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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
0998 2980473, www.kscits.com.cn.This Chinese tourist staple has a branch inside the Royal Qinibagh. Staff are friendly and speak English.
1389 9136195, [email protected] 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.
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 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 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.