The Uighurs’ heartland is the southwest of Xīnjiāng, known as Kashgaria, the rough-but-mellifluous-sounding historical name for the western Tarim Basin. Consisting of a ring of oases lined with poplar trees, it was a major Silk Road hub and has bristled with activity for more than 2000 years, with the weekly bazaars remaining the centre of life here to this day.
Locked away in the westernmost corner of China, closer to Tehran and Damascus than to Běijīng, Kashgar (喀什; Kāshí) has been the epicentre of regional trade and cultural exchange for more than two millennia. In recent years modernity has swept through Kashgar, bringing waves of Han migrant workers and huge swathes of the old city have been bulldozed in the name of ‘progress’.
Southern Silk Road
The Silk Road east of Kashgar splits into two threads in the face of the Taklamakan Desert, the second-largest sandy desert in the world. The northern thread follows the modern road and railway to Kuqa and Turpan. The southern road charts a more remote course between desert sands and the towering Pamir and Kunlun mountain ranges.
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.
The north of Xīnjiāng is both geographically and culturally very different to the rest of the province; here thick evergreen forests, rushing rivers and isolated mountain ranges are home to Tuvan and Kazakh nomads, and while the Han Chinese population is growing, as it is throughout Xīnjiāng, you'll still find markedly different landscapes and people here.
Located on the historic border between the Chinese and Russian empires, Yīníng (伊宁; Yili or Gulja) has long been subject to a tug-of-war between the two sides. The city was occupied by Russian troops between 1872 and 1881, and in 1962 there were major Sino–Soviet clashes along the Ili River (Yīlí Hé).
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.
Emerging from any direction into the dusty oasis town of Cherchen (且末; Qiěmò) is an unforgettable experience, as you'll have had to pass through hundreds of kilometres of desert just to get here. Indeed, the town itself is struggling against being swallowed up by the massive Taklamakan Desert to its north, and dust storms and hazy days are the norm here.
Bù’ěrjīn (布尔津), also known as Burqin, is 620km north of Ürümqi, and marks the end of the desert-like Jungar Basin and the beginning of the lusher sub-Siberian birch forests and mountains to the north. The town’s population is mainly Kazakh, but there are also Russians, Han, Uighurs and Tuvans.
The Karakoram Hwy (KKH; 中巴公路; Zhōngbā Gōnglù) over the Khunjerab Pass (4800m) is one of the world’s most spectacular roads and China’s gateway to Pakistan. For centuries this route was used by caravans plodding down the Silk Road and Khunjerab means ‘valley of blood’ as local bandits used to take advantage of the terrain to slaughter merchants and plunder their wares.
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).