Capital city, Urumqi, is 4000 km away from Beijing. The Beijing-Urumqi express is China's longest train ride. Xinjiang Museum has a collection of historical relics of the various nationalities living in the region. Exhibits include Roman and Persian coins and other relics of the Silk Road. At Bazaar, visitors can buy handicrafts, taste pancakes and shish- kebabs.
Tianshan (Heaven Mountain) and Lake Tianchi (Heaven Lake) (picture) are 115 km from Urumqi. The southern slope of Tianshan has plenty of sunshine and water to make it a heaven with carpets of green grasses, bright wild flowers and lovely sunshine. Imagine riding a handsome horse through the knee-deep flowers and grasses! The Lake Tianchi is 5 square km and 100 meters deep. About 65 km south of Urumqi is the Nanshan Pasture. There are mountains, valleys, fountains, waterfalls, cypress and pine trees. It can be a new, exciting experience riding horses and climbing mountains in fresh air in daytime, and staying in a yurt while eating barbecued mutton in the evening.
The Silk Road extended 7000 km long from Xi'an to Irag and Syria from 138 B. C. until the 14th century. It declined because sea-going ships were able to trade more efficiently.
Highlights of Xinjiang might begin with the Tian Shan mountain pastures outside Urumqi, where you can hike in rare solitude and stay beside Heaven Lake with Kazakhs in their yurts; but it is the old Silk Roads that will attract most travellers. The most fascinating of the Silk Road oasis cities are Turpan and Kashgar, both redolent of old Turkestan, and it is now possible to follow not only the Northern Silk Road from Turfan to Kashgar via Aksu and Kuqa, but also the almost forgotten southern route via Khotan. For more intrepid travellers, there's also the possibility of continuing the Silk Road journey out beyond the borders of China itself - not only over the relatively well-established Karakoram Highway into Pakistan, but now also over the less well-known routes into Kazakhstan and Kirgyzistan. Finally, there exists an exciting if perilous route from Kashgar into western Tibet, a route officially closed to tourists.
Geographically, Xinjiang - literally "New Territories" - occupies an area slightly greater than Western Europe or Alaska, and yet its population is just thirteen million. By far the largest minority in Xinjiang is the Uigur, though there are also some dozen other Central Asian minority populations. Xinjiang is perhaps the least "Chinese" of all parts of the People's Republic, in spite of the fact that the Han population is steadily creeping towards fifty percent of the whole.
The Uigur people (pronounced Weeg-yur), despite centuries of domination by China, remain ethnically and culturally entirely distinct from the Han Chinese. They are the easternmost branch of the extended family of Turkic peoples who inhabit most of Central Asia and the language they speak is essentially a dialect of Turkish. Although there has been some racial mingling down the centuries, many Uigurs look decidedly un-Chinese - stockily built, bearded, with brown hair and round eyes. For at least a thousand years they have been overwhelmingly Muslim, and religion remains the focus of their identity in the face of relentless Han penetration.
The Uigurs are not in a particularly happy situation. As they are for the most part unable to speak Chinese and therefore unable to attend university or find well-paid work, their prospects for self-improvement inside the People's Republic are generally bleak. Perhaps as a consequence of this, they seem at times to extend their mistrust of Han Chinese to all foreigners - tourists included. Nevertheless, gestures such as drinking tea with them, or trying a few words of their language, will help to break down the barriers and invitations to Uigur homes frequently follow.
The land of Xinjiang is among the least hospitable in all China, covered for the most part by arid desert and mountain. Essentially, it can be thought of as two giant basins, both surrounded on all sides by mountains. The range lying between the two basins is the Tian Shan (Heavenly Mountains), which effectively bisects Xinjiang from west to east across the middle. The basin to the north is known as the Junggar basin, or Jungaria. The capital of Xinjiang, and only major city, Urumqi, is here, on the very southern edge of the basin, as is the heavily Kazakh town of Yining, right up against the border with Kazakhstan. The Junggar basin has been subject to fairly substantial Han settlement over the past forty years, with a degree of industrial and agricultural development. It remains largely grassland, with large state farms in the centre and Kazakh and Mongol herdsmen (still partially nomadic) in the mountain pastures on the fringes. The climate is not particularly hot in summer, and virtually Siberian from October through to March. To the south is the Tarim basin, dominated by the scorching Taklamakan desert, where the weather is fiercely hot and dry in summer. This is where the bulk of the Uigur population lives, in strings of oases (Turpan and Kashgar among them) scattered along the old routes of the Silk Road. Some of these oasis cities are buried in the desert and long forgotten; others survive on irrigation using water from the various rivers and streams that flow from surrounding mountains. As well as forgotten cities, these sands also cover another buried treasure - oil. Chinese estimates reckon that three times the proven US reserves of oil are under the Taklamakan alone.
Turpan is an agricultural oasis, famed above all for grapes. Today, virtually every household in the town has a hand in the grape business, both in cultivating the vines, and in drying the grapes at the end of the season. Every house has its own ventilated brick barn, usually on the roof, the best spot for catching the hot desiccating winds that sweep through the area. Turpan is located in a depression eighty metres below sea level, which accounts for its extreme climate - well over 40 degrees C in summer, well below freezing in winter.
Today, Turpan is a largely Uigur-populated area, and, in Chinese terms, an obscure backwater, but it has not always been so. At the time of the Han dynasty, the Turpan oasis was a crucial point along the Northern Silk Road, and the cities of Jiaohe, and later Gaochang (both of whose ruins can be visited from Turpan), were important and wealthy centres of power. From the ninth to the thirteenth century, a rich intellectual and artistic culture developed in Gaochang, resulting from a fusion between the original Indo-European inhabitants and the (pre-Islamic) Uigurs. It was not until the fourteenth century that the Uigurs of Turpan converted to Islam.
For some travellers, the feature that makes Turpan so relaxing is the absence of sights. The downtown area doesn't amount to much more than two or three quiet streets, protected from the baking summer sun by delightful vine trellises. There is a museum (daily 9am-8pm; ¥12) on Gaochang Lu, containing a smallish collection of silk fragments, boots, tools, manuscripts and preserved corpses recovered from the nearby Silk Road sites, including those from the Atsana Graves which you can visit just outside Turpan. Other than this, the bazaars off Laocheng Lu, a few hundred metres east of Gaochang Lu, are worth a casual look, though they are not comparable to anything in Kashgar. You'll find knives, clothes, hats and boots on sale, while the most distinctively local products include delicious sweet green raisins, as well as walnuts and almonds.
One of the nicest ways to spend an evening after the heat of the day has passed is to rent a donkey cart and take a tour of the countryside south of town, a world of dusty tracks, vineyards, wheat fields, shady poplars, running streams and incredibly friendly, smiling people. You are unlikely to encounter many more tranquil rural settings than this in China. It's easy to arrange a tour from any donkey-cart driver around John's Café; for a tour lasting an hour or more, two or three people might pay around ¥10-15 each. John's also offers bike rental for ¥1.5 per hour, which works out slightly cheaper than the hotels' rates.