Anybody who has lived abroad knows that having friends and family come to visit is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a lot of fun to introduce them to your foreign home but also quite a bit of work to keep them happy and entertained.
Having lived in Xinjiang, the largest and westernmost region in China, for almost 10 years now, there have been a number of times where family have come to visit. The longer we live here, the more I notice the one thing I love most about hosting travelers in Xinjiang: seeing my home through fresh eyes.
You know how it goes: you live somewhere long enough, you tend to overlook those cities, landmarks or panoramic views that once sparked a sense of excitement and wonder. It’s easy to forget that where you live is unlike anywhere else in the world. It is unique.
I had a good reminder of how much I love traveling Xinjiang during a recent visit by some friends from home. Taking them around, I was given the opportunity to experience what it was like to see this region for the first time. They were in awe and completely excited to be visiting each new place I took them.
The next week, I received an email from another friend who was planning a trip to Xinjiang. His question was simple: what would I recommend he see? Armed with a fresh view of the region, I was able to confidently give him the following five ideas:
1. Visit a Uyghur market
I’m not talking about a shopping mall or grocery store. I’m not even referring to a proper building with stalls or street vendors. The kind of Uyghur market that offers a true Xinjiang experience smells like animals and sounds like a circus.
Small villages around Kashgar, an ancient stop on the Silk Road and one of Xinjiang’s most popular tourist destinations, host these kinds of markets every day of the week. Some are known for their camels and others for their donkeys.
What they have in common is the opportunity to see authentic life in a remote part of the world where bartering a good price for a sheep is an art form that every local man must learn.
2. Travel the World’s Most Beautiful Highway
Some people might argue with me here, but I’m confident that the Karakoram Highway is the most beautiful highway in the world. It leads to the Khunerjab Pass, the highest paved border crossing in the world, but that’s not what makes it so special.
Along the way, it is possible to make a visit to numerous glaciers and hundred-foot waterfalls while winding between fantastic valleys created by towering mountain peaks. Memorable stops at the Karakul Lake or at the foot of Muztaghata mountain are a must.
The entire journey from Kashgar to Tashkorgan near the Pakistani border is equivalent to climbing a small mountain in terms of elevation and the entire time I guarantee you’ll have your camera hanging out the window of your vehicle.
3. Stay in a Kazakh yurt in the Ili grasslands
What most people know about Xinjiang mostly revolves around the Uyghur people; and rightly so, since they make up over 50% of the population. However, the fact that the region shares a long stretch of border with Kazakhstan means that there is also a substantial number of Kazakhs in Xinjiang.
The vast majority of the Kazakh people live around Ili and Altay, both northern regions of Xinjiang that border Kazakhstan. Many are still nomadic herders by trade and their traditional homes, known as yurts, can be seen scattered across the grasslands.
Spending the night in one of these yurts is quite a memorable experience. The cylindrical, animal skin-covered tent can accommodate about 10 people who sleep on the ground covered by stuffed blankets.
Fake yurts aimed at tourist exist all across Xinjiang, but the best experience comes from finding the yurt home of a local family willing to host guests.
4. Walk through the ancient cities of Turpan
In my opinion, Turpan is the most underrated city in all of Xinjiang. It’s the first place that I recommend travelers visit, not only because it’s conveniently close to the capital of Urumqi but also because it is home to some of the Silk Road’s best-preserved ancient cities.
Places like Jiaohe and Gaochang, once vibrant communities of monks and merchants, remain in excellent condition thanks to the dry climate of the Turpan Depression. Temples, fortified walls and city streets are recognizable despite the fact that it’s been centuries since they were first constructed.
A little bit further east of Turpan, the small Tuyoq village is one of the few communities that has survived the passage of time, allowing visitors to walk among mud-brick homes that are still home to Uyghur families today.
5. Watch the ancient process of making silk, carpets and paper
For those who are familiar with Hotan, a city in southern Xinjiang, you know that its most valuable export is its precious jade. But did you know that before jade became so valuable, Hotan was better known for its production of silk, carpets and even mulberry paper?
It’s a dying art but it is fascinating to witness: rows of women sitting with balls of silk hanging over their heads, weaving a massive carpet by hand or a family soaking the bark of a mulberry tree and pounding it into paper.
A handmade carpet is expensive and the paper won’t make a good journal, but these are the kind of souvenirs that you’ll be proud to show off, not to mention the pictures you took of the process.
No matter what you decide to see in Xinjiang, make sure that you get off the beaten path. Tourism is becoming a big part of the region’s economy but I find that the more time you can spend away from the major tourist sites, the more you’ll appreciate the true beauty of Xinjiang and its people.
If you’re not sure how to go about visiting a village market, exploring the ancient cities of Turpan or hiring a car to drive you along the Karakoram Highway, be sure to pick up a copy of Josh’s recently released Xinjiang | A Traveler’s Guide to Far West China. It’s the most comprehensive, up-to-date guide on the region, providing even more context and understanding about the best ways to spend your time in Xinjiang.