From Kruger To Cape Town: A 14 Day Self-Drive Itinerary Through South Africa

South African itinerary Gansbaai Hermanus

Travelling in Africa might be a daunting journey, even for many seasoned travellers. Even today, occasional news of civil unrest and the legacy of colonialism still afflicting parts of this mighty continent. This, by no means, define many African nations currently in the midst of recovery and progress. Leading the charge into the 21st century, South Africa is big brother to many smaller states, even as the scars of Apartheid heal.

South Africa is everything you’d expect to see on an African adventure. To the east, Kruger National Park is a world class wildlife reserve that attracts over a million of visitors each year. Down south and all along the coast, the Atlantic and Indian Ocean collide in a three-way with rugged cliffs. And further inland, the landscape changes from lush green forests to the parched Karoo desert.

For first-time visitors to South Africa, this itinerary through South Africa covers a lot of ground in a short time, and on a relatively small budget. You’ll visit:

  • Kruger National Park
  • The Garden Route
  • Stellenbosch (Famed winemaking region)
  • Oudtshoorn (Ostrich capital of the world)
  • Cape Town

We’ll start from Johannesburg. Hang on tight!

Day 1: Johannesburg to the Kruger National Park

Landing at Johannesburg International Airport, make a beeline straight to Nelspruit by bus. Citybus runs a regular service from the terminal to their depot in Nelspruit, taking 4 hours each way. Nelspruit is the gateway to the Kruger National Park, and has plenty of accommodation options.

Rest early and recover from jet lag. Tomorrow will be a long day of wildlife spotting and driving through endless dirt roads.

Day 2 to 4: A 3 day safari in the Kruger National Park

Bright and early in the morning, meet your safari guide. Choosing a guide is tricky business, but Africa Spear is a reliable operator to consider. Your guide will pick you up from the hotel, and drive straight into the Kruger National Park.

For first time safari visitors, engaging a safari guide is essential. The Kruger National Park is filled with dangerous wildlife living in their natural habitat, and rangers cannot guarantee your safety at all times. Navigating the park is also a challenge, as many unassuming dirt roads lead to active watering holes. Most important however, is the skill of a guide. Few can spot wildlife (or ‘game’) 400 meters away while driving at 40km/h – but a professional guide can.

You’ll stay in secured safari camp for 2 nights, dining at the in-house restaurant. If you’re feeling generous, you can also opt for a night safari at an additional cost – it’ll open up yet another world of nocturnal game watching experience.

Driving in a jeep in Kruger National Park
Just another day for the safari guide
Dung beetle in South Africa Kruger Safari
A dung beetle scurries across the arm of a safari guide
Rhino crossing road in Kruger Safari
A wild rhino crosses a main road inside the Kruger National Park

Additional information

Africa is a haven for observing wildlife, and you can join many organised safaris across the continent. Check out the Digital Travel Guru’s excellent list of safaris for every budget and find out more.

Day 5: Getting your personal ride at Port Elizabeth

Return to Johannesburg and catch the overnight Shosholoza Meyl train to Port Elizabeth. The sleeper cabins are relatively modern, but you’ll need to bring a good book to keep yourself busy on the 12 hour journey.

Pulling into Port Elizabeth in the morning, get into a rental car and head off to conquer the beautiful coastline of the Garden Route. This is a marked difference from the sweltering inland savannah of Africa, and you’ll surely be making a lot of a pit stops along the way for photographs!

While you could possibly get to Cape Town by nightfall, where’s the fun in that? Over the coming days, you’ll be stopping over many dainty seaside towns. After a long day of driving, you’ll spend the first night on the Garden Route at Mossel Bay.

Train from Johannesburg to Port Elizabeth
The overnight train from Johannesburg to Port Elizabeth



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Day 6: Ostrich watching at Oudtshoorn

The next day, take a detour away from the coast and head to arid Oudtshoorn. With the proud claim as the Ostrich Capital of the World, Oudtshoorn certainly has no lack of ostrich farms, and the meat is the freshest. And yes, it does taste like beef, and not chicken.

Oudtshoorn is also famous for the Cango Caves, a limestone cave complex with evidence of inhabitation as far back as the Stone Age. Today, part of the cave is developed for tourism, but entry is still controlled by mandatory tour groups with a limited quota. If you want to visit this amazing underground cavern, it’s best to make a reservation online beforehand.

Ostrich farm in Oudtshoorn
Ostrich farm in Oudtshoorn
Inside the Cango Caves
Inside the Cango Caves
Crawling in the Cango Caves
Tight spaces require a bit of crawling in the Cango Caves



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Day 7: Shark cage diving at Gansbaai

The next day, return to the coast via Barrydale and Swellendam, two charming colonial towns that resemble those found in midwestern USA. By late afternoon, you’ll reach Gansbaai, a small unassuming seaside town. But this is no average town – it’s one of only a few places in the world where you can jump into a steel cage and come face to face with a great white shark! If you’ve missed your chance here, your next best bet is in Neptune Islands (Australia) or Isla Guadalupe (Mexico).

Shark cage diving usually happens early in the morning, and only when the weather is good out in the ocean. But in a place where operators guarantee shark sightings on every trip, you can be sure that it’ll be worth the early morning wake up call. As such, get an early night’s rest and get ready for the adrenaline rush in the ocean tomorrow.

Gansbaai harbour
A ship dry-docked in the Gansbaai harbour
Lighthouse near Gansbaai
A historic lighthouse near Gansbaai

Additional information

If you’re a fan of adventure sports, shark caving diving is just the tip of the iceberg. South Africa is chockfull of hair-raising activities to try out. Check out Offbeat Wanderlust’s list of the top 10 adventure sports!



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Day 8: Whale watching at Hermanus

The morning starts with the shark cage diving, ending right about lunchtime. From there, load up the car and head towards Hermanus, which is an hour drive away. While Gansbaai is famed for shark cage diving, Hermanus is popular for whale sightings, starting from as early as June to late November.

The best time to visit is in late September, when the town holds its annual Whale Festival. To aid in whale watching, a paved trail hugs the edge of the cliffs of Hermanus. From the Cliff Walk, you can take in views of the ocean stretching all the way to the horizon.

Hermanus cliff walk
The cliff-top trail in Hermanus
House in Hermanus
Seaside bungalows in Hermanus



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Day 9: Wine tasting at Stellenbosch and Franschhoek

The next day, drive inland to visit the world-renowned Stellenbosch and Franschhoek wine-making regions. Wines are one of South Africa’s top exports, and it boasts of vintages that rank among the best in the world.

Many vineyards offer wine tasting for free, or at a small fee. This is one of the best chance to savour some of the finest wines without breaking the bank. In fact, the ultra posh Delaire Graff Estate (of Graff Diamonds fame) offers a tasting menu of their best wines in their classy lounge. In retail outlets worldwide, each bottle can easily cost a few hundred US dollars!

Stellenbosch vineyard
Grape vines in a vineyard in Franschhoek
The valley of Stellenbosch
In the distance, a mountain range separates Franschhoek from Stellenbosch
Stellenbosch wine tasting
A spot of wine tasting in Stellenbosch



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Day 10: Play with penguins at Simon’s Town

Once again, head westwards and towards the coast to the Simon’s Town. Located at the Cape Peninsula and right at the doorstep of Cape Town, Simon’s Town is home to a colony of penguins. Somehow, these birds found a place to live right in the heart of a bustling seaside town. Today, the colony is protected by barriers and sharp-eyed attendants, who make sure no harm comes to the cuddly and playful African penguins.

Penguin colony in Simon's Town
The African penguin colony in Simon’s Town
Penguins in Simon Town
Two penguins slip out of the colony to… Netflix and chill?

If you have time to spare, take an enjoyable drive through the scenic Chapman’s Peak Drive. Once thought to be impossible to carve a road through challenging cliffs and loose rocks, a road was finally opened in 1922 to much fanfare. This is one of the few toll roads you’ll face, but it’s worth every cent that pays for its upkeep.

End the day at the nearby Camps Bay, yet another bustling seaside town with nice beach vibes reminiscent of Venice Beach in California. Jostle for space on the crowded beach, or just relax and watch the sun set under the horizon out at sea.

Chapman Peak Drive
Chapman’s Peak Drive was an engineering feat back in 1922
The crowds at Camps Bay
The busy boulevard of Camps Bay



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Day 11: Visit the dramatic cliffs at Cape Point

As you shake off the sand from your slippers and shorts, prepare for a day of nature and hiking. The tip of the Cape Peninsula is a national park filled with fynbos, a unique class of plants found exclusively along the coast of South Africa. You’ll know them when you see them, as they look otherworldly to most people.

The Cape Peninsula is famous for its milestone in seafaring history. This was where Bartolomeu Dias first rounded the African cape and reached the Indian Ocean in 1488. This set the Portuguese and other Europeans on a course to colonise various parts of Asia and the Pacific over the next five centuries.

The Cape of Good Hope is the point where southernmost tip of the Cape Peninsula lies, but don’t mistake it for the southernmost tip of Africa – that lies in Cape Agulhas, more than a hundred kilometers to the East and South!

The highlight of a visit to the Cape Peninsula national park is climbing up to Cape Point and getting a feel of the howling winds and rough seas that batter the cliffs and lighthouse relentlessly. Here, the weather is extremely unpredictable and deadly – which explains the many shipwrecks scattered all around this area.

The Cape Peninsula National Park
A sweeping landscape of the Cape Peninsula National Park
The lighthouse at Cape Point
The lighthouse at Cape Point.
The Cape of Good Hope
The marker locating the Cape of Good Hope



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Day 12: Climb Table Mountain and see Cape Town at its best

The last few days will be spent relaxing in Cape Town, and exploring this lively and energetic city. Table Mountain, a monolithic rock that towers Cape Town, is the much celebrated icon of the city and is worth a full-day to explore.

However, the flat summit of the mountain is susceptible to cloud cover, which can even cause the cable car to cease operation for safety reasons. Hence over the next 3 days, visit it as soon as you see clear skies.

If you’re feeling adventurous, physically fit and just a tad foolhardy, you can take on the Platteklip Gorge, which can only be described as going up, up and further up. The average hiker can climb the 1,000m cliff face in just under 3 hours, but you’ll likely spend a lot more time admiring the views while catching your breath. This is an exposed trail, so bring loads of water and a jacket – it’s not uncommon that low clouds will form without warning, causing visibility and temperature to fall dramatically.

Climbing the Platteklip Gorge
Climbing the Platteklip Gorge
The view from the Platteklip Gorge
The view from the Platteklip Gorge
The nightscape from the top of Table Mountain
The nightscape from the top of Table Mountain

Day 13 & 14: Explore Cape Town and wander around in one of the world’s most vibrant city

Two days is barely enough to cover Cape Town, but it’ll have to do in this tightly-packed itinerary. There’s loads to see here, but the main sights are:

  • V&A Waterfront: Pier-side restaurants, hipster markets, classy shops, and an awesome view of Table Mountain
  • Long Street: The main road connecting the CBD from end to end
  • Greenmarket Square: A historical square and outdoor market selling mostly African handicrafts
  • Robben Island: Infamous prison where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 out of 27 years spent behind bars
  • Company’s Gardens: Started as a small vegetable patch for the Dutch East India Company, it has expanded into a shady park that provides some cover from the scorching heat of the African sun.
  • Bo-Kaap: Rows of colourful and historical houses are home to the descendants of freed slaves, and this remains a popular photography spot today.

If you can find some time, join a free tour that covers different locations across Cape Town. With 3 scheduled tours every day, you might even spend an enriching day just walking with these professional and well-informed tour guides.

 

The V&A Waterfront
The V&A Waterfront with Table Mountain in the distance
Table mountain obscured by clouds
Table mountain obscured by clouds in bad weather
Drummers in Cape Town
Adding to the vibrant city scene, these drummers start playing a rhythmic beat

Dining in South Africa

South Africa remains an affordable place to dine, even in decent casual restaurants where a satisfying meal can cost around USD 6. Local wines are also affordable and many excellent choices can be purchased for less than USD 5.

The usual American fast food chains are easily found in large towns and cities, but try out the homegrown chain Nandos. And yes, they’re not Portuguese as many have come to believe.

Adventurous diners can also go for game meat like zebra, antelope and crocodile. If you’re not so much into exotic meat, ostrich meat is a more palatable choice that tastes almost like beef steak.

Ostrich meat from the supermarket
Ostrich meat from the supermarket

A legacy from the colonial era, Cape Malays were brought in from Southeast Asia by the Dutch long ago. While their population has largely integrated with the rest of South Africa, their cuisine still retains the heavy influence of Asian spices. You can try excellent Cape Malay food in Bo-Kaap Kombuis.

Cape Malay cuisine
Cape Malay cuisine served by the Bo-Kaap Kombuis

Lastly, you have to spend at least one evening grilling over a braai. The South African version of the barbeque is extremely popular with locals, and goes on till late in the night as an endless supply of meat is heaped onto a wood-fuelled fire.

Enjoying a braai as the sun sets
Enjoying a braai as the sun sets

Safety

Parts of South Africa is still unsafe for tourists, especially in the shanty towns and the larger cities. Stick to areas frequented by tourists, and you should be relatively safe. If mugged, avoid fighting back if you can. If your life in danger, look for opportunities to run to crowded areas. Unfortunately, crime is still a major social issue that plagues South African society.

AIDS is also an issue here, and it is wise to avoid unprotected sex with strangers. If you have to, use a condom and go for a health screening back home. Do not share syringes, and avoid taking injections in dingy clinics. You’ll probably know it when you’re there.

South African roads are in excellent condition, but some drivers are not. Drink driving is a major issue, and the generous speed limit contributes to an abysmal accident record. Practise defensive driving and observe the cars around you for erratic behavior. If in doubt, slow down and keep to the side or turn-off into a town.

Speeding down the highway
Driving the highway at the speed limit

Conclusion

While South Africa shakes off the shackles of Apartheid, it also finds itself serving as regional leader among other smaller African nations. This is a place of stark differences, as you can tell when driving past whitewashed seaside towns located just beside a shantytown.

But there is hope that in time, inclusiveness among its different people will bring the nation forward. The South African national anthem is a mixture of 5 languages, and there are 11 official languages for this nation. But there is order in this chaos, and things work as you expect them to. If you’re looking for a relatively fuss-free adventure into Africa, let South Africa be your first choice for a travel destination.

Additional Notes

If you start your trip from Cape Town, you can simply travel in the opposite direction. Mona Corona has a South African itinerary to take on this route in 2 weeks or less.

A Guide To Khardung La, Diskit & Hunder In The Nubra Valley Of Ladakh

view of nubra valley, hunder and diskit

Nestled amidst the mountains of the Himalayas, the Nubra Valley of Ladakh is relatively isolated from the rest of Ladakh. Here, farmers and herders rub shoulders with tourists going on rafting excursions, while monks live in relative seclusion in the ancient Diskit Monastery.

At first glance, the Nubra Valley looks like a lush oasis in the middle of a high altitude desert. But this is a place of extremes, as an unlikely sand dune desert separating two massive mountains can attest to. In this guide, you’ll learn more about this unique destination, and what to see and do here.

Getting to the Nubra Valley

It’s relatively easy to get to the Nubra Valley, if you aren’t rushed for time. Buses depart from Leh thrice a week, and is the cheapest way to travel. Alternatively, sharing a taxi is a more comfortable experience, albeit at a higher but still affordable price.

The road leading to Nubra Valley first climbs a thousand meters to 18,380 ft at Khardung La. With a bold claim as the world’s highest motorable road, most travellers make a pit-stop here for photographs in front of the outpost signboard. There’s even an account of hiking up to Khardung La on foot.

From Khardung La, the road winds down the mountain. Eventually, you’ll start to see trees and a fast-flowing river which meanders towards Diskit, recognisable by its huge monastery and 32m statue of the Maitreya Buddha.

Another 8km down the road past the sand dunes, and you’ll reach the farms of Hunder. Here you can find accommodation for the night.

Mountain road to Nubra Valley from Leh
A convoy of cars take on the mountain roads towards the Nubra Valley
Road to Nubra valley by motorbike
Motorbiking is a popular and adventurous way to travel

Travelling by bus

Government-run buses head out from Leh to Diskit every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 8am. The bus ride takes almost 8 to 11 hours, depending on the condition of the road. Each ticket cost 200 Rupees, and you’ll need to get them at the Leh bus station. As this bus fills up quickly, you should book a seat at least one day before your trip.

The return bus will leave the next day from Diskit at 7am, so it’s every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. If you decide to spend an extra day in the Nubra Valley and skip the ride back, you can still find shared taxis plying this route throughout the day.

Travelling by taxi

If you afford the price, getting to the Nubra Valley by taxi is definitely worth the price. The travel time is cut down to a mere 5 hours, punctuated by a few short breaks at scenic lookouts. Nubra Valley is devoid of public transport (apart from the daily long-distance bus), and it’s also a lot easier to explore the area with a vehicle.

The city centre of Leh is chock-full of tour agencies that can help backpackers find other travellers to share a taxi with. The price of a taxi is regulated by their union, and the rate for a 2-day trip in 2017 is 10,566 Rupees. This price is shared between all the travellers, so try to maximise the taxi capacity if you’re on a budget.

Hiring a taxi to Nubra Valley
Shared taxis line the carpark outside the Diskit Monastery

Khardung La

The first part of the journey is exhilarating, as you climb a thousand meters on winding roads cut into the sides of the Himalayan mountains. By taxi, it takes about one and a half hour to reach the top, marked by a small military outpost, some tourist shops and a small canteen.

While Khardung La’s claim to fame is disputed, the threat of altitude sickness is real. Most travellers stop here for less than an hour, taking the usual medley of photographs and stopping over at the canteen for a cup of chai and a bowl of instant noodles. Interestingly, there’s a small banner narrating the history of maggi company right outside the canteen. In a desolate and frigid place like Khardung La, this speaks volumes about digging into a bowl of this humble yet comforting instant noodles.

Khardung La prayer flags
Prayer flags flutter in the wind at Khardung La
View from Khardung La
The amazing high-altitude view from Khardung La
Khardung La signboard
Everyone needs a selfie at Khardung La!
Canteen at Khardung La
The local army-run canteen at Khardung La

Driving down the mountains

From Khardung La, the gravel road hugs the side of the mountain and zigzags every so often. Bearing towards the village of Khardung, the grey rocky landscape is occasionally interrupted by a green shrub. Half an hour later, a green meadow welcomes travellers to Khardung, and more importantly, yet another military checkpoint.

Meadow in Nubra Valley from Khardung Village
Passing by a meadow near Khardung Village

Security in Ladakh

Jammu and Kashmir, the mountainous state where Ladakh is located in, is still a restive area. With the partition of India still a recent memory, expect numerous security checkpoints on major roads outside Leh. More importantly, travellers need to register for a security permit before travelling to major sightseeing places like Pangong Lake, Nubra Valley and Tso Moriri.

Most travellers can get this permit within a day at Leh. However, some nationalities will face more problems depending on the current geopolitical climate. For example, China and India are still tussling for dominance at their Himalayan borders. Hongkongers and Macau residents are treated like Chinese nationals, and may apply for a security permit in Delhi only. If you’re visiting Leh without one, you’ll be limited to exploring the city and the small towns along its outskirts only.

The canyon-esque landscape

To some, driving to Nubra Valley is itself is part of the attraction. Passing through some of the most dramatic landscape in Ladakh, you’ll come across sections that look remarkably like the Grand Canyon, albeit smaller. Carved out by an unassuming river over thousands of years, it gradually widens and expands into the valley up ahead.

It is this river that sustains life in the Nubra Valley. Unlike the polluted rivers elsewhere in India, the fresh glacier water here is a refreshing sight to behold. And if you’re looking for an adventure, this is where you can take on the white water rapids on a rafting excursion too!

Valley on the way from Nubra Valley
A roaring river winds along a chasm

Diskit Monastery

Diskit is recognisable from the huge red and white Buddhist monastery sprawled across the mountainside. Built in the 14th century, this ancient place of worship tells of a remarkable story involving a Mongol warrior who dies mysteriously during an invasion. In a dimly lit prayer hall, a white six-handed deity cradles a withered arm, purportedly of the Mongol warrior. The locals claim that his head lies somewhere else in the monastery too.

If you’re able to make the climb up to the top (bearing in mind that this is still 3,000m above sea level), the panoramic views from the top of the monastery is stunning. It overlooks the river to the right, the tree-lined farms on the right, and the Maitreya statue in the middle. In a remote town hundreds of kilometers away, and perched up high with the ascetic Buddhist monks… this is a good place to reflect on life, at least for a while.

Diskit Monastery from far
The Diskit Monastery from afar
Diskit monastery
Entering the Diskit Monastery
Diskit Monastery view
The view from the top, along with some creepy wooden skulls?

The Maitreya Statue

Just a short drive away, a 32m tall statue of the Maitreya Buddha gazes out serenely into the valley down below. Walk around the statue in a clockwise manner, or let an irate monk shout at you to do so. From the front of the statue, enjoy another amazing view of Diskit and nearby Hunder. And all around you, devotees go about their prayers as part of their pilgrimage.

Maitreya statue in Diskit
The Maitreya statue in Diskit

The sand dunes of Nubra Valley

Miles away from the massive sandy deserts of western China, it’s hard to imagine a sand dune desert up high in the mountains. But here in the Nubra Valley, you can ride double-humped Bactrian camels across the sandy ground, with towering walls of rock stretching up from both sides of the valley.

During the day, this place is full of tourists and visitors going on camel rides, enjoying a picnic, or just playing around in the sand. Jump into the fray and have a tumble down a dune, but beware of the many camel droppings littered across!

Sand dunes of Hunder
Climbing up a sand dune is no easy feat
Bactrian camels at Hunder sand dunes
Young Bactrian camels at the Hunder sand dunes
Camel rides in Hunder
Tourists taking camel rides across the desert

Staying overnight in the Nubra Valley

As the day winds down, you might have enough time to visit a plantation. Some guesthouses grow their own fruits as well, and you might have a chance to taste their apricots or apples.

Finding a guesthouse is relatively easy, with many choices in both Diskit and Hunder. Due to the remoteness of this area, mobile phone reception and electrical supply is in short order here. If you’re lucky, you might enjoy a spot of WiFi for the evening, as the power grid turns on from 7pm to 11pm. Otherwise, bring a good book and settle in for a quiet night.

Guesthouse in Hunder
A guesthouse in Hunder, surrounded by lush greenery
Fruits in Hunder plantation
Fruits grow surprisingly well at this height



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Leaving the Nubra Valley

From the Nubra Valley, consider returning to Leh for more connections to other places in Ladakh. Otherwise, head further in and visit the hot springs of Panamik to relax. You can also try to get as close as possible to the world’s highest battlefield, the Siachen Glacier. If you’re on a two-day trip by taxi, there’s enough time to squeeze in a bit of breakfast before setting out again.

But as you travel out again and up to Khardung La, take a moment to appreciate living in this rugged part of the world. If you want to get off the beaten track… well, this is it.

A Guide To Aurora Watching & Staying In A Glass Igloo At The Kakslauttanen Resort

glass igloo in kakslauttanen

Near the small Finnish Lapland town of Saariselkä, a hotel captures the imagination of many around the world. It’s no luxury hotel, that’s for sure. The hotel staff explains, through a forced smile, that you need to take your own damn luggage to your own room. And yes, you need to book your dog sled tour through them, or you aren’t going anywhere mister.

But at 500 Euros per night for a double room (Winter 2017), this is an eye-wateringly high price even for Finnish standards. Undoubtedly, there’s few places like it, and the Kakslauttanen resort knows this. So it welcomes guests nevertheless, with that same forced smile and a budget airline business model.

luggage sled to glass igloos in kakslauttanen

The Glass Igloos of Kakslauttanen

It’s these videos circulating around social media, that makes everyone stop for a moment and think – yeah, I should get there, before the aurora stops working.

The good news is, the aurora’s light show will still be around. The bad news is, the price of an igloo stay will probably still remain the same.

Getting to Kakslauttanen

Transport in Finland, especially above the Arctic Circle, is expensive. There’s no cheap public buses to shuttle you around, so my recommendation is to rent a car and drive. You’ll appreciate the convenience in covering huge distances across the snowy countryside too.

Driving around by rental car

Driving on the dark, icy roads of Lapland might put off some travellers, especially if you’ve never done anything like it before. Fortunately, the road network is well-maintained, especially along the main highways. The surroundings are also seldom pitch dark, as the snow by the sides of the road glow in the moonlight.

Rental cars are also equipped to handle the driving conditions. Most come with snow tires, heaters and a cable that attaches to power sockets available in almost every parking lot. By keeping them connected to your car overnight, you keep the engines from freezing. Who knew!

To get from the main Arctic Circle town of Rovaniemi to the Kakslauttanen resort, you’ll want to prepare:

  • A GPS app. You don’t need to rent one, just save the right Google Map in your Smartphone, or use the free Sygic app.
  • Water and snacks to take along the way. There’s not a lot of truck stops between towns.
  • Loads of Christmas songs in an MP3 player, to set the right mood. To quote an employee from the Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi, “It’s Christmas for almost 5 months in a year!”

renting a car to kakslauttanen

Taking a bus into Kakslauttanen

The nearest airport to Kakslauttanen is Ivalo, a 30 minute bus ride away. It costs € 9.30 per trip, and buses run in 1-2 hour intervals. Alternatively, a bus ride from Rovaniemi costs € 47.20 and takes 3 hours.

To book tickets, check out Matkahuolto, which has bus schedules from all over Finland.

bus from ivalo to kakslauttanen

What to expect in the glass igloo

The first thing to note about booking the 2-person glass igloo is that it lacks a shower. There’s a small toilet with a sink inside, for the late nights when it simply is too cold to step outside. But to shower, you’ll need to visit the common bathroom nearby. On the plus side, it comes with a sauna, so you can work up a sweat even in -20°C weather.

The igloo itself is basic, with a gaudy double bed occupying most of the interior. The bed is pretty remarkable though, as a remote control adjusts the reclining angle to an optimum height for aurora gazing.

bed in glass igloo of kakslauttanen

Since this structure is almost entirely made of glass, retractable curtains offer the occupants some privacy at night. But the unspoken rule is that everyone should turn off their lights once they’re settled in. Light glare almost always spoils night photography, but thankfully most occupants want the lights off as eagerly as you do.

light pollution at aurora in kakslauttanen

If you’re not content at gazing up into the heavens throughout the night and willing auroras to appear, you need to bring your own entertainment. There’s no TV or radio, or anything entertaining in particular, and the resort itself doesn’t have much to explore after the first hour or so. With no WiFi reception at the igloos too, a physical book might be your best bet.

Activities at the Kakslauttanen resort

Daylight hours range from nothing in the dead of winter to a full 24 hours of the summer sun in Lapland. For most people, life goes on as normal, and activities like dog sledding, aurora hunting, snowmobile excursions and skiing take place during ‘daytime’.

Kakslauttanen do not allow external tour operators to pick up customers from their resort, as they offer their own tours. While this anti-competitive policy is pretty abhorrent, you can just take a short walk to the main gate to meet the tour operator of your choice. Most external operators maintain their own website with the price list, and are located in the nearby town of Saariselkä.

For some affordable fun, rent a pair of skis and just go cross-country skiing by yourself. It’s not exactly a ski resort, but you won’t complain about the lack of snow if you visit in winter.

dog sledding in lapland

Dining at the Kakslauttanen resort

Every igloo stay comes with a mandatory breakfast and dinner, which is added onto the price of the accommodation. Again an anti-competitive condition, but few will complain as the resort is far from the nearest non-resort restaurant in Saariselkä.

You can save a bit on lunch by making sandwiches. The Kuukkeli supermarket in Saariselkä is pretty well-stocked, and even sells disposable barbeque pits if you’re up for a spot of outdoor grilling.

dining room in kakslauttanen

main course in kakslauttanen

How is the aurora viewing experience like?

Auroras are a tricky thing to predict, and you won’t know if you’ll see any, even on the day itself. Many locals swear by Aurora Service, which deserves every cent donated to keep their good work going. In a nutshell, a KP reading of above 3 carries a good chance of aurora sightings. KP4 and more is a signal of strong solar radiation colliding with the Earth’s magnetosphere.

Auroras do not suddenly pop up over Kakslauttanen, as one might imagine. Instead, it slowly starts and moves across from the north pole, where the radiation is strongest. If the radiation is sufficiently strong, you’ll start seeing a tinge of white on the horizon. You might think, well that’s too bad, the clouds are coming in.

Then over the next hour, the clouds move closer to you, but they don’t register anything more than mild annoyance. You came all this way, and it looks like a dry night. But then people start emerging from their igloo with their DSLRs and tripods. They start chattering excitedly, pointing at the clouds.

first signs of aurora in kakslauttanen lapland

Over the course of the next 15 minutes, people will stumble out of their igloos, some obviously woken up from their sleep. If you’re lucky, the aurora will reach Kakslauttanen and move right above you in the igloo. The thing is, this may happen at 8pm, or it may happen at 4am. But if it does happen, enjoy the moment – you’re now part of a group of privileged people who have seen the aurora up-close and in person.

aurora from inside glass igloo in kakslauttanen

Quick tips to aurora photography

The bottomline is, you need a proper camera to take good photos, unless the aurora is super strong. A smartphone or a compact camera will not suffice except in KP4-5 conditions, and you don’t want to be disappointed when that doesn’t happen. For the effort of coming all the way down and paying top dollar for staying in the igloo, it’s worth coming prepared.

To take decent photos of the aurora, you’ll need:

  • DSLR camera. You’ll need to take photos from outside the igloo.
  • A proper tripod. Small ones that extend 30 cm won’t work, as the layer of snow is way taller than that.
  • A remote control, so you can keep snapping photos from the comfort of your igloo.
  • A lens with large-ish aperture (F2.2 or less recommended, but optional)

aurora photography

The skill of taking night photographs is an entire topic by itself, but basically you should set your camera to a high ISO, long shutter speed and large aperture (small F-stop number). This will give you the best chance of capturing as much light as possible. Also, capture in RAW format if you can afford to. Auroras have vivid colours and visual nuances that can be brought to life during image post-processing.

Without a camera, auroras look white in colour, like clouds. A DSLR can work as an early warning system, as you periodically take photos of the horizon facing north. If you see green patches over the skies, sit back and smile. It’s your lucky night, and a good time to pop the champagne!

aurora in finnish lapland

Is a trip to Kakslauttanen worth the price tag?

It’s one of the few places that offers an unparalleled aurora gazing experience. A visit here also gives you instant bragging rights to your annoying rich friends, who routinely boast about their luxury wildlife safaris and Maldives vacations.

If there are available igloos to book on the spot when you arrive, you might be able to predict your chances of viewing auroras before putting your money down. But very likely, you’ll need to reserve an igloo and deal with the chances of a no-show when you’re there.

In any case, this is a bucket list place. You’ll want to be there, because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Is it worth the price tag? Sure. But you need to have enough money for the rest of your trip as well. Alas Finland, and especially Lapland, isn’t a place to travel easily on a shoestring budget.

The 2-day trek from Hsipaw to the remote Palaung hill tribes of Myanmar

2-day trek from Hsipaw to Palaung hill tribes of Myanmar

Off-limits to foreigners until very recently, Hsipaw is now an increasingly popular destination for backpackers and trekkers looking for an off-the-beaten-track experience. The popular 2-day hill-tribes trek takes visitors into the remote Palaung villages of northern Myanmar, which stretches towards the border of China.

This area is still recovering from a civil war, and grim reminders still crop up occasionally. In 2016, a German tourist hiking away from the main trail was injured by a landmine. The bloody fights between drug gangs, militia and soldiers are also still fresh in the minds of the villagers living here.

Don’t let that discourage you from visiting this picturesque place though. Myanmar is fast becoming yet another noisy commercial urban sprawl, and it’s only a matter of time before mass tourism reaches this lush paradise. In this travelogue, you’ll find out how to get here, what to do and see, and what to expect during the hike up.

Hsipaw trek scenery 2 day trek
This amazing scenery unfolds as you climb up the hills

Getting to Hsipaw

The easiest way to reach Hsipaw is by taking the daily train from Mandalay, which slowly chugs uphill over the course of the day. It is advisable to buy your ticket early, as you’ll want to get a reserved seat in the upper class cabin. At 3,950 Kyat, it’s an affordable upgrade for a comfortable, albeit non-air conditioned ride.

The train departs Mandalay at 4am, when much of the city is still asleep. En-route to Hsipaw, the train passes through the town of Pyin Oo Lwin at around 8am. This is a quaint colonial hill station that deserves a visit as well if you have the time.

This journey is also eventful as it crosses the Gokteik Viaduct, a spectacular white bridge that spans a wide valley bounded by deep chasms. Built by the Americans in 1901, this was the highest span of any bridge in the British empire when it was first completed. The train slows down to a crawl when crossing the bridge, so you’ll get a good view of the valley below. Just be aware that the authorities may prevent you from taking photos on the Gokteik bridge as a security measure, although many tourists get away with it these days.

The train rolls into Hsipaw in the afternoon, although delays of a few hours are not uncommon. Hsipaw has a few guesthouses, the most popular one being Mr Charles’ Guesthouse. You’ll also find several restaurants, grocery stores and backpackers milling around the area – a sure sign that change will soon come to this sleepy town.

gokteik bridge to lashio
The Gokteik Bridge can take only one train at a time
Excited schoolkids riding the train to their village
Excited schoolkids riding the train to their village

Where to stay in Hsipaw

There’s limited accommodation options in Hsipaw, although progress is slowly coming into the town. Check out these deals on Booking.com:



Booking.com

Finding a tour guide to hike up the hills

Most backpackers make a beeline for Mr Charles’ Guesthouse to join a tour group for the hike. Tours depart everyday, so you can probably make it if you’re there early before 8am. They also have a place to leave your luggage, so just prepare a small bag with a change of clothes, sunblock, a pair of sunglasses, a camera and at least a large bottle of water. A good pair of hiking shoes will also make the hike a lot more comfortable.

The 2-day hike costs around US$25, including 2 lunches, 1 dinner and 1 breakfast for the next day. The guides are mostly young men from the hill tribes, and they take pride in bringing visitors to their village. As such, part of the revenue from the tour goes to the hill tribes, and contributes to their development and recovery from years of unrest.

Mr Charles Guesthouse in Hsipaw
Mr Charles Guesthouse in Hsipaw

What to expect during the hike

The trail is generally flat, with stretches of steep slopes and a trod through the occasional mud track. It’s strenuous for sure, especially during the initial climb up. In the tropical heat, stay constantly hydrated to prevent heat exhaustion and to keep your spirits up.

There’ll be regular breaks every two to three hours, sometimes at scenic lookouts with a small hut and benches. During mealtimes, you’ll be invited to a local villager’s hut for some warm, authentic Palaung cuisine – almost always locally grown vegetables cooked with fresh spices.

By late afternoon, the group will reach a hill tribe village to rest overnight. After dinner and a quick shower, the group will gather around and trade war stories of travelling around Southeast Asia. Eventually, everyone will start to drift off to sleep, to recover for another full day back the same way.

muddy tracks in hsipaw trek
You may need to take on muddy tracks in the hill tribe trek
maize along the hsipaw hill tribe trek
Maize grows abundantly in plantations along the way

The food of the Palaung people

To feed a group of hungry hikers, the host will whip up a communal meal laden with various vegetables grown nearby. With ingredients like carrots, potatoes, rice and the quiessential tea leaf salad, there’ll be plenty of food for everyone.

If you’re a die-hard carnivore wh must have some meat, you’ll have to take some along yourself. In the hill tribes of Myanmar, meat is a luxury few can afford, and the local Buddhist philosophy discourages the taking of another life.

Lunch at a hill tribe village
Having a filling lunch at a hill tribe village
tea leaf salad myanmar
The tea leaf salad is a popular dish in Burmese cuisine

Spending the night in the village

Breathlessly clambering up into the last village to spend the night, you’ll be greeted with warm smiles. The guide checks the group into a room for the night, basically a large wooden hut on stilts. There is no ensuite toilet though. To do a number 2, or if you really must, a number 1, you’ll need to head out almost 10 meters to a field toilet. It’s far away enough from the hut, but not too far for you to think, ah never mind I’ll just do it under the hut since no one’s watching.

Dinner is served in the same way as lunch, with 4 to 5 dishes to accompany steaming white rice. Comparing each other’s trembling hands and aching feet are the main conversational topic, while everyone digs into the food with gusto. Miles away from the nearest urban settlement, surrounded by a dense jungle just starting to come alive with indistinct chirps, this might be the most satisyfing meal in your life yet.

After dinner and a quick shower in a makeshift open-air cubicle, you’ll want to finally collapse onto a comfortable bed. Alas no. But under individual mosquito nets, on a thin mattress and sleeping alongside snoring backpackers, you’ll drift off to sleep nevertheless.

walking through a hill tribe Palaung village
The slopes may get slippery after rain, so tread carefully!
The Palaung village where the trekkers spend the night in
The Palaung village where the trekkers spend the night in

The hike back to Hsipaw

Waking up to the sound of schoolchildren and the blinding sunlight outside (most assuredly, no one will wake up early), the group takes the same route back to Hsipaw. Even when retracing your footsteps, the path looks different. You’ll discover new viewpoints, even prettier landscapes and distant villages that you didn’t notice yesterday.

As the hike nears the end, the familiar sounds of vehicles and machinery fill the air. You walk past provision shops selling chocolates, and restaurants serving chicken meat. Signboards and electric cables follow you as you head back to the guesthouse.

Hsipaw, a town that you barely knew before. But after 2 days going back to basics in the hills… somehow this feels like home now.

Driving Down The Karakoram Highway (KKH) – A Travelogue Of Kashgar, Karakul Lake And The Tajik Town of Tashkurgan

tashkorgan stone fortress

The Karakoram Highway connects Western China to Pakistan. Along the way, it passes through the ancient Silk Road towns of Kashgar and Tashkurgan towards South Asia. The road winds past the scenic alpine Lake Karakul, through picturesque valleys and up the rugged mountain ranges of the Himalayas.

The starting point – The ancient Silk Road town of Kashgar

Located in southwestern Xinjiang at the crossroads of China, Central Asia and Europe, Kashgar is steeped in the history of many cultures. The 2-day journey to the Tajik town of Tashkurgan begins from here.

Kashgar is famous for it’s bustling Sunday Bazaar, the chaotic Livestock Market, and the atmospheric Old City. It’s also a great place to soak in the Uighur culture, sample their cuisine, and just sit by the streets to people watch.

The Islamic architecture of the Kashgar Old City
The Islamic architecture of the Kashgar Old City

Applying for a security permit to enter Tashkurgan

You’ll need a security permit to enter this region of Xinjiang. This area borders central Asian states and Pakistan, and the inhabitants are mostly Tajiks and Kyrgyz people. It can sometimes feel like being in separate country outside China!

To apply for the security permit yourself, head over to the Tashkurgan Administrative Office with your passport. Alternatively, a travel agency can do it for a small fee, saving you time in navigating through the red tape. It might be worth your time, especially if you’re on a tight timeline.

Getting from Kashgar to Tashkurgan via the Karakoram Highway

There are several ways to find your way down to Tashkurgan:

  • Hiring a private driver through a tour agency
  • Hiring a private driver near the Tashkurgan Administrative Office
  • Getting onto a bus that goes to Tashkurgan
  • Getting onto a bus that crosses the border into Pakistan

Hire a driver through a tour agency

The easiest option is to hire a private driver from a tour agency. They’ll settle all the paperwork that is required An English-speaking driver from a reputable company will help ease the journey with toilet stops, meal breaks and guide you through the tense security checkpoints. He’ll also prove invaluable as a translator when talking to the Krygyz and Tajik people you meet along the way. A reliable and fairly priced tour operator is Uighur Tours, run by the amiable Mr Ali.

On the Karakoram Highway, camels share the road with other vehicles
On the Karakoram Highway, camels share the road with other vehicles

Hire a private driver near the Tashkurgan Administration Office

If you’re a little tight on budget, you can still get a local driver to drive down to Tashkurgan. At the Tashkurgan Administrative Office at 西域大道166号, tout-ish Tajik guys will approach bewildered tourists and offer their services. Make sure you get all the paperwork settled first, and check that they’re all in order. What’s the worst that could happen? Well, you could get sent back towards Kashgar at the military checkpoint, after 3 hours on the Karakoram Highway.

Take the local bus that goes to Tashkurgan

The cheapest option is to take the public bus that also goes to Tashkurgan. While this is definitely an adventure in itself, online chatter is abuzz about backpackers being turned away at the checkpoint… without the bus.

The ride costs 51 Yuan each way, takes about 6 hours, and leaves at 8am and 3pm daily. One thing to consider when taking the bus is the lack of stops along the Karakoram Highway. You’ll whizz past a lot of the interesting sights and places mentioned in the next section, including the magnificent Karakul Lake. Depending on what you want to do, this might be an acceptable tradeoff.

Take the international bus that goes to Pakistan

A tested option for getting to Tashkurgan by bus is by going across the border to Pakistan. The condition, of course, is to have a valid Pakistan visa. This is also one for the bucket list, as the bus passes through the Khunjerab Pass, the world’s highest paved international border crossing. At 4,693m above sea level, drink plenty of water to stave off altitude sickness.

Drive through the village of Opal

The first stop along the Karakoram Highway is Opal, just 30 minutes by car or bus from Kashgar. In this region of Xinjiang, every town takes a turn to host a market every day of the week.With this arrangement, villagers do not need to travel all the way to Kashgar and fight the crowds of the Sunday Bazaar.

So every Monday, Opal transforms from a sleepy town to a bustling marketplace. Most of the daily goods sold in Kashgar are available here, including a livestock market in a small gated compound. It may not be as huge as the one in Kashgar, but the atmosphere is still undoubtedly electric.

Opal is a good place to stop for lunch and a toilet break, as it’s the last major town for the next few hours. For the rest of the journey to Tashkurgan, plumbing and flush toilets are a luxury that few have access to.

A fruit vendors lays out his produce in the Opal Village's Monday Market
A fruit vendors lays out his produce in the Opal Village’s Monday Market

Pass through multiple security checkpoints

Security checks are a fact of life in Xinjiang, more so in the autonomous regions bordering Central Asia. To travel along the Karakoram Highway, take along at least 3 photocopies of your newly issued security permit. At the three major checkpoints you’ll pass through, the officials might retain a copy of the permit after a tense staredown.

Relax. You’ll be fine, as long as the paperwork are in order.

The scenic lookout at White Sands Lake (白沙湖)

The first proper photography stop for many travellers is the White Sands Lake, a turquoise lake set in front of huge sand dune mountain. In this region where mountains are rocky giants, this sand dune is seemingly out of place. After all, this isn’t anywhere near the singing sands of Dunhuang, or the Taklamakan desert.

The first thing you’d notice is the incessant whipping of the wind. Then the row of hardy Kyrgyz vendors, selling souvenirs and pretty stones to tourists. There’s really not much more to do, apart from taking loads of photographs and walking right up to the shore. Take some photos and continue onwards, for the next stop is yet another jewel on the Karakoram Highway.

The mysterious white sand dunes along the Karakoram Highway
The mysterious white sand dunes along the Karakoram Highway
Chairman Mao souvenirs are an unexpected sight in the middle of the Karakoram Highway
Chairman Mao souvenirs are an unexpected sight in the middle of the Karakoram Highway

Find serenity by the shores of Karakul Lake (卡拉库里湖)

It certainly earns its reputation as a place of marvellous beauty. This is a serene body of shimmering blue water, towered by the snow-capped beauty of Mount Muztagh (7,546m). Along the shores, the local Kyrgyz nomads live in yurts and rear herds of sheep, camels and horses. It’s a far cry from the touristy Kazakh yurts near the Tianshan Lake in Ürümqi.

In the past, tourists were able to stay in a yurt overnight. Unfortunately, recent security measures now restrict overnight stays in the yurts of Karakul Lake. You can only stay here for a few hours, and then carry on to Tashkurgan to spend the night.

There’s plenty of things to do at Karakul Lake though, by yourself or by engaging the services of enterprising Kyrgyz locals.

Hike along the shores of the lake

Karakul Lake is not too large, and makes for an enjoyable 3-4 hour hike around its rocky shores. The surroundings is pretty exposed though, so bring along a waterproof jacket and plenty of water. On the opposite side of the lake, there really isn’t any easy way to return to the start, except to complete the loop.

karakul lake at karakoram highway
The serene Karakul Lake

Ride a horse around the lake

The local Kyrgyz offer slightly pricy horse rides to tourists. It’s an experience though, and set in spectacular scenery. You’ll also be in the good hands of skilled horsemen, many of whom are descended from the fearsome nomadic warriors of the Mongolian steppes. It ain’t a pony ride in a laidback farm, that’s for sure.

Kyrgyz horse riding along Lake Karakul
A Kyrgyz horse rider passing by Lake Karakul

 

Explore the lake on the back of a motorbike

You don’t actually ride up to the peak of Mount Muztagh, actually. But enterprising locals offer motorbike rides around the lake, which may be thrilling alternative to horse rides.

motorbike kyrgyz locals at karakul lake
The Krygyz people stay in yurts at Karakul Lake

Visit a Kyrgyz yurt and stop for some tea and a meal

The Kyrgyz are really friendly and welcoming. Your driver or guide can easily introduce you to a family, who will welcome you into their yurt. The host will offer you salted milk tea and some nan bread, as you sit and warm yourself by a small stove. For a small fee, the host will also prepare a steaming bowl of laghman noodles, which is probably good for a midday meal. There’s still a few more hours to go on the road to Tashkurgan!

Karakul Lake offers scenic views of the mountains from all around
Karakul Lake offers scenic views of the mountains from all around

Marvel at the vast expanse of the Taheman Grasslands (塔合曼)

Just less than an hour away from Tashkurgan, you’ll pass by the Taheman Grasslands. This is yet another unmissable scenic highlight along the Karakoram Highway. There’s a lookout point with a small parking area, which is good to get out and stretch for a bit.

Look out from the elevated vantage point, and admire the huge grassland unfolding into the distance. On a good day, you might be lucky to see herders bringing their horses to graze here!

taheman grassland at karakoram highway
The Taheman Grassland, from a vantage point just along the Karakoram Highway

Explore the town of Tashkurgan (塔什库尔干)

You’ll finally reach Tashkurgan after a full day’s drive, probably by late afternoon. While it’s too late to visit the main sights, you can check out the local restaurants and shops.

On first look, this town might look like a desolate frontier Soviet town. Wide roads are devoid of pedestrians, and a central monument stands in the middle of a roundabout. But head further past the town ‘center’, and you’ll come to busy restaurants where the locals gather over a hearty meal.

There doesn’t seem to be a supermarket in Tashkurgan though, so your best bet is the many general provision stores found at every other intersection. While this is a Tajik town, many pioneering Han Chinese have started businesses far from their hometowns in the eastern part of China. If you’re looking for a beer or Chinese wine, you’ll find them in these Chinese-run stores.

tashkurgan town centre
Tashkurgan is a small town, centered around this majestic statue
tashkurgan main street shops
The main street of Tashkurgan is lined with shops selling basic products. You won’t find a Gucci here.

Climbing up to the stone fortress of Tashkurgan

The name Tashkurgan means “Stone Fortress” in the Turkic languages. It’s no surprise though, as there really is a massive stone fortress overlooking the town. Dating back over 2,000 years, this ancient town was a major caravan stopover along the Silk Road, before different paths branch out into Pakistan, China and Central Asia.

The fortress itself is a shell, with much of the interior ruined after centuries of occupation and neglect. It still looks very impressive from outside though, and a visual spectacle when backdropped by the snow-capped mountains. To get in, you’ll need to pay an entrance fee, which is worth it for the amazing views of the town and grasslands below.

The Tashkorgan Stone Fortress, which dates back to the ancient Silk Road
The Tashkorgan Stone Fortress, which dates back to the ancient Silk Road
The Tashkorgan Stone Fortress
You can walk up to the fortress and take in the sights of the surrounding landscape
tashkorgan stone fortress ruins
The walls of the fortress are still surprisingly intact after centuries of neglect

Walk across the Golden Grasslands

In front of the fort, and stretching up to the nearby mountains, the Golden Grasslands is home to many Tajik yurts and grazing livestock. To help tourists get just a bit further into the grassland without getting their shoes wet on the marshy soil, the authorities have built a network of boardwalk paths in the shape of an eagle.

Walking on the boardwalk is free, and offers amazing views of the stone fortress and the nearby yurts. If you’re not afraid of getting your shoes wet, step off the boardwalk and tread on the lush green ground. After all, you’re not properly visiting a grassland unless you’re walking on grass, right?

golden grassland tashkurgan
The Golden Grassland of Tashkurgan
river across golden grassland tashkurgan
A small stream cuts through the Golden Grassland, keeping this valley lush and fertile
boardwalk over golden grassland tashkurgan
Visitors can walk on the elevated boardwalk, which takes the shape of an eagle from above

Where to stay along the way on the Karakoram Highway

The best places to stay are the hotels or hostel in Tashkurgan. In Xinjiang, all visitors should only stay in registered hotels, so an overnight stay in a yurt is technically illegal.

For budget travellers and backpackers, the K2 Youth Hostel is the go-to place to stay. If you have a bit more money to spend on accommodation though, there are several hotels around Tashkurgan to stay at. Online portals might list only a few choices, so if you’re travelling with a driver or guide, there’s no need to book ahead. There’ll be plenty more to choose from once you’re there.

If you’re an intrepid adventurer looking to camp along the shores of Karakul Lake, you’re out of luck. Outdoor camping is usually illegal, and camping permits are hard to get. You might be able to find a quiet place to pitch a tent in a remote area, but the police or locals will insist you leave if they discover you.

When is the best time to visit the Karakoram Highway?

The Karakoram Highway is open from the start of May to the end of December. Outside of that, heavy snowfall makes driving a difficult and dangerous affair. June to September is an ideal time, as the summer weather is comfortably warm. However, watch out for rains in July and August, when mud might damage part of the highway.

The authorities regularly maintain the highway, so you’re usually travelling along good roads. Just factor in some extra time in Kashgar in case you’re delayed for a day or two.

karakoram highway
The Karakoram Highway winds up mountain roads as it near Tashkurgan

Travelling onwards from Tashkurgan

From Tashkurgan, some travellers will continue on to Pakistan. Most will return to Kashgar though, and continue exploring southern Xinjiang. Following our 14-day itinerary across Xinjiang, you can make a trip down to Hotan and the Taklamakan desert from there.

The Karakoram Highway is one of the world’s most amazing drives, and is definitely a must-do when visiting southern Xinjiang. Following the route taken by ancient traders along the Silk Road, this is one journey you won’t forget in a hurry!

A Guide To Popular Uighur Cuisine In Xinjiang

Xinjiang cuisine Uighur cuisine

Uighur cuisine is hearty and flavoured with loads of spices, influenced by ingredients and cooking techniques carried along the Silk Road. As the Uighurs are Muslims, their dishes are pork-free, and ingredients need to be prepared according to halal standards. In this guide, you’ll be introduced to some common dishes found in many restaurants and food stalls across Xinjiang.

Pilaf, Plov, Polo or Pulao (Chinese: Zhua Fan, 抓饭)

A staple dish in many central Asian countries, pilaf looks like paella but is actually cooked in broth and oil, giving it flavour and a slightly moist texture. Usually, pilaf is served with lamb or chicken pieces, vegetables or dried fruit.

If you’re looking to stave off hunger pangs, pilaf is an excellent choice. It’s affordable, comes in huge servings, and makes for a hearty meal. You can also check out Kashgar’s old city food bazaar for smaller portions of pilaf. (Recipe)

Xinjiang cuisine uighur cuisine pilaf plov
Polo or plov, which is rice cooked with oil and chunks of lamb

Lagman (Chinese: Ban Mian, 拌面)

Lagman is a simple yet elegant dish of chewy hand-pulled noodles served with a sauce made from meat, vegetables and spices. To prepare the noodles, dough is first made from flour, water, salt and oil. This is then stretched into thin strands, usually with a flourish by slapping it onto a tabletop or a wooden board.

After the strands take shape into noodles, it is added to boiling water to cook, and then taken out and mixed with the sauce to serve. You can find Lagman almost everywhere too, and it’s also not too expensive for a very filling meal. (Recipe)

Xinjiang cuisine uighur cuisine la mian ban mian
La Mian or Ban Mian, a Chinese staple which might have inspired the spaghetti… or is it the other way?

Ding Ding Mian (Chinese: 丁丁麵)

Made in the same way as Lagman, the Ding Ding Mian is served in small pieces of noodles like macaroni, instead of the familiar long strands. It’s also served in a sauce of chopped meat, vegetables and spices, so the overall dish can be eaten easily with a spoon. (Recipe)

Xinjiang cuisine Uighur cuisine ding ding mian chopped noodles
Ding Ding Mian, or La Mian diced into fine pieces

Lamb Skewers (Chinese: Chuar, 串)

You can’t go wrong with generous chunks of juicy lamb, marinated with spices and grilled over a roaring fire. It’s similar to the Middle Eastern lamb kebabs, but with different seasoning and the cut of meat.

To make the perfect lamb skewer, start with the right kind of meat. Most street vendors choose a lean cut with a small amount of fat that caramelizes into crispy brown pieces during grilling. The meat is then marinated with salt, cumin and chilli powder, white pepper and Szechuan peppercorns. As the meat grills over the open flame, sprinkle more cumin and chilli powder over the meat constantly. The result is a Xinjiang-style lamb skewer, grilled to perfection. (Recipe)

Xinjiang cuisine Uighur cuisine Chuar Skewered meat
Grilled meat on skewers, also known as chuar (literally, a stick)

Nan Bread (Chinese: 馕)

A cheap and delicious snack for that’s easy to eat on the move, the Uighur Nan bread is made in a similar earthen oven like the Indian naan, but that’s where the similarities end. Shaped like a pizza with a thick crust and thinner in the middle, Nan bread is usually decorated with a bread stamp, and flavoured with sesame seeds, onions or other spices.

In Xinjiang, you’ll find these on display around every corner, and they come fresh from the oven. And all that for just 1-2 Yuan per piece! (Recipe)

Xinjiang cuisine Uighur cuisine Nan bread
Nan bread is an important staple in Uighur cuisine

Assorted Skewers in Mala Soup

You’ll come across this at food stalls in Kashgar and Ürümqi, where people will be milling around a large bubbling pot of red soup. Made from copious amounts of spices, chilli and Szechuan peppercorns, this soup is intensely spicy. In fact, mala means numbingly hot in Chinese!

To the side, and sometimes already cooking in the pot, are skewers with different ingredients like sausages, fish balls, fish cake and meat balls. The premise of this street snack is simple. Just choose a few skewers with your favourite ingredient, pay the vendor per stick, and dip it into the soup as long as you like. Each stick is pretty affordable too at 1 Yuan each.

When you’re satisfied the food is cooked well and the spiciness has penetrated into the food, just pop it into your mouth and endure the next few seconds of… well, numbing heat.

You’ll come across this at food stalls in Kashgar and Ürümqi, where people will be milling around a large bubbling pot of red soup. Made from copious amounts of spices, chilli and Szechuan peppercorns, this soup is intensely spicy – in fact, mala means numbingly hot in Chinese!

To the side, and sometimes already cooking in the pot, are skewers with different ingredients like sausages, fish balls, fish cake and meat balls. The premise of this street snack is simple. Just choose a few skewers with your favourite ingredient, pay the vendor per stick (usually 1 Yuan per skewer), and dip it into the soup as long as you like.

When you’re satisfied the food is cooked well and the spiciness has penetrated into the food, just pop it into your mouth and endure the next few seconds of… well, numbing heat.

Xinjiang cuisine Uighur cuisine Mala skewer in soup
Hot and spicy mala soup makes for an excellent dip on cold days

Zongza

Zongza is a sweet dessert of sticky rice, creamy yogurt curd, red dates and syrup served on bamboo leaves. Found in the Kashgar old city’s food bazaar, do save room for this dish only after trying everything else. Otherwise your tastebuds will be ruined by the sweetness after that!

Xinjiang cuisine Uighur cuisine Zongza glutinous rice with syrup
Zongza is sweet and sticky, even without the syrup!

Chuchvara

Found all across Central to East Asia, the humble dumpling has a remarkably complex family tree. In Uighur, small dumplings are called Chuchvara, and are served in a soup or sometimes alone by itself.

Chuchvara can come with various fillings, but the most common is lamb seasoned with salt, pepper and other spices. You may also come across larger dumplings, which the Uighurs refer to as Manti. You can probably tell how important the Uighurs treat their dumplings eh?

Xinjiang cuisine Uighur cuisine churchvara dumplings
A familiar sight all over China, but the Churchvara has fillings unique to Uighur cuisine

Samsa (Chinese: Kao Bao Zi, 烤包子)

A pocket-sized crispy bread with minced lamb filling, the Samsa is another delicious snack to take away. Easily found on the streets of Xinjiang’s cities, these are sold alongside Nan bread. In fact, Nans and Samsas are baked using the same earthen oven. Samsas are also really affordable, usually at 1 Yuan per piece.

Don’t let their small size deceive you though. The lamb filling is pretty heavy, and just one or two pieces is sufficient to stave off hunger pangs.

Xinjiang cuisine Uighur cuisine samsa lamb mince meat bun
Nothing compares to a freshly baked samsa bun with piping hot lamb filling

Rock candy

You’ll see heaps of rock candy sold on pushcarts in cities across Xinjiang. Eating it is as simple as it looks – just break off chunks and suck on ’em! I guess you can use them in cooking as well. They’re practically sugar!

You can find these stalls in the Kashgar Sunday bazaar, and buy them by weight. Just point at the ones you want, and the stall owner will do the math and tell you the price.

Xinjiang cuisine Uighur cuisine rock candy
If you really need your sugar, try a chunk of rock candy

 

To sample these dishes and more, visit the Kashgar Old City’s food market or the Sunday bazaar (see our itinerary)! Throughout the day, delicious food flavoured with the familiar spices of the Silk Road will tempt you. There’s also fresh local fruits for sale, like watermelons, hami melons and grapes. Just remember to drink up as you munch your way through town – the weather’s pretty unforgiving in this part of the world!

A 14-Day Itinerary For Backpacking Through Xinjiang In Western China

Dunhuang MingSha Sand Dunes Camel Train

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.

Walking along the ridge of a sand dune in mingsha dunhuang
Walking along the ridge of a sand dune
Dunhuang Mingsha Sand Dunes
The sunset from the sand dune is spectacular

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.

Where to stay in Dunhuang

If you’re looking to stay near the sand dunes, check out Dunhuang Silk Yododo Inn for a clean and affordable place just 10 minutes away on foot. See the latest rates and room availability here.

Alternatively, check out the other great deals from Booking.com.



Booking.com

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.

Mogao Caves at Dunhuang
The main facade of the Mogao Caves
Mogao grottes in Dunhuang
The face of the cliff is pockmarked by many hand excavated grottoes

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.

From Dunhuang, find a shared taxi to get to the nearby town of Liuyuan (2 hours by car, more by bus), then get onto the 7.18pm overnight train to Turpan.

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.

Turpan Grape Valley
The lush vineyards of Grape Valley
Bezeklik Caves
The Bezeklik Caves are carved out of the cliff face

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.

Where to stay in Turpan

For an affordable night’s stay, check in at Dap Youth Hostel. It’s popular with backpackers and the staff are always ready to help with independent travel advice. Check out the latest rates and availability here.

Alternatively, take a look at these Booking.com deals for more options:



Booking.com

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.

Street scene in Urumqi
A street scene near the Grand Bazaar
Urumqi Grand Bazaar
The mosque with its minarets at the Grand Bazaar

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.

Tian Chi picnic spot with scenery
Pretty picnic spot by the shore of the Heavenly Lake
Heavenly Lake scenery at Urumqi
The snowcapped Tianshan mountains rise dramatically over 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.

Where to stay in Ürümqi

Staying in a yurt is definitely memorable, but Ürümqi boasts of excellent hotels if you prefer a comfortable night’s rest in the city. There’s plenty to choose from, and you can get excellent deals from Booking.com.



Booking.com

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.

Streets of Kashgar old city
Arabian-esque street architecture in Kashgar
Kids playing in Kashgar's Old City
Kids playing in Kashgar’s Old City

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.

Kashgar's busy Sunday Market Bazaar
Kashgar’s busy Sunday Market

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:

Kashgar Animal Livestock Market
The entrance to the Kashgar livestock market
Livestock market in Kashgar
Farmers and traders from nearby villages flock to the livestock market on Sunday
Traders bartering in the Kashgar livestock animal market
Traders bartering in the Kashgar livestock animal market

Where to stay in Kashgar

Right beside the old town, in the middle of downtown Kashgar, the Xinjiang Nuerlan Hotel is a classic landmark. While it certainly looks its age, the opulent Russian-esque interior in the lobby is a change from the modern but soulless Chinese hotels. Visit Booking.com for the latest rates and room availability.

You can also consider these great deals:



Booking.com

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.

Tashkorgan Stone Fortress
The Tashkorgan Stone Fortress sits impassively over the town

Karakul Lake

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.

Karakul Lake Xinjiang
Krygyz yurts by the shore of Lake Karakul
Horse riding along Lake Karakul
Horse riding along Lake Karakul

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.

The old city of Kashgar
The old “Old City” of Kashgar

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.

Entrance to Atlas Silk Factory
Entrance to the Atlas Silk Factory of Hotan
Silk weaver at work at the Atlas Silk Factory in Hotan
A silk weaver at work at the Atlas Silk Factory

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!

The Taklamakan Desert from Hotan
The sand dunes of the Taklamakan Desert

Where to stay in Hotan

Hotan is especially tricky to find accommodation. With extremely tight security, foreigners are only permitted to choose from a small list of authorised hotels. On a good day, you might have up to 10 places to consider, and it’ll cost more than the average hotel elsewhere in China.

Make use of the following Booking.com deals to find the best place to stay.



Booking.com

Xinjiang (Western China)

Kashgar Old Town

Travel guides for visiting the Silk Road towns of Xinjiang, and a mega 14-day itinerary that covers much of the major tourist sights.

tashkorgan stone fortress

Driving Down The Karakoram Highway (KKH) – A Travelogue Of Kashgar, Karakul Lake And The Tajik Town of Tashkurgan

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A Guide To Popular Uighur Cuisine In Xinjiang

Uighur cuisine is hearty and flavoured with loads of spices, influenced by ingredients and cooking techniques carried along the Silk ...
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Dunhuang MingSha Sand Dunes Camel Train

A 14-Day Itinerary For Backpacking Through Xinjiang In Western China

Xinjiang is the westernmost province in China, bordering the stans that made up much of central Asia. More significantly, a ...
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Jiaohe Ancient City ruins

A Full Day Itinerary For Exploring Turpan, The Flaming Mountains And The Grape Valley

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A Full Day Itinerary For Exploring Turpan, The Flaming Mountains And The Grape Valley

Jiaohe Ancient City ruins

Turpan is an important stop along the Silk Road, with a history dating back to two thousand years ago. After witnessing the rise and fall of countless kingdoms and cultures, Turpan is today a multicultural city where Uighur and Han Chinese live in relative peace. As there’s a lot to see here, this itinerary will help you visit the most important places of interests in and around the city within a day.

The city bazaar at Turpan
The city bazaar at Turpan

Bezeklik Caves

The first point of interest takes you almost an hour out of Turpan, into a picturesque gorge dotted with caves. Much like its more famous cousin, the Mogao Caves, the Bezeklik Caves are a historical and cultural treasure trove of Buddhist wall paintings and sculptures. It’s definitely smaller in scale, which makes for a short tour inside. You might also spend a quick 5 minutes talking selfies in front of the large statue of Xuanzang, the Monkey King, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing. Unceremoniously located behind the car park like an expensive afterthought, these characters are deeply rooted in the Chinese psyche because of the Ming-era Chinese classic, Journey to the West.

Bezeklik Caves
The Bezeklik Caves are carved out of the cliff face
The view of the Bezeklik Caves from the other side
The view of the Bezeklik Caves from the other side
A lone lute player entertains visitors with melodious music.
A lone lute player entertains visitors with melodious music.

Flaming Mountains

This leads to the second place of interest, the Flaming Mountains. Just a short 10-minute drive from the Bezeklik Caves, this massive wall of barren rock was the scene of an epic battle between the Monkey King and the Ox King, as narrated by the novel. In real life, the Flaming Mountains is set in the Turpan Depression, where temperatures can reach up to 50°c in summer and plummet to -10°c in winter. Another theory to its name comes from the wavy rock structure resembles flames, which kinda makes sense if you were an imaginative writer looking for exotic places to write about.

As with many places deemed tourist-worthy, the authorities have built a nice visitor centre charging a hefty entrance price. You can see the mountains from almost anywhere, and there really is no reason to enter the park if you’re tight on budget. However, for the ticket price, you get to visit a small underground geological museum, and stories from the Journey to the West. Aboveground, you’ll pass a huge but dubious thermometer stuck into the ground, announcing that the temperature is peaking over 50°c, and further up, huge scattered statues of characters from the novel pose for selfies, backdropped ingloriously by the majestic mountains.

Flaming Mountains
A huge touristy thermometer stuck in the ground, with the Flaming Mountains in the background
Tourist-carrying camels wait for their turn to trod on the sandy ground
Tourist-carrying camels wait for their turn to trod on the sandy ground
The Bull-Demon King, with whom the Monkey God fights during the mythical battle here at the Flaming Mountains
The Bull-Demon King, with whom the Monkey God fights during the mythical battle here at the Flaming Mountains

Grape Valley (葡萄沟, Pu Tao Gou)

After visiting the amusement-park-esque site, continue the tour at the Grape Valley (葡萄沟, Pu Tao Gou), a lush valley of grape vines and raisin drying huts impossibly situated in the middle of a desert, and surrounded by barren, craggy cliffs. Irrigated by remarkable underground canals called Karez that carried fresh water from the nearby Tianshan (“Heavenly Mountain”) range, you’ll find that this area is much cooler than the exposed hell that is the Flaming Mountains.

The Grape Valley offers more than just vineyards and raisin huts. Your driver will also stop by 5 points of interest, each decorated with manicured gardens and sheltered by grape vines.

  • Grape Manor: explore the sprawling gardens and indulge in a spot of fruit tasting
  • Home of Apandi: read stories of an Islamic icon, Apandi, while learning about the way of life of the locals
  • Folk-Custom Park of Darwaz: Learn and relive the folk customs of the local inhabitants
  • Wang Luobin Art Museum: Read all about the famous music composer and national icon, Wang Luobin
  • Amusement Park – More gardens and grapes. You’ll probably be a bit sick of them by now.

At the Folk-Custom Park of Darwaz, you can climb up a flight of steps leading up a cliff face, to reach a lookout point facing the valley. It’s a tiring climb up, but the 270 degree views are stunning!

The Grape Valley is also the best place to buy raisins fresh from the local farmers. You’ll visit a small market for lunch, so check out the raisins on sale. I heartily recommend trying the Ma-nai-zi (Mare nipple grape) or Wu-he-bai (White seedless grape). The listed price is cheaper than that in the Kashgar Sunday bazaar, so go ahead and buy some back. You won’t regret it!

A panoramic view of the Grape Valley
A panoramic view of the lush Grape Valley, set in front of barren desert hills
Grape Valley vines shelter visitors from the heat
Grape vines shelters visitors from the intense heat and sunlight in the Grape Valley
Local kids play amongst fruit stalls as their parents work
Local kids play amongst fruit stalls as their parents work

Jiaohe Ancient City

From the Grape Valley, you’ll visit the Jiaohe ancient city. Dating as far back as 108 B.C., Jiaohe was the capital city of the Anterior Jushi Kingdom. After a millenia of occupation by various ruling factions, it was abandoned in the 14th century.

The ruins deserves a day to explore on its own with a guide. Unlike many ancient cities, Jiaohe stands out as one without a city wall. That would have been pretty redundant, given that the city was elevated and defended by steep cliffs all around. Also unlike other cities of the time, buildings were seldom made of wood, but was carved into the ground. This city was built to be defensible against the constant threat of invasion.

With the afternoon sun setting soon, you can take a 30 minute stroll down the central boulevard and marvel at the well-preserved buildings before heading back to the visitor centre.

Jiaohe Ancient City ruins
The Jiaohe Ancient City still stands, after more than a millenia of inhabitation and 6 centuries of neglect
Weathered buildings still standing after millenia of warfare and erosion
Weathered buildings still standing after millenia of warfare and erosion

Karez Museum

You’ll be taken to the Karez Museum next, where you’ll get a chance to go underground and follow a short stretch of canal that still channels water down to the oasis. Don’t worry, you won’t need to crouch low and crawl – the tunnels have been expanded to fit large Chinese tour groups.

The Karez are an amazing man-made marvel that changed the whole landscape of Turpan. At its peak, the tunnels stretched for over 5,000m, dating back to as early as 103 B.C. Beside serving to irrigate the town, the canals also kept locals cool and sheltered from the scorching weather outside.

The Karez water tunnel
Fresh mountain water flow through the underground Karez tunnels
Indoor market at the Karez tunnel museum
You’ll come into an indoor bazaar as you emerge from the underground.

Emin Minaret

Emerging from the Karez, make a beeline to your driver. The day’s not over yet, not until you’ve visited the Emin Minaret, located 2km outside Turpan. The 44m mud-brick tower stands out against the surrounding countryside and was built by Duke Suleman in 1778, to honour his father, Emin Khoja. Unfortunately, visitors cannot climb up to the top. This is the last stop for the day, so take all the photos you want. After this, it’s time for a steaming hot dinner of lamb and noodles back in town!

Emin Minaret
The Emin Minaret’s famed tower stands out from easily from its surroundings
Emin Minaret interior
You can peek into the interior of the mosque to see the humble prayer hall

Information on the places of interest
Bezeklik Caves

  • Entrance Fee: ¥40
  • Opening Hours: 9.00am to 5.00pm (peak season)

Grape Valley

  • Entrance Fee: ¥90
  • Opening Hours: 8.00am to 9.00pm (peak season), 10.00am to 6.30pm (off-peak)

Jiaohe Ancient City (Yarkhoto)

  • Entrance Fee: ¥115
  • Opening Hours: 9.00am to 6.00pm

Karez Museum

  • Entrance Fee: ¥30
  • Opening Hours: 9.00am to 5.00pm

Emin Minaret

  • Entrance Fee: ¥50
  • Opening Hours: 8.50am to 8.00pm

Where should you stay?

Most accommodations in Turpan are typical Chinese-run hotels or smaller guesthouses. If you’re a backpacker, you’re in luck though as there’s a popular hostel in the city. The DAP Youth hostel might sound like a party place, but it’s a pretty peaceful retreat from the dusty streets outside. Inside, grapevines hang from the trellises, shading guests from the worst of the afternoon sun. There’s also a lot of useful tips in travelling independently around the area without engaging a guide.

You can also check out Booking.com for the latest deals:



Booking.com

With so much to see and do, a day offers travellers a mere glimpse into the history and culture of the region. You’ll want to spend two or three days if you can afford the time.

The best time to visit is between July to September, when the grapes are in harvest and days are longer. It’s also easier to move around in scorching heat than frigid cold. After exploring Turpan, you can take a bus to Ürümqi or Hami, or board a train headed to Dunhuang (stop at Liuyuan and hire a long-distance taxi to get there). If you’re keen to explore more stops along the Silk Road, check out a 14-day itinerary for backpacking in Xinjiang.