Xinjiang, also known as Uyghurstan or East Turkestan, is an autonomous region situated in Western China. Xinjiang’s stunning landscape, comprised of desert and steppe juxtaposed against the giant mountains of the Karakorams (part of the Himalayas), was once bustling with trade caravans traversing the famed Silk Route.
Unlike most of China, Xinjiang is inhabited by Turkic, Islamic peoples who have more in common culturally with their cross border neighbors in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan than with the residents of Beijing or Shanghai. So among other things don’t expect to hear Mandarin or eat Chinese cuisine, as the language is entirely different and the cuisine is a nomadic-type meat-based diet.
Because of these cultural and religious differences Xinjiang has been home to a few protests in recent years demanding more autonomy from the central government in a situation that is quite similar to that of neighboring Tibet. These protests, however, are infrequent and Xinjiang is still very much a safe destination for foreign tourists.
The capital city and most common entry point into Xinjiang is Urumqi. The city doesn’t have much in the way of tourist attractions, as it resembles any other other second-tier city in China, but it’s a great transportation hub from which to explore the region. Trains arrive weekly from Almaty in Kazakhstan and there are direct flights to destinations as far afield as Moscow.
Central Xinjiang, the area around Urumqi, is known for its endless desert and rugged peaks. Nearby Turpan is a legendary oasis that provides a welcome respite from the epic heat of the desert. The town’s sandstone architecture is incredible and the area is actually famed for its grape production, despite being the hottest place in all of China!
Elsewhere in Xinjiang, in the southwestern part of the region a good 1,400 kilometers from Urumqi, travelers will find Kashgar. Literally at the edge of the desert and the gigantic Karakoram Mountains, this town was once the most exotic destination in all the world, as emissaries and travelers from the great empires came into contact with each other and the nomadic cultures of the steppes.
Even today the town still retains much of its old-world charm, as artisans work on traditional crafts in small shops throughout the week to prepare for the dazzling display that is the Sunday market.
Also in the southwestern region towns like Yarkand and Hotan provide travelers with even more rugged landscapes and storied scenes from the past.