China’s westernmost province is ethnically, culturally and linguistically unlike anywhere else we’ve visited in the country. Named Xinjiang, or “new frontier” by the Chinese, and traditionally known as East Turkestan in the West, the region was under Chinese control between the First Century BC and the Ninth Century AD but was then ruled separately from the rest of China (and either independent or under Mongol rule) for over a thousand years, and still feels very separate from the rest of China.
Getting off the train from Xian, and throughout our time in Xinjiang, we had to keep reminding ourselves we were still in China, so different does it feel to the rest of the country. The landscape is dry and desert-like and very unlike the lush fertile east; the older buildings tend to be single storey and built of mud bricks while the newer ones are built in Arabian rather than Chinese style; the local Uighur language sounds guttural and entirely different from Chinese, and there’s relatively little Chinese script visible too, with Uighur instead written using a modified Arabic script; the music sounds Turkish or Middle Eastern; the food is different; and above all the people look and dress very differently.
In Xinjiang noodles and flat breads (called naan) rather than rice are the staple foods. Both are delicious, the bread topped with sesame or poppy seeds and the noodles pulled by hand into long threads and served with spicy sauces of tomatoes, onions, peppers and mutton. The streets are filled with the smells of bread cooking in outdoor tandoor ovens, and of burning charcoal and grilled mutton rising from the road-side kebab stalls. The tea is different too – it’s still predominantly green tea that’s served but which is flavoured with rose petals or spices and served in bowls rather than cups.
The local population is predominantly Uighur (a people of Turkic origin), with a mix of ethnic Tajiks, Kyrgyz and Kazaks as well, and facially people look Central Asian rather than Chinese. Both men and women tend to dress relatively conservatively, the men in dark suits and the women in drab coloured long skirts and coats with covered heads (often the headscarves are the one flash of colour in their outfits). Here for the first time in China we saw women with covered faces too, but wearing not delicate veils or even burkhas but thick brown cloths just draped over their faces like a tea towel. The men too cover their heads with hats of varying styles, with flat caps and diamond-shaped green embroidered hats the most popular. Under their hats most of the older men have shaved or short cropped hair but sport long flowing beards (with shaved upper lips), while the younger and middle-aged men tend to have moustaches but no beards.
Despite their outwardly conservative appearance however we found the Uighurs overwhelmingly and immediately friendly and hospitable, in contrast to the majority of the Han Chinese we’d met elsewhere in China. Almost everywhere we were greeted with warmth, kindness and curiosity, with people intrigued as to who we were, where we were from and what had brought us to their province and keen to welcome us. Surprisingly too although the region sees far fewer tourists than other parts of China, we met far more people in Xinjiang who could or chose to talk to us in English. Sadly though, as in Tibet, several of the Uighurs we spoke to told us of how their culture and religion are being repressed and of how they face discrimination even in their homeland with the best jobs reserved for influx of Han Chinese the Government are attracting to the region with generous tax breaks.
We broke our journey from Xian to the West of Xinjiang in a small town called Turpan, famous in China for being both the lowest place in the country (at 154 metres below sea level) and the hottest (with a highest recorded temperature of 49.6 degrees), as well as being pretty much the furthest place in the world from the sea. Thankfully it wasn’t too hot when we were there and we spent an interesting and enjoyable day exploring a traditional mud-brick built Uighur village in the desert, the ruins of a 14th Century Han Garrison city, and Turpan’s sprawling bazaar.
From Turpan we travelled on to Kashgar, a town of narrow lanes and small ornate mosques in the far west of the province which is famous for holding one of the largest animal markets in Central Asia. From early morning, the market place filled up steadily with livestock and men: bulls, sheep, donkeys, and even a few dogs, cats and horses were hustled off carts and trucks and tethered to the dusty ground, while groups of men mingled around them. Later we visited another, even more chaotic market in a neighbouring small town where alongside the animals we’d seen traded in Kashgar was a surprisingly large camel market, complete with babies as well as adult camels –apparently a healthy adult camel sells for around £1000.
From Kashgar we spent a few days travelling south along the Karakorum Highway which cuts through the Pamirs and Karakorum mountain ranges to connect Kashgar and Islamabad. The road runs through high, desert like country, at times cutting through deep and narrow gorges, and at others crossing wide open boulder strewn plains and passing enormous frozen lakes. At all times the mountains dominated the views, their lower sections an amazing array of soft pastel colours with thick snow and ice above.
We spent two days in Tashkurgan, a small Tajik town close to the Tajikistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan borders, going for walks out across the plains, past shepherds and their huge flocks of sheep. Here we saw few cars, with most families owning a donkey and cart which forms their main form of transport. At a small village nestled at the foot of the hills a couple invited us into their home and served us bread and tea, humbling us with their generous hospitality. Lacking any shared language we communicated through mime and played with their two year old twins who soon got over their shock at having two odd looking strangers in their house. Their home was immaculately neat and tidy but almost entirely lacking in possessions: in the main room where we ate there were just a small stove, a foot-powered sewing machine and a collection of rugs and blankets. Amazingly, most of the people in the village seemed to speak not only no Chinese, but also no Uighur (the predominant language of the region), only Tajik, giving an indication of how localised their worlds must be. As in Mongolia, the sheer scale of the landscape with its wide open spaces and bright blue skies was incredible, and its colours and beauty wonderfully restorative.
Before leaving China we spent two days camel riding and camping out in the vast Taklamakan Desert, one of the largest sandy deserts in the world which covers an area of 270,000 square kilometres and was recently crossed on foot for the first time in 72 days. Although we ventured only a short way into the desert we soon felt disorientated and lost in the midst of high, shifting sand-dunes that stretched to the horizon with – to our eyes – no discernable landmarks. As elsewhere in Xinjiang we were struck by the vastness of the landscape and by the quiet that engulfs it: we saw no other people nor any sign of them while we were in the desert, there are no settlements there, and just a handful of wandering shepherds and occasional tourists, and a sense of great emptiness.
Just being in the desert was a wonderful experience, while the camel riding itself was also hugely enjoyable, with the motion of the animals similar to being on a gently rocking boat and familiar to us from our camel riding in Mongolia. Where that had been on flat stable ground however this time the animals had to clamber up and down unstable sand-dunes that looked just like the deserts of our imaginations.
Our ten days in Xinjiang have been a highlight of all of our time in China. Yet we would probably never have come to this beautiful and fascinating area if we hadn’t intended to travel on into Central Asia. It is an area about which remains relatively unknown in the West and of which we were largely ignorant before researching our route: though it occupies a sixth of China’s landmass it receives few foreign tourists, rarely features in the media and the chapter on Xinjiang was one of the shortest in our guidebook. Yet it is one of the most interesting, varied and beautiful places we’ve visited not just in China but anywhere and deserves to be considered as a destination in its own right.