Xinjiang, China's Ancient Silk Road
by Cecilia Yee.
For almost 3,000 years, the Silk Road linked the traders, merchants and pilgrims of China, India, Persia and the Mediterranean. Xinjiang, now the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, has for more than 2,000 years been the recipient of an unceasing flow of commercial and cultural influences. It was here that the Silk Road, linking Constantinople, Baghdad and present-day Xian, split into two, bypassing the formidable Taklamakan Desert, and connecting a vibrant web of oasis towns and trading posts.
Visit the region today, and you'll recognise that legions of soldiers, traders, pilgrims and prophets have all left their mark, be that Persian, Indian, Turkish or Chinese.
Here, the primarily nomadic people eke out a simple living, much as their ancestors did before them. Get out into the villages and you'll discover that Mandarin is not widely spoken – Xinjiang is home to numerous ethnic minorities, with the most dominant being the Uyghurs, a Turkic race of Sunni Muslims.
In and around Urumqi
While it won't transport you back to the past (it's the largest city in Western China), Urumqi, the capital, is an ideal place to start a tour of Xinjiang.
You'll want to spend at least a day in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Museum, soaking up its fine collection of Silk Road artefacts. Spanning thousands of years of history, much of what you see in this exhibit was dug out of the Taklamakan Desert, including rugs, skulls and even food. The Ethnic Minority Exhibition, which details lifestyles, clothing, instruments and customs, is another of the museum's highlights.
When not touring the globe, the celebrated Tarim mummies are homed in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Museum. Dating from 1,900 BC to 200 AD, these beautifully preserved mummies were cut out of the Tarim Basin in the early 20th century. Many lack Chinese features or characteristics, confirming that Xinjiang has been a melting pot of ethnic groups for most of its history.
When in Urumqi, you'll also want to visit the Heavenly Lake, 120 kilometres northeast of the city. Take a boat ride in order to fully appreciate this famous summer resort, surrounded by peaks, pines and grassland.
In the evening, be sure to stop by busy Er Dao Qiao Bazaar, a popular central square and commercial centre that sells everything from hand-woven carpets to seasonal fruit. 'Bazaar' is a Uyghur word meaning 'market' – and this one is as true a reflection of Uyghur culture as you'll find anywhere.
Turpan's Flaming Mountains
Next stop is the ancient oasis town of Turpan, the hottest spot in China. The spectacular Flaming Mountains cross the Turpan Depression, the lowest point in China and second lowest on Earth. An absolute must-see, their eroded red sandstone slopes genuinely do seem to flame, particularly under the intense midday sun.
The fertile, mountain valleys around Turpan have been inhabited for centuries and there are numerous ancient cities and imperial garrisons – and even Buddhist caves – to visit. Jiāohé Ancient City is one of the best preserved, and an ideal spot to soak up a little Silk Road nostalgia.
Kashgar's Grand Bazaar
Kashgar sits in the foothills of the Karakorum Mountains, within both the Tarim Basin and Taklamakan Desert. With Pakistan and Afghanistan less than a day's drive away, Kashgar is the westernmost, and possibly the most exotic, city in all of China.
You'll want to visit the Aba Khoja Mausoleum, built in 1640 to honour the holy mystic and regional warlord, Aba Khoja, who claimed direct ties to the prophet Muhammad. This tomb, containing 72 bodies from five generations of the same family, features a lovely enamelled dome and is surrounded by a delightful rose garden.
Kashgar's famed Grand Bazaar is one of the highpoints of the trip, and it is best seen on a Sunday, when thousands of buyers descend upon the city from the surrounding oasis towns. While the atmospheric livestock market has been moved a few kilometres outside the city, the rest is laid out in an orderly fashion, so that there is a textile market, a hat market (so important in a Muslim society), a boot market and a spice, fruit and food market.
At the Grand Bazaar, you get a real taste of the folk customs of the Xinjiang Uyghurs, and you can also pick up treasures from neighbouring countries – handicrafts from Pakistan, silks from Turkey, binoculars from Kyrgyzstan and dried fruits from Saudi Arabia. In this vast, all-encompassing marketplace, the biggest international trading market in Northwest China, Kashgar's celebrated Silk Road legacy is still going strong.