Xinjiang is the westernmost province in China, bordering the stans that made up much of central Asia. More significantly, a large part of Xinjiang still clings on to the legacy of the Silk Road, one of the earliest international trade routes and probably the most famous of them all. This itinerary will cover much of the main cities along the way, and packs a lot over 2 weeks.
Day 1: Dunhuang’s Mingsha Sand Dunes
Many Silk Road journeys begin at Xian, the ancient capital of the Middle Kingdom. But since Xian is still well within the Han Chinese border, I’ll suggest skipping to the frontier of the Chinese’s sphere of influence, at least back in the days of the Emperor.
With the massive sand dunes of the Gobi right at its doorstep, Dunhuang certainly feels like a frontier town. Just under 400km away from Jiayuguan where the Great Wall ends, this was the front-line where Han Chinese troops stood guard against incursions by the ferocious Xiongnu and their descendants, the Mongol invaders.
On arrival, you’ll want to head over to the sand dunes if the weather is good. On a cloudless day, you’ll get amazing yellow sand dunes set against the vivid blue sky, a visual treat that would otherwise be dampened by bad weather. You can easily spend a full day exploring the Crescent Moon Lake oasis, riding a camel up the dunes, and then clambering up the vast stretch of sand dunes that rises up to 200m above sea level. In the evening, don’t miss the spectacular sunset from any viewpoint along the dune ridgeline.
Day 2: Dunhuang’s Mogao Caves
Traded goods was not the only product that passed through this important Silk Road town. Culture and religion spread from India and the West into China, and many devotees of different faiths passed through the town. It was at the outskirt of Dunhuang that in 366AD, a Buddhist monk, Yuezun, had a vision of a thousand Buddhas bathed in golden light at a cliff site. Subsequently, he carved out a grotto to meditate within. Word spread and over time, many Buddhists joined him and started carving out their own grotto from the soft rock face. Today, there are over a thousand caves carved out from the 4th to the 14th century AD, with enough historically significance to warrant UNESCO world heritage status, and a strict limit to the number of visitors permitted daily to the site.
You’ll need to join a tour to visit the caves, which can be purchased online or in the ticketing office in Dunhuang. English tour slots run out fast, and there are only three sessions a day, so get them at least a few days in advance.
Day 3: Turpan
The train to Turpan rolls in as day breaks, and you’ll be greeted at the station by a rambucious horde of taxi drivers. If you’re travelling alone or as a couple, try to ask any driver to find more passengers and share the cost – this arrangement is pretty common as labourers coming into town will also want to offset the cost of the 30-minute ride into town.
Turpan is famed as a Silk Road town, and for its many interesting places of interests all scattered in and around town. Here, you’ll notice a change in ethnic culture, as the Muslim Uighurs make up the majority of the population. Mosques, halal (qing jing) restaurants and plenty of lamb-based cuisine run the gamut, as does a heavy police presence that will follow you for the rest of the journey across Xinjiang.
To cover as much ground as possible, you’ll need to hire a driver. A guide is optional but recommended, and Ali from Uighur Tours offers reasonable rates and honest advice. There’s at least 5 major sights to visit today, so it’s better to pre-arrange for a driver before you reach Turpan, as you’ll want an early start once you’ve settled into your accommodation.
Check out the full day Turpan itinerary to read more about exploring the city and its major sights.
Day 4 to 5: Ürümqi
After a full day sightseeing in Turpan, you can visit Ürümqi next. Buses depart from Turpan almost every hour, so just head over to the bus station near the main bazaar and get your ticket. The ride takes almost 3 hours, and the scenery gradually changes from the harsh desert to mountains.
Ürümqi is Xinjiang’s capital, and is also one of the few urban centres with a Han-majority population. As a result, you might lose that Silk Road atmosphere as mud-bricked houses are replaced by gleaming skyscrapers and modern infrastructure – it’s almost become like every modern city in eastern China!
However, Ürümqi holds a few hidden surprises as you walk along the bustling streets. Walk past the touristy Grand Bazaar and visit the small streets inside the Uighur quarters. If you’re hungry, you’ll find affordable and authentic cuisine catering to hungry diners. Just be prepared to decipher a menu written in Chinese, although some finger pointing does go a long way. For the shopaholic or souvenir hunter, a wide variety of locally made products with honest prices are also available in stores scattered inside the warren of lanes and streets. And no, this is not taking a jab about most stuff being Made In China anyway.
Tian Chi (Heavenly Lake)
The reason many Chinese visit Ürümqi is to visit the nearby Tian Chi (Heavenly Lake), a stunningly beautiful and pristine lake surrounded by the majestic Tian Shan mountain range. It’s undeniably touristy and the entrance price of ¥215 is definitely dampens the spirit of a budget-conscious backpacker. It doesn’t help that the view from the visitor centre is extremely meh. But go in anyway, and you’ll soon find out why everyone raves about the scenic beauty of the place once they’re there.
When you’re finally there though, you’ll be inundated with masses of excited Chinese tourists. Don’t fret, and calmly walk on. With many well-maintained walking paths criss-crossing the area, you don’t need to be an experienced trekker to reach one of many scenic spots, complete with a picnic table to spend a peaceful hour or two. You can even stay overnight in a local yurt. Don’t worry about booking one online – you’ll be flooded with locals renting their yurts as soon as you get out of the shuttle bus that takes you up from the visitor centre to the lake.
It takes almost 1-2 hours to drive to the Tian Chi visitor centre, and hiring a private driver might help save a bit of time. You can also make the trip by bus, either by the easy “express bus” way or the hard “local bus” way.
For this itinerary, you only have 1 full day in Ürümqi unfortunately. If pretty lakes don’t matter to you, you can consider visiting the grasslands and yurts of the Southern Pastures instead.
Day 6 – 7: Kashgar
From Ürümqi, you’ll go to Kashgar next. This is southern Xinjiang, and it looks and feels markedly different from the north. Board a train that takes anywhere between 16 hours to 24 hours to get to Kashgar. For an easier time, book a flight that does the same trip in 1 hour. Back in the days of camel caravans, traders had to go around the rugged Tian Shan mountain range. This bisects Xinjiang right down the middle, and a trip would take 3 months to complete.
Kashgar’s old city is what every Silk Road romantic dreams about. This is Aladdin’s Agrabah made real. Houses are built with mud bricks. The town layout is designed with maze-like lanes and hidden alleys. Muslim arches, minarets and intricately coloured doors decorate the facade. Alas, some part of the wonder dies when you realise that this remarkably well-preserved city is almost artificial. But don’t let that distract you – the people, the culture and the lifestyle of the locals living there is very real.
Kashgar has several major sights scattered across the city. Among them, the Sunday Market and the Livestock Market are especially memorable.
The Sunday Market
Massive. Busy. Atmospheric. That sums up much of the Sunday Market, a local gathering point for the many locals living in and around Kashgar. Despite it’s name, the market is open everyday, but Sunday is when it gets especially crazy-crowded.
Finding the market is pretty straightforward. Located near the Old City, you need to cross a few stretches of road to get there. Vendors start hawking their wares even before you enter the market. There’s an endless range of products and food to buy, and it’s easy to get lost in the labyrinthine maze of stalls for hours on end.
The Livestock Market
If you’re visiting on a Sunday though, you should take a quick look first and head out. For every Sunday, the livestock market… comes alive (sorry, couldn’t help it). This smelly and boisterous market is unlike any animal market you’ve seen before. Reminiscent of the days of traders bartering for animals to slaughter or for transport, locals still flock from villagers all over to buy or sell goats, cows, horses, lamb and even the occasional camel.
A heads up about the livestock market – animals may not be treated as humanely as expected by western standards, and you might feel squeamish about the way they are manhandled. This is a local market, and not a feel-good place for tourists, so animal lovers might want to give it a miss. You’ll should also not get in the way of the local trading activity, so it’s best to stand afar and observe, or have a local guide lead the way.
Getting to the livestock market is not easy. Bus 23 leaves from the Sunday Bazaar regularly, and the ride here takes around 30 minutes… if you can find the bus stop. The easiest way is to hail a taxi and pay for the journey there and back. Note that some drivers can confuse the many markets around town, and you might end up in one of the many other markets dotted around Kashgar. Even Google Maps gets it wrong on the location, but that’s alright I suppose – Google Maps is illegal to use in China, so use Baidu instead, or show this photo to your driver:
Day 8 – 9: The Karakoram Highway to Tashkurgan
From Kashgar, the Karakoram Highway leads down to neighbouring Pakistan, climbing up to 5,540m at the Karakoram Pass. You won’t have to go so far though. Tourists are only permitted to go as far as the Tajik town of Tashkorgan, a 5-6 hour drive away.
To get here, you can try your luck with a public bus from the Tashkurgan Administrative Office, or hire a private car with driver. Uighur Tours can help with arranging private transport there, and it might be a lot cheaper if you have fellow travellers to share the ride.
Tashkurgan is famous for the ancient stone fortress that overlooks the town. In fact, the name Tashkurgan means stone fortress in the Turkic languages. The fortress may not be much to look at today, but the sweeping views from the top is spectacular.
A green expanse of grasslands stretches from the fortress to the mountains far away. This is home to Tajiks living a nomadic lifestyle in traditional yurts. A well-maintained elevated boardwalk lets you venture out a bit into the grasslands without getting mud on your shoes.
Along the way to and from Tashkurgan, you’ll pass by the breathtakingly beautiful Karakul Lake. On a good day, this lake shimmers with shades of blue and green. Behind it, the mighty Muztagh Ata (7,546m), Kongur Tagh (7,649m) and Kongur Tiube (7,530m) looms over.
Along the shores, hardy Krygyz settlers live in yurts built to withstand the bitter winter cold. These friendly folks welcome visitors with salty milk tea and naan. For a small fee, you can ask for a simple meal of noodles prepared on the spot. Unfortunately, recently implemented security restrictions no longer permit overnight stays in the yurts, and you’ll need to find accommodation either in Tashkurgan or Kashgar.
A walk along the shore of Karakul Lake takes almost 2-3 hours, but you may choose to do it by horseback or on a motorbike… for a fee, naturally. Either way, you won’t want to leave this place in a hurry.
Day 10: Rest day at Kashgar
You’ve been on the road and hitting new places at a relentless pace. Take some time to rest those tired feet and enjoy an easy day in the old city. You might notice an extremely rundown part of town, complete with crumbling houses with exposed interiors. This is the “old” Old City, a small slice of Kashgar that has escaped redevelopment.
Some parts look like a war zone, and other places smell of sewage. Houses stacked on top of one another like Jenga pieces scream danger, yet it has stood for centuries without toppling. The settlement looks abandoned, although you’ll come across small shops and residents from time to time. Everyone has an opinion on the government’s urban renewal programme, but the old “Old City” serves as a good reminder of how the world has progressed since the days of the Silk Road.
Day 11-12: Hotan
From Kashgar, a train to Hotan takes around 5-6 hours, but you’ll have spend half a day on it as there’s no overnight train service. Hotan is famed for its mutton-fat jade, which has white bands on the semi-precious stone mined from the region.
After travelling through the heavily policed towns of Xinjiang thus far, you might think the security presence isn’t that bad. Well, Hotan’s security measures are in a league of its own. Army and police troops march throughout the city, and inspect every vehicle along major roads. Carry light, and stay patient as you stop at every underpass, store and hotel for security checks.
Hotan sits right on the edge of the Taklamakan desert, and you can reach it within 30 minutes by car. Hire a taxi to get there, and make a short stop at the silk factory along the way.
The Silk Factory
Located in the small Jiya township just outside Kashgar, the Atlas Silk Factory follows a long tradition of silk-making. Here, you can wander the rooms, poking silkworm cocoons and watching the looms at work. Don’t worry, you won’t have a pesky sales rep shadowing you here.
The Taklamakan Desert
Sand dunes stretch into the distance, as you struggle up the slopes to find the best vantage point. There is no shelter here, just the heat beating down your neck and the burning sensation on your skin.
Looking out into the desert, reflect your time on the Silk Road as this marks the end of the journey. Starting from the sand dunes of the Gobi desert and ending at the edge of the Taklamakan, you’ve conquered a part of the great Silk Road. There’s still a lot more to see and do though. Central Asia beckons to the west, and down south, India is yet another amazing destination. It’s time to plan your next 2-week vacation, I suppose!