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Discover Xinjiang, the pulse of the Silk Road

Xinjiang straddles two worlds. It’s the frontier, the blurry boundary between the vastness of Central Asia and the China of the overwhelming Han majority. Entering Xinjiang, it’s hard not to feel intoxicated with the sights, sounds, landscapes, and the culture of the Uyghur. Put yourself in the shoes of a travelling merchant on the Silk Road as you navigate through mountainous terrains, languages, and bustling bazaars.

It’s not nearly possible to see all of Xinjiang in one trip, but here are some of the highlights. 

Taklamakan Desert 

The Taklamakan Desert is a mystifying sand-shifting desert that is also often referred to as the Sea of Death. In the Uyghur language, the name literally means that you can get it, but you can’t get out. Thankfully, with well guided excursions, getting in and out isn’t really that much of a problem these days. 

The desert and its trading posts and oases played an important role during the days of the Silk Road. Today, the desert may play another significant role as large reserves of oil and gas sit beneath the sand dunes. To get a full desert experience, go on a camel trekking tour and spend the night beneath the milky way of the clear desert sky.

Tianshan 

Tianshan means Heavenly Mountains in Mandarin, and the sight of it will convince anyone who thinks otherwise. The mountain range measures a length of 2,500 kilometers and stretches through four countries- China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. 

The snowcapped peaks of the Tianshan mountains as well as its rivers, lakes, lush forests and meadows make for a beautiful contrast against the surrounding desert of Central Asia. In fact, its unique geographical features have earned it a well-deserved spot on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

The best time to visit Tianshan is the summer period of June to August, when it’s also the most pleasant time for multi-day treks.  


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 Image Credit: Journeys On Quest, Flickr 

Kashgar Grand Bazaar and the Sunday Livestock Market

Everybody loves a good bazaar, and the Kashgar Grand Bazaar will make for a great visit, even if you’re on a strictly-no-shopping adventure.   The Grand Bazaar’s beautiful Islamic architecture and scale will impress even the most jaded bazaar hunter.  With a history of about 2000 years, the bazaar had been a trading hotspot between merchants from the East and the West. It also happens to be one of the biggest that there is in Asia, so expect to trawl through 5,000 booths and stalls with more than 10,000 different kinds of goods. 

For those wanting to take home a slice of Xinjiang, you’d be more than pleased with the range of musical instruments, jewellery, spices, and the ubiquitous fur cap.

The Sunday Livestock Market is definitely not to be missed, unless you’re squeamish about seeing live animals being traded and raw meat hanging around. The Sunday Livestock Market is a great reminder of how trading had been, and still is, done for generations, with lots of quick hand gestures, bargaining, and deals closed happily. It’s an actual working market and not a tourist attraction, and its raw appeal may not be for everyone. 

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Image Credit: Allan Gray, Flickr

Turpan 

Turpan is the second lowest depression in the world and literally the hottest spot in China. A visit in summer will have you baking in temperature above 40- degree Celsius. But, Turpan is no dead town.  On the contrary, it’s an oasis, with fertile soil and ground water sources. The locals have developed an ingenious irrigation system called Karez, which consists of wells and channels both above and underground.

One of the greatest highlights of Turpan is no doubt the ancient city of Jiao He, one of the world’s largest and oldest ancient cities remains well preserved. Jiao He was built as a garrison town during the Han dynasty and housed about 6,5000 residents at one point.  To avoid the blazing glare of the sun, visit early in the mornings or just before dusk to explore the ruins and transport yourself to a world centuries before.

Sayram Lake

If you think the Silk Road consists of landscapes that are mainly dry, hot, barren, and inhospitable, the Sayram Lake will take you by a very pleasant surprise. This high-altitude alpine lake is a feast for the eyes and soul. Located near the Tianshan mountain range, Sayram Lake feels like a fairy tale land, especially in the summer when flowers bloom along the borders of the impossibly blue lake. 

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 Image Credit:Wiki Commons 

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