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16 October 2009

10 Days Exploring Xinjiang: China’s Western Frontier

By Neil


Author Note: Like many others, recent events in Xinjiang have troubled me. If you are reading this, you may be considering a trip out to the Chinese Wild West. I hope that you do not let the current troubles deter you too greatly in the future. The Uyghur people were incredibly kind and hospitable to me, and if they do not have the opportunity again soon to welcome travelers as they have for hundreds of years, that would be a tragedy.

Xinjiang has been described as the middle of the Silk Road, the middle of nowhere and the place where China is not China anymore. These descriptions were incredibly intriguing to me, and when I had ten days off Xinjiang was at the top of my list.

Given that the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is the largest province-level area in China, it would have been impossible to see the entire place, so I made the tactical decision to limit my travels to two main destinations, Kashgar and Turpan, as well as their surrounding areas.

While I certainly wish that I could have seen more, I am glad that I did not rush anything.

Colorful Kashgar

An alleyway in Kashgar’s Old Town

With its iconic old town, lively markets, and huge mosque this is certainly a very different place from cities in eastern China like Beijing and Shanghai. While many eastern cities in are full of pollution and millions of people, all seemingly in a hurry, Kashgar has a very relaxed feel and the air smells of baked bread and goat manure, which was oddly cathartic after spending the last several months inhaling the byproducts of textile and electronics manufacturing.

My first destination was Id Kah Mosque, located on the edge of Kashgar’s Old Town. While most of the town was very dry and low on greenery, the mosque grounds had an entire different feel. Large trees were planted in rows and grape vines ran everywhere, making it feel like a physical as well as spiritual oasis. The staff were very accommodating and helpful. I had read reports that men would be turned away for wearing t-shirts and shorts, but I had no problem entering in my informal attire. My girlfriend did not wear a headscarf but did wear a long skirt to cover her knees. I’m not certain if we were the exception or the rule, but there were certainly other tourists on the mosque grounds dressed in a similar fashion.

Next up, we went to explore the old town. The main street was full of vendors selling kebabs and dried fruit. With a little effort we were able to escape the hustle and bustle of the main street to a narrower, calmer, part of the old town and enjoy a serene walk through a “real” part of town. Lucky for us, we happened to be there just before the large and controversial development/demolition process began in the Spring of 2009. I don’t know what it looks like now.

Kashgar’s famous Sunday Market & Livestock Market

Piles of colorful silks at Kashgar’s Sunday Market

The next day was a very special day in Kashgar: Sunday. Kashgar’s Sunday Market is possibly the largest weekly bazaar in all of Asia and an experience like no other. We woke up early and rushed over. The market is full of anything that you could ever imagine, as well as several things that you could not. If you are looking for silk, kitchenware, ceremonial knives, vintage clothing or just lunch, the Kashgar Sunday Market is for you. Walking through the market, people call out to you in English, Mandarin and Uyghur, and all speak the universal language of shrewd bargaining.

When we first arrived, the market seemed lively but we were a tad underwhelmed after reading so much about it. However, it really started to pick up and by midday it was as boisterous as the guidbooks claimed it would be.

Kashgar’s Livestock Market

Just when we thought we’d seen enough, we decided to head a little way out of town to the weekly livestock market where people were trading goats for chickens, a far cry from the cash and credit cards of Western malls. Looking around, I noticed rather quickly that I was the only Caucasian around and that my girlfriend was the only Han Chinese present.

As we wandered around, absorbing the scene, we suddenly heard a loud noise coming from behind. We turned and had to quickly jump out of the way to avoid the commotion. We had gotten in the way of someone who was test driving a donkey and cart. “Culture shock” would be a bit of an understatement. My Southern Ontario hometown felt like it was in another galaxy. This was easily the farthest away from home I had ever felt (a sentiment expressed once before on this site completely independently).

At this point it was time for an early night. We had a trip arranged to head out of town to Karakul Lake the next day.

As a quick aside, we had decided to hire a driver to reach both Karakul Lake and the Taklamakan Desert from one of the many traveler locales in Kashgar. We had paid what we considered to be a fair amount for two separate tours. For reasons that do not still do not make clear sense to us, we avoided the very popular John’s Cafe in Kashgar and went with a lesser-known dealer. He led us to believe that our tours would include all the essentials. As you’ll see later, we were misled.

Khartoum Highway, yurts, yaks, camels and Karakul Lake



Views out the car window along the Khartoum Highway

I find myself at a bit of a loss for words in describing the drive along the Khartoum Highway. I had seen pictures in guidebooks and online but had the feeling that they were exaggerated either by expensive cameras, Photoshop or vantage points unavailable to amateurs. My skepticism was mistaken.

The picture above was all taken with my old, point-and-shoot camera, has not been digitally altered and was taken from a moving vehicle. I have dozens more just like it taken at different points along the four-hour drive. It really is that beautiful.

Upon arriving we were shown the lake and our accommodation for the evening, a Kyrgyz yurt. The yurt was made of concrete and the stove in the center burned ox manure. I wish I were making that last part up.

Afterward settling in, we went on a three-hour camel ride around the lake. The handlers were insistent on which camel I took and after he tried to walk into the lake for the third time, I realized why. They eventually had to tie my camel to my girlfriend’s in order to slow mine down and keep him from going too fast. I named my camel “Surly McTwoHumps.”

The views of the lake, surrounding mountains, and grazing yaks was dramatic and felt surreal. However, the wooden saddle and Surly’s rebellious nature ended up being a bad combination and I was left in an incredibly painful state that I can only describe as “camel crotch”. I’ll leave the details out. This is a family-friendly website, after all.

As I went to lie down in my yurt to deal with Surly’s lasting gift, we were confronted by the owners of the yurts. They demanded a total of 300 RMB extra for admission, accommodation and camel rides. We quickly called the man who owned the travel agency, and he told us that those things were not included in the price of a tour, which only included a car and driver. Needless to say, we were upset with his dishonesty, but he told us that we could discuss it the next day before we departed to the desert.

Nonetheless, we enjoyed the stars and tranquility of the lake and had a surprisingly warm and comfortable night in the yurt with the manure stove working overtime. The next morning was very cold and there was a light dusting of snow (note: this was May) and the clothes I packed for the heat of the desert were not nearly enough.

We made our way back to Kashgar, still in awe of the scenery, which did not lose any of its luster the second time around. Upon our return we went to the travel agency to discuss the extra fees with the man who had sold the services to us. However, he was out of town on business, leaving us with one of his employees. The employee apologized for the miscommunication and told us that for the Taklamakan tour there would only be 70 RMB extra costs, which we ended up getting him to agree to cover. We were assured that there would be no extra costs otherwise.

Taklamakan Desert

En route to our desert retreat we made stops in the towns of Yenigsar and Yarkand. Bothare well worth a quick stopover. Yenigsar is known for its production of knives. We stopped a knife factory to watch them being made by hand and I picked up a souvenir for my father. Yarkand has an vibrant old town like Kashgar that has yet become a major tourist locale.

The drive took several hours and felt like an entirely different world to the one that we had woken to. Whereas we had seen ice capped mountains and been snowed on in the morning, we were now seeing an endless sea of sand dunes and were unable to escape the force of the sun’s rays.

Eventually, we reached our destination on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert. Upon arrival we were told that we would have to pay an additional 30 RMB for our accommodation. The dishonesty had reached the point of comedy at this point. This was a harsh reminder of one of the most basic rules of traveling: Be clear of exactly what you are getting whenever you make a purchase.

It was also a gentle reminder of another rule: Don’t let minor hassles ruin your trip. No matter how much we had to pay for it, seeing the stars shine and sun rise over the sand dunes was well worth it.

Sadly, we did not have an abundance of time left to enjoy the desert, as we had to hurry back to Kashgar to catch the bus to our next destination, Turpan. While it was small consolation, we booked our ticket through a different agency and had no problems whatsoever from then on.

The ancient wonders of Turpan

The bus from Kashgar to Turpan was a Chinese specialty: the long-distance sleeper bus. For those of you who have never had the pleasure, imagine 22 hours of the inside of a bus barely relieved by changes in the landscape outside. The bus did not have a toilet, it was very hot and apparently my fellow passengers had left their deodorant somewhere else.

Despite cramped quarters and foul odors, we arrived to Turpan in one piece and found a nice and affordable hotel. This certainly helped us catch up on the sleep that was missed while in a yurt or bus.

The next day we hired a driver to show us around the numerous sites in the area. We drove along the aptly named Flaming Mountains, which shone bright in the early morning sun. Our stops included the Bezeklik Caves, spectacular from the outside though rather empty on the inside. We also stopped to examine a traditional underground irrigation system called karez, which, while interesting to see and walk alongside was unfortunately surrounded by a tourist park best left forgotten.

Two other fascinating stops were the ruined cities of Gaochang and Jiaohe. Both cities had been important stations on the Silk Road but have been ruined for centuries. Since the buildings were made primarily of sand, the ruins have partially eroded, leaving them to appear melted in a Salvadore Daliesque manner. The ruins of Jiaohe (pictured below) were less ruined and more expensive. Both are worth a visit, but I was glad that we went to Gaochang first so I could only compare it to its better-maintained counterpart afterwards.

The highlight of the sights was definitely the old town of Tuyoq. This was farther afield than the others, but well worth the extra time and money it took to get there. Tuyoq is located in a small and fertile valley in the midst of the Flaming Mountains. The brown buildings, blue sky, green grass, and red mountains made for an overwhelming sensory experience that was very difficult for my camera to truly catch.

Tuyoq has a very well maintained historic old town. As we wandered around several locals tried to show us their traditional dwellings, for a price. The dusty rounds wind through the buildings all head towards the tomb of a man said to be the first Uighur Muslim. While this was off-limits, the imposing walled building was hard to take your eyes off of. We followed a breath-taking walk up the gorge to the Buddhist caves. While the caves were closed due to safety concerns, or “Unopen for Safe Problems” like the sign said, the view of the grape vines below was worth the hot trek.

Sadly, after the day was done it was time to rest up before leaving the next morning to get to the airport and return to the “normalcy” of Eastern China. As the plane took off I gazed back at the desert and desolate landscape once again, longing to return one day. Much remains to explore.

Blog by: Glen Russell (China Travel)