If there is one place that epitomises all the contrasts of the Silk Road region, it is the far west of China, these days known as Xinjiang. While the chequered history of the region is known thanks to explorers like Aurel Stein and Sven Hedin, many of its incredible landscapes are still a well-kept secret.

It remains a place of superlatives. Xinjiang boasts China’s largest desert, mosque and a freshwater lake, and the highest road in the world. Turpan, the place with the hottest temperature ever recorded in China, is not far from Yining, which holds the record for the biggest snowfall recorded in one day.

Then there are the cities. As in Tibet, government policy seems to be to sanitise Xinjiang of its minorities and indigenous cultures, but Kashgar still smells of the trade, crafts and food from the diverse people living in the city. Turpan and Dunhuang offer another backdoor into China, with ruins, tombs and painted caves as well as flaming mountains and heavenly lakes.

The Silk Road finally climaxes at Xi’an, home of the Terracotta Warriors of the first emperor of China.

Highlights

The Russian invasion of Central Asia, combined with the horrors of Stalinism, pushed millions of Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tajiks and Uyghurs across the border into China in search of a safe haven. While their homelands became Russified, in China they could continue practising their traditional way of life. Meeting these minorities, each with their distinct and colourful heritage intact is a highlight of any visit to Xinjiang.

Turpan and Dunhuang are both oasis towns on the Northern Road around the Taklamakan, boasting intricate canal systems, Buddhist caves and the ruins of forgotten kingdoms. In addition there are the Flaming Mountains near Turpan and Dunhuang’s Crescent Lake and Singing Sand Dune to get you out of the city and into nature.

Xi’an is most famous for its terracotta warriors, but remember it was the imperial capital for more than a millennium. Besides its city walls, pagodas, temples and drum towers, the city is chock-full of excellent museums and historical sights.

At a glance

  • The archaeological expeditions of Aurel Stein in the early part of the 20th century radically transformed our understanding of the Silk Road. The thousands of manuscripts, textiles and artefacts he found finally gave an insight to the immense breadth of the Silk Road as a conduit for goods and knowledge.
  • Xinjiang’s particular climate is not only good for archaeologists. In the north of the province, Dinosaur Valley is a haven for finding fossils, while nearby, the Qitai Ghost City and the Petrified Forest Park showcase fantastical formations carved out of rock and organic matter.

  • If your muscles ache from travelling, you can take to the sands in Turpan. A traditional Uyghur therapy sees patients dig into the hot desert sand to treat anything from a sore back to arthritis.

How to get to Xinjiang and Kashgar

Even with perfect transport links available, Kashgar, the western tourist hub, is still a remote city. It takes a full day to travel to Osh and Turpan. Air links with Urumqi and Bishkek are available though, taking roughly an hour. Once in Urumqi, high-speed trains conveniently link Xinjiang to Turpan, Dunhuang and Xi’an.

A logical route takes one from Osh in Kyrgyzstan over Kashgar to Urumqi and Turpan, onwards to Dunhuang and Xi’an, the classic end point of the Silk Road.

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