Xinjiang Travel Guide
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TOPThe Geographical-Historical Perspective
Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, or Xinjiang for short, sits on China's west-northwest frontier, bordering Tibet (Tibet Autonomous Region) to the south, Jammu & Kashmir - and Pakistan - to the southwest, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgystan to the west, Kazakhstan to the northwest, Russia to the north, and Mongolia ("Outer" Mongolia, as distinct from Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region) to the northeast. To the east lie the two Chinese provinces of Qinghai and Gansu. There is probably no other region on earth with so many foreign countries on its borders, and certainly no other region, or province, within China exposed to so many foreign borders.
Xinjiang covers an area of over 1.66 million square kilometers, and as such is the largest geographical-political subdivision in China; it is larger than any other region or province in the country, making up 1/6 of the entire land mass of China. Xinjiang also has a rich history as the westernmost part of the northern route of the famous Silk Road. The city of Kashgar (formerly Shule) was the first "oasis" on this Silk Road route for traders and merchants arriving from Kyrgystan and Pakistan. Other northern Silk Road cities in Xinjiang include Qarkilik (Loulan), Kuqar (Loopnurm Qiucinow), Hotan (Yutian), Ili River Valley (Wusun), Dawan, Kangju, and Dayuezhi, named after the Han Chinese designation for the ancient Yuezhi people, Da Yuezhi.
The terrain of Xinjiang can be summarized as "Three Mountain Ranges Embracing Two Basins". The main basin is of course the Tarim Basin, which covers about half of the area of Xinjiang, from the city of Kashgar/ Kashi in the west to Lop Nur (Lake Lop) in the east, and from the Kunlun Mountains in the south to the Tian Shan Mountains in the north. Xinjiang's second basin is the Junggar Basin, which lies between the Tian Shan Mountains to the south and the Altay Mountains to the north, meaning that the Junggar Basin lies north of the Tarim Basin. While the Tarim Basin spans an area of some 530,000 square kilometers, the Junggar Basin spans less than half of that, or about 200,000 square kilometers.
In the central part of the Tarim Basin lies China's largest moving desert, the Takla Makan Desert, covering an area of 330,000 square kilometers, making it larger than the Junggar Basin itself.* The Takla Makan Desert is the second-largest moving desert in the world, the largest such desert being the Sahara. The Takla Makan is moving northward. A look at a map of Xinjiang shows that the eastern arm of the Tian Shan Mountain Range is at a significantly lower altitude than the western arm of the mountain range. In fact, the center of the eastern arm of the Tian Shan Mountain Range encompasses a huge depression, or deep mini-basin, the Turfan Depression, in which sits the relatively large city of Turpan. In time, the Takla Makan Desert will surely engulf the entire eastern arm of the Tian Shan Mountain Range, eating up the Turfan Depression and linking up with the Junggar Basin. When that happens the above defining expression for Xinjiang will have to be changed to "One Huge Basin Embracing Three Mountain Ranges"!**
Xinjiang's longest river - the Talimu River, at about 2100 kilometers - is also China's longest inland river (i.e., not emptying directly into the ocean). The Talimu River's two westernmost branches are the Yerqiang and the Aksu Rivers, the latter of which originates in the Tian Shan Mountains of Kyrgystan and flows southeast where it links up with the Yerqiang River, which originates in the Kunlun Mountains of southwestern Xinjiang, then flows northeast. The Yerqiang itself is fed by the Kashgar River, which also originates in the Kunlun Mountains, slightly west of the point of origin of the Yerqiang River.
The Talimu River is also fed by the Hotan River, also originating in Xinjiang's Kunlun Mountains. Additionally, the Talimu River is fed farther west along the northern rim of the Tarim Basin by the Kaidu-Konqi River system (the two rivers link up in the area around Lake Bosten, near the southern foothills of the eastern arm of Xinjiang's Tian Shan Mountains), though, today, this only occurs with the help of man-made hydraulics (in the past, the Kaidu-Konqi River system did indeed connect directly to the Talimu River, but past floods have resulted in a change in the course of this river system... as indicated elsewhere on these pages (regarding the Yangtze River's change of course in Jiangxi Province in CE 400, which resulted in the creation of China's largest freshwater lake, Lake Poyang), rivers are not indelibly "etched in earth"!).
Throughout its history, Xinjiang has seen its share of unrest, some of it possibly inspired by, if not fuelled by, foreign powers, though it cannot be denied that there may be a large contingent of Uyghurs who insist on independence at any price, just as there exists a certain nucleus of Basque separatists who wish independence from Spain, a certain nucleus of Corsican separatists who desire independence from France, a certain nucleus of Kurdish separatists who desire independence from Turkey - and a similar Kurdish nucleus who desire independence from Iraq - etc., etc., and the list could go on and on. Another point worth remembering is that although most of the area that is occupied by the Uyghurs of China's northwestern frontier ended up being part of greater China, the area was bound to have ended up in the hands of, if not China, then another equally strong player - for example, Russia (the Russians seized in fact part of the area in the 19th century, taking advantage of Muslim unrest in the region, only returning a portion of it via a treaty years later) - meaning that the Uyghurs, being a small, powerless group, relatively speaking, would not have had their independence anyway.
TOPThe Origin of Xinjiang's Largest Ethnic Minority: The Uyghurs
Who are the Uyghurs? The short answer is that they are a Turkic tribe who speak an Altaic (read: Turkic) language. The long answer is that no one really knows for sure from whence they come, for the Uyghurs have a DNA that reveals a mix of Turkic and Caucasoid origins, with, surprisingly, up to 60% Caucasoid origin in some individuals. We know that there were Caucasoid groups living in the area prior to the arrival of the Turkic groups to which the Uyghurs belong. There were, for example, the Yuezhi (referred to by the Han Chinese at the time as Da Yuezhi - also the name (Dayuezhi), as indicated above, of one of the ancient cities of the northern Silk Road), who lived in the area of present-day Gansu Province and Mongolia and who supplied Chinese emperors with that most precious of commodities, jade, before the Yuezhi were driven out by Turkic Xiongnu tribes who, in turn, were conquered by the Han Chinese of the Western Han (BCE 206 - CE 009) Dynasty.
But the Tarim Basin has yielded up a number of mummies of Caucasoid origin belonging to the group known as the Tocharians, whose appearance and dress suggest a Celtic origin (ancient Han Chinese texts spoke of very tall people in this region who had light skin and long hair, some of whom also had red hair while others had blonde hair, though, until the unearthing of the Tarim Basin mummies, these accounts were believed to be pure fantasy). Could the Uyghurs be the product of interaction between the Tocharians and the Turkic tribes that entered the area, and who perhaps subjugated the Tocharians? And are these Tocharians perhaps the remnants of the Yuezhi who had been driven out of Gansu Province and Mongolia (the Yuezhi also spoke a variant of the Tocharian language)? Did the fleeing Yuezhi settle in the Tarim Basin, becoming the Tocharians?
No one currently has concrete answers to these questions, though a possible link between the Uyghurs and the Caucasoid groups who lived in the area will hopefully one day be definitively determined. It is also claimed that there are Greek descendants of the armies of Alexander the Great who lived in the area (eg. the Kalash tribe of northern Pakistan), yet Greeks rarely have blonde or red hair, or green eyes for that matter. Moreover, the dress of the Tocharian mummies is supposed to be of a tartan pattern typical of Celtic tribes, yet not even a large minority of Celtic peoples have red or blonde hair. The phenomenon of the occasional example of red/ blond hair - and fair skin with greenish eyes - in Uyghurs is of course owing to what geneticists refer to as dominant versus recessive genes, i.e., the tendency for a trait to dominate unless the gene in question has been inherited from both parents. This means that a dark-haired, dark-skinned Uyghur man and a dark-haired, dark-skinned Uyghur woman could each carry the gene for "Celtic looks", and if they form a union and produce a child, then the child will exhibit light skin, red/ blonde hair, and green eyes, i.e., "Celtic looks". But of course, the Uyghurs would have had to have picked up these genes from a "Celtic" race at some point in their past, which brings us back to square one!
Xinjiang's economy hinges on two main currents: agriculture and tourism.
There are a couple of very good reasons why Xinjiang relies heavily on agricultural production rather than industrial production. Firstly, the number of rivers in the Tarim Basin, together with the long growing season and the plentiful sunshine, makes agricultural production a natural choice, even though parts of the basin receive little water. The other reason is that the region's distance from the raw material sources as well as from the marketplaces for the end products means that industrial production in the region would not currently make economic sense, though this could change if export markets were to open up in neighboring countries.
The principal crops of Xinjiang are: cotton, hops, safflower, medlar (an apple-like fruit native to Europe, South Africa, and Eurasia - including Xinjiang - the European variant of which fruit bears the Latin name Mespilus germanica), tomato, cantaloupe, grape wine, fragrant pears, and megranate (the large edible fruit of the peony megranate tree (Punica granatum), apparently related to the pomegranate; the peel of the megranate fruit is also used as a natural dye). Some figures: Xinjiang is responsible for 40% of China's total production of cotton, 50% of its medlar, 60% its safflower and 70% of its hops.
Thanks to its tourist-friendly weather (an abundance of sunshine), its unique natural landscapes and its long and colorful history, Xinjiang is a tourist's paradise. Besides the mountains and the rivers, Xinjiang has several lakes, such as Heavenly Lake, Hanas Lake, Bosteng Lake, and Sailimu Lake. In contrast to the cool climate around the lakes, the area around the city of Turpan in the Turfan Depression is one of the hottest places in China, if not on the planet. There one can take special sand cures where one covers the body with hot sand - positively tonic! There are of course desert areas with endless sand dunes where one can take a camel ride with a guide (so that one can be assured of one's safe return).
Xinjiang also has twenty-three nature reserves, four of which enjoy state protection, since they are the habitat of a number of rare plants as well as threatened animal species. Xinjiang boasts several historical and cultural sites, including religious sites. These include: Jiaohe Ruins, Gaochang Ruins, Kizil Thousand Buddha Grottoes, and Loulan Ancient City, near Lake Lop (Lop Nur) on the eastern rim of the Tarim Basin, a Silk Road city whose mysterious and catastrophic fate matches that of the Ancient City of Niya, which also lies in Xinjiang, near the southern rim of the Tarim Basin (see footnote 2 below). Loulan is also the site of the finds of a number of Tocharian mummies, including the so-called "Beauty of Loulan", a 4000-year-old mummy found in such excellent condition that artists have recreated her presumed physiognomy (in fact, her entire head, replete with long flowing hair), based on her bone structure (to see the result - you'll need to scroll to the bottom of the page ).
* In the Uyghur language, the name "Takla Makan" has a "Hotel California" meaning to it (Hotel California being the title of a song by the 1970s-1980s American rock band, the Eagles): once entered, there is no way out.
** The Takla Makan Desert has already engulfed two oases in its heart, the ancient cities of Loulan and Niya, both of which seem to have been abandoned in haste, reminiscent of the catastrophe that befell Pompeii when a volcanic eruption on Mount Vesuvius buried the city in ash, suffocating everything living. What seems to have happened to Loulan and Niya was a sudden sandstorm of biblical proportions. The suddenness of the departure of the inhabitants of Niya is seen in many clues, one of which was the discovery of the skeletons of dogs which were still tethered to the front of dwellings, an indication that the occupants fled in such haste that there was not even time to unleash the family dog (to read about the Niya site).