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 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!


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.


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:


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.


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:


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.


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:


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.