Life On China's Silk Road

Having spent a number of years living and working in China, I wasn’t sure there was much left that could surprise me about the country. That is until a recent trip took me for the first time into Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province. This is China’s Wild West, as far from Beijing and the developed East Coast as you can get, closer in geography and culture to Central Asia than Shanghai or Beijing. It even operates on its own unofficial time zone, which can take a bit of getting used to for a newcomer such as myself!

My trip began in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, and the most inland major city in the world. Here Han Chinese culture still holds firm, and at first glance it resembles many other big modern Chinese cities. However as you look deeper the differences become more apparent. Dumplings are replaced by flatbreads, snatches of Uighur can be heard among the musical Mandarin tones, and traditional Chinese curved roofs give way to dramatic Islamic architecture. For those starting out their Silk Road adventure in Urumqi the Xinjiang Museum gives a wonderful introduction to the region and its culture and history, giving travellers a solid background ready for the adventures ahead.

We travelled from Urumqi to Turpan, the second lowest point in the world. Here the temperature is frequently well into the 40°Cs. This is a world away from the busy capital, and the pace of life here is slower. The city has a history stretching back millennia and the remains of ancient cities out in the desert, such as Gaochang and Jiaohe, make for fascinating places to explore. Equally remarkable are the Karez Wells, an underground irrigation system built by farmers 2000 years (and which still work today!) to divert a regular supply of water to the city from the mountains in the north and helped to establish Turpan as an important stopping point along the Silk Road.

No trip to Xinjiang is complete without a visit to Kashgar. Until recently modernisation had not touched this western Silk Road outpost, and life ticked along much as it would have done for centuries. However in recent years there have been ever increasing signs of development, with large parts of the Old Town being renovated. However even in the face of these changes the spirit of the old Silk Road lives on and the streets of Kashgar are still crammed with traders and craftsmen. A section of the ‘real Old Town’ still remains and provides an enduring example of the real lives of the local Uighur people who have lived here for generations. From Kashgar you can take a trip up the spectacular Karakorum Highway to the stunning Karakul Lake and the Tashkorgan grasslands. The adventurous can cross the dramatic Torugart Pass and continue their travels in Kyrgyzstan. Or you can choose to drive east through the desert to Hotan, a rugged desert outpost famous for its jade, silk and carpets.

Laying claim to every variety of climate and landscape (except coastline) seen anywhere else in the world, some mouth-watering food, and a long and fascinating history, Xinjiang should earn itself a place on any keen traveller’s bucket list. Teetering between the East and the West there is a culture here which is totally unique, and as of yet much of it is still relatively undiscovered to Western tourists. Xinjiang can be incorporated into a larger trip around China, but there is plenty here to justify dedicating a full trip to the province. Get in touch to speak to one of our China experts about how you can arrange a trip to this fascinating region yourself.