There is a land, located deep in the heart of Asia. A land, hidden behind mountains and deserts, far from the ocean, far from big cities, far from the famous and popular destinations. Land with breathtaking landscapes, stretching from Tibet to Siberia, and from below the sea level to the highest peaks on the Earth. This is Xinjiang, the „Far West” of China and the country’s largest province. Let’s make a journey to Xinjiang and travel through its mystery and beauty!
Basic facts about Xinjiang
The full name of Xinjiang is Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. It is so large, that there is a Chinese proverb, which says: „If you want to feel how large is China, go travel in Xinjiang!” Xinjiang borders Tibet, Qinghai and Gansu provinces, as well as eight neighboring countries: Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. And in fact, it is larger than most of the countries in the world.
Xinjiang’s capital is Urumqi, a modern megacity, located literally in the geographical center of Asia. And outside of this city, there is an endless wilderness, with only small cities, towns, and villages, often located „in the middle of nowhere”. But there, in these wild spaces, you can find some of the most stunning views on the Earth. Various kinds of views. Let’s see what makes Xinjiang so beautiful.
Nature of Xinjiang
There are not too many geographical lands on the Earth with so many various kinds of nature. But this land is one of them. If you travel around Xinjiang, you can see high snowy mountains, gorgeous coniferous forests, vast grasslands, endless sand deserts, deep canyons, and beautiful lakes.
Tarim Basin- the giant “yellow eye”
So, let’s take a look at the physical map of Xinjiang or the satellite image of Xinjiang in Google Earth. The first thing that catches the sight, is something like a giant yellow eye in the southern half of the province. This is the Tarim Basin and its Taklamakan Desert- the second largest desert on the Earth，and one of the most hostile areas on our planet.
Then notice the tiny green strips around the “eye”, especially on its north side. These are the fertile oasis areas, which have become cradles for many kingdoms and prosperous cities since ancient times- Kashgar, Kuqa, Hotan, Yarkent and others.
The Roof of the World
You can see how the big yellow “eye” is surrounded by high snowy mountains- from south, west, and north. And these are some of the highest mountains on the Earth, part of “The Roof Of The World”. They are Kunlunshan and the Great Tibetan Plateau on the south, Pamir on the west and Tianshan on the north, rising to over 7000 m altitude. And behind Pamir and Kunlunshan, on the border with Pakistan, is the highest mountain of Xinjiang- Karakoram, with its K2, the second-highest peak on the Earth.
Now let’s look to east and north. On the east, the “big yellow eye” gradually turns into different kinds of wilderness, mostly dry steppes, part of the so-called Gansu Corridor, where the ancient Silk Road reaches the eastern parts of China. And an important center in this area is Turpan, where you can find the lowest spot of Central Asia, the Turpan Depression.
And north of Tianshan, you can see another unclear yellowish area. This is Dzungaria- dry steppes, sometimes mixed with small sand deserts, stretching between Kazakhstan and Mongolia.
Finally, the extreme north of Xinjiang is green again. This is Altay, a mountain area with beautiful forests, beyond the dry zone. And this is the southern border of Siberia.
So, as you can see, Xinjiang is spread over several natural zones, forming vast spaces with endless horizons, stunning landscapes, and fantastic beautiful views. And if add to this its unique history and ethnic culture, no wonder that Xinjiang is a real geographical paradise, providing amazing experience and adventures.
Now let’s look at its human history because it can reveal a lot of deep knowledge, which can enrich our travel experience in Xinjiang.
History of Xinjiang
The history of Xinjiang is highly affected by natural and geographical conditions. Since most of its territory is highly unfavorable for civilization development, there were a lot of wars for the fertile areas, centuries of nomadic migrations and as a whole, very thin population, even until now.
Notice the location of Tianshan Mountains. This mountain system divides Xinjiang into two parts- a larger southern part with the „big yellow eye”- the Tarim Basin, and the northern smaller part- Dzungaria. And historically, these two regions had often different directions and different ethnic cultures.
But in spite of the natural conditions, the human activity in the region has started thousands of years ago. And since then, there were a lot of nations, kingdoms, and empires who ruled fully or partially over the Xinjiang territory. So let’s see the historical timeline of Xinjiang, as I tried to make it simple and structured.
Ancient times (to 209 BC)
There are a lot of archaeological discoveries, revealing artifacts of ancient people who have lived in Xinjiang. Many of them remained unidentified- who were these people, what ethnicity, language, where they came from, nobody knows until today. But others are identified and now it is known that they were mostly people of Persian origin- Tocharians, Saka, and the so-called Wusun and Yuezhi. It is known that they even established their local kingdoms.
Maybe the most intriguing discovery from these ancient people is the mummies, some of which can be seen today in the museums of Urumqi and Turpan. Other discoveries reveal their way of life and their cultural features. But it finished at the end of the 3rd century BC when new invaders gradually conquered large parts of Xinjiang.
Han and Xiongnu Empires (from 209 BC to 220 AD)
For more than 4 centuries, Xinjiang was a scene of fierce competition between these two powers- the nomadic Xiongnu and the united Chinese Han. Xiongnu came first, conquering and ruining most of the local kingdoms, and treating the Han Empire from the west. So Han returned the strike conquering large parts of Xinjiang, preventing invasions by the nomads from the Gansu Corridor.
But during these 4 centuries, there were times when Xiongnu prevailed and reconquered territories, previously taken by Han. Then Han reconquered these territories back. And it was in a long sequence at least four times until eventually both empires declined and left Xinjiang.
The Kushans, Hephthalites and the local kingdoms (from 220 to 552)
When the Chinese and Xiongnu left the region, a large part of it, mainly in the south, was taken by the Indo-Bactrian Kushan Empire. The Kushans were people of Indo-Persian origin and they contributed to the cultural image of Xinjiang at that time. And the territories outside of this empire were ruled by some new and old (restored) local kingdoms.
Later the Kushan Empire declined too and other invaders came and conquered a significant part of Xinjiang- the Hephthalites, called also „White Huns”. They ruled their empire from 440 to 552, when their time has gone too, and they left their territories in the hands of the Turks.
The early Turkic Khaganates (from 552 to 657)
The Turks established a large empire, stretching from the Black Sea almost to Beijing. And they ruled over Xinjiang for about a century. But their empire was not stable. As most of the nomadic empires, it soon divided into Western and Eastern Khaganate, and Xinjiang remained in the Western one. In the same time, the Chinese united again by Sui and Tang Dynasties, as Tang established one of the strongest and most successful Chinese empires, which soon replaces the Turks.
Tang and Tibetan Empires (from 657 to 744)
The Chinese Tang Empire conquered large parts of Xinjiang. But it was not the only pretender for this region. At the same time, another strong empire emerged from „The Roof of the World”- the Tibetan Empire. So these two empires fought for Xinjiang, just like Han and Xiongnu 6 centuries ago. The Arabs tried to conquer Xinjiang too, reaching Kashgar at the beginning of the 8th century, but since the Chinese Tang Empire was in its zenith at that time, they couldn’t stay there and quickly left Xinjiang.
Uyghur Khaganate (from 744 to 840)
While the Tang and the Tibetan Empires were strong, they didn’t control the whole territory of Xinjiang. So its northern part Dzungaria became a part of a new empire- the Uyghur Khaganate. Only about 20 years later the Tang Empire was significantly weakened by the devastating An Lushan rebellion, allowing the Tibetans to take advance and to attack the Chinese. So at 763 Tang lost Xinjiang, and it remained for a while in Tibetan hands.
But eventually, the time of the Tibetans came too, so they retreated from Xinjiang and the new rulers of the region came- the Uyghurs from the north.
Kara-Khanids (from 840 to 1124)
The Uyghur empire soon collapsed due to the invasion of the Kyrgyz people. Then Xinjiang was at first divided into many local kingdoms. Among the most significant were Khotan and Qocho (Kara-Khoja).
But a new Turkic Empire emerged, this time from present-day Kazakhstan. It was the Kara-Khanid Empire, which gradually conquered most of Xinjiang. Along with its conquest, the Turks converted to Islam, thus this religion was introduced to Xinjiang for the first time.
Western Liao (Qara-Khitai) (from 1124 to 1218)
Liao (Khitan) people were a nomadic nation coming from Manchuria. First, they established the Liao Empire in today’s north part of China. But after their empire collapsed, they moved to Central Asia and established a new Liao Empire- Western Liao, called also Qara-Khitai. It gradually conquered the former Kara-Khanid lands, leaving autonomy to some of the local kingdoms. But less than a century later they were defeated by the largest on-land empire ever existed- the Great Mongol Empire.
Great Mongol Empire and Chagataids (from 1218 to 1340)
Nothing could stop the invasion of Genghis Khan and his sons, who quickly conquered the whole Xinjiang and far beyond it. But although the Mongols were very strong and almost nobody could defeat them, their empire was highly unstable. First, it was divided between Genghis Khan’s sons. And Xinjiang remained under the rule of one of them- Chagatay, and his successors.
But later the four Mongol Empires proceed to change, dividing, emerging and declining. Some of them adopted Islam and fought against those who remained Buddhist.
Moghulistan, Timurids, Yarkent and the other local kingdoms (from 1340 to 1634)
One of the empires which emerged from the Chagataids was Moghulistan. The Moghuls were Islamized Mongols, who ruled over the most of Xinjiang during that period. But their rule was challenged by other kingdoms. One of them was another Muslim Mongol empire- the empire of the Timurids, which temporary ruled over Kashgar and the area around it.
Later the Moghulistan Empire itself divided into two parts, and other formations emerged, like Yarkent Khanate and Khojah Kingdom. There were a lot of wars between these kingdoms, which made this region highly unstable at the end of the 16th century. Finally, the next invaders came- the Oirats, who established their Dzungar Empire.
Dzungar Empire (from 1634 to 1758)
The Oirats (Dzungars) created the last nomadic empire in Central Asia. They allowed autonomy for some of the local kingdoms, including the Khojah Kingdom. But the times were changed. There was not too much place for nomadic empires in the world already. And at the same time, the Chinese remembered that Xinjiang once belonged to them.
Qing Empire (from 1758 to 1912)
The times in the middle of the 18th century were times of the Chinese Qing Empire’s zenith. So, in a short series of invasions, the army of Qing soon conquered the whole Xinjiang. They not only destroyed the Dzungar Empire but literally devastated the Oirat population. However, later they built a stable system in Xinjiang and ensured the peace in the region. This peace was disturbed only by some rebellions, of which the biggest was the Dungan Rebellion (from 1862 to 1877), raised by the local Muslims of various ethnic groups, but suppressed by the army of Qing.
Modern China (from 1912 until now)
The Qing Dynasty fell, and the Republic of China was established. The ruling Guomindang had good goals, but their main problem was the lack of strong central power. Thus many parts of China became more or less independent, ruled by local warlords. The situation in Xinjiang was the same. As a result, the years after 1912 were highly unstable in the region, with often conflicts, reaching their climax at 1933-1934 with the Kashgar War.
After 1949, when the Communists took the power, they restored the peace and stability in Xinjiang. Now, although some of the local ethnic groups, particularly the Uyghurs still want to be independent of Beijing, the strong military and police presence in Xinjiang doesn’t allow any rebellions. Yes, there were some revolts, happened in recent years, but they were quickly suppressed. And the policy of Beijing is to develop the local economy rapidly while holding everything under strong control.
Finally, little by little, the newest invaders started coming in Xinjiang- the tourists. But unlike the military invaders from the past, the tourist is expected to contribute to the raising of the local standard of life. And yes, maybe it will be good for the local people, maybe for nature too. We will see.
Ethnic picture of Xinjiang
As a result of this long history, as well as the large size of Xinjiang, many ethnic groups are living in the region today, with their own unique cultures. The main of them is the Uyghurs. They belong to the Turkish group, and they are predominantly Muslims. The Uyghurs live mostly in the southern part of Xinjiang. You can see recognize them easy- the men (especially the older) often wear a doppa- a square-shaped skull hat. They look like Caucasus-type people, mixed with East Asian features.
And the other main ethnic group is the Han Chinese. Most of them have come in Xinjiang during the last 2-3 centuries, and now the most Han populated city is the capital Urumqi.
Other groups are minorities, only a few percents of the whole Xinjiang population. Among them, I would mention Tajiks (living along the Karakoram Highway), called also Pamiris, then Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Hui, Xibe, Mongols, Manchu, Uzbeks, and some Russians.
Many of these people have mixed or western face features. You can see villages and towns where all the people look like westerners, and it is really interesting when you hear them talking in Chinese or their local language.
Places to travel in Xinjiang
So, as you can see, all this- nature, history, people and their culture, is very rich. Needless to say, it ensures that Xinjiang has really a lot of places to travel and explore. And there is enough for everybody. You can go on a culture trip, visiting the big cities and their historical sites and museums. If you like adventures- there are a lot of opportunities- high mountains, deserts, grasslands, canyons.
So, let’s look at the map of Xinjiang again, and identify what its parts have to reveal for travel and exploring. Xinjiang is divided into North and South part, and the North part is also divided into „North” and „East”.
East Xinjiang wilderness
The eastern part of Xinjiang consists of two prefectures- Hami and Turpan. Geographically, it covers the area northeast of the Tarim Basin and Taklamakan Desert, as well as the easternmost branches of Tianshan Mountains.
Hami is the easternmost big city in Xinjiang, on the transition area between Tarim Basin and Gansu Corridor. This makes it the first important stop in your Xinjiang journey if you come from the eastern parts of China. The city is famous for its Hami melons- some of the best in the world. So it’s not strange that the English word „Hami melon” comes from this city- Hami. Let’s see what this city can reveal.
Hami King Tomb (哈密王景区) and Hami Museum (哈密博物馆)
The city itself is not very special- just a normal modern city. But there are two places in its southern part which are worth to visit, especially if it is your first impression of Xinjiang.
The first of them is Hami Museum, presenting artifacts of the area, of which the most attractive is the two ancient mummies. And the second place just next to the museum is the Hami King Tomb. Actually, it is not just a tomb, but a whole park-complex and the kings who were buried here were the kings of the vassal Hami Khanate, a subordinate of Qing Empire.
Ghost City (哈密亚尔当魔鬼城)
There is an endless dry steppe out of Hami. But its most interesting part is an area with an alien landscape- the so-called „Ghost City”, where you can see strange rock formations, reshaped by the dry winds. These formations look like „houses of a city”, but they are entirely natural.
Then if we proceed further westward, the next city is Turpan, the city of grapes.
Geographically, Turpan is notorious for the nearby Turpan Depression- the lowest spot of Central Asia, reaching 157 m below the sea level. But of course, Turpan is much more than that- it has a rich history and culture, and really a lot to reveal and present. Let’s explore the city and its suburbs.
These are the main places that you must visit if you want to make a journey to Turpan. Its museum is quite similar to the Hami Museum thematically. And here you can see more mummies, as well as some pre-historical artifacts.
Emin Minaret (Su Gong Ta- 苏公塔)
Then, only 10 mins by taxi from the museum is Emin Minaret (Su Gong Ta-苏公塔), one of the symbols of Turpan. It is a beautiful monumental building, serving also as a mosque, and notorious for its tower. It dates from the middle of the 18th century and is related to Emin Khoja, a Muslim leader who fought against the Oirats as an ally of the Qing Empire.
Karez Wells (坎儿井)
In the northern parts of Turpan, you can find Karez Wells (坎儿井) complex and museum. It is a unique irrigation system, consisting of numerous wells, collecting water from the nearby Tianshan Mountains. The wells are connected by underground tunnels and you can see it in this museum (of course, the water tunnel in the museum is specially designed and decorated with soft blue lights).
Yar (Yarkhoto, Jiaohe, 交河故城)
Then you must move to the western ends of Turpan, where you can explore the ancient Yar (Yarkhoto) city (Jiaohe- 交河故城). It has been a capital and one of the main political centers for more than 2000 years, until its destruction by the Mongols. Since then its mysterious ruins remained in silence, rising on a long plateau between two valleys.
And finally, Turpan is the „City of grapes”. There are vineyards everywhere around it, so you can just choose one and walk around the grape trees. Then you can back to the center of the city and walk on its main Pedestrian street, designed like a tunnel of grapes.
Now, let’s go out of the city, in the endless wilderness. The first place that I would recommend to visit, especially if you are interested in geography is the Turpan Depression.
Turpan Depression (艾丁湖)
It is located south of Turpan. Actually, it is just a low deserted field, surrounded by some little higher plains in the distance. And there is a lake on its lowest part (called Aiding Lake), which is dry most of the year (only a small part of it is artificially preserved with water). Don’t expect stunning and breathtaking views there, but only the silence of an empty wilderness, covered by some low dry desert grass, and a stone globe on its 157 m below the sea level spot.
Flaming Mountains (火焰山) and Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves (柏孜克里克千佛洞)
This area is located east of Turpan. The Flaming Mountains are called in this way due to the numerous dry nullahs, curving like flames on the mountain slope. Actually, there are many such kinds of „flame mountains” around Xinjiang, but those are particularly famous because they are related to the popular Chinese story about the Monkey King.
Then, only 15 mins by car from there are Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves- an ancient Buddhist complex, now in ruins, where you can see some remaining artificial coves, once made for Buddha images.
Tuyuq Village (吐峪沟)
On the southern foot of Tianshan, you can find an authentic Uyghur village with old traditional houses, built in a beautiful valley. It is one of the best places where you can dive into the local Uyghur culture as it has been more than a thousand years ago.
Gaochang Ancient City (高昌古城)
It is another ruined ancient city, which once has been the capital of the local Gaochang Kingdom. Somehow it is similar to Yar (Yarkhoto) city, but this one is larger and its location and landscape are different.
Kumtagh Desert (库木塔格沙漠)
Most of the areas around Turpan is a wilderness, an endless dry steppe. But there is a place where this wilderness consists of sand. This is Kumtagh Desert. It is not so large and you can see its end from the tops of its dunes. Now it is turned into a tourist site, so you can enjoy jeep, ATV, camels riding and some other attractions.
Now let’s move to the north. The next large part of Xinjiang is Dzungaria and the area of Urumqi.
Urumqi and Dzungaria
This is a large area, located between Tianshan Mountains on the south and Altay Mountains on the north. On the east, it reaches the deserts of Mongolia. Most of it is dry steppes, partly covered by small sand deserts or agricultural fields. And there, on its southern ends is the capital Urumqi.
Urumqi is the largest city in Xinjiang, but it is relatively young. There is no „old town”, no ancient history and no centuries-old remains. It is predominantly Han Chinese and is built in the second half of the 18th century.
So, there is not too much attractive to see in the city, unless you just want to walk around its modern streets. There are temples, parks, a big mosque, a bazaar (open-air market), but everything is new. However, there are two places that I recommend to visit- the Xinjiang Uyghur Museum, and the Center of Asia.
Xinjiang Uyghur Museum (新疆维吾尔族自治区博物馆)
In the Xinjiang Uyghur Museum, you can see a lot of artifacts, as well as a presentation of Xinjiang’s Han Chinese presence history. But maybe the most attractive part of the museum is the exhibition of the ethnic groups.
THE Center of Asia (亚洲陆地地理中心)
The Center of Asia is a recently discovered spot, located at the southwest suburbs of Urumqi. It is again a place for those who are interested in geography. This spot is calculated in the 90s of the last century, thus it is determined that Urumqi is the most distant big city from any coastline on the Earth.
If you head to the north of Urumqi, you will enter a large steppe area. This is the Dzungar (Jungar) plain. There is not too much to see around this plain, as I mentioned above, it consists mainly of dry wilderness, with some agricultural fields near the cities and the towns, and some small sand deserts, especially in its eastern part.
The Center of Eurasia (欧亚陆地地理中心)
The main cities in this area are Karamay, Shihezi, and Changji. Again, for the geography lovers, there is a special place to visit- the center of Eurasia. While the Center of Asia near Urumqi marks the geographical center only of the Asian continent, the Center of Eurasia marks the central spot of Europe and Asia together, which form the largest piece of land on the Earth.
This spot is located in Gurbantunggut Desert, northeast of Karamay City. If you want to reach its exact location, search for 46°16.8′N 86°40.2′E. There is nothing there, only wilderness and a road nearby, but just for the geographical passion, it could be worth to reach it.
Finally, we reach the northernmost ends of Xinjiang- Altay Mountains.
Altay is a mountain range, shared between China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Russia. If you want to visit this beautiful mountain, there is Altay City- the northernmost county-level city of Xinjiang, which can be your starting point.
These mountains are covered by beautiful forests and green grasslands. They are especially beautiful in the autumn, where the golden-red leaves of the deciduous forests mix with the deep green coniferous forests. And the most stunning place that you can find there is Kanas Lake.
Kanas Lake (喀纳斯湖)
Colorful forest, deep blue sky, cold grass and yurts, and mist rising from the serene waters of the lake. You can almost feel the fresh air and the stunning silence of this place. This is Kanas Lake, one of the most picturesque places in Asia. Now it is turned into a 5-star national park, with crowds of tourists visiting it during the holidays. Especially beautiful are the Hemu Grasslands, located near the lake. And if you choose another day, which is not a holiday, you can enjoy an unforgettable experience there.
It is another mountain paradise, in the southeast parts of Altay Mountains. What makes it special is the stunning combination of forests and canyons. And again, for the geography lovers, there are two significant features. First- this is the northernmost point of the effects of the India and Asia plates’ colliding. And second, there is the source of Irtysh River, the only Chinese river which flows into the Arctic Ocean.
Beitun (北屯) and Ulungur Lake (乌伦古湖)
These two places are located southwest of Altay City. Beitun is known as the newest Chinese city, since it is built in 2011, on some former villages near the main city of Altay. So as you guess, it is a modern place with the newest urban features. Obviously, you can’t expect anything „old” and „ancient”, but it is worth to visit just because it is a kind of record, at least until the next newest city will be built.
And the nearby Ulungur Lake is a beautiful place with some „taste of Siberia”, rich of wildlife and various kinds of fish. It also offers amazing views, silence, and calm landscapes.
Now, let’s back to the south and explore the large mountain system, dividing Xinjiang into smaller „North” and a larger „South”. This is Tianshan Mountains, the northernmost mountain range of „The Roof Of The World”, an important part of Xinjiang’s image.
Tianshan Mountains (天山)
This large mountain system stretches from west to east for almost 2900 km, from Uzbekistan to the border of Mongolia. Its highest peak is Jengish Chokusu (7439 m), on the border of China (Xinjiang) and Kyrgyzstan. The whole range is shared between Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and China. Its name Tianshan means „Heavenly Mountain”, and indeed, it is one of the most beautiful mountain systems on the Earth. Let’s focus on its Chinese part, in Xinjiang.
As you can see on the map, there are three main subranges of Tianshan.
The southern subrange is the highest and the main part of Tianshan, shared by Kyrgyzstan and China, and Jengish Chokusu peak, as well as the beautiful Khan Tengri peak, are all there. It is called Narat Range, and its highest area is Kakshaal Too. Its northern slopes are cut by many valleys with stunning gorgeous coniferous forests and grasslands, and its southern slopes are dryer and rugged.
Borohoro and Dzungarian Alatoo
The other subrange is shorter, starting from the border with Kazakhstan, and joining the southern subrange somewhere southwest of Urumqi. It consists of two main mountains- Borohoro Mountains, and Dzungarian Alatoo in the west, on the border with Kazakhstan. It has the same features as the southern subrange, but its southern slopes are more humid and green. Between these two subranges, you can see a high plain, covered by grasslands. This is the plain of Yili, one of the most beautiful parts of Xinjiang.
Bogda and Barkol mountains
Then you can see two smaller mountain ranges on the east. They are separated from the main Tianshan system but still are considered as a part of Tianshan. These ranges are Bogda Mountain, and the easternmost Barkol range, reaching the border of Mongolia.
Let’s explore this beautiful mountain system, because obviously, it has a lot of stunning places to reveal.
The northern subrange- Borohoro and Dzungarian Alatoo
While Dzungarian Alatoo is on the border area and its main interesting spots are located in Kazakhstan, Borohoro Mountains are full of beauty and places worth to visit and explore. Let’s start with the first of them- Sayram Lake.
Sayram Lake (赛里木湖)
It is the largest glacial lake in Xinjiang. The lake offers stunning views, as it is surrounded by grasslands, some gorgeous coniferous forests and distant snowy mountains. You can see the yurts of the local Kazakh people and a lot of sheep and yak herds. And again a geographical fact- Sayram Lake is known is the „easternmost teardrop of the Atlantic”, because it is the most distant point of any climatic influence from the Atlantic Ocean. Nevertheless, you can find and enjoy there another unique experience, „at the ends of the Earth”.
Hiking trail Langta C+V route (狼塔C+V)
If you want to experience Tianshan Mountains in-depth, this popular trail is a great opportunity. Its route is located just southwest of Urumqi, at the eastern end of Borohoro Mountains. The trail is about 176 km long, rises to 4015 m altitude and features breathtaking views of forests, grasslands, canyons, and summits. Depending on your hiking abilities, you can pass it for about 10 to 15 days.
Baiyang Ditch Area (白杨沟)
This place is located on the extreme eastern part of Borohoro Mountains, on their northern side. And it features one of the best picturesque landscapes of mixed coniferous forests and grasslands. Not far from Urumqi, it is easily accessible and can be a part of Langta C+V route extension.
Extreme Eastern Tianshan- Bogda and Barkol
Now let’s see what is in the east-southeast of Urumqi. You can see the glazing white peaks of Bogda from the capital of Xinjiang, and it is really tempting for travelers to „attack” it.
Heavenly Lake (Tianchi- 天池)
This is another paradise of breathtaking views. The lake has glacial origins, and features a spectacular landscape of mountains with deep green coniferous forests and snowy mountains over them, reflecting on the lake’s surface. You can also see there a lot of nomadic yurts, as well as some new villas. Now it is turned into a 5-star national park, and although its entrance ticket is expensive, the experience there is really worth.
Bogda trail (博格达线)
It is another hiking trail that offers the full experience of this beautiful mountain. The trail is 80 km long, it is in a round trip shape and normally can be passed for 6 days. It starts north of Turpan and you can enjoy stunning views of grasslands, deep valleys, forests, and even glaciers. Yes, this trail reaches 4130 m altitude and part of it includes walking on a glacier.
Jiang Bulake Grassland (江布拉克草原)
It is a picturesque area with mixed beautiful meadows and coniferous woodland. Located on soft hills on the north side of Bogda Mountain, it offers serene and pastoral environment, really great to enjoy.
This is the last part of Tianshan in the east before it disappears into the Gobi wilderness of Mongolia. It is remote, very sparsely inhabited and far from any civilization noisy areas. And there are two places which are worth to visit there, all located on the north side of Barkol.
Barkol Lake and Grassland (巴里坤湖草原)
It is a stunning landscape, featuring several colors, changing seasonally. In the summer, you can see a blue lake, a green grassland, yellow dunes, and white distant snowy peaks. And silence with a feeling like you are „at the ends of the Earth”.
Songshutang Ski area (松树塘)
The landscape here is similar but without a lake. Instead, there are more coniferous forests- the easternmost coniferous forests of Tianshan. The mountain slopes here are not steep and offer great opportunities for ski activities „in the middle of nowhere”.
Let’s back to the west, to the area between Borohoro and Narat Mountains, to the large high plain of Yili, before exploring the southern range of Tianshan.
The plain is located between 1500 and 2000 m altitude and is covered mainly by grasslands and some agricultural fields. Its main city is Yining (伊宁). There is nothing special to see in Yining, but it can be a good starting point for the two Tianshan ranges, surrounding the plain.
Maybe the most interesting place to visit there is Tekes, a small city located in the middle of the beautiful grasslands. What is unique with it is its shape, which can be seen from above (and you can see it from Google Earth). It is designed in a perfect „bagua” shape, like a star with eight rays (made by eight main streets, starting from the center), with a park and a monument in the central spot.
Now let’s focus on the mountains east of Yili, which connect Borohoro and Narat ranges. The best way to explore this area is to travel on Du Ku Highway, one of the „Heavenly roads” in China.
Duku Highway (独库公路)
The Chinese call some roads „heavenly”（天路）if they offer stunning views in most of its route. And Duku Highway is one of them. It connects the cities of Dushanzi in the north and Kuqa in the south, and its name come from the first characters of these cities’ names. The road crosses Borohoro, Bayin Buluk and Narat Mountains, thus it connects Dzungar plain with the Tarim Basin. And during the whole its route you can’t stop enjoying its spectacular and stunning views. Let’s see some of the most notable spots on the way, from north to south.
Haxilegen Pass (哈希勒根垭口)
This is the highest point of Du Ku Highway, on the summit of Borohoro Mountain, and the road passes through a tunnel at around 3400 m altitude. But the most breathtaking area is the deep valley before the pass. The road is curving upward around a furious stream, surrounded by steep slopes like giant walls, really great for photos.
DuKu monument (独库公路纪念牌)
The road descends from Borohoro to Kax River. This monument memorizes the soldiers who died during the construction of the road. And the picturesque landscape of Kax River valley, covered by grasslands and gorgeous fir forests around it is really fantastic.
Tangbula Grassland (唐布拉草原)
It is a small detour from the main Du Ku Highway to the west. But if you have time to do it, it is really worth. It is not just a grassland, but it is mixed with small coniferous woodlands, which makes this grassland like a fairy tale.
Yuximolegai Pass (玉希莫勒盖垭口)
Then the road ascends again and crosses the mountains between Borohoro and Narat. It passes through a tunnel, at 3350 m altitude. And the panoramic views around are fantastic.
Narati Grassland (那拉提草原)
This is one of the most beautiful grasslands in Xinjiang. Large green pastures, full of flowers in the summer, with curving streams and a lot of herds and yurts- it is another fantastic landscape in which you can dive.
Bayan Buluk Grassland (巴音布鲁克草原)
This is the largest grassland in Xinjiang. It is located just north of Narat Range and is surrounded by snowy mountains in the distance. Especially beautiful is the area, called „Swan Lake”, where the local Kaidu River is curving and splitting into many meanders and canals, forming small lakes beside it, in the middle of the grassland. And again- herds and yurts everywhere.
Tielimaiti Pass (铁力买提垭口)
Duku Highway proceeds southward to the summit of Narat Range, crossing through Tielimaiti Pass. Again, it passes it through a tunnel, at around 3350 m altitude. But most spectacular of this area are the valleys from its both sides, really great for photos.
Dalong Lake (大龙池)
The road gradually descends to the southern part of Xinjiang. But before it leaves the high green areas of Tianshan, it passes by a stunning lake, surrounded by steep mountains, covered by coniferous forests. The best experience of this place is hiking around the lake through the forests.
Tianshan Secret Canyon (天山神秘大峡谷)
Then, Duku Highway descends to different landscapes- dry and red-yellowish, with high steep rocks and gorges. But one of them is really fantastic. It is called Tianshan Secret Canyon, and is of the same type as the famous Antelope Canyon in the USA, but just more rugged than it. You can walk almost an hour through its narrow corridor between the rock walls, which becomes quite narrow in its inner end.
Finally, Duku Highway reaches the southern end of Tianshan, where the mountain finish and a new vast space begins- the Tarim Basin. But let’s see what else can you explore in Tianshan.
Wusun Ancient Trail (乌孙古道)
It is one of the most beautiful trails in the whole of China and has been used more than 2000 years ago by the ancient Wusun people. The hiking trail is 110 km long and crosses Narat Range from north to south. Its highest point is 3775 m altitude and the whole trail can be passed for a week. It crosses two summits and one river a few times. But its most beautiful spot is Akkul Lake, offering a fantastic landscape of water and snowy mountains reflecting on it.
Xiate Ancient Trail (夏特古道)
This is another spectacular trail, again crossing Narat Range from north to south. It is around 140 km long and reaches 3550 m altitude. Relatively difficult, since it passes through a glacier, and there are a few dangerous river crossings. But actually, that’s what you may like, if you are an adventurous person. And needless to say, the panoramic views everywhere are breathtaking.
Tianshan Mountains has much more of all this to offer, but even only these places and routes are enough amazing to leave unforgettable memories and experience! And now is time to look to the south of Xinjiang.
North Tarim Oasis lands
South of Tianshan Mountains, on the northern edge of the large Tarim Basin, you can see a long narrow strip of green land. This is an oasis chain, stretching from Turpan on the east to Kashgar on the west. There is an ancient road, part of the famous Silk Road, used for thousands of years. Now there is a modern highway and railway on this strip land, connecting its main cities and all other settlements on the way. Let’s explore the main cities on this land.
Yanqi (焉耆) and Bosten Lake (博斯腾湖)
Moving from Urumqi to Kashgar, one of the first places that can attract you is Bosten Lake and the nearby Yanqi town. Bosten Lake is one of the largest lakes in Xinjiang and the whole of China. There you can see beautiful views of blue water with coasts of grasslands, desert, and marshes. And you can also enjoy a beach with yurts on the sand, and distant snowy mountains on the horizon.
Bosten (博斯腾湖) and Xiangsi lakes (相思湖)
One of the small satellite lakes of Bosten is especially beautiful. It is called Xiangsi Lake and is actually filled with many miniature islets of canes and other water plants like a maze. Floating among them is really spectacular.
Then, the nearby Yanqi town is known as the place of the ancient city of Karashahr, capital of one of the local kingdoms of Xinjiang. Now Yanqi is a new and modern town, there is no „ancient city” remains, but you can see a few mosques with beautiful architecture.
Seven Stars (七个星)
However, there is still a hidden place with ancient ruins. It is called „Seven Stars” (Qigexing- 七个星) and is located deep into the wild dry mountains west of Yanqi. It is an ancient Buddhist complex and its ruins stay abandoned for hundreds of years on the desolated hills.
Let’s proceed further on the oasis strip. The next place is Korla City.
It is a relatively new and modern Chinese city, one of the largest cities in Xinjiang. It is the capital of Bayan Gol prefecture, the largest prefecture in China. Arranged in the style of Urumqi, there is nothing special to see within the city, but just its beautiful streets, parks and Peacock River flowing through it. The largest park of Korla is called Dragon Mountain and there you can enjoy not just a park landscape, but also some Chinese traditional pavilions and other historic constructions.
Yes, there is a special spot, really deserving to be explored. It is called Tiemenguan- „Iron Gate”, built on the hills near the city. What makes it significant is the fact that it is the westernmost end of the famous Great Wall of China!
This is the next significant city on the northern oasis strip. Kuqa (Kuche-库车) has a long history and some remains of it are really interesting to visit. The first place that I really would recommend is the Old Town. This is the Uyghur part of Kuqa, where you can dive more into the traditional Uyghur life. Especially attractive are the Bazaar and the Mosque.
Kuqa Mansion (库车王府)
Another impressive place is the Kuqa Mansion, dating from the 18th century, built in honor of an Uyghur warlord who helped the Chinese to suppress a rebellion.
Then, there are many interesting places outside of Kuqa. Let’s see some of them.
Subashi Ancient City (苏巴什古城)
It has been actually a large Buddhist complex, with more than 10 000 monks living there. Subashi complex was built in the 1st century AD and flourished during the time of the Tang Empire. It was gradually abandoned in the 14th century when Xinjiang gradually embraced Islam. Now only silent ruins remained of it.
Kizil Gaha (克孜尔尕哈)
It is another historic area with ancient remains. There you can find some Buddhist grottoes, as well as a remnant of a military tower. All dating back to 2-5th centuries AD.
Kizil Thousand Buddha Caves (克孜尔千佛洞)
There are many such grotto Buddhist complexes in China, but this one is the earliest. Full of mystery and feeling of remoteness, made in the wild and hostile area, it is really impressive to explore it. There are two more „Thousand Buddha Caves” (Kumutula and Senmusaimu) near Kuqa, but this one is the most spectacular.
After this, let’s move to the next city- Aksu.
Although Aksu has also a long history, today there is nothing special inside the city. Just a normal modern Chinese-Uyghur city. But the places worth to visit are outside of Aksu, and they are mostly natural. I would mention some of them.
Charqi Yardang Dimao landforms (察尔其雅丹地貌)
It is a sandstone landform, where you can see various weird rock shapes. The place is so dry, almost without any signs of life on it, that it can make you feel like you are on Mars.
Tuomur Canyon (托木尔大峡谷)
This is a deep and mysterious gorge on the southern foot of Tianshan, presenting stunning views of the dry and hostile rocky environment.
Tianshan Shenmu Park (天山神木公园)
And this is an area with some amazing trees. These trees are considered more than 1000 years old, and the woodland that they create is really impressive.
Finally, the northern oasis strip reaches the westernmost angle of the Tarim Basin. And there is one of the most significant cities of Xinjiang and the whole of China. This is Kashgar. Definitely a must to visit, if you want to explore Xinjiang!
Kashgar (Kashi- 喀什)
This notorious city is located in the middle of the Silk Road route and has been always of great importance. Kashgar has also thousands of years of history, and it can be seen and felt inside it. Now it is the best city presenting the Uyghur culture and life.
Kashgar Old City (喀什噶尔老城) and Id Kah Mosque (艾提尕尔清真寺)
There are some significant places in Kashgar that you must visit and explore. First, the Old City. Although it is actually a new version of the original Old City, it still presents a lot of the Uyghur culture and tradition. The core of the Old City is Id Kah Mosque and the square in front of it- a place which is the heart of Kashgar.
Afaq Khoja Mausoleum (Xiang Fei Mu-香妃墓) and Yusuf Khas Khajib Tomb (玉素甫•哈斯•哈吉甫墓)
Another very important place is Afaq Khoja Mausoleum, which has been turned into a city’s famous symbol. You can also visit the Yusuf Khas Khajib Tomb- a splendid architectural masterpiece, presenting the era of the Kara Khanids.
East Bazaar (东巴扎) and Livestock Bazaar
And finally- the bazaars- the open-air markets, full of daily life of the locals. East Bazaar is a place with thousands and thousands of goods. And the other bazaar is the Livestock Market, where you can enjoy the local life scenes amidst the animals’ trade (it works only on Sundays, so if you are in Kashgar at that day, don’t forget to visit it!).
And let’s see what can be found outside Kashgar. The whole green area west of „the yellow eye” is called Kashgaria after this city, and it has some places that are really worth to visit too.
Northwest of Kashgar, in some of the dryest low parts of Pamir, there is the tallest natural arc on the Earth. And a journey to there can be a really great hiking experience
Mahmud Kashgari Tomb (马赫穆德•喀什噶里墓)
Again a historical site. This is the tomb of one of the notorious linguists from the Kara-Khanid era- Mahmud Kashgari, who was known also as a poet and writer.
Mor Buddhist Pagoda (莫尔佛塔)
This is the only historical Buddhist remain in the area. Mor Pagoda is an ancient construction, now abandoned, so only its ruins remained in silence and mystery.
Then, let’s turn again to the east. The green area on the Google Earth around Kashgar finish, and the long „yellow eye” begins. This is the Taklamakan Desert, an important part of Xinjiang’s face and image.
Taklamakan Desert (塔克拉玛干沙漠)
Taklamakan is the second largest sand desert on the Earth. Its name means „the place of no return” or “the abandoned”, and it is a deadly area if you enter inside it without the necessary preparation. Anyway, if you travel in Xinjiang, it is really worth to try Taklamakan Desert too (and be well-prepared for such an adventure).
Makit N39 (麦盖提 N39）
The easiest and safest ways are to visit some spots on the edge of the desert, without penetrating too further inside. From Kashgar, such place is Makit N39 area. Now it is turned into a tourist spot with camels, desert jeeps and ATVs. But if you want to be alone in the desert, just enter is a little away of it.
Desert Roads (沙漠公路)
Another good way to try Taklamakan is to travel on the Desert Roads. There are three desert roads, crossing Taklamakan from north to south. The first one connects Aksu and Hotan, and the second and third connects Luntai (轮台) town (between Korla and Kuqa) with Qiemo and Ruoqiang. You can stop anywhere on the road and make a short walk on the desert dunes around. But again- don’t go too further inside, especially in summer. It can be deadly and dangerous- you may face sunstroke, thirst or sand storm even by a not very strong wind.
Tarim River (塔里木河)
The whole Tarim Basin is a large endorheic place, completely separated from the ocean. There is the main river flowing through it (on its northern side), called Tarim. It reaches the eastern ends of Taklamakan Desert and gradually disappears into drying lakes and marshes. The river’s coasts are surrounded by some green areas, and small forests, mainly poplars. There is a beautiful poplar park on the Desert Road from Luntai, just before crossing Tarim. The poplars are short, curved and form a really impressing woodland on the sandy soil.
Lop Nur (罗布泊)
This is the extreme southeast of Xinjiang, east of Taklamakan. Lop Nur is a drying lake, the last remnant of Tarim River. Beside Taklamakan Desert, this is the most desolated and remote area of Xinjiang. But it still keeps some ancient secrets. Let’s explore this area too.
Loulan Ancient City (楼兰古城)
It is a recently discovered remnant of the mysterious capital of an ancient kingdom, called Loulan (Kroran). It has been abandoned more than 15 centuries ago and only silent ruins remain of it, in the middle of nowhere.
Ordek’s Necropolis （Xiaohe Tomb- 小河墓地)
This is one of the places where many ancient mummies were discovered. It contains more than 300 tombs, existed here for more than 3000-4000 years. A really remote and difficult to reach place.
Qawrighul (Gumugou- 古墓沟)
Another mysterious ancient graveyard, west of Lop Nur. Mummies were found there too. And again- it is a place hidden far away in remoteness and silence.
It is again an ancient remnant of a Buddhist complex, located near the border with Qinghai province. Like the other mentioned sites, this one also remains in mystery and silence in a highly remote and hostile area.
Now let’s proceed further south- to the southern oasis chain.
South Tarim Oasis lands
This oasis chain is thinner than the northern one, but it is again an important part of the Silk Road, leading from Kashgar to Xining and Lanzhou in the east. And there are a few significant cities on it, worth to explore.
Yarkent (Shache- 莎车)
This city is a part of the same Kashgar green area and is significant for its long history. It has also been a capital of old kingdoms and you can see a lot of historical traces there. Now it has a rich Uyghur culture.
First, you can walk around the Yarkent Old Town. It is more authentic than the „new” Old City of Kashgar and experiencing the local Uyghur culture there is really worth.
Golden Graveyard (叶尔羌汗国王陵) and Amanissa Khan Mausoleum (阿曼尼莎罕纪念陵墓)
Then you must visit one of the symbols of Yarkent- the tomb complex, consisting of two important parts. The first part is the Golden Graveyard of the Yarkent Kingdom’s royal family, dating from the 17th century. And the second one is the Mausoleum of Amanissa Khan- a famous poetess and king’s concubine from the 16th century, known for writing 12 muqam- musical poems.
Kargilik (Yecheng- 叶城)
It is the next city with a long history in the area. There is not too much to see there, but one place is really worth to visit- the Yecheng Museum (叶城博物馆), where you can get more impressions and knowledge about the area. Another important fact that makes Kargilik important is that it is the starting point of Road 219 to Lhasa in Tibet- one of the most spectacular „heavenly roads” on the Earth.
Hotan (or Khotan) is another important historical city. It has been the capital of the ancient Khotan Kingdom. Now it is again predominantly Uyghur city, with its Old Town and Central Square where you can enjoy a lot of Uyghur’s local life and activities.
Khotan Museum (和田博物馆) and Khotan Bazaar (和田巴扎)
Another place that is really worth to visit there is the Khotan Museum. In general, such museums can be very useful for giving you a good impression of the area that you explore. Then you can visit the Khotan Bazaar- another lively place with Uyghur’s daily life.
Hotan is also known for being the „Jade City”- the main place producing jade. There is a special place in the area, called White Jade River, where the people search for jade and other beautiful stones.
Imam Asim Tomb (伊玛目•阿西姆之墓)
This is an Islamic site, where various religious activities can be held. It is located at the edge of Taklamakan Desert, out of the city. Since this is a worship site, you can see another side of the local’s life there.
Melikawat Ruins (买力克阿瓦提古城)
Melikawat Ruins are remains of a mysterious ancient city, probably the real capital of Khotan Kingdom. Like many other silent and deserted ancient ruins, this site contains dead remnants of deep ancient times.
Cherchen (Qiemo- 且末)
Cherchen is a more isolated city on the road to Xining. Like all of the other cities in the area, this one is again a long time existing. The first area that is worth to start exploring is the Uyghur Neighborhood, Kunlun Square and the beautiful Cherchen Museum.
Then, there are some ancient ruins nearby. The most significant of these sites is Zaghunluq Cemetery, where you can see some of the Tarim mummies, still lying there for millennia.
Charklik (Ruoqiang- 若羌)
This is the last remote desert town in Xinjiang, on the Silk Road, before you leave for Qinghai (or the first, if you enter from Qinghai). It is quite isolated- no big cities hundreds of kilometers or miles from it. There is nothing special in the town itself, but it is quite fascinating to see the local life of the people, living „in the middle of nowhere”. And its Loulan Museum is really worth to visit, especially if you are going to see the real Loulan Ancient City, deep inside the desert.
With this, there is the extreme south of Xinjiang left to explore- some of the highest mountains on the Earth- Pamir, Kunlunshan, and Karakoram. Let’s ascend to these mountains and see what is there.
Pamir is one of the highest mountain systems on the Earth, part of „The Roof of the World”. It is shared between China, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and reaches the Pakistan border. And its highest peak Kongur Tagh (7649 m) is located in China- Xinjiang. In Xinjiang, the most attractive part of Pamir is the Chinese part of the famous Karakoram Highway
Karakoram Highway (喀喇昆仑公路) in China
Karakoram Highway is a „heavenly road”, connecting Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, with Kashgar in China (Xinjiang). In its Chinese section, it is numbered as G314. Along the whole road is full of stunning views and spectacular landscapes. Let’s take a look at this road from Kashgar to Pakistan direction.
First, the road crosses the southwest ends of the Tarim Basin and enters the deep gorge of Gaizi River. It gradually ascends to over 3000 m altitude and reaches Baisha Lake (White Sand Lake)- a spectacular lake with white stoned shores. The next important point on the road is Karakul Lake, with fantastic landscape, where the two highest Pamir peaks Kongur Tagh and Muztagh Ata are reflecting on its waters.
From there the road crosses stunning grasslands, surrounded by giant rugged mountains and passes through Tashkurgan- a nice famous small town with mostly Tajik population. And finally, Karakoram Highway reaches Khunjerab Pass- the border between China and Pakistan.
Muztagh Ata (慕士塔格峰)
Let’s back to Karakul Lake. Muztagh Ata is rising over the lake and the grassland south of it, creating a really fantastic view. It is 7509 m high, and the valley through which the Karakoram Highway passes is between 3200 to 4000 m high. So the peak is rising around 4000 m directly over the valley. So you can imagine how breathtaking is the view of the peak from below!
Muztagh Ata is known as the easiest to climb 7000-er. Its climbing doesn’t require any mountaineering equipment and skills, but you can reach the top just by normal hiking. However, don’t underestimate the high altitude. 7000 m is a serious height and it can be deadly for those who are not prepared.
This is the center of the local Tajik minority. The town is picturesquely situated in a wide valley with a stunning grassland. There is a Tajik ethnic village (arranged for tourists) where you can see more of the Tajik life and culture. Another interesting place is the Stone Ancient City- ruins of an ancient settlement with more than 2000 years of history.
East of Pamir, the highest mountains ranges on the Earth surround the Tarim Basin from the south. Kunlunshan is a 3000 km long mountain chain, the northern „wall” of the Great Tibetan Plateau. It is one of the most inaccessible and uninhabited mountain systems in the world. Besides some sparsely located villages, there are almost no other settlements and roads in Kunlunshan. Its highest peak is Liushi Shan, located on the border with Tibet. And one of its most significant and difficult to reach peaks is Ulugh Muztagh (6973 m).
Ulugh Muztagh (乌鲁木孜塔格)
Reaching Ulugh Muztagh is a great challenge. This peak is located on the border of Xinjiang and Tibet and only to approach its foot may require a month. It is extremely remote, in a completely uninhabited zone, without any roads or other traces of human civilization. If you anyhow arrive at this peak, you can feel like you are on another planet, far from everything.
And finally, let’s look to the last end of Xinjiang- Karakoram mountain system.
Karakoram is the second highest mountain range on the Earth, with its highest peak K2 (8611 m). It is shared between China (Xinjiang) and Pakistan, reaching Ladakh of India, and it is the most glaciated area in the world, outside the polar regions.
This is the most special and famous part of Karakoram. And trekking to the base camp of K2 on the Chinese side is really challenging and unforgettable. This is the highest point of Xinjiang, and one of „the ends of the Earth”!
So, as you can see, Xinjiang is so rich in places to travel and explore! This article itself became unusually long only to present the image of Xinjiang!
But according to what maybe you have heard about Xinjiang, probably you would have this important question: can foreigners travel in Xinjiang and how? And how can visit and explore all these incredibly beautiful, mysterious and challenging places?
How to travel in Xinjiang
The first answer is: YES, foreigners CAN travel in Xinjiang. But not such simple as in the other parts of China. There are certain and specific regulations and limits. Let’s see shortly more about it.
Travel regulations in Xinjiang
Most of Xinjiang can be explored easily, just with more security checking. Just be ready with your passport and with more patience when passing through a security police check station (and there are such stations in many places before and after entering a city). Sometimes it is possible to not allow foreigners to pass through a certain area temporary, due to a special event like a government meeting in this place or something else like this.
However, there are some areas in Xinjiang where things are more complicated.
Xinjiang border areas
The border areas in Xinjiang are different than the other parts of the province. Especially the areas near Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Since 2019, foreigners CAN’T travel independently in these places. A most notable example is the Karakoram Highway. Now we foreigners can travel there only by joining a licensed travel company, which can obtain a travel permit to this area.
Destinations like Sayram Lake and Kanas Lake are in the border areas too but seems those border areas beside the borders of Kazakhstan and Russia are still not such restricted, so it is still possible for you to travel alone. But have in mind that it can be changed at any moment without warning.
Special autonomous areas
There are areas with the following restrictions: foreigners can visit this place independently, but only for 30 mins, then they must leave. And can’t sleep in a hotel there, also can’t visit the tourist destinations. Such a place is Bayan Buluk. We wanted to visit the best part of its grassland, called “Swan Lake”, but in the tourist center, they told us that it is not opened for foreigners (because is a Mongol Autonomous area within Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region) and it is possible only with a special permit from Urumqi. Then they said we must leave within 30 mins. Anyway, since nobody checked us, we just went a little outside of the town and enjoyed the rest of the grassland for 2-3 hours freely.
Yes, as I know, there are some completely forbidden areas in Xinjiang for foreigners. Even for the Chinese, it is very difficult to go there. Usually, these are some military zones or something else which is a secret zone. Even by a travel company, you can’t go there. No permits, nothing.
There is a tourist site, called Luobu Man near Korla (an ancient village remains), at the edge of Taklamakan Desert. At first, we planned to visit it, but we were told that this is a military zone and it is forbidden for foreigners. Our Chinese friends have been there, but as they said- it was very restricted even for them, and they were not allowed to take any photos.
The border area with the Tibetan Autonomous Region
Yes, although the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) is a part of China, not another country, the area along its border is highly restricted for foreigners. But not completely forbidden. Foreigners can still have some access inside, but only with a travel company and some other special permits (usually quite expensive). An example of this is Ulugh Muztagh area. It is enough difficult for access just by the natural conditions and the lack of roads, and these restrictions make it even more difficult.
And finally, there are two important things that you have to remember, when you plan your travel in Xinjiang, particularly for some more complicated areas. First: since the regulations for some places can be different than other places, most people, including policemen, administrators, and other officials DON’T KNOW them, or at least are not clear about them! And second: these regulations can be changed at any time without warning! Read more about the travel regulations for foreigners in Xinjiang here.
Transport in Xinjiang
This is the next important thing that you have to arrange when you travel in Xinjiang. The good thing is that the transport is relatively well arranged for most of the places. But not everywhere. There are some destinations that you can’t reach just by public transport, but only by private transport, which can be much more expensive. Anyway, let’s see how is the situation in general.
Traveling by plane is mainly for reaching the starting point or leaving from the ending point of your trip. The main destination for using plane is Urumqi, which is well connected with the interior of China, as well as with the neighboring and many other more distant countries.
Then another important airport is Kashgar. It is strategic, because Kashgar is a big center in the western side of Xinjiang, and can be a good starting point for exploring Xinjiang from the south and west.
Finally, there are many other smaller domestic airports in every larger city. But just you have to arrive first in Urumqi or Kashgar, then to proceed to these airports. And since the domestic flights are quite expensive, unless you are not in urgency, I would recommend using train or bus.
There are several railroads in Xinjiang, which can be also very convenient, again for reaching the starting and the ending points.
First, there is the main railroad, connecting the eastern parts of China, through Lanzhou and Xining, to Urumqi. And this railroad includes also speed trains.
Then, there is another railroad, connecting Urumqi and Turpan with Kashgar and Hotan. It runs through the northern Tarim oasis strip, passing by Korla, Kuqa, Aksu, Kashgar, Yarkent, Yecheng- to Hotan. There are only normal slow trains traveling on it currently, but again can be convenient to travel.
The third railroad is to the north, from Urumqi (or more precisely, from Kuitun and Dushanzi) to Altay. It is shorter and again only for slow trains, but can be convenient if you travel to Kanas Lake and the other destinations in the area.
And the last railroad connects Urumqi with Kazakhstan, crossing through Khorgos border pass. This railroad is convenient if you travel to the area of Yili and Sayram Lake.
By bus, you can reach more destinations which don’t have a railway station. Since the distances in Xinjiang are quite long, there are sleeping buses connecting Urumqi or Kashgar with most of the other smaller cities. For example, there is a long-distance bus from Hotan to Urumqi, which crosses Taklamakan Desert on one of the desert roads. But it crosses the desert at night, so you can’t see anything.
By private transport
There are many destinations with no public transport. For example, if you want to explore Du Ku Highway or to cross Taklamakan Desert, you need a private car. And unless you have a Chinese driving license, you can’t drive a car in Xinjiang (and the whole China) by yourself. So you need a car with a driver. Currently, it is more difficult to be arranged. There is no online rental car with a driver system that you can book in advance. So the best way is to arrange it from your hotel or better- hostel. They usually have contacts with drivers (sometimes even speaking basic English).
Yes, obviously, it would be much more expensive, especially if you hire the driver for several days. They require an average between 1000 and 1500 CNY per day, and it doesn’t include their food and accommodation. But if you are a group of a few people, you can share the money so it can be finally much cheaper.
Other ways of transport
Yes, there are some more unusual and adventurous ways of transport, like long-distance biking. There are some bike shops which offer rental bikes and you can hire a bicycle for several days. It would be an exciting way to cross Du Ku Highway, for example. And if you bring a tent, you could not care whether the hotels on the way accept foreigners or not, just can sleep freely wherever you want.
However, I would not recommend crossing Taklamakan Desert by bike on one of the Desert Roads, especially in summer. Yes, there are some worker’s buildings located regularly on these roads, but the sun is too strong. Anyway, with good preparation, such a desert journey could be possible too.
It used to be really exciting and very spectacular to bike on the Karakoram Highway. But from 2019, with the new regulations, it is much more complicated, if not impossible. Unless you find a travel company, offering a bike tour, you can’t travel on your own on this road now.
So, if you want to travel to more restricted areas, such as the border zones, you have to visit some special places, most likely the travel center in Kashgar, since it is the basic starting point for many border areas, including the Karakoram Highway. There you can find a travel company which can arrange what is necessary for your journey. And then, you have to be limited to follow the group in the trip to the desired destination.
No matter how you travel and what kind of transport you are using, again, be ready for police checking, at every railway or bus station, or other checkpoints on the road. As I talked with one of the policemen, he said that the best way is first to visit the travel center in Urumqi and obtain a travel permit for the whole Xinjiang. Thus you don’t need to wait 10, 15, 30 mins or even more at every checking point, but just can pass quickly, for a few mins. We haven’t tried it, so we passed for a longer time, but that was not a problem, just have to be more patient, that’s all.
Accommodation in Xinjiang
As everywhere in China, there are many hotels which don’t accept foreigners. In Xinjiang is the same. Usually, you have to look for more expensive hotels which almost certainly accept foreigners or international hostels. What is good about the hostels is that their personnel is often very helpful and full of travel tips and ways to arrange your local journeys. And also you can meet many other foreigners and share your experience and advice with them. There are also some normal cheap hotels, but they are not too many.
Other travel tips
There are many other details that you can bear in mind before you go to travel in Xinjiang. Such things as money, internet, weather, food, and safety- these things are not difficult to arrange, and in general, not different than in the other parts of China. From 2019, the internet and mobile connection are good, just don’t forget to install your VPN, if you want to use Facebook, Google, and Youtube.
Talking about the weather- it can be very different in the different areas, in different seasons. In general, the weather is mostly dry. Rains are rare, except in places like Tianshan and Altay mountains. There can be a large difference between the day and night temperature in the desert, but it is not everywhere. If you travel in Xinjiang during the winter, Taklamakan is a good place to explore- it would be very cold and freezing, but at least must safe from sunstroke and thirst.
Finally, about safety- as I already mentioned, now Xinjiang is a very safe place. It is even safer than the rest of China, due to the strong police presence everywhere. Be careful of pickpocketing in crowded places like bazaars and other markets.
In general, this is the image of Xinjiang. A not so easy, but incredibly beautiful place, full of past, present, and future, and full of pictures like a dreamland. Maybe travel in Xinjiang is not for everybody, but if you are a traveler, it is a place that would impress you for your whole life!
Get some more impressions of Xinjiang:
Check out some travel books about Xinjiang and the Silk Road!
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