where China ended and beyond which lay a terrifying wilderness. Everything that travelled between the deserts of Central Asia and China’s central plain – goods, traders and armies – had to go through this pass. The desolation of the landscape only adds to the melancholy: being forced to leave China altogether was a citizen’s worst nightmare, and it was here that disgraced officials and condemned or fleeing criminals had to make their final, bitter farewells. The perfectly restored fort, just west of nondescript Jiayuguan town, is one of the highlights of northwest China, with a number of additional Wall-related sights scattered in the desert nearby.

Desert sights around Jiayuguan

Several other attractions around Jiayuguan could be combined with a trip to the fort. 6km south of town are the ruins of the First Beacon Tower (第一墩, dìyīdūn; ¥21). Built on the Great Wall in the sixteenth century, the long-abandoned tower lies crumbling on a cliff top overlooking the Taolai River at the foot of the Qilian Mountains.

The Overhanging Wall (悬壁长城, xuánbì chángchéng; ¥21), 8km northwest of the fort, is a section of the Great Wall connecting the fort to the Mazong range, originally built in the sixteenth century and recently restored. The ramparts afford excellent views of the surrounding land; it was more atmospheric before they built a crass tourist village nearby, but is still worth a visit to gaze out west and imagine what it was like when this place represented the end of China’s civilized world.

The desert also harbours a couple of unusual collections of ancient Chinese art. One is the Underground Gallery (新城魏晋墓, xīnchéng wèijìnmù; ¥31), 20km northeast of Jiayuguan. Actually a burial site from the Wei and Jin periods, more than eighteen hundred years ago, the brick-built graves contain vivid paintings of contemporary life on each brick.

A kilometer beyond the fort are the Heishan rock carvings (黑山岩画, hēishān yánhuà). These look more like classic “cave man” art: a hundred or so pictures of hunting, horseriding and dancing dating from the Warring States Period (476–221 BC), are etched into the cliffs of the Heishan range. Visiting the First Beacon Tower and the two art sites in conjunction with a tour of the fort and Overhanging Wall takes a full day. Hiring a taxi to get you around will cost ¥200–250.

Finally, one stupendous but rather inaccessible natural sight is the July 1st Glacier (七一冰川, qīyī bīngchuān; ¥51), located 4300m up in the Qilian Mountains some 120km from Jiayuguan – remarkably close considering how toasty Jiayuguan is in summer. A day-trip by taxi costs around ¥600. Travel agents in town provide tours with an English guide for ¥700. It’s a long day, involving a three-hour drive, followed by five hours climbing up and down, and three hours driving back. The do-it-yourself option is to take a train to Jingtieshan (京铁山, jĭngtĭeshān) then a taxi – around ¥140 return.

The Mogao Caves

The Mogao Caves, carved out of a stretch of wild desert cliffs 25km southeast of Dunhuang, are one of China’s greatest archeological sites – it is from here that Buddhism and Buddhist art radiated across the Chinese empire. Work started on the caves in 366AD, and continued up until the fourteenth century. The earliest artwork shows considerable artistic influence from Central Asia, India and Persia, though you can see how these foreign styles waned over time, as the iconography slowly adapted to Chinese aesthetics.

Of the original thousand plus caves, over six hundred survive in recognizable form, but many are off-limits, either no longer considered to be of significant interest or containing murals that the Chinese consider too sexually explicit for visitors. Of the thirty caves open to the public, you are likely to manage only around fifteen in a single visit. Some grasp of the caves’ history is essential to appreciate them properly, but restorations and replacements in the modern era have complicated the picture, and many of the statues, in particular, are not original. The caves are all clearly labelled with numbers above the doors but the interiors are unlit to preserve the murals; bring a flashlight if you have one. Photography at the caves is prohibited.

The Mogao Cave treasures

Before the arrival of Buddhism from India, Chinese religious activities had been performed in wooden buildings. Cave temples were introduced to China from India, where they were developed in response to poverty, heat and scarce building materials.

The emergence of the Mogao cave complex dominated early Chinese Buddhism, as pilgrims, monks and scholars passing along the Silk Road settled here to translate sutras. Merchants stopped too, endowing temples to ensure the success of their caravans and to benefit their souls. Huge numbers of artists and craftsmen were employed at Dunhuang, often lying on high scaffoldings in the dim light of oil lamps. The workers were paid a pittance – one document discovered at the site is a bill of indenture signed by a sculptor for the sale of his son.

The monastic community reached its peak under the Tang, with more than a thousand cave temples. Later, as ocean-going trading links supplanted the Silk Road, Mogao became increasingly provincial, until eventually the caves were sealed and abandoned in the fourteenth century.

In 1900 a wandering Taoist priest, Wang Yuanlu, stumbled upon Mogao and decided to make it his life’s work to restore the site, excavating caves full of sand, touching up the murals, and even building a guesthouse, which he financed through alms. His efforts might have continued in obscurity save for his discovery of a bricked-up chamber (cave 17), which revealed an enormous collection of manuscripts, sutras and silk and paper paintings – some 1000 years old and virtually undamaged. The Dunhuang authorities, having first appropriated a fair amount, had the cave resealed and so it remained until the arrival of Central Asian explorer Aurel Stein in 1907. Stein, a Hungarian working for the British Indian Survey, had heard rumours of the caves and persuaded Wang to reopen the chamber. This is how Stein later described what he saw:

Heaped up in layers, but without any order, there appeared in the dim light of the priest’s little lamp a solid mass of manuscript bundles rising to a height of nearly 10 feet and filling, as subsequent measurement showed, close on 500 cubic feet – an unparalleled archeological scoop.

This was no exaggeration. Among other manuscripts, Stein found original sutras brought from India by the Tang monk and traveller Xuanzang, Buddhist texts in many languages (even in some unknown to the scholar) and dozens of original Tang-dynasty paintings on silk and paper – all crushed but untouched by damp.

Donating the equivalent of £130 to Wang’s restoration fund, Stein left Mogao with some seven thousand manuscripts and five hundred paintings. Later the same year a Frenchman, Paul Pelliot, negotiated a similar deal, shipping thousands more scrolls back to Paris. And so, virtually overnight, the British Museum and the Louvre had acquired the core of their Chinese manuscript and painting collections.

Today the Chinese are pressing for the return of all paintings and manuscripts in foreign collections. It is hard to dispute the legitimacy of these claims, though had the treasures not been removed, more would almost certainly have been lost in the chaotic years of the twentieth century. Fortunately, despite the massive loss in terms of manuscripts and scrolls, the artwork at the caves themselves is still fabulously preserved.

Kumbum

Twenty-five kilometres southeast of Xining, Kumbum is one of the most important monasteries outside Tibet. Set in the cleft of a valley, the walled complex is an imposing sight, an active place of worship for over six hundred monks as well as the constant succession of pilgrims from Tibet, Qinghai and Mongolia, who present a startling picture with their rugged features, huge embroidered coats and chunky jewellery. There are plenty of tourists too (not to mention a hulking great military base right next door), but Kumbum remains a good introduction to Tibetan culture.

The monastery dates from 1560, when building began in honour of Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelugpa Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, who was born on the Kumbum Monastery estates. Legend tells how, at Tsongkhapa’s birth, drops of blood fell from his umbilical cord causing a tree with a thousand leaves to spring up; on each leaf was the face of the Buddha (the trunk is now preserved in one of the stupas). During his lifetime, Tsongkhapa’s significance was subsequently borne out: his two major disciples were to become the greatest living Buddhas, the Dalai and Panchen Lamas.

Kumbum’s festivals

During the year, four major festivals are held at Kumbum, each fixed according to the lunar calendar. In January or February, at the end of the Chinese New Year festivities, there’s a large ceremony centred on the lighting of yak-butter lamps. In April or May is the festival of Bathing Buddha, during which a giant thangka is unfurled on a hillside facing the monastery. In July or August the birthday of Tsongkhapa is celebrated, and in September or October there’s one more festival commemorating the nirvana of Sakyamuni.

Lanzhou

Squeezed 1600m up into a narrow valley along the Yellow River, and stretching out for nearly 30km east to west, gritty LANZHOU sits at the head of the Hexi Corridor, which means that almost everyone heading to Xinjiang from eastern China will pass through at some point. Many travellers break their journey here, but most head on before too long, thanks in no small part to Lanzhou’s awful air quality: the colossal assortment of factories and petroleum processing plants around the city, coupled with its location – hemmed in by large mountains – once earned it the unfortunate title of “World’s Most Polluted City”. Today, atrocious traffic means that the pollution shows little sign of abating.

However, the city itself is slowly becoming more attractive, especially with the tarting up of the Yellow River’s north bank. There are also a number of good day-trip possibilities, including the Bingling Caves, and Lanzhou forms the start or finish line for the fascinating Xiahe loop. Lastly, this is the best place in China to slurp down a bowl of Lanzhou beef noodles – a dish now available all around the country.

Rafts and speedboats

To go boating on Yellow River, head for the south bank around Huanghe Bridge and Zhongshan Bridge – ride across the river on a traditional, inflated sheepskin raft (¥30/15min), or take a short scenic trip on a motorboat (¥20/10min; two-person minimum).

West of Xining

West of Xining, Qinghai for the most part comprises a great emptiness. The 3000m plateau is too high to support agriculture, and the only people who traditionally have managed to eke out a living here have been nomadic yak-herders. The real highlight of the area is the huge and virtually unspoilt Qinghai Lake, whose saline waters are home to thousands of birds. A few hours beyond, Chaka Salt Lake is an interesting stop for those wishing to break the long journey to Golmud, the only town of note for hundreds of kilometres, and a place to catch trains to Lhasa as well as onward transport to Dunhuang and southern Xinjiang.

Qinghai Lake

Situated in an extraordinarily remote location – 150km west of Xining, at 3100m above sea level on the Tibetan Plateau – Qinghai Lake is the largest in China, occupying an area of over 4000 square kilometres. Its cold and briny waters nevertheless teem with fish (mainly the endemic naked carp) and are populated by nesting migratory birds, particularly at Bird Island, which, along with several manmade scenic spots, has become the lake’s main tourist attraction.

If you don’t have time to stop here, you can admire the view while travelling between Golmud and Xining; it’s worth scheduling your journey to pass by during daylight hours. The train spends hours running along the northern shore; by bus you’ll skirt the southern shore instead.

Be aware that access for foreigners to certain parts of the lakeshore is restricted, particularly around the “nuclear town” of Xihai on the northeast edge of the lake, where China’s first nuclear weapons were developed.

The Xiahe loop

The verdant, mountainous area south of Lanzhou, bordering Qinghai to the west and Sichuan to the south, is one of enormous scenic beauty, relatively untouched by the scars of industry and overpopulation. The people who live in the so-called Xiahe loop are diverse in culture and ethnicity, including a very strong Hui and Tibetan presence. Xiahe, in particular, is a delightful place to visit, site of the major Labrang Monastery, one of the largest Lamaist institutions in China, which attracts monks and pilgrims from across the Tibetan Plateau. From Xiahe, you can loop back to Lanzhou via Tongren – itself home to a large Tibetan population – and Xining, both in Qinghai province, or follow an adventurous route south into Sichuan province.

Note that towns throughout the loop are small affairs with few ATMs or exchange facilities – it’s best to take enough cash to cover the entire trip.

Labrang Monastery

Phenomenally beautiful and surrounded by mountains on all sides, Labrang Monastery sits just west of Xiahe’s centre. There’s no wall separating the town from the monastery – the two communities just merge together and the main road goes right through the middle of both. The signs that you’re entering the monastery are the long lines of roofed prayer wheels stretching out either side of the road, tracing a near-complete circle around the monastery. To the south side, along the north bank of the river, you can follow the prayer wheels to the other end of the monastery. It’s mesmerizing to walk clockwise alongside the pilgrims, who turn each prayer wheel they pass.

The majority of the important monastery buildings are north of the main road. The buildings include six colleges, prayer halls, sutra printing workshops and mud-brick dormitories for the monks. At the colleges monks study towards degrees in astronomy, esoteric Buddhism, law, medicine and theology (higher and lower). There are also schools for dance, music and painting. The Gongtang Pagoda (贡唐宝塔, gòngtáng băotă; daily 7am–11pm; ¥20), first built in 1805, is the only major monastery building south of the main road – on the prayer wheel circuit – and is worth climbing for spectacular views over the shining golden roofs of the monastery.

Visiting Labrang Monastery

While there is nothing to stop you from wandering around the monastery complex by yourself – be sensitive, use your discretion, and move clockwise – given the bewildering wealth of architecture, art and statuary, it’s a good idea to take a guided tour at some stage. This can be arranged at the ticket office – take the only sizeable turn off the north side of the road within the monastery area (on the right if coming from the station). The hour-long tours (roughly at 10.15am and 3.15pm; ¥40) include entrance to five buildings and are led by English-speaking monks.

Labrang Monastery is the site of some spectacular festivals that, as with Chinese festivals, take place according to the lunar calendar. The largest is the Monlam Festival, three days after the Tibetan New Year (late Feb or early March). The opening of the festival is marked by the unfurling of a huge thangka on the south side of the Daxia River. Processions, dances and the lighting of butter lamps take place on subsequent days.

The old road to Xiahe

Though direct buses and a highway connect Lanzhou to Xiahe, you’ll get a better feel for the region by hopping slowly between towns along the more scenic old road, which travels via Yongjing and Liujiaxia (the jumping-off points for Bingling Caves), and then traverses Dongxiang Autonomous County. Such is the beauty of this trip that you may find yourself wanting to stop off at one of the ridge towns en route, whose populations are almost entirely Muslim: you’ll see very few men who aren’t wearing skullcaps. Women wear a square veil of fine lace, black if they are married and green if they are not. The largest ridge town goes by a few different names, but is generally referred to as Dongxiang (东乡, dōngxiāng) and makes for a fascinating stay, with its bustling, regular livestock market.

In the mountains around Dongxiang, the Islamic and Tibetan Buddhist worlds begin to overlap and villages are interspersed with ancient communities of some of China’s lesser-known ethnicities. The Dongxiang people, numbering nearly two hundred thousand, are Muslims of Mongol origin and descended from troops garrisoned in Linxia under Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century. These days, to outsiders at least, they are indistinguishable from the Hui except at certain celebrations when old Mongol customs re-emerge. The Bao’an, who number barely eight thousand, are similar to the Dongxiang in that they, too, are of Mongolian origins – while their language is written in Chinese, it contains a high percentage of Mongolian words. The Salar are a Turkic-speaking people whose origins lie, it’s thought, in Samarkand in Central Asia; they live primarily in Xunhua County in neighbouring Qinghai province.

Regular buses ply the 25km route between Dongxiang and Linxia (临夏, línxià), a strongly Muslim town, full of mosques. Linxia’s Hui are inveterate traders and their enterprises, together with burgeoning local industry, have seen factories and tower blocks sprouting up on the outskirts. The town is rather ugly; nevertheless, it’s an interesting enough place to spend a few hours should you get stuck between buses. The main Nanguan Mosque (南关清真寺, nánguān qīngzhēn sì) is immediately south of the square at the intersection of central Tuanjie Lu and Jiefang Lu. From Linxia, there are regular buses on to Xiahe.

Yushu: after the quake

It was all looking so promising for Yushu (玉树, yùshù), an autonomous Tibetan prefecture perched 4000m above sea level at the far south of Qinghai province. The source of the famed Yellow River, this remote, mountainous and extremely picturesque area had started to become a magnet for adventurous travellers seeking a Tibetan experience without having to pay through the nose for a sanitized, pre-packaged tour to Lhasa.

Then came the events of April 14, 2010, when a 7.1-magnitude earthquake hit Yushu. The main tremor – and its devastating aftershocks – destroyed 85 percent of the houses in Gyegu, the county seat, and killed some 2700 people, a fair chunk of the tiny local population. The national authorities were quick to respond, having learned from the far deadlier Wenchuan earthquake that struck Sichuan in 2008. Yushu had few medical facilities, which meant that everything had to be flown in and that those buried under the rubble had to be dug out, often by hand, in freezing conditions.

The area is slowly getting back on its feet, but is likely to remain off the travel radar for a while to come. The Lete Youth Hostel in Xining made admirable fundraising efforts after the earthquake, and is as good a place as any to get up-to-date information about the area.

The Silk Road

The Khunjerab and Torugart passes that link China with Central Asia were, a thousand years ago, on well-trodden trade routes between eastern China and the Mediterranean. Starting from Chang’an (Xi’an), the Silk Road curved northwest through Gansu to the Yumen Pass, where it split. Travellers could follow one of two routes across the deserts to Kashgar: the southern route ran through Dunhuang, Miran, Niya, Khotan and Yarkand; the northern route through Hami, Turpan, Kuqa and Aksu. Beyond Kashgar, merchants traded their goods with middlemen who carried them south to Kashmir and Bactria, or north to Ferghana and Samarkand. Then, laden with Western goods, the Chinese merchants would turn around for the 3000km journey home. Oases along the route prospered as caravanserai, becoming wealthy in their own right. When Chinese domination periodically declined, many of these cities turned into self-sufficient statelets, or khanates.

The foundations of this road to the West, which was to become one of the most important arteries of trade and culture in world history, were laid over two millennia ago. In 139 BC, the imperial court at Chang’an dispatched a man called Zhang Qian to investigate the world to the west and to seek possible allies in the struggle against nomadic marauders from the north. Zhang set out with a party of a hundred men; thirteen years later he returned, with only one member of his original expedition – and no alliances. Nevertheless, the news he brought of the lands to the west set Emperor Wu Di and his court aflame. Further expeditions purchased horses for military purposes, and from these beginnings trade developed.

By 100 BC a dozen immense caravans were heading into the desert each year. From China emerged silk – of course – along with jade, porcelain, peaches, roses, cast iron, gunpowder and paper; the West sent back cucumbers, figs, sesame, walnuts, grapes (and wine-making), wool, ivory and religion – including Nestorian Christianity and Buddhism. The first Buddhist missionaries appeared in China in the first century AD, and by the fourth century Buddhism had become the official religion of much of northern China. Along the Silk Road, monasteries, stupas and grottoes proliferated, often sponsored by wealthy traders. The remains of this early flowering of Buddhist art are among the great attractions of the Northwest for modern-day travellers. History has taken its toll – zealous Muslims, Western archeologists, Red Guards and the forces of nature have all played a destructive part – but some sites have survived intact, above all the cave art at Mogao outside Dunhuang.

The Silk Road flourished for centuries, reaching its zenith under the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD) and bringing immense wealth to the Chinese nobility and merchants. But it remained a dangerous, expensive and slow route, taking at least five months from Chang’an to Kashgar, whole caravans occasionally disappearing into the deserts or in the high mountain passes.

There was a final flowering of trade in the thirteenth century, when the whole Silk Road came temporarily under Mongol rule. But with the arrival of sericulture in Europe and the opening of sea routes between China and the West, the Silk Road had had its day. The road and its cities were slowly abandoned to the wind and the blowing sands.

Xinjiang

Xinjiang (新疆, xīnjiāng) is an extraordinary region more than 3000km from any coast which, despite all the upheavals since the collapse of the Silk Road trade, still comprises the same oasis settlements strung out along the ancient routes, many producing the silk and cotton for which they were famed in Roman times. Geographically, Xinjiang – literally “New Territories”, and more fully the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region – occupies an area slightly greater than Western Europe, and yet its population is just 22 million. With ethnic minorities comprising almost sixty percent of the total population, Xinjiang is perhaps the least “Chinese” part of the People’s Republic.

The Tian Shan range bisects Xinjiang from east to west. South of this dividing line is Nanjiang (southern Xinjiang), a predominantly Uyghur region that encompasses the Tarim Basin and the scorching Taklamakan Desert, its sands covering countless forgotten cities and another buried treasure – oil. China estimates that three times the proven US oil reserves are under the Taklamakan alone. The cooler forests and steppes north of the Tian Shan, in Beijiang (northern Xinjiang) are home to populations of Kazakhs and Mongols living a partially nomadic existence. Beijiang’s climate is warm in summer, and virtually Siberian from October through to March.

Regional highlights include the mountain pastures outside Ürümqi, where you can hike in rare solitude and stay beside Heaven Lake with Kazakhs in their yurts; but it is the old Silk Road that will attract most travellers, predominantly the oasis towns of Turpan and Kashgar. It is possible to follow either the Northern Silk Road from Turpan to Kashgar via Kuqa, or the virtually forgotten southern route via Khotan. There’s also the possibility of continuing the Silk Road journey out beyond the borders of China itself, via the relatively well-established Karakoram Highway into Pakistan, or over less well-known routes into Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan.

Brief history

While Xinjiang’s past has been coloured by such great personalities as Tamerlane, Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun and Alexander the Great, the region’s fortunes have waxed and waned throughout its history. Likewise, China’s influence has been far from constant. The area first passed under Han control in the second century BC, under Emperor Wu Di, but it was not until the Tang dynasty (650–850 AD) that this control amounted to more than a vague military presence. Xinjiang enjoyed something of a golden age under the Tang, with the culture and Buddhist art of the Silk Road oases at their zenith.

From Tang dynasty to twentieth century

The ninth century saw the gradual rise of the Uyghurs, and their conversion to Islam. Subsequent centuries saw the Mongol conquests under Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. Both brought havoc and slaughter in their wake, though the brief period of Mongol rule (1271–1368) hugely facilitated Silk Road trade – for the first and only time in history, east and west Asia were under a single government.

After the fall of the Mongols, Xinjiang began to split into oasis kingdoms or khanates and suffered a succession of religious and factional wars. Nonetheless, the Qing reassertion of Chinese domination in the eighteenth century was fiercely contested. A century later, in 1864, full-scale Muslim rebellion broke out, led by the ruler of Kashgaria, Yakub Beg. Ultimately the revolt failed and by the beginning of the twentieth century, Xinjiang was a Chinese backwater controlled by a succession of warlords who acted virtually independently of the central government.

Since 1949, the Chinese government has made strenuous attempts to stabilize the region by settling Han Chinese from the east. The Uyghur proportion of Xinjiang’s population slipped from ninety percent in 1949 to below fifty percent in the 1980s, and is still on the way down, despite the minorities’ exemption from the One Child Policy.

Modern Xinjiang

Today, the Chinese government remains nervous about Xinjiang, especially given its enormous economic potential. Uyghur dissent reached a peak in July 2009, when Ürümqi witnessed Xinjiang’s worst-ever clashes between its Uyghur and Han populations in recent times. Official sources put the number of dead at just under 200, the majority of them Han; Uyghur groups claim that the overall figure was much higher, and that hundreds of their own people’s deaths had been covered up. Security was tightened across the region, and hundreds of Uyghur men were arrested in huge sweeps of the main cities; an unknown number have since been executed.

With numerous minor incidents since 2009 tourist numbers have, understandably, taken a tumble. Visitors will notice a heavy security presence across Xinjiang but especially around the strongly Uyghur regions surrounding Khotan and Kashgar.

Central Asian travel connections

Ürümqi has become a travel hub for those heading between China and Central Asia. The lovely new terminal at the airport handles an ever-increasing number of international flights, including services to Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Siberian Russia. Third-party nationals will, in many of these cases, need to have visas in advance – check with your local embassy for details. The two visas that you can get in Ürümqi are for Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, although many nationalities can now get a Kyrgyz visa on arrival and visa situations are always subject to change – check ahead and arrive at the embassy as early as possible.

Ürümqi has also become a popular pit stop on the bicycle route between China and Central Asia – at certain times of the year, cyclists seem to outnumber “normal” backpackers. The city’s hostels are great places to swap useful information with other cycle nuts, either in person or through guestbooks.

Overland to Kazakhstan

Ürümqi has a couple of land connections to Kazakhstan. Sleeper trains depart around midnight on Saturday and Monday for Almaty (阿拉木图, ālāmùtú), and at the same time on Thursdays for Astana (阿斯塔娜, āsìtănà). Returning trains leave Almaty around midnight on Saturdays and Mondays, and Astana on Tuesday afternoons. In Ürümqi, tickets (¥1100 to Almaty, ¥1300 to Astana) can be bought from the ticket office inside the Ya’ou Hotel next to the main train station (daily, 10am–1pm & 3.30–7.30pm). The journey to Almaty takes around thirty hours, eight of which are spent at the border changing the carriages’ wheels to fit Kazakh rails.

The bus journey to Almaty is around ten hours shorter – services run from Ürümqi’s long-distance bus station most days of the week – again, the schedule is continually changing; tickets cost around ¥400. These services pass through Yining, and it’s possible to head there first on local transport to break the journey.

The Karakoram Highway

For millennia the 4700m-high Khunjerab Pass, 400km south of Kashgar, has been the nexus between the Chinese world and the Indian subcontinent. Today, the entire 1300km route from Kashgar over the mountains to Rawalpindi in northern Pakistan is known as the Karakoram Highway (中巴公路, zhōngbā gōnglù) and, while not without its perils, it’s hard to think of a more exciting route out of China.

The journey takes a minimum of four days, though the pass is open only from the beginning of May until the end of October, and can close without notice in bad weather. Travellers have to spend a night on the Chinese side, either in Tashkurgan or camping out by the wintry but beautiful Lake Karakul. You’ll also need to have already arranged Pakistan visas in your home country unless you live in China, in which case you can apply through the Pakistani Embassy in Beijing.

Tashkurgan to Pakistan

Bring warm clothing and plenty of snacks and water on your Karakoram journey. Travellers heading to Pakistan do not need to buy onward bus tickets – the ticket from Kashgar covers the whole route right through to Sust – but Western tourists should be aware that they’ll need to have arranged a Pakistani visa beforehand in their home country (though it’s worth checking the current state of play at their Beijing embassy; pakembassy.cn). Stamp in hand, the entry and exit formalities are dealt with a few hundred metres south from the bank, and are straightforward to the point of being lax. Note that cyclists are not allowed to ride their bikes through the pass, but have to bus it between Tashkurgan and Sust. As for Sust, there’s plenty of accommodation to go around, as well as places in which to change yuan for rupees.

Kashgar

The remoteness of Uyghur-dominated KASHGAR is palpable. Set astride overland routes to Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan, the city is over 4000km from Beijing, with the last thousand kilometres from Ürümqi for the most part uninhabitable desert: indeed, part of the excitement of Kashgar lies in the experience of reaching it. The distinctively Central Asian air to the old city’s mosques and markets makes it a visible bastion of old Chinese Turkestan – the muezzin’s call booms out across the city, and each evening the desert air is scented and blurred by the smoke of roasting lamb.

Increasingly, however, this is a bastion under siege. Han Chinese have relocated here in their thousands, and much of the old town has been ripped up and rebuilt – just a few small areas of the original buildings have been preserved as tourist attractions. The locals are understandably angry: Kashgar is the focal point of tensions between the Han and Uyghur peoples, as made painfully clear by the city’s ubiquitous security personnel – both in uniform and undercover.

Nonetheless, the city remains well worth a visit; its population remains overwhelmingly Muslim, a fact you can hardly fail to notice with the great Id Kah Mosque dominating the central square, the Uyghur bazaars and teashops and, above all, the faces of the Turkic people around you. If you can choose a time to be here, aim for the Uyghur Corban festival at the end of the Muslim month of Ramadan, which involves activities such as dancing and goat-tussling. Whatever time of year you visit, don’t miss Kashgar’s Sunday market, for which half of Central Asia seems to converge on the city.

Kashgar’s Sunday markets

Like many aspects of life in Kashgar, the famous Yekshenbe Bazaar (Sunday Market) is evolving. While it’s still one of Kashgar’s top sights, and a fascinating place to people-watch, it has lost some of its former chaotic charm. The first change was the departure of the livestock market or Ulagh Bazaar (牛羊市场, niúyáng shìchǎng) in 2007, which, due to the chaos it caused in the city centre each Sunday, was relocated 10km northwest to Pamir Dadao, a ¥30 cab ride from downtown. Happily, should you make it out here, you’ll still find a colourful bunch of traders haggling over cattle and the occasional camel, while sheep turn a blind eye to the food stalls on the periphery.

The second wave of change saw the rest of the market rehoused in a permanent structure just northeast of Dong Hu Park, now simply called the “big bazaar” (大巴扎, dà bāzhā or also 中西亚巴扎, zhōngxīyà bāzhā). Some stalls open every day, but it really gets going on a Sunday, when side markets spring up in the surrounding streets. Knives, hats, pots, carpets, pans, fresh fruit and vegetables, clothes and boots and every kind of domestic and agricultural appliance – often handmade in wood and tin – are available, and some produce, such as Iranian saffron, has come a very long way to be sold here. The market goes on all day and into the early evening, and food and drink are widely available around the site.

To get to the main bazaar take bus #20 from Renmin Square; or from the Id Kah Mosque you can take a fascinating thirty-minute walk through the old city with its lanes full of traders, coppersmiths and blacksmiths. A taxi from the centre of town costs around ¥8.

While they may not be as impressive as Kashgar’s, it might be worth heading out to one of the smaller markets in the region – the small town of Shufu (疏附, shūfù), 17km southwest of Kashgar, is a good candidate. Today, these have a more authentic feel about them, and you’re almost guaranteed to be the only one with a camera.

To Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan

The international bus station handles traffic to Sust in Pakistan, as well as two different routes into Kyrgyzstan. Note that you’re charged excess baggage rates for every kilo over 20kg on international buses.

The road to Kyrgyzstan

The 720km-long road due north from Kashgar via the Torugart Pass to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan has been open to Westerners since the 1990s, though this trip is complicated by the fact that foreign travellers are not allowed through the border in either direction on public transport, and must be delivered and met by official guides. While, in theory, the border crossing is open Mon–Fri, 10am–5pm, in practice you need to cross before noon and be prepared for sudden closure of the border post for national holidays, bad weather (the pass lies at 3750m and snow is frequent even in summer) and random political reasons. You’ll have to organize the trip though an agent in Kashgar or Bishkek and expect to pay upward of US$200 per car from Kashgar to the border, and US$150 per car for onward transport to Bishkek.

An alternative, and easier, option is to head across the southern Irkeshtam Pass, 210km west of Kashgar, by bus (currently Mon and Thurs; US$50), heading on to the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh on a rough road. This route has become popular with cyclists; although there are five major 2400m-plus climbs before the border, there are petrol stations about every 40km for water, and towns or villages no more than 65km apart. Note that Osh was the scene of inter-ethnic riots in 2010; check the current situation before heading this way.

Whichever way you take to Kyrgyzstan, check and double-check the visa requirements in advance before you rely on getting a visa on arrival; in China, you can do this at the Kyrgyz embassy in Beijing or the consulate in Ürümqi.

The road to Pakistan

The fabled Karakoram Highway heads from Xinjiang to Pakistan over the Khunjerab Pass. It would be a shame to do this all in one go, but there are direct buses – in theory every day, in practice whenever there are enough people – from Kashgar to the Pakistani city of Sust (¥290). It may make more sense to go to Tashkurgan and take the bus from there, as there are occasional buses from Tashkurgan to Sust and all the Kashgar buses stop in Tashkurgan anyway. Despite the gradient (the pass tops out at 4693m), this route is popular with bikers and cyclists. Note that the border is only open from May 1 until October (the exact closure date varies), and third-party nationals will need to have organized their visa in advance, something usually only possible in their home country.

Tours around Kashgar

One of the most convincing reasons to visit Kashgar is, a little paradoxically, the opportunity to get out of town. Distances can be huge, public transport non-existent and the weather unrelenting, so it’s usually best to go through a tour operator. Among the tours on offer – other than those to places nearby – are mountaineering expeditions, trips to Tibet, day- to week-long camel treks across the Taklamakan desert, and visits to remote villages of minority peoples.

Tour operators

CITS

0998 2980473, www.kscits.com.cn.This Chinese tourist staple has a branch inside the Royal Qinibagh. Staff are friendly and speak English.

Elvis Ablimit

1389 9136195, elvisablimit@yahoo.com. A long-time freelance operator organizing trips around Kashgar, his English is good and he knows the area well, but at heart he remains – as he started out – an expert in Kashgar’s carpet markets.

Kashgar Mountaineering Adventures

0998 2821832, ksalpine.com. Inside the Kashgar Gymnasium on Jiefang Nan Lu, the helpful, English-speaking staff here can organize a range of adventure activities including climbing and rafting trips. Contact them well in advance if you plan something ambitious, as most activities require some equipment and paperwork preparations.

Old Road Tours

1389 9132103, oldroadtours.com.Formerly Abdul Wahab Tours, this local company is run by six friendly brothers and marshalled by Abdul himself, a real fountain of local knowledge. They can organize any trip imaginable, big or small, and in a number of languages including French, German and Russian.

Kazakhs at Heaven Lake

The Kazakhs at Heaven Lake have recently seen massive changes to their livelihoods. Originally, they led a semi-nomadic herding existence in these hills, selling lambs in spring if the winter spared them – a hard, unpredictable business. However, in 2011 livestock grazing inside scenic areas was banned across Xinjiang, and overnight their traditional way of life disappeared. While this sea change has challenged the herders to adapt centuries-old habits, the natural environment has undeniably benefited, and the meadows of wild flowers around the lake have now returned to their former glory.

Today tourism has largely replaced herding as the chief source of local revenue, with the Kazakhs providing food and accommodation for visitors to Heaven Lake, as well as working and performing in the “Kazakh Village” that you’ll pass through en route to the lake. The sheep may have gone, but some traditions are still adhered to: visit in May – considered the most beautiful time – and you may get to try the alcoholic kumiss, fermented mare’s milk, a rare delicacy.

The Northern Silk Road

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.

Accommodation in Turpan

Turpan has a good range of accommodation and most places have air conditioning – just make sure that yours is working when you check in.

Donkey cart rides

One of the nicest ways to spend an evening after the heat of the day has passed is to hire a donkey cart and take a tour of the countryside south of town, a world of dusty tracks, vineyards, wheat fields, shady poplars, running streams and incredibly friendly people. You are unlikely to encounter many more tranquil rural settings than this. Donkey-cart drivers gather outside the Turpan hotel; two or three people will pay around ¥15 each for a tour lasting an hour or more.

Food and drink on the Northern Silk road

Hami’s lively restaurant scene is focussed on Zhongshan Bei Lu between Xiaoshizi and Dashizi (i.e. the junctions with Wenhua Lu and Jiefang Lu). Each evening stalls selling fragrant lamb kebabs, pilau and chilled kvass (a sweet, lightly fermented beverage) set up along the street.

The Flaming Mountains

Along the way to the Bezeklik Caves and other destinations northeast of Turpan, you’ll pass the Flaming Mountains, made famous in the sixteenth-century Chinese novel Journey to the West. It’s not hard to see why the novel depicts these sandstone mountains as walls of flame, the red sandstone hillsides lined and creviced as though flickering with flame in the heat haze. The plains below are dotted with dozens of small “nodding donkey” oil wells, all tapping into Xinjiang’s vast reserves.

Turpan

The small oasis town of TURPAN is an absolute must-see if you’re in Xinjiang. A former Silk Road outpost, it has long been a favourite with adventurous travellers. The town is surrounded by a number of fascinating historical sites – from ruined cities to Buddhist caves, testimony to its historical importance as a Silk Road stopover.

Turpan is located in a depression 80m below sea level, which accounts for its extreme climate – above 40°C in summer and well below freezing in winter. In summer the dry heat is so soporific that, despite the preponderance of places to explore, you may be hard-pushed to do anything but sleep or sip cool drinks under shady grapevines with the locals – this laidback vibe is another reason behind Turpan’s enduring popularity.

Surprisingly, despite its bone-dry surroundings, Turpan is an agricultural centre of note, famed across China for its grapes. Today, virtually every household in the town has a hand in the business, both in cultivating the vine, and in drying the grapes at the end of the season (a Grape Festival is held at the end of August).

Note that if you come out of season (Nov–March), Turpan is cold and uninspiring, with the vines cut back and most businesses closed – although the sights remain interesting, and at these times are almost devoid of other tourists.

Xuanzang and the Journey to the West

Goods were not the only things to travel along the Silk Road; it was along this route that Buddhism first arrived in China at some point in the first century AD. Cities on the Silk Road became bastions of the religion (hence their abandonment and desecration following the introduction of Islam after 1000), and from early on, Chinese pilgrims visited India and brought back a varied bag of Buddhist teachings. The most famous was the Tang-dynasty monk Xuanzang, who undertook a seventeen-year pilgrimage from the then capital, Chang’an (Xi’an), to India.

Born in 602, Xuanzang was schooled in Mahayana Buddhism but became confused by its contradictory texts, and in 629 decided to visit India and study Buddhism at its source. He went without official permission, narrowly avoiding arrest in western Gansu; Turpan’s king detained him for a month to hear him preach but eventually provided a large retinue, money and passports for safe passage through other kingdoms. Xuanzang crossed the Tian Shan into modern Kyrgyzstan, where his religious knowledge greatly impressed the Khan of the Western Turks, before he continued, via the great central Asian city of Samarkand, through modern-day Afghanistan, over the Hindu Kush and into India, arriving about a year after he set out.

Xuanzang spent fifteen years in India visiting holy sites, studying Buddhism in its major and esoteric forms, lecturing, and debating with famous teachers. If he hoped to find ultimate clarity he was probably disappointed, as the interpretation of Buddhist lore in India was even more varied than in China. However, he amassed a vast collection of Buddhist statues, relics and texts, and in 644 decided that it was his responsibility to return to China with this trove of knowledge. The journey back via Kashgar took Xuanzang another year, not counting eight months spent at Khotan, waiting for imperial permission to re-enter China, but he arrived at Chang’an in 645 to find tens of thousands of spectators crowding the roads: the emperor became his patron, and he spent the last twenty years of his life translating part of his collection of Buddhist texts.

Xuanzang wrote an autobiography, but highly coloured accounts of his travels also passed into folklore, becoming the subject of plays and the sixteenth-century novel Journey to the West. In it, Xuanzang is depicted as terminally naïve, hopelessly dismayed by the various disasters that beset him. Fortunately, he’s aided by the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Guanyin, who sends him spirits to protect him in his quest: the vague character of Sandy; the greedy and lecherous Pigsy; and Sun Wu Kong, the brilliant Monkey King. A good abridgement in English is Arthur Waley’s Monkey.

The Southern Silk Road

The Southern Silk Road splits off from the northern route at Kashgar, skirting the southern rim of the Taklamakan and curving north at Charkhlik on the desert’s eastern edge before re-joining the northern route near Dunhuang in Gansu. In modern times this path has fallen into obscurity, with punishing distances, forlorn and dusty towns, and sparse transport connections. However, this is actually the older and historically more important of the two branches. The most famous Silk Road travellers used it, as well as Marco Polo, and, in the 1930s, the British journalist Peter Fleming. The ancient settlements along the way were desert oases, kept alive by streams flowing down from the snowy peaks of the Kunlun Shan, which border the southern edge of this route.

Following the southern Silk Road opens up the possibility of travelling overland from Kashgar to Turpan one way, and returning another, thus circumnavigating the entire Taklamakan Desert. The road from Kashgar runs for 1400km to the town of Charkhlik, from where it’s still a fair way either back to Turpan, or on to Golmud in Qinghai. The ancient city of Khotan is the pick of places to get off the bus and explore; it’s also linked to Korla via the splendid 522km-long Tarim Desert Expressway, one of the longest desert roads in the world.

From Khotan to Korla

The cities of Khotan and Korla – respectively on the Northern and Southern silk routes – can be linked in three different ways. The most painless option is to take the new cross-desert highway from Khotan to Aksu (阿克苏; ākèsū) on the Northern Silk Route, from where you’ll at least have the option of continuing on by train; the 440km journey across the desert takes just five or six hours, since there’s precious little chance of a traffic jam. There’s another such highway several hundred kilometres to the east of Khotan, its southern terminus the town of Niya; this is longer at 522km, and will save you a little time if you’re heading directly to Korla, Turpan or Ürümqi. Both roads cross the Taklamakan desert, and will give you a close-up of why the Uyghurs call this the “Sea of Death”. Unfortunately, most buses travelling in either direction make the crossing at night, so you don’t get a view of the impressive irrigation grid that provides water for shrubs to protect the road from the ever-shifting desert sands.

For a dustier, more interesting trip to Korla, you’ll want to catch a bus east from Khotan, continuing on the Southern Silk Road.

Khotan’s bazaar

Khotan’s fascinating bazaar takes place every Sunday, although there’s some action here every day. Silk, carpets, leather jackets, fruit and spices are all on sale, with innumerable blacksmiths, tinsmiths, goldsmiths and carpenters hard at work among the stalls. The bazaar stretches across the northeast part of town; the easiest way to reach it is to head east along Aiyitika’er Lu, off Wenhua Lu near the centre. Follow the stalls south toward Jiamai Lu, along which you can see the pretty Jiamai mosque.

Lost cities: Miran and Loulan

Two remote, ruined cities make intriguing targets from Charkhlik, if you have time and plenty of cash. Miran (米兰古城, mĭlán gŭchéng) – subject of Christa Paula’s book Voyage to Miran – is relatively accessible, approximately 75km northeast of Charkhlik; a far more ambitious trip would be to Loulan (楼兰古城, lóulán gŭchéng), 250km from town on the western edge of Lop Nor. Loulan’s very existence had been completely forgotten until the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin rediscovered the site, which had been buried in sand, in the early twentieth century; it wasn’t until the 1980s that the first Chinese archeological surveys were undertaken, during which distinctively un-Chinese mummified remains, including the “Loulan Beauty”, were found.

There’s a Loulan Museum (10.30am–12.30pm & 4.30–6.30pm) in Charkhlik, but the most interesting remains have already been removed to Ürümqi. In order to visit the sites themselves, you’ll need to make an application to the local department of cultural heritage whose office is in Charkhlik’s Loulan Museum. The fees and permits required will depend upon the trip you have in mind, but can run to thousands of dollars for official expeditions, and non-specialists may simply be refused entry.

Silky secrets in Khotan

One of Khotan’s best assets is the chance to see the whole process of silk production, from grub to garment.

To see the nurturing of the silkworms – only possible in summer – you’ll need to explore Jiya Xiang (吉亚乡, jíyà xiāng), northeast of the city, a tiny Uyghur settlement specializing in atalas silk, made in small, family-run workshops; get here by minibus (9am–9pm; ¥2.5) from the east bus station on Taibei Dong Lu. If you are able to explain your purpose to people (a drawing of a silkworm might do the trick), they will take you to see silkworms munching away on rattan trays of fresh, cleaned mulberry leaves in cool, dark sheds. Eventually each worm should spin itself a cocoon of pure silk; each cocoon comprises a single strand about 1km in length. The hatching and rearing of silkworms is unreliable work, and for most farmers it’s a sideline.

At the small workshops near Jiya you will also be able to see the rest of the silk-making process – about 5km down the Jiya road Atlas Silk (daily 9.30am–8pm) is a good place to aim for. Inside, you’ll be able to see the initial unpicking of the cocoons, the twisting together of the strands to form a thread (ten strands for each silk thread), the winding of the thread onto reels and finally the weaving and dyeing. There are also a few shops along the road where you can pick up a vivid scarf or shirt of atalas silk as a souvenir.

Tian Chi

Tian Chi means “Heaven Lake”, and this natural haven 100km east of Ürümqi – the starting point of Vikram Seth’s book From Heaven Lake – almost lives up to its name, especially for travellers who have spent a long time in the deserts of northwest China. At the cool, refreshing height of 2000m, the lake is surrounded by grassy meadows, steep, dense pine forests and jagged snow-covered peaks, including the mighty Bogda Feng, which soars to over 6000m. The nicest feature of the area is that you can wander at will; there are no restrictions on accommodation (most people stay in yurts, with the semi-nomadic Kazakh population), and there is virtually limitless hiking. You need only to watch the weather – bitterly cold in winter, the lake is really only accessible during the summer months, May to September.

The Uyghur

The Uyghur are the easternmost branch of the extended family of Turkic peoples who inhabit most of Central Asia. Around ten million Uyghurs live in Xinjiang with another 300,000 in Kazakhstan. Despite centuries of domination by China and some racial mingling along the way, the Uyghur remain culturally distinct from the Han Chinese, and many Uyghurs look decidedly un-Chinese – stockily built, bearded, with brown hair and round eyes. Although originally Buddhists, Uyghurs have been Muslim for at least a thousand years and Islam remains the focus of their identity in the face of relentless Han penetration.

For the most part Uyghurs are unable to speak fluent Chinese, and have difficulty finding well-paid work – their prospects for self-improvement within China are generally bleak. Many Han Chinese look down on Uyghurs as unsophisticated ruffians, and are wary of their supposedly short tempers and love of knives. Perhaps as a consequence of this, at times Uyghurs seem to extend their mistrust of Han Chinese to all foreigners, tourists included. Nevertheless, gestures such as trying a few words of their language or drinking tea with them will help to break down the barriers, and invitations to Uyghur homes frequently follow.

Travellers’ Uyghur

The Uyghur language is essentially an Eastern Turkish dialect (spoken Uyghur can be understood by Uzbek-, Kazakh- and Kyrgyz-speakers). There are several dialects, of which the Central Uyghur (spoken from Ürümqi to Kashgar) is the most popular and hence given here, including commonly used alternatives. Unlike Chinese, Uyghur is not a tonal language. It involves eight vowels and 24 consonants and uses a modified Arabic script. The only pronunciations you are likely to have difficulties with are gh and kh, but you can get away by rendering them as g and k with a light h at the end. X is pronounced “ksh”, while q is a “ch” sound.

Uyghur food

Uyghur food, unsurprisingly, has far more of a Central Asian than a Chinese flavour. The most basic staple – which often seems to be the only food available – is laghman, known in Chinese as lamian, literally “pulled noodles”. Watching these being made to order is greatly entertaining: the cook grabs both ends of a roll of elastic dough and pulls it into a long ribbon by stretching his arms apart; he then slaps it down onto a floured counter, and brings his hands together to join the ends of the dough, so forming two ribbons. These are slapped again, pulled again, the cook once more rejoins his hands to make four ribbons; and the process is repeated, doubling the number of ribbons each time, until a mass of thin, metre-long noodles is strung between the cook’s hands. The “handles” of surplus dough are torn off either end, and the noodles dropped into boiling water to cook for a couple of minutes. The speed at which a skilled cook transforms the raw dough into a bowlful of noodles, banging, pulling, and managing to keep all the strands separate, is incredible.

In Xinjiang, laghman is served with a stew of mutton, tomatoes, chilli and other vegetables; rather different from the more soupy version sold elsewhere in China. For the same spicy sauce but without the noodles, try tohogish (known in Chinese as dapan ji), a chicken served chopped up in its entirety, head, feet and all; or jerkob, a beef stew - both are served in smarter restaurants. Coriander leaf is used as a garnish on everything.

In summer, apart from laghman, street vendors also offer endless cold noodle soup dishes, usually very spicy. Rice is rare in Xinjiang, though it does appear in the saffron-coloured pilau, comprising fried rice and hunks of mutton. More familiar to foreigners are the skewers of grilled mutton kebabs, dusted with chilli and cumin powder – buy several of them at once, as one skewer does not make much more than a mouthful. They are often eaten with delicious glasses of ice-cold yoghurt (known in Chinese as suannai), which are available everywhere in Xinjiang. Tea often comes flavoured with cinnamon, cardamom and rose hips.

Oven-baked breads are also popular in markets: you’ll see bakers apparently plunging their hands into live furnaces, to stick balls of dough on to the brick-lined walls; these are then withdrawn minutes later as bagel-like bread rolls, and naan flat breads, or sometimes permuda (known in Chinese as kaobao), tasty baked dough packets of mutton and onions, which can also be fried – as samsa – rather than baked. The steamed version, manta, recalls Chinese dumplings or mantou.

A couple of other specialities are worth trying: madang is nougat thick with walnuts, raisins, and dried fruit, sold by pedlars who carve the amount you want (or usually, more than you want – it’s sold by weight) off massive slabs of the stuff. More refreshing is that characteristic Central Asian fruit, the pomegranate, known as shiliu in Chinese; they’re about the size of an apple, with leathery yellow and red skin, and packed with hundreds of juicy, ruby-red seeds. You can find them whole at markets, or buy the juice off street vendors – look for the piles of skins and the juicing machines, which resemble a large, spiky torture implement.

Uyghur music – Muqam

Song and dance is at the core of Uyghur cultural identity and is commonly presented at all social gatherings. The most established form of Uyghur music, muqam, has developed since the sixth century into a unique collection of songs and instrumentals, quite separate from Arabic and Persian influence. A muqam must open with a flowing rhythm that complies with strict modal constraints, followed by a suite of pieces that tie into this opening. In the late sixteenth century scholars and folk musicians gathered to collate this music into a definitive collection of twelve muqams. The entire collection takes 24 hours to play and involves around fifteen traditional instruments such as the plucked mandolin-like rawap, metal-stringed dutah and large dumbak drums. Sadly, few people can play muqam nowadays, but recordings are popular and sold on CD and DVD throughout Xinjiang.

Xinjiang time

For travellers, the classic illustration of Xinjiang’s remoteness from the rest of the country is in the fact that all parts of China set their clocks to Beijing time. The absurdity of this is at its most acute in Xinjiang, 3000–4000km from the capital – which means that in Kashgar, in the far west of the region, the summer sun rises at 9am or 10am and sets around midnight. Locally, unofficial “Xinjiang time” (新疆时间, xīnjiāng shíjiān), two hours behind Beijing time, is used more frequently the further west you travel; when buying bus, train or plane tickets, you should be absolutely clear about which time is being used. In general, Uyghurs are more likely to use Xinjiang time, while Han Chinese prefer Beijing time.

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Andy Turner
8/29/2020
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