Xinjiang Travel Guide
Although technically an autonomous region, Xinjiang is the largest of China’s provinces, and shares borders with eight countries. This isolated regionis largely desert and grassland fringed by some of the highest mountains in the world.
Two thousand years ago a string of oasis towns were established along the Silk Roads that skirted the northern and southern edges of the scorching Taklamakan Desert. Trade attracted merchants from India and Europe, and Xinjiang became the meeting point of east and west, with Christian churches and Buddhist temples. At the end of the Tang era, Turkic tribes repeatedly overran the region, and by the 15th century Islam was established as the main religion. In the 18th century, the Chinese took control of what was then Kashgaria, and despite several revolts, have maintained their rule ever since. Almost fifty percent of the population is comprised of ethnic minorities, and in 1955, in deference to the large Uighur population, the area became the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, with its capital at Ürümqi. Today, highlights of a visit include the Tian Shan range and the rich pastures around Tian Chi (Heaven Lake) outside Ürümqi, and Silk Road towns such as Turpan and Kashgar, shaded by palm trees and set against a backdrop of desert and mountain. It is also possible to travel southwest over the Karakoram mountains into Pakistan or west into Kazakhstan along the ancient trade routes.
Towns & Cities
Lakes, Mountains & Areas of Natural Beauty
- International airport
- Domestic airport
- National Highway
- Minor road
- International border
- Provincial border
- Disputed border
This oasis town on the northern Silk Road lies in the Turpan depression – one of the lowest areas on earth – and is largely an Uighur settlement. The Uighur descended from nomadic Siberian tribes who united in the 7th century and settled in the region in the 9th century. They later converted to Islam as it spread across Central Asia. It is an easy-going place, famous for its grapes, with mud-brick houses and dusty streets often covered with trellised vines. The original Silk Road settlements of Jiaohe and Gaochang lie outside town along with several other sights. In summer, the heat is intense, and it is best to use the local donkey carts as taxis.
This is perhaps the most interesting of Turpan’s numerous mosques because of its old minaret (Imin Ta), constructed in 1778, that rises like a stout but graceful chimney beside it. Built by Prince Suleiman in honor of his father, Prince Emin, the minaret is broad at the base and tapers toward the top. Designed in the Iranian style with some elaborately decorative brick-work, its staircase was closed in 1989.
- Laocheng Lu.
The small Turpan market is an interesting place to browse for local products including a variety of medicinal potions, decorated knives, clothing, fabric, nuts, and fruit (especially raisins).
- Gaochang Lu.
- 9am–8pm daily
This small museum has a few worthwhile exhibits. The main points of interest are items excavated from the now empty Tang-dynasty Astana tombs located outside town. These include ancient silks, clothes, food items, and even some preserved corpses.
a backdrop of hills on a steep plateau
- 6 miles (10 km) W of Turfan
- mini-bus or cycle
Although less important and smaller than Gaochang, the ruins of Jiaohe are better defined. Jiaohe was founded as a garrison town but came under Uighur jurisdiction in the 6th century. It was finally abandoned during the Yuan era, perhaps due to failing water supplies. The ancient city occupies a spectacular position on a steep plateau, with its street plan clearly visible, and is well worth a visit.
Returning from Jiaohe, visitors can stop-off to see the karez irrigation site. Used throughout Xinjiang, this ingenious system of irrigation taps into natural underground water sources by using a network of subterranean tunnels which channel water to the fields. Wells, dug at intervals along the length of the tunnels, bring water to the surface.
- minibus from town
A surprisingly attractive desert oasis to the north of Turpan, Grape Valley (Putao Gou) is best visited in the height of summer. With vines and trellises bulging with grapes, it is a pleasant place to stop for lunch, with plenty of grapes and raisins to eat (for a fee). There is a winery nearby, as well as brick silos for drying the grapes.
- minibus from town
The road east to Bezeklik leads past these sandstone mountains, made famous in the novel Journey to the West, a fictionalized account of the journey of the pilgrim monk, Xuanzang, to India. In the guide, the mountains (Huoyan Shan) are described as being on fire, and at certain times of day, a combination of sun and shadows turns them a brilliant red and makes them seem to flicker as though glowing red-hot.
- 31 miles (50 km) NE of town
- minibus from town
Picturesquely situated in a desert gorge high above the Sengim River, the Bezeklik Caves once formed part of a Buddhist monastery between the 6th and 14th centuries. The caves originally stored a collection of Buddhist murals in the Indo-Iranian style, which showed unusually marked western influences. Unfortunately, only fragments remain, as after centuries of neglect, they were all removed in the early 1900s by the German explorers, von Le Coq and Grunwedel, and placed in a Berlin museum, where they were later destroyed by Allied bombs during World War II.
- 25 miles (40 km) SE of Turfan
- minibus from town
The cemetery of the ancient city of Gaochang is located at Astana, a few miles northwest of Gaochang. The tombs, dating from between the 3rd and 8th centuries AD, were systematically excavated from 1959, and revealed several corpses, naturally mummified by the dry desert air. They had been wrapped in silks, and buried with many everyday items, including pottery, wooden carvings, coins, and documents relating to military and domestic transactions such as land tenures. Unfortunately, most items are now on display at museums in Turpan and Ürümqi, but the three tombs that are open to visitors display Tang-era paintings and a few preserved corpses.
in a spectacular river gorge
- 29 miles (46 km) SE of Turfan
- mini-bus from town
Southeast of the Astana tombs lie the impressive ruins of Gaochang city, surrounded by 33-ft (10-m) high walls. Gao-chang was founded as a garrison town in the 1st century AD, and by the 4th century it had become the capital of the western Han empire. A cosmopolitan city with traces of Nestorian Christianity and Manichaeism (a Persian dualistic religion), it was visited by the monk Xuanzang in AD 630, on his journey to India in search of Buddhist sutras. From the 9th to the 13th centuries, the city became the Uighur capital, but was aban-doned during the early Ming era. The ruins are extensive, but there is almost nothing left that is recognizable, apart from a Buddhist temple out-side the southwest walls.
Tomb of Yusup Hazi Hajup
Aba Khoja Mausoleum
Built in the 17th century, the Aba Khoja Mausoleum and nearby buildings form one of the best examples of Islamic architecture in China. The mausoleum is the burial place of the family of Aba Khoja, a celebrated Islamic missionary. However, the monument is also known as Xiangfei’s Tomb, as it may be the burial place of one of Aba Khoja’s decendants, Ikparhan, said to be the legendary “fragrant concubine” Xiangfei. The wife of a defeated rebel leader, she was captured by the Qianlong emperor and taken back to Beijing to be his imperial concubine. Refusing to submit to him she was, depending on which story you believe, either murdered or driven to suicide by the emperor’s mother. Others claim she died of old age.
- Just over 2 miles (4 km) NE of Old Town center
- or from People’s Square. Also possible to cycle or walk
- 8am–5:30pm daily
* daily (prayer day Fri)
The cemetery, still in use by the local Uighur population, is filled with many hundreds of distinctively-peaked, mud and brick tombs. The bodies of the dead are washed and prepared for burial in the adjacent mosque.
Each of the windows are screened in a different geometric pattern. The surrounds are adorned with graceful arabesques while the turret is topped with an inverted lotus dome, scalloped edges, and finial.
The four corner towers lack the slender grace of most other minarets. Instead their charm derives from the colorful striping of the tiles and the exquisite detailing of Islamic motifs and patterns.
The Aba Khoja complex
Although Islam came to Xinjiang via Arab traders on the Silk Road in the 9th and 10th centuries, it was not until the 15th century that it became the dominant religion of the area, and Kashgar became an important Islamic center. The Aba Khoja complex is a significant architectural ensemble comprising a mausoleum, four prayer halls, a lecture hall, and a cemetery. There is also a gateway covered in decorative, blue-glazed tiles and a pond in the courtyard for worshipers to cleanse themselves before entering the mosque. The halls are graced by exquisitely painted wooden beams supported by pillars with delightful muqarnas – an Islamic feature of projecting niches – on the capitals.
* Geometric Decorations
Caves of the Three Immortals
- 11 miles (18 km) N of Kashgar
Among the earliest Buddhist cave carvings in China, the Caves of the Three Immortals (Sanxian Dong) possibly date back to the 2nd century. The grottoes are not always accessible as they are perched high on a sandstone cliff. Poor attempts at restoration and embellishment over the years have destroyed many of the paintings and statues. However, a handful of small Buddha figurines remain, which can only be seen with the permission of the Kashgar tourist office. If permitted, visitors will have to take the official guided tour.
Ruins of Ha Noi
- 22 miles (35 km) NE of Kashgar
The remains of the Tang-era town of Ha Noi lie in an atmospheric desert setting northeast of Kashgar. Abandoned in the 12th century, the ruined 7th-century town offers little besides the Mor Pagoda, a large stupa said to have been visited by the monk Xuanzang on his historic journey to India.
- 18 miles (30 km) W of Kashgar
Opal or Wupoer is the site of the renovated tomb of Mohammed Kashgari – an eminent 11th-century scholar and philologist, credited with compiling the first Turkic-Arabic dictionary. A museum devoted to his life and works is also situated here, and every Monday there is also a colorful local market.
Highway, with the Pamir mountains in the
Once a spur of the Silk Road, the Karakoram Highway (Zhongba Gonglu) was the only route over the Karakoram Mountains, to and from India. During the 1970s and 1980s, a road was built across the mountains following the old caravan route, to link China and Pakistan. The 808-mile (1,300-km) route from Kashgar to Islamabad in Pakistan, which stretches across the Pamir mountains over peaks reaching 26,250 ft (8,000 m), is one of awe-inspiring beauty. Camels and yaks, tended by Tajik herdsmen, graze in the highland pastures. Lakes with mirror-like surfaces, such as Lake Karakul, reflect the majesty of the mountains, while the remains of the occasional caravanserai stand crumbling at the side of the road.
The last town in China is Tashkurgan, a bleak outpost, with the remains of an ancient fort. Beyond it is the 15,750-ft (4,800-m) high Khunjerab Pass, the gateway to Pakistan. The Pakistan border post lies just beyond at Sost. Visitors should note that the border is closed in winter, and that visas are required – issued in Beijing or Hong Kong – to cross into Pakistan. The highway took nearly 20 years to build. The journey along it is fairly arduous, and although traveling conditions are improving, it is best to carry warm clothing, food, and drink for the trip, which takes about four days.
Sunday Market, Yengisar
- 37 miles (60 km) S of Kashgar
The small, sleepy town of Yengisar on the southern arm of the Silk Road is renowned for its locally produced knives. For centuries, the town has been manufacturing hand-crafted knives for Uighur men, who carry them as traditional accoutrements. Knives of all shapes and sizes are sold in dozens of shops. While most of the knives produced are factory-made, traditional knife-making skills are still practiced by artisans in the center of town. Using basic tools, the workers at the Yengisar Country Small Knife Factory produce exquisite designs fashioned from fine woods, their handles inlaid with silver or horn. It is sometimes possible to visit the factory, even though a big board outside bears a “No Entrance” sign. The knives, which make attractive gifts, require special arrangements to be taken home.
For centuries an important commercial center on the southern arm of the Silk Road, Yarkand was, like Kashgar, prominent in the Great Game – the power struggle between China, Russia and Britain. The old town, with its adobe walls and narrow streets, has a few interesting sights. The Altyn Mosque has beautifully painted ceilings, and in its courtyard is the newly-built Tomb of Aman Isa Khan (1526–60) – the poet wife of one of the local Khans. Behind the mosque is a sprawling cemetery housing the tombs of the Khans of Yarkand. There is also a lively Sunday market.
- 144 miles (230 km) SE of Kashgar
This town was a convenient stop between Hotan and Kashgar on the southern arm of the Silk Road. The colorful old Uighur town is definitely worth exploring, while the town’s main attraction, the 15th-century Jama Masjid, sits amidst the arcaded bazaar.
- 249 miles (400 km) SE of Kashgar
- Hotan Travel, 0903 251 5660
The Oasis town of Hotan, or Hetian, was an early center for the spread of Buddhism before Islam arrived in the 9th century. Formerly the capital of the Yutian kingdom, it has been, like most Silk Road cities, periodically subsumed into the Chinese empire. For centuries, the town’s jade, carpets, and silk have been considered the finest in China, and are still produced in factories across town. According to legend, the secret of silk was first introduced to the region by a Chinese princess betrothed to a local prince, who smuggled silk moth eggs in her hair in AD 440. Craftsmen carve fine jade items at the Jade Factory on Tanai Lu, while the Carpet Factory across the river is a friendly place also worth a visit, especially for those wishing to buy a carpet, as they are available here at bargain prices. Visitors interested in silk production can stop by the Hetian Silk Factory in the northeast of town.
Sections of the old city walls still stand on both sides of Nuerwake Lu. The chaotic local market takes place on Fridays and Sundays in the northeast of town. Though not as large as its famous counterpart in Kashgar, it is a colorful affair with livestock, fruit, silks, and carpets on sale.
At the end of the 19th century, the first rumors of the region’s lost cities – which inspired several expeditions – emanated from here. A detailed map, indicating the location of the buried cities, lies in the small Hetian Cultural Museum. Items of interest include fragments of silk, wooden utensils, and jewelry excavated from nearby lost cities, as well as the mummified corpses of a 10-year-old girl and a 35-year-old man with Indo-European features, which are 1,500 years old. The ruined city of Melikawat lies over 18 miles (30 km) south of town. All that remains of this once significant Buddhist center are crumbling walls, and shards of glass and pottery.
Hetian Cultural Museum
- Tanai Lu.
Jade, or nephrite, has been carved and polished by the Chinese for several thousand years, along with jadeite, soapstone, and chalcedony. While the latter are known as yu, nephrite is zhen yu, or true jade. Initially used as a tool, jade came to be widely used as jewelry during the Han era. By the Qing period, carvers were producing a variety of decorative pieces including intricate jade animals. Always thought of as being green, jade can in fact be brown, black, or the prized cloudy white. To the Chinese, it symbolizes longevity and purity, and is worn as an amulet to ward off disease. The country’s only source of nephrite is Xinjiang, particularly around Hotan, so a sophisticated supply system must have existed even in neolithic times.
marketplace in Ürümqi
Grapes & Wine
Nearly every household in the region is involved in grape production, either in cultivation, or in drying inside ventilated barns. In Xinjiang, the use of grapes for making wine was first recorded by a Chinese emissary in 138 BC, although grapes were possibly cultivated here as early as the Shang era. In fact, all wine-making in China was learned from the peoples of the western regions. By the Yuan era, wine production, based in Xinjiang, was substantial, and by the Ming period, varieties such as the crystal, the purple, and the seedless green rabbit-eye grape were grown. Today, wine production is thriving in China, and most of these varieties are still grown.
Islam in China
Islam probably came to Xinjiang via the Silk Road in the ninth century, some 200 years after Arab sailors had landed in southern China. By the Ming Dynasty, Muslims had flourished and become fully integrated into Han society without losing their dress and dietary customs. Despite hostile regimes and upheavals there is now a significant Muslim population of about 13 million. These comprise the Xinjiang nationalities – Uighur, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Tatars, and Uzbeks of the northwest – and the large contingent of Chinese-speaking Hui, scattered around the country. It is generally accepted that all Muslims in China are Sunni of the Hanafi School, which is one of four “schools of Islamic law.” It is considered the oldest and most liberal school and is traditionally tolerant of differences within Muslim communities.
|The Koran was first translated into Chinese in 1927. Through the interpretations of the scholars, the Koran is a vital part of Islamic life.||The Hui are said to be the descendants of the Arab and Persian traders who arrived in the Tang dynasty and married into Chinese families. They are the biggest Muslim minority.||Mosques in China retain most traditional Islamic features but the pagodas and upturned eaves are clear signs of Chinese architectural influences.|
|Dongxiang Muslims hail from Gansu province and speak Mongolian. They have left pastoral herding in favor of a sedentary farming life.||Inside the mosque the congregation members, usually men, prostrate themselves before the mihrab, a niche in the wall indicating the direction of Mecca. The main hall is reserved for Friday prayers.||The muezzin, as in all Muslim communities, calls the faithful to prayer five times a day. Today, the call is usually recorded and broadcast by loudspeaker.|