Turpan (吐鲁番; Tǔlǔfān) is China’s Death Valley. At 154m below sea level, it’s the second-lowest depression in the world and the hottest spot in China. In July and August temperatures soar above 40°C and even 50°C, forcing the local population to sleep on their roofs and visiting tourists into a state of semi-torpor.
The ancient town of Kuqa (库车; Kùchē), once a major centre of Buddhism and now a largely Han Chinese–dominated modern city, is worth a stopover between Ürümqi and Kashgar for its bazaar, old town and some interesting excursions to the surrounding desert ruins. The once thriving city-state, known as Qiuci, Kuqa was famed in Tang-era China for its music and dancers.
Hāmì, (哈密; Kumul in the Uighur language), with its famously sweet melons, was a much-anticipated stop on the Silk Road for ancient travellers. It's still worth a break today, with its green and well-kept city centre and a few interesting sights that can keep you busy for a day if you're travelling between Turpan and Dūnhuáng.
The rugged Tiān Shān range was well known to travellers along the northern Silk Road, who had to traverse its southern edge if they had any hope of making progress. Modern travellers have it far easier and plan trips into the mountains for fun, especially to stunning Tiān Chí (天池).