Xinjiang Travel Guide
the deep-blue waters of Tian Chi
Capital of Xinjiang since the 19th century, Ürümqi sits amidst beautiful scenery, with the snow-laden Tian Shan to the east. It served as the base for a succession of warlords well into the 20th century, including the infamous Yang Zengxin who, in 1916, invited all his enemies to dinner and then beheaded them. Today a growing metropolis with a population of one million, Ürümqi is a modern Chinese city, with designer stores and high-rises. Many Han Chinese have settled here since 1949, and the population is now half-Han and half-ethnic minorities including Uighur, Manchu, Kazakh, Mongolian, and Tajik.
No longer a remote outpost, Ürümqi was finally connected to Central Asia and Europe after the Ürümqi-Almaty rail line was built in 1991. Most visitors come to see Tian Chi (Heaven Lake) but the city has other attractions such as its lively markets and the fascinating mix of ethnic peoples. The fine Xinjiang Provincial Museum devotes a section to archeological finds, especially from around Turpan, including some preserved corpses, silk paintings, and lovely brocades. A section dedicated to local peoples includes gers, jewelry, and traditional clothes. In the north of the city, the scenic Hong Shan Park has a small 18th-century pagoda, and offers wonderful views.
Xinjiang Provincial Museum
- Xibei Lu.
- 8:30am–5pm daily
- 62 miles (100 km) E of Ürümqi
- 0994 323 1238
- from Ürümqi
- in winter
- Horses available for exploring lake area
A refreshing break from the arid deserts of northwestern China, Tian Chi (Heaven Lake) is a beautiful stretch of water, surrounded by luxuriant meadows and dense pine forests. It lies at an elevation of 6,500 ft (1,980 m), enclosed by snow-capped peaks including the majestic Bogda Feng, that reaches a height of almost 20,000 ft (6,000 m). A wonderful place for spending a day, or indeed several, Tian Chi offers many opportunities for leisurely walks and hikes in the lake area and through the neighboring countryside dotted with Kazakh gers.
The local Kazakhs are mostly nomadic, living off sheep-breeding, and more recently, tourism. Very friendly and hospitable, they can arrange guides and horse treks around the lake and into the hills.
Tian Chi can only be visited during summer (May–September), as it is not accessible during the winter months. There are usually plenty of accommodations available in local Kazakh gers around the lake. Staying overnight can be far more fun and interesting than the day-tours which are sometimes a bit tacky.
Hanas Lake Nature Reserve, Altai
- 404 miles (650 km) N of Ürümqi
- Altai, then bus
- from Ürümqi to Burqin, then 93 miles (150 km) N via bus or car to reserve
- 0906 652 4464
In contrast to the arid deserts of southern Xinjiang, the far north is covered in forests, lakes, and streams, over-looked by high mountains. The Altai region, bordering Mongolia, Russia, and Kazakhstan, is famous for its natural beauty, best seen in the Hanas Lake Nature Reserve (can be visited from Burqin). Centered around an alpine lake set at 4,490 ft (1,370 m) in the glorious Altai mountains, the reserve supports a diversity of wildlife. The area is wonderful for walking, and boat trips are available on the lake. Tours from Ürümqi operate all year.
- Near Urho, 62 miles (100 km) N of Karamay
- 0906 652 4464
- Karamay, then bus
- from Karamay
Rising above the ocean of oil rigs, along the Dsungar Basin, is a collection of wind-shaped rock formations, known as the Ghost City. Made famous by the movies filmed there, including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it is now a popular destination. Camel rides, mountain bikes, and four-wheel vehicles can be hired.
on the shores of Sayram Lake
- 75 miles (120 km) N of Yining
The jewel-like Sayram Lake, or Sailimu Hu, is a vast stretch of water set amidst magnificent mountain scenery and flowering meadows. Located at 6,560 ft (2,000 m), the lake area is chilly for most of the year, and only warm in summer when it is also covered in flowers. Reached by bus from Yining, it is a beautiful spot, barely touched by tourism, although it is possible to stay in simple lakeside guesthouses or gers (yurts).
- 242 miles (390 km) W of Ürümqi
- from Ürümqi.
- Ili Valley from Yining
Yining’s Uighur bazaars
Close to the border with Kazakhstan, Yining is the capital of the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture. In recent centuries, Russia has notice-ably influenced Yining as it was occupied by Russians in 1872 when Yakub Beg ruled the region (then known as Kashgaria) and later, during the period of Sino-Soviet friendship in the 1950s, a number of Russians resided here. After relations between China and the USSR broke down in the early 1960s, there were violent border clashes along the Ili River. More recently, Yining has been the scene of several Uighur uprisings, which were quelled. Small, but pleasant and friendly with tree-lined streets, Yining is known for its local honey beer, and hard cheese. Its main draws are the lively Uighur bazaars with their range of street food in the old city, south of Qingnian Park. In summer, the town comes alive with bustling night markets and food stalls.
About 3 miles (5 km) south of town, the Ili Valley (Ili Gu) is a scenic farm area of fields and meadows. Home to the Xibo people, a tiny minority, whose capital is at Chapucha'er. Related to the Manchus, the Xibo were sent here during the Qing era to maintain sovereignty in the region. They have kept themselves separate from the Han and other local communities, and retain their own language and script.
- 186 miles (300 km) SW of Ürümqi
- Kuqa Travel Agency, 0997 712 9558
- every Fri
A small oasis town, Kuqa is essentially an Uighur settlement and has an interesting history. An independent state until the 8th century, when it fell under Chinese rule, the kingdom had strong links with India. Its significance as a Buddhist center dates back to the 4th century, when the Buddhist scholar Kumarajiva flourished. Born here, he went to school in Kashmir, northern India, and came back to China as a teacher and linguist, translating Sanskrit texts into Chinese. The town became a focal point from where Buddhism, which reached its zenith during the Tang era, was disseminated throughout China. Several large monasteries were founded on the vast wealth generated by the Silk Road trade. In the 7th century, the monk Xuanzang passed through Kuqa and claimed to have defeated its ruler in a philosophical debate. With the arrival of Islam in the 9th century, however, most traces of its Buddhist past disappeared. Mainly a stopover on the long journey to Kashgar, Kuqa is effectively two towns – New Kuqa and Old Kuqa. The old town has a bustling bazaar atmosphere, and a few dusty, narrow lanes lined with traditional mud houses have been preserved. Built in 1923, the attractive green-tiled Great Mosque bears no traces of Chinese influences in its traditional arabesque design.
One of the main reasons to visit Kuqa are the Thousand Buddha Caves, located at Kizil, 43 miles (70 km) west of town. The caves date to between AD 500–700 and the frescoes, in a mixture of Indo-Iranian and Greek styles, are fascinating for their total absence of Chinese influence. Unfortunately, the caves were looted at the beginning of the 20th century by archeological explorers. While most of the caves have been stripped of their frescoes, some of the cave decoration has survived, notably the musicians in Cave 38, and the domestic and agricultural scenes in Cave 175.
About 19 miles (30 km) north of Kuqa lies the ruins of the ancient city of Subashi.
Thousand Buddha Caves
- Hired car or taxi
- arranged by the Kuqa tourist office