Must see attractions in Xinjiang

  • Top ChoiceSights in Kashgar

    Shipton’s Arch

    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. The first part of the trip involves an hour’s drive towards the Irkeshtam Pass, followed by another 20km ride and then a 45-minute hike through a sublimely lunar landscape, hemmed in on all sides by sheer cliffs. At times you'll be scrambling through the narrowest part of the gorge over small ladders and staircases, until your final ascent to the arch itself, which takes you up a long wooden staircase. Kashgar-based tour operators can arrange a day trip with guide for ¥600 to ¥800, or you can simply take a taxi and walk from the car park yourself, as the route is well signposted. Bring sturdy shoes, a sun hat and water.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Kashgar

    Sunday Livestock Market

    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. Trading at the market is swift and boisterous between the old traders; animals are carefully inspected and haggling is done with finger motions. Keep an ear out for the phrase ‘ Bosh-bosh! ’ (‘Coming through!’) or you risk being ploughed over by a cartload of fat-tailed sheep.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Ürümqi

    Xinjiang Autonomous Region Museum

    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). An English-language audio guide is available; you'll need to leave a ¥200 deposit at the tourist centre by the entrance.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Turpan

    Jiaohe Ruins

    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. While far busier than the similar ruins at Gaochang, these are definitely the most impressive of the two, mainly due to the sheer number of surviving structures and the dramatic location, on a hillside with wide views in all directions. The ruins are 10km west of Turpan. There's no public transport; a taxi (¥30) takes 20 minutes, or you can cycle.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Kashgar

    Grand Sunday Bazaar

    Kashgar’s main bazaar is open every day but really kicks it up a gear on Sunday. Step through the jam-packed entrance and allow your five senses to guide you through the market; spices and teas are an obvious highlight, as are silk, doppa (traditional Uyghur hats) and carpets, all of which can be seen in abundance. There's so much variety that locals joke that only chicken milk cannot be found amid this mercantile chaos. A section on the northern side of the market contains everything of interest to foreign visitors, including the spice market, musical instruments, fur caps, kitschy souvenirs and carpets.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Turpan

    Bezeklik Cave Complex

    This cave complex, which dates from the 6th to 14th centuries, is located in a mesmerising desert landscape. Bezeklik means ‘Place of Paintings’ in Uyghur and the murals painted in the 11th century represented a high point in Uyghur Buddhist art. Sadly, German, Japanese and British teams removed most of the site's distinctive cave art in the early 20th century, and only a few caves can be entered today. However, the location is gorgeous and well worth the trip. A return taxi should cost around ¥80.

  • Sights in Kashgar

    Kashgar Old Town

    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. Where they exist, houses range in age from 50 to 500 years old and the lanes twist haphazardly through neighbourhoods where Kashgaris have lived and worked for centuries. It’s a great place for strolling, peeking through gates, chatting to the locals and admiring the craftspeople as they bang on tin and chase copper. Traditional houses in Kashgar, rarely more than two storeys high, are built with poplar timber and mud bricks. Walls are very thick but usually unadorned on the outside. The inner courtyards and balconies, however, are decorated with woodcarvings and hangings. At the eastern end of Seman Lu stands a 10m-high section of the Old Town walls, which are at least 500 years old. Much of the rest of the Old Town has now been enclosed by modern walls.

  • Sights in Central Xinjiang

    Tian Chi Lake

    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. There are dirt roads, boardwalks and trails to various peaks at Tian Chi, or it's a seven-hour hike around the lake (if the whole path is open, which it may not be – check before you set out). For an easy walk, try the path up to Little Heavenly East Lake (东小天池, Dōng Xiǎo Tiānchí). There are also commercialised temples to explore on both the east and west shores.

  • Sights in Turpan

    Emin Minaret

    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. The minaret is 3km southeast of the centre of Turpan. Biking or strolling is a fun way to get here when the weather isn't too hot. The dusty, tree-lined Uyghur streets in this traditional neighbourhood give a fascinating glimpse into old Turpan.

  • Sights in Turpan

    Tuyoq

    Set in a green valley fringed by the Flaming Mountains, this mud-brick village offers a fascinating glimpse of traditional Uyghur life and architecture. It has been a pilgrimage site for Muslims for centuries, as on the hillside above is the Hojamu Tomb, a mazar (a tomb of a saint or holy person), said to hold the first Uyghur to convert to Islam. The mazar is not open to non-Muslims. The rest of the village is great for strolling. Visiting Tuyoq is a little like time travel, save for the odd awkwardly parked Landcruiser on its narrow, crooked streets. Don’t leave without trying some of the locally produced mulberry juice or dried berries, available near the tomb entrance.

  • Sights in Turpan

    Flaming Mountains

    Near the Bezeklik Caves in Turpan are the Flaming Mountains, which appear at midday like multicoloured tongues of fire. The Flaming Mountains were immortalised in the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, in which Sun Wukong (the Monkey King) used his magic fan to extinguish the blaze. From the official viewpoint you can explore the site on foot, although the mountains are visible for free anywhere on the dramatic drives to the Bezeklik Cave Complex, Gaochang and Tuyoq.

  • Sights in Turpan

    Turpan Museum

    Xinjiang’s second-largest museum houses a rich collection of relics recovered from archaeological sites across the Turpan Basin, including a superb collection of dinosaur fossils, dinosaur eggs and various species of ancient rhino. Upstairs there's a ghoulish gallery of local mummies. Pop in here before signing up for a regional tour; the photos of nearby sites at the entrance might help you decide which ones to visit. Entry is free, but you need to present ID and collect a ticket downstairs, as well as pass a security check. No thongs (flip-flops) allowed.

  • Sights in Southern Silk Road

    Zaghunluq Ancient Mummy Tomb

    This 2600-year-old tomb contains 13 naturally mummified Mongol bodies, still sporting shreds of colourful clothing. What's particularly interesting here is that unlike the mummies on display in the various regional museums, you get a real sense of how the bodies were buried, including the depth, which makes it amazing they were ever found. The site is a further 4km west of the Toghraklek Manor, on the edge of the desert.

  • Sights in Kashgar

    Id Kah Mosque

    The yellow-tiled Id Kah Mosque, which dates from 1442, is the spiritual and physical heart of the city. Enormous (it's the largest mosque in Xinjiang), its courtyard and gardens can hold 20,000 people during the annual Qurban Baiyram (Eid). Non-Muslims may enter, but not during prayer time. Dress modestly, including a headscarf for women. Take off your shoes if entering carpeted areas and be discreet when taking photos.

  • Sights in Kashgar

    Abakh Hoja Mausoleum

    This 3-hectare mausoleum complex was built by the Khoja family, who ruled the region in the 17th and 18th centuries. Widely considered the holiest Muslim site in Xinjiang, it's a major pilgrimage destination and a beautiful piece of Islamic architecture, located on the northeastern outskirts of town. Founded as a religious school by Yusuf Khoja, the mausoleum was built in 1640 with further halls and mosques being added over the next three centuries. Not only does it house the remains of Yusuf, but dozens of Khoja family members are also interred here. These include Yusuf's son Abakh Hoja, a famed 17th-century Sufi and political leader (and after whom the mausoleum is named), and according to legend, Iparhan, Abakh Hoja's granddaughter. Known to the Chinese as Xiang Fei, the 'Fragrant Concubine' of the Emperor Qianlong, Iparhan remains a potent symbol of the Chinese–Uyghur divide. To the Han, she was the beloved but homesick concubine of the Emperor and thus a symbol of national unity. To the Uyghur she was a resistance leader (or the wife of one) who was captured and taken to Beijing where she died (and was likely buried) broken-hearted, or was killed by the Emperor's mother. The mausoleum complex has an irregular design so all the mosques face Mecca at a slightly different angle. South are the main stone gate, with its striking blue tiles, and the High and Low Mosques. These mosques form a typical pairing in Uyghur religious architecture and are known as summer and winter mosques: their open-sided and closed structures, respectively, allow for prayer during the different seasons. Note the wooden and painted columns here, carved in 1926, with their muqarnas capitals (a traditional Persian design likened to hanging stalactites). The Great Mosque is in the west of the complex, while the small Green Mosque (which also has summer and winter halls) is in the north. The domed mausoleum, the tallest structure in the complex, is east, and is surrounded by a graveyard wall with four colourful towers in the corners. The most striking feature, however, is the exterior of mismatched tiles, the result of piecemeal repairs over the years.

  • Sights in Central Xinjiang

    Kizil Thousand Buddha Caves

    This is the largest cave-art site in Xinjiang and the earliest major Buddhist cave complex in all of China. In its day, the site would have been comparable to the Mogao Grottoes, although sadly only a handful of the 236 caves are open and the once-dazzling wall art has been largely destroyed by early archaeologists and religious zealots. The drive here is still beautiful, though, crossing bleak and empty landscapes and jagged mountains. The interior murals date from the 3rd to the 8th centuries and, as ancient Kuqa was an ethnically diverse place, artisans were inspired by Afghan, Persian and Indian motifs and styles brought via the Silk Road. The heavy use of blue pigment in middle-period murals is a Persian influence, for example. Each cave is generally built the same way, with two chambers and a central vaulted roof. The roof contains murals of the Buddha's past lives (so-called Jātaka tales) and, unique to Kizil, the pictures are framed in diamond-shaped patterns. Several caves were stripped bare by German archaeologist Albert Von le Coq in the early 20th century, only for the treasures to be destroyed during WWII. Note the richly decorated roof of Cave 8, where the Buddha's golden robes have been systematically removed over the centuries. The site is 75km northwest of Kuqa. Private transfer is the only way to get here, and a return taxi will cost around ¥250 and takes 90 minutes each way. Most people combine the trip with one to Sūbāshí, even though you have to return to Kuqa between the two sights. Reckon on paying ¥350 for both.

  • Sights in Central Xinjiang

    Subashi

    Subashi was a Buddhist complex that thrived from the 3rd to 13th centuries. It's less visited than other ancient cities in Xinjiang, but with its starkly beautiful desert setting it's worth the 23km trip northeast of Kuqa. There are a number of ruined buildings that you visit, though the best preserved one is the pagoda on the far side of the site (the main path takes you there), where brickwork and some decoration can still be seen. Most people just go to the western complex, with its large central vihara (monastery) and two pagodas, but the dramatic eastern complex across the Kuqa River is worth the hike, though it was being renovated at the time of research. A return taxi to Subashi costs about ¥150; you’ll need to pay for extra waiting time if you want to visit the eastern ruins.

  • Sights in Turpan

    Gaochang

    Dating from the 1st century, Gaochang rose to power during the Tang dynasty in the 7th century and became the Uyghur capital in AD 850. It was a major staging post on the Silk Road until it burnt in the 14th century. Though the earthen city walls, once 12m thick, are clearly visible, not much else is left standing other than a large Buddhist monastery in the southwest. It's 30km from Turpan. To the north, adjacent to an adobe pagoda, is a two-storey structure (half underground) that is purportedly the ancient palace. There is good signage in English in front of each structure, and the sheer scale of the place is incredible. Walking is possible but, due to its size, Gaochang is best covered by bike or electric buggy.

  • Sights in Southern Silk Road

    Toghraklek Manor

    The main sight in Cherchen itself is this fine example of early-20th-century Kashgarian architecture, built in 1911 for a local warlord. The compound has half a dozen rooms, with carved walls, bamboo ceilings and bright carpets, though sadly none of the original furniture remains and the whole site requires quite a bit of imagination to evoke Cherchen a century ago. It’s 2.5km west of town. Travellers have reported some difficulties accessing the site – best advice is to take a taxi or, better yet, hire a guide or go ask for access at the museum, otherwise local police may become suspicious.

  • Sights in Central Xinjiang

    Great Mosque

    Kuqa's Great Mosque, rebuilt in 1932 on the site of a 16th-century original, is the second largest in Xīnjiāng. (The largest is the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar.) It's a wonderfully quiet and meditative space, with a huge and ornately painted colonnaded prayer hall that makes for a pleasant refuge from the heat of the day. There's a small museum with a gift shop on the premises, too, which is mainly worth peeking into for its interesting old-town views.