Most foreigners travel to China's developed east coast, and some may not even have heard of Xinjiang (新疆). In the westernmost part of China, Xinjiang is an autonomous region that is bigger than all European countries except Russia. The area is a great mix of various minority nationalities and sights ranging from snowy mountains to deserts, and from the exotic cultures of central Asia to the Middle East. No matter if you are a first-timer or have been to most cities in China, traveling to Xinjiang can give you the feeling of never having visited China before. Moreover, the girls there are considered the most beautiful ladies in China.
One could spend a whole month discovering Xinjiang, but here we focus only on the most popular areas. They are Urumqi, Turpan, Kashgar and Kanas, covering the middle, west and east of Xinjiang. Flights and trains from Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Chonqing, Xian and Lanzhou to Urumqi are offered. Note that in this article we just make recommendations about what to eat and do in modern Urumqi, as most delicious foods and local products are not hard to find in the rest of the cities in Xinjiang. ©
Urumqi is a Mongolian word meaning "beautiful pasture", but now it has become a trade hub for China and central Asia. As the capital of Xinjiang, modern Urumqi (乌鲁木齐) is home to the best museum in Xinjiang and is not far away from the notable two Tianchi scenic areas. These two spots best represent local culture and the natural scenery. The city also serves as the best place to start or end one's Xinjiang trip going shopping for souvenirs.
Xinjiang Autonomous Region Museum
Though this is not one of the four most famous museums in China (Beijing Palace Museum, Shaanxi Historical Museum, Nanjing Museum and Shanghai Museum), Xinjiang Autonomous Region Museum (新疆自治区博物馆) presents a totally different set of features from the big four. The museum is essential visiting for all travelers going to Xinjiang, displaying a variety of art, crafts and relics from twelve minorities in different exhibition areas from Mongolia, Kazakstan, Tadzhikistan and other places. The highlight is the Mummy Hall (干尸厅), where several ancient mummies are on display, including the mummy of the Loulan Beauty! Do not miss this part! Note that the museum is closed every Monday, and that the Mummy Hall is also not available on Thursday. Photography is prohibited.
- Add: 132 Xibei Road (Northwest Road)
- Admission: Free
- Opening hours: 9:30 a.m.–7:00 p.m. in summer; 10:30 a.m.–6:00 p.m. in winter; 10:00 a.m.–6:00 p.m. during holidays and weekends
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Tianchi (Heavenly) Lake
Tianchi Lake, also known as Heavenly Lake (天池), is located on the northern side of the Bogeda Peak in the Tianshan mountains. It is 120 km from Urumqi City and only a 90-minute drive, and the center of the Tianchi scenic area of startling contrasts – an alpine drift lake at an altitude of 1,980 m (6,496 ft) with glistening glaciers on the mountain peaks nearby when the sun is shining. A boat ride of 20–30 minutes would be a good way to explore the beauty of Tianchi surrounding the lake. You will also find a Taoist temple perched on the mountain on one side of Tianchi Lake. Though in winter the lake is a perfect ice rink, the best time to visit Tianchi Lake is in the summer between June and August, when the natural scenery is rather charming.
We should mention that the facilities around the lake are so-so; for instance, the stone walkway and the toilets are not so good. Also, prices are very high in this scenic spot, so you'd be better off bringing snacks and water from downtown Urumqi. During the peak season and in the daytime, tourists are numerous. It is wise to go there early and avoid a bus tour. Staying overnight is also a smart choice. To get to the Tianchi scenic area, all travelers need to take the shuttle bus to a location 1 km from north Tianchi and then walk to the lake.
- Add: Tianshan Scenic Area, Urumqi
- Admission: 100 yuan entrance; 45 yuan boat ride; 100 shuttle bus.
- Opening hours: 8 a.m.–7 p.m.
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Within about two hours' driving from Urumqi, you will reach another great place – Turpan City (吐鲁番), a Silk Road city. It is located in the Turpan Depression, the second-lowest place in the world. It is also the place with the driest and sunniest climate, and thus produces the famous, incredibly sweet Turpan grapes. However, it is not only grapes that make the place known throughout the world, but also its historical significance as one of the major cities along the Silk Road; you can get a glimpse of its former glory at the ancient cities of Jiaohe and Gaochang. The population there mainly consists of Uyghur and travelers!
Jiaohe Ancient City
Jiaohe Ancient City (交河故城), the largest, oldest and best-preserved earth construction city in the world, is now highly rated as "The Perfect Ruins of The World" thanks to the dry climate in the area. It is perched on top of a narrow plateau resembling a big willow leaf, only 10 km west of Turpan City.
The city was built by the "Jushi" (车师) people during second century bc as their capital and later became part of the Gaochang Kingdom in ad 450. The city's golden age was during the Tang Dynasty (ad 618–907) when the governmental office of the Western Region was also set up in the city, and which can still be seen to the present day. Jiaohe was finally abandoned at the end of fourteenth century due to numerous wars.
Visitors will start the visit from the south of the city and walk through the ancient city, which has only two gates. You will walk along the main street to see a variety of workshops and eventually reach the city center where the administrative and governmental offices are located. The eastern and western parts are residential, and temples can be seen everywhere. Most buildings in the city were built during the Tang Dynasty. Go there early in the morning or late in the afternoon and take plenty of water, as it is unbelievably hot without any sunshades.
- Address: Toksun County, Turpan
- Admission: 40 yuan
- Opening hours: 9 a.m.–6 p.m.
- Getting there: Take bus number 1 or 2 on Xincheng Road in Turpan to Yaer (亚尔乡), and then transfer to Jiaohe Ancient City by mini-van at 2 yuan, tricycle at 3 yuan, horse and carriage at 20 yuan, or taxi at 15 yuan.
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Karez Water System
Unlike other attractions, the Karez Water System (坎儿井) is not only for sightseeing but also for witnessing the wisdom of the ancient people. Karez actually means "well". It has acquired a nickname, "The Underground Great Wall in Xinjiang", since it helps irrigate the Turpan area, the driest place in China with an annual precipitation of just 16 mm. Since the Karez Water System is underground, it is not affected by the seasons or the climate, and produces a steady flow all year round. Even now, the system still plays an important role in the Turpan Water Supply, accounting for more than 30 percent.
When walking through the Karez, follow your guide and listen carefully to the history, which will surely impress you as you witness the reality at first-hand. These underground projects look like huge ant hills in a row above the ground along Highway 312. The best time to visit is in summer, since it is very cool underground.
- Address: Xincheng Ximen Village, Ya'er Country, Turpan
- Admission: 40 yuan
- Opening hours: 8 a.m.–5 p.m.
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Gaochang Ancient City
Gaochang Ancient City (高昌故城) was once a vibrant Silk Road city and the capital of the Gaochang Kingdom. It was situated in Sanpu County about 30 km southeast of Turpan City. Once a stopping point for merchants traveling on the Silk Road, it was destroyed in wars during the fourteenth century. With an area of two square kilometers, Gaochang is the biggest city ruins in the western region. Travelers today can also track its gorgeous history back to those old palace ruins.
The ruins consist of an outside city, an inside city and a palace city, with nine city gates in total. Most buildings disappeared during the wars. Only the temples in southwestern and southeastern sides outside the city remain well preserved. The north side inside the city houses a small and irregular castle called Kehan Castle. The city wall outside the city is the best-preserved part. Go there early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the sun, and bring plenty of water. Traveling by donkey is a highlight.
- Add: Sanpu Country, Turpan
- Admission: 40 yuan entrance; 20 yuan optional donkey ride.
- Opening hours: 8:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m., April 21–October 20; 10:00 a.m.–6:30 p.m., October 21–April 20
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Seventy kilometers east of Turpan City, the Tuyoq Valley (吐峪沟) is located in the Taklamakan Desert. It is an ancient oasis-valley cutting into the Flaming Mountains. Well-known for seedless grapes, the area is one of the most rewarding places to visit in Xinjiang.
The Tuyuq Valley was once a holy place for Buddhism and Islam and is even considered as the most mysterious area in the western region. The frescos in the Thousand Buddha Caves (94 in total) are the best testament to this fact, but you will need to climb about 100 steps to get to the caves. The valley is also home to the oldest Uygur Mazar in Xinjiang, dating back more than 1,700 years and retaining the ancient folklore customs and culture of the Uygur. Travelers can also see the ancient earth construction buildings, and the site offers many opportunities for photographers and artists.
- Add: Shanshan County, Turpan City
- Admission: 40 yuan
- Opening hours: 8:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m., April 21–October 20; 10:00 a.m.–6:30 p.m., October 21–April 20.
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Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves
The Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves (柏孜克里千佛洞) contain many Buddhist cave grottos originating from between the fifth and fourteenth centuries. The caves are located between Turpan City and Shanshan County (once called Loulan) in the Taklamakan Desert. The complex is close to the Gaochang Ancient Ruins, a huge gorge in the Flaming Mountains perching between the cliffs of the Mutou Valley, 14 km east of Turpan City. Since its establishment in the fifth century, it had been the Buddhist center of Gaochang for more than seven centuries, experiencing both the Southern and Northern Dynasties, the Tang Dynasty, the Five Dynasties and the Yuan Dynasty.
Unfortunately the largest Buddha cave complex was badly damaged by local Muslims – the eyes and mouths of murals are often missing. Things became worse in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when Europeans and the Japanese invaders removed many murals. Though these caves are not well-preserved, it is still worth going if you have not visited grottos before. Camel rides are offered, but photography in the caves is strictly prohibited.
- Add: Shengjin Country, Turpan
- Admission: 20 yuan
- Opening hours: 8:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m.
Kashgar (喀什) is in the south of Xinjiang, on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert. The city was once a significant trade center and a gem of the Silk Road for merchants. Now, it is the hub connecting China and Central Asia.
It is said that one has not been to Xinjiang if one has not been to Kashgar. The city itself is totally different from anywhere else in China, and you will be impressed by its exotic culture. There are lots of attractions on offer, so make sure you save enough time for at least three days there.
The Old city, (老城区), located in downtown Kashgar, would definitely be your first stop in Kashgar; it represents the soul of Kashgar. As the only part of China shaped by Islamic culture, the 2000-year-old Old City resembles like a huge maze with more than 300 alleys and still has local residents. Many traditional Islamic-style residential houses called Gaotai Residential Houses (高台民居) have see a thousand years or more. Though some parts have been destroyed over history, visitors can still get a glimpse of what it would have originally been like. All the streets are named in the Uygur language with different functional meanings, from which you can get an idea of each street's original purpose.
In this huge maze block of many streets heading in different directions, the bricks at your feet are the real guide to avoid getting lost. The hexagonal bricks lead you to the city outside, while the square bricks get you to nowhere but dead ends.
Residential houses along the alleys are available for visiting. Their hosts are all Uygur people, who are very hospitable. Observe the door of every house, and you will know if you should walk in or not. If the two doors of the house are open, it tells you that the host is at home. One open door means that only the hostess is at home. If there is a curtain hung on the gate, it means they have visitors at the moment. Local residents also run small businesses in pottery and handicrafts.
- Add:Near Id Kah Mosque, Jiefang North Road, Kashgar
- Admission: 30 yuan for the back side of the Old City; the rest, free.
Abakh Hoja Tomb
The Abakh Hoja Tomb (阿帕克霍加墓) does not actually look like a usual tomb. It is a classical ancient Islamic building covering two hectares, located in Haohan Village, 5 km east of Kashgar City. Archives show that the tomb houses five generations from the same family (up to 72 people), but now visitors can see only 58 graves. The tomb is named after the Minister Abakh Hoja, one of the most famous people in this particular family.
However, to most Chinese people, this tomb is attractive because of a legend that a Uyghur woman buried there was once the concubine of Emperor Qianlong during the Qing Dynasty (1616–1911). She was known as Xiang Concubine or Fragrant Concubine, and it is said that her body had a pleasant smell since birth. Thus the tomb is also known as the Tomb of Concubine Xiang (香妃墓) by many Chinese.
- Add: Haohan Village, Kashgar City
- Admission: 30 yuan
- Opening hour: 9:30 a.m.–9:30 p.m.
The Sunday Bazaar (星期天巴扎) lies on the east bank of the Tuman River, and is also known to the locals as South Gate Bazaar (Bazaar in the Uygur language means market). There are many bazars in the city, but this one enjoys the best reputation. With an area of 250 acres, the Bazaar has 21 specialized markets in total, making it the biggest international trading market in the whole of the northwest region of China. This particular bazaar has a history of over 2000 years and was once renowned as the biggest market in Asia.
The Sunday Bazaar has up to 5000 stalls selling ten thousand different items. Every day it receives over 100,000 visitors. Before 1992, the Sunday Bazaar was only open on Sunday, but since then has been open every day, locals and travelers still like to call it the Sunday Bazaar. Only on Sunday, however, will you see the most classical and lively bazaar and the essence of Xinjiang Uygur customs and culture. If you go to the bazaar on Sunday, you can also pay a visit to the Livestock Bazaar situated 15 km away from downtown Kashgar.
- Add: East bank of Tuman River Side, Kashgar
- Admission: Free
- Opening hours: 10 a.m.–12 p.m.
The Karakul (卡拉库里湖) means "black lake". It is a lake in Akto County along the highway, located 196 km from Kashgar City. Karakul is a very unusual plateau lake. In fact, it is the highest lake of the Pamir Plateau, at an altitude of 3,600 m. The view is stunning, thanks to the surrounding, snow-covered mountains and beautiful reflections in the crystal-clear water. On a clear day, the scenery is rather mind-blowing and picturesque. Besides the amazing water reflections, grazing goats, yaks and sheep make the experience more alluring and real.
Yak-riding, camel-riding and horse-riding offer more options to enjoy the local life. Visiting a local family and talking with them will be another highlight. Many yurts are provided near the lake for accommodation. Take an overnight trip there to enjoy the breathtaking sunset and sunrise over the lake. Walk around the lake to experience the tranquility as the breeze kisses your face. Note that the lake is at a height of 3700 m, so it will be cold at night, even in the summer. Prepare some warm clothes and also be aware of altitude sickness.
- Add: Foot of Mushitage Peak, Akto County, Kashgar
- Admission: 50 yuan
- Opening hours: 24 hours
Kanas Scenic Area
Kanas Scenic Area (喀纳斯地区) is named after Kanas Lake, which is a picturesque land of idyllic beauty. It is also known as the Kanas Geopark. Located in Burqin County in the Altay Prefecture in the far northern part of Xinjiang, this scenic area is rated as the only Swiss-like Scenery in Asia, boasting glaciers, lakes, forests, plateaus, grazing, rivers, ancient villages and traditional local communities. It is a place that can make a photographer of everyone, as every snapshot is a masterpiece. Kanas Lake and Hemu Ancient Village are the main stops for most travelers.
Kanas Lake (喀纳斯湖) is in the Kanas Geopark and is mainly made up of Crouching Dragon Bay, Moon Bay, Immortal Bay and the interesting mystery of the legendary big red monster fish! The water, surrounded by snow-covered mountains, decorates the world like a diamond. The best time to visit Immortal Bay is in the early morning when the area is often covered by thin white mist, giving you a fairy world to enjoy. Walking along the river from Moon Bay to Crouching Dragon Bay is another highlight and offers numerous photographic opportunities.
A cruise on the lake is available at 60 yuan for an hour, which is not particularly recommended for young, adventurous people. Instead, give the Fish Observatory (Guanyu Ting) a try by climbing 1,111 steps to the top for an extra fee of 60 yuan. You can enjoy a panoramic view of the lake, including the Friendship Peak (友谊峰) at an altitude of 4,374 m, which is the approximate landmark of Chinese, Russian and Mongolian trig-point borders. En route to the top, you can appreciate the changing views and color variations, as there are four types of hundred-year-old pine trees.
A whole day trip is a must, and 2–3 days there is better if time allows. You can also visit the Tuva Village near the lake to meet authentic, local ancient Tuva people, Mongolic Tribal people settled in the village with Kazakhs. The period from the end of August to mid-September is the best time to visit, when the scenery shows its best before the first big snow fall covers the area.
Shuttle buses run in the scenic area. Usually, visitors will drop off at Jiadengyu (贾登峪) tourist center from Burqin County or other cities and then take the shuttle bus to Kanas Tourist center, which takes an hour. In the Kanas Tourist center, one can transfer to shuttle buses to Fish Observatory (25 minutes) or Kanas Lake (20 minutes).
- Add: North of Burqin County, Xinjiang
- Admission: 230 yuan (includes return shuttle bus ticket). Fish Observatory requires an extra fee of 60 yuan.
- Opening hours: 9 a.m.–7 p.m., Monday–Friday; 10 a.m.–3 p.m. weekends.
Seventy kilometers from Kanas Lake, Hemu Village (禾木村) is one of the three ancient villages in Kanas Geopark that is home to the Tuva people (Mongolic Tribal people settled in the village with Kazakhs). The other two villages are Kanas Village and Baihaba Village. All three are very close to the Mongolian and Russian borders. Hemu is the biggest and most remote, covering an area of 3,040 square meters. This westernmost village in China is known as "God's Back Garden", because of the stunning and colorful scenery.
All houses in Hemu are built of wood, and are scattered across the vast grassland. In the fall, many groves of birch trees turn into different colors to decorate this ancient and original village like an oil painting. Stay with a local family to enjoy the authentic local life. You can take a horse ride to see around the village to experience the tranquility and beauty and the company of the Tuva people.
Don't miss the highlight – Hemu Village at sunrise! Get up early in the morning and climb up to the hilltop to catch the very moment of sunrise when the sun penetrates the thin mist, which makes the whole village look like it is covered by a thin, golden veil.
The best time to visit is in early September when it is not very cold and the area shows the its most beautiful side. Note that the road leading to Hemu is currently under construction, and travelers will need to take an eight-hour horse ride from Kanas Lake to the village. Dining in the village is very expensive, so it would be better to bring food with you.
- Add: Hemu Village, Burqin County
- Admission: 60 yuan entrance; 20 yuan insurance.
- Opening hours: 24 hours
What to Eat
Besides the beautiful landscape, Xinjiang also has a lot to offer in terms of food. The cuisine is a perfect mix of many minority groups in Xinjiang, the major one being Uyghur food. Mutton and kebabs play important roles in the locals' daily diet. As Muslim people account for the main part of the Xinjiang population, Halal food dominates Xinjiang Cuisine. Famous and popular food includes Shish Kebab, big plate chicken, pilaf, roast whole lamb, milk tea. The most delicious food in Xinjiang is available in the capital, Urumqi.
The best place to taste all these delicious foods is the International Grand Bazaar (国际大巴扎), which offers a variety of local goods, food and snacks. As the biggest bazaar in the world, it shows the essence of Islamic culture and the art of many of the ethnic groups of the western part of China, including trades, entertainment, cuisine and culture.
- Address: 8 Jiefang South Road, Tianshan District, Urumqi
- Opening hours: Midday–11 p.m.
What to See
You don't have to go to Turpan to watch a local performance. Instead, in the International Grand Bazaar, there is a Uyghur Dancing and Singing Show (维族歌舞演出) every night. You can have a great experience combining the performance with dining. Dancers and singers are from different ethnic groups, and most players in the band can play several instruments. The theater also offers a buffet dinner at 7 p.m., which means you can taste the authentic local Uyghur food by famous Uyghur chefs.
- Address: 8 Jiefang South Road, Tianshan District, Urumqi
- Price: 138 yuan–298 yuan according seats (includes buffet dinner)
- Show time: 8:30 p.m. 10:20 p.m.
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