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Xinjiang: what to do & what to expect

| Words by Rachel McCombie |

Discover the province where China meets Central Asia

An introduction to Xinjiang Province

If you’re hoping to get off the beaten track on your tour to China, the north-western province of Xinjiang certainly fits the bill. Officially named the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, this province is part of the Mongolian Uplands, giving it much more of a Central Asian feel. It’s on the traditional Silk Road trade route, and the terrain is often similar to that of Mongolia, characterised by steppes, deserts and mountains, made all the more intriguing by a scattering of ruined ancient cities. Though it has a long Buddhist tradition, it’s now home to numerous ethnic groups, the largest of which are the Uyghur and the Han.

Turpan – a world away from the rest of China

Xinjiang: the highlights


Its streets and tower blocks may not give you much of a sense of history in themselves, but the provincial capital, Urumqi, is home to a fantastic free museum, the Xinjiang Uygur Regional Museum, which will give you a good background history of Xinjiang and its peoples. The International Grand Bazaar of Xinjiang and the scenic Hong Shan Mountain are other popular stops on a tour of Urumqi, which is the fastest growing city in China, and the farthest major city from the sea anywhere in the world.

Heavenly Lake of Urumqi

The Ancient Cities of Jiaohe and Gaochang

The fascinating archaeological site of Jiaohe lies 8km to the west of Turpan, in the east of Xinjiang Province, an oasis city historically located on the Silk Road. The well-preserved Jiaohe Ruins - one of the largest and oldest ancient cities in the world - are what’s left of another important site on the Silk Road, abandoned in the 13th century after being invaded by Genghis Khan. They can be visited for ¥40. The Gaochang Ruins - once a garrison town on the Silk Road - are 46km to the southeast of Turpan, also with a ¥40 admission fee. Gaochang and Jiaohe are both on the World Heritage List as some of China’s finest archaeological sites.

The ancient city was a working capital of the Anterior Jushi kingdom from at least 108BC. Facts on the site are sparse but see more over on Wikipedia for a collection of resources

Bezeklik ‘Thousand Buddha’ Caves

Once the scene of a priceless collection of 11th century Buddhist cave art, the Bezeklik Caves form a spectacular historical site in the Taklamakan Desert, not far from Gaochang. A great many of the cave murals have been removed or damaged - many by the local Muslim population, and by Japanese and European explorers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries - but a visit to this incredible site is nevertheless a must on a trip to Xinjiang. Admission is ¥20.

How to get to Xinjiang

Take an internal flight to Xinjiang’s provincial capital, Urumqi, from a choice of around fifty cities in China, or an international flight from one of the few cities to offer direct flights, including Dubai, Moscow and Istanbul. You can also take the train from various cities including Beijing, which takes about 33 hours.

China’s ever-growing train network makes accessing Urumqi increasingly easy

What to eat in Xinjiang

DaPanJi, or Big Plate Chicken, is a popular dish that features peppers, potatoes and pretty much every conceivable part of a chicken, sometimes including the head and feet. If that doesn’t sound appealing, you’ll also notice a lot of lamb on the menu in Xinjiang, served up in all kinds of imaginative ways, from kebabs to dumplings, or cooked with rice, carrots and peppers in the Uyghur Pilaf. Best enjoyed warm, naan bread is another staple and popular as a street food. Xinjiang is also known for its walnuts, watermelons and grapes, which are all grown here. You can enjoy walnuts in a sweet street food called Matang, which is essentially walnuts or other nuts bound together in honey. Delicious!

Lamb, kebabs and naan bread – Urumqi offers a distinctly different cuisine from the rest of China