The Silk Road passes through almost every conceivable landscape: deserts, snow-capped mountains, pristine forests and pastures, clear rivers and lakes, flower meadows and orchards. It splits into several routes in Xinjiang. Some sections go through the Tianshan Mountains and the grasslands of the Ili River Valley.
Xinjiang covers 1.66 million square kilometers, or a sixth of China’s land area, equivalent to the total area of France, Britain, Germany and Spain. The best way to travel through this vast territory is by car. You can challenge yourself by cycling or even riding a donkey as a Hong Kong traveler once did.
Most journeys begin in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and the world’s most distant metropolis from the ocean. In Mongolian, Urumqi means “beautiful pasture”, but it’s a modern city rising upwards and inhabited by people of 43 different ethnic groups, including Han, Uygur, Kazak and Hui. Officially on Beijing time, Urumqi people work and rest two hours behind the rest of China. Usually night falls at 10 pm. The smell of barbecue can lead you to one of the busy night markets. The international bazaar at Erdaoqiao is an Aladdin’s cave of Xinjiang specialty products. Try your best to bargain as the prices are usually much higher than what the goods are really worth.
Located 230 kilometers southeast of Urumqi, Turpan is a transport hub on the Silk Road and one of the lowest basins in the world. Turpan is best seen from July to September, when the fruits and melons are ripe. Temperatures here can reach 49 degrees centigrade in summer, making it the hottest place in China. But the climate is very dry, so temperatures differ widely from noon to night. The ruins of two ancient cities, Gaochang and Jiaohe, are must-see sights.
Gaochang was established about 2,100 years ago and developed into the political, economic and cultural center in the Turpan Basin in the 5th Century, becoming the capital of the Gaochang Uigur Kingdom in the 9th Century.
Jiaohe is believed to be as great as the ruins of Athens. Dating back 2,500 years, Jiaohe was once a key city on the ancient Silk Road trading route. Jiaohe was not built by piling bricks from the ground up; it was carved into the earth.
Other attractions include: Emin Minaret, one of the most beautiful Islamic buildings in Xinjiang; Grape Valley, offering the world’s sweetest grapes and passionate Uygur songs and dances; Flaming Mountain – as hot as its name suggests; Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves, a grand group of grottos; and Astana, where mummies as remarkable as those from Egypt were unearthed at the ancient tombs.
In the northwest of Xinjiang, the Ili Kazak Autonomous Prefecture borders Kazakhstan and was once a strategic passage and communications hub on the Silk Road. Its many lush and beautiful pastures are dotted with white yurts. Grasslands and forests cover 67.7 percent of the territory. Every spring and summer, the region turns into a sea of flowers. Of the many grasslands, Narat, Tangbura and Karajol are recommended.
During the western expedition of Genghis Khan more than 700 years ago, the Mongol army marched into a snowstorm in the Tianshan Mountains. Exhausted by hunger and cold, they came down to a grassland with blossoming flowers and gurgling streams. The clouds parted and the red setting sun burned the sky. The Mongols shouted “Narat!” (Here is the sun) and the name stuck. From June to August, Kazak herdsmen graze their stock in Narat. The snow-covered mountains, forests, grasslands, rivers, flowers, horses, cows, sheep and yurts create a rural idyll. Horse races and prairie bazaars are also held there.
Tangbura, meaning “seal” in Kazak, is so named because of a huge rock, which looks like a seal, on the east of the valley. The scenery combines snow-covered mountains, forests, grasslands, rocks and streams.
The Karajol prairie is not so commercially developed as Narat and Tangbura. At an altitude of about 2,000 meters, it preserves the traditional lifestyle of Kazakh herdsmen and its natural beauty.
The Ili River Valley in June is a sea of purple. China’s largest lavender production base, it is permeated by the fragrance. A lavender festival is held in Huocheng County in mid-June. The lavender blooms for just a week before it is harvested, but if you miss it, you can take home lavender essence oil or incense bags.
Other places to see:
China’s second largest prairie, Bayanbulak is located in the Bayingolin Mongolian Autonomous Prefecture, 73 kilometers south of Narat. Surrounded by snow-capped mountains, it covers 23,000 square kilometers and is home to China’s first swan reserve.
After enjoying the lavender in Huocheng County, go north about 100 kilometers till you come to a blue lake nestled amid mountains and grasslands. Sayram Lake, at an altitude of 2,072 meters, covers 453 square kilometers with waters plunging to depths of 106 meters. It is called “the last teardrop of the Atlantic” because it’s the farthest point of the warm and wet airflow of the Atlantic. A local legend also has it that the lake was formed by the tears of two young lovers who died when their love was thwarted. The lake is prettiest in May and June, when the wild flowers bloom on the banks.