China's largest province, Xīnjiāng (新疆) is the homeland of the Muslim Uyghurs and a fast-changing region where ancient and modern clash against each other in surprising ways. High-speed railways cross the Martian landscapes linking cities in hours rather than days, and the regional capital Ürümqi is a forest of high-rise apartments and glass skyscrapers; while in parts of the Silk Road oases of Kashgar, Hotan and Turpan, life goes as it has for centuries, based around the mosque, the tea house and the bazaar.
Despite the enormous military and police presence here due to several years of unrest, Xīnjiāng is increasingly attracting visitors for its extraordinary natural beauty and fascinating Central Asian history and culture. In short, a visit to Chinese Turkestan makes for an exploration of China's past and its unsettled multicultural present, or simply a journey into some of the most sublime landscapes on earth.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Xinjiang.
This absolute wonder of nature is the first of the big plate-glass lakes you meet as you head up to Tashkurgan on the Karakoram Hwy. Backed by sublime sand mountains and often without a single ripple in its waters, it's an astonishing sight on a calm day, when the landscape is perfectly mirrored in the lake. It's currently totally deserted, though it looked like some form of construction was beginning when we were there, suggesting that mass tourism can't be far away.
This extraordinary natural rock arch (the rather prosaic Uyghur name means simply ‘mountain with a hole in it’) is one of the tallest on earth. The first westerner to describe it was Eric Shipton, the last British consul-general in Kashgar, during his visit to the region in 1947. Successive expeditions attempted to find it without success until a team from National Geographic rediscovered the arch in 2000. Located 80km northwest of Kashgar, it's a half-day excursion.
No visit to Kashgar is complete without a trip to the Livestock Market, which takes place once a week on Sunday. The day begins with Uyghur farmers and herders trekking into the city from nearby villages. By lunchtime, just about every saleable sheep, camel, horse, cow and donkey within 50km has been squeezed through the bazaar gates. It’s dusty, smelly and crowded, and most people find it wonderful, though some visitors may find the treatment of the animals upsetting.
Xinjiang’s massive provincial museum is a must for Silk Road aficionados. The highlight is the locally famous ‘Loulan Beauty’, the first of half a dozen 3800-year-old desert-mummified bodies of Xinjiang's erstwhile Indo-European inhabitants. Other exhibits include some amazing silks, decorative arts, pottery and sculpture, a collection of white jade and an introduction to the traditions of each of the province’s minorities. From the Hóngshān Intersection, take bus 7 for four stops and ask to get off at the museum (bówùguǎn).
The Old Town is the soul of Kashgar, and as such the government has spent much of the past two decades knocking it down block by block and building a modern replacement. Yet it's still possible to see some of the remaining alleyways: check out the neighbourhood near Donghai Lake in the eastern part of the city. Around Jiefang Lu there are also alleys lined with Uyghur workshops and adobe houses that have withstood the passage of time.
Also called Yarkhoto, Jiaohe was established by the ancient Jushi kingdom as a garrison town in the 2nd century BC. It’s one of the world’s largest (6500 residents once lived here), oldest (1600 years old) and best-preserved ancient cities, inspiring with its scale, setting and palpable historical atmosphere. Get an overview of the site at the central governor’s complex, then continue along the main road past a large monastery to a 'stupa grove' with a 10m-tall pagoda surrounded by 100 smaller pagoda bases.
Stunning Kanas Lake (哈纳斯湖, Hānàsī Hú) is a long finger of water surrounded by soaring mountain peaks nestled in the southernmost reaches of the Siberian taiga ecosystem, pinched in between Mongolia, Russia and Kazakhstan. Most of the local inhabitants are Kazakh or Tuvan, though Chinese tourists (and the occasional foreigner) descend on the place in droves during the summer months.
Two thousand metres up in the Tian Shan range is Tian Chi, a small, long steely-blue lake nestled below the view-grabbing 5445m Peak of God (博格达峰, Bógédá Fēng). Scattered across the alpine pine and spruce-covered slopes are Kazakh yurts and lots of sheep. It was a paradise described in Vikram Seth’s wonderful travelogue From Heaven Lake; and still is for some.
Built to honour Turpan general Emin Hoja, this splendid 44m-high mud-brick structure is the tallest minaret in China. Named Sūgōng Tǎ after Emin’s son Suleiman, who oversaw its construction (1777–78), its bowling-pin shape is decorated with an interesting mix of geometrical and floral patterns: the former reflect traditional Islamic design, the latter Chinese. You can't climb the interior steps of the minaret itself, but the rest of the grounds, including the adjacent mosque, are open.