XINJIANG is China's westernmost region and largest political entity. Larger than Alaska and occupying roughly one sixth of China's total area, it is covered mostly by vast, inhospitable desert punctuated here and there by bazaar towns, ancient ruins, oil camps, and Chinese cities with discos and shopping malls, with massive snow-capped mountains in the west and south. Xinjiang (pronounced SHEEN-jee-hang) means "new frontier." The two Chinese characters that form the word are pictograms that represent "bow," "land," "field" and "border."

Like Tibet and Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang is an autonomous region, not a province. Officially known as Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, it was set up as an autonomous region for Uyghurs, the same way Tibet was set up as an autonomous regions for Tibetans. Like Tibetans, Ughyurs feel their region is autonomous in name only. Their religion and culture are suppressed and their homeland is being overrun with Han Chinese. Many Uygurs would like Xinjiang to become an independent country, or even join Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet Republic that lies along its western border.

Despite its generally inhospitable landscapes, Xinjiang also contains some of the most incredible sites in China: 26,000-foot-high mountains with glaciers, evergreen forests and Alpine meadows, Silk Road oases with bazaars and folk fairs, and ruined cities inhabited by lost Christian tribes and people with Caucasian features.

Even the Chinese regard Xinjiang as a mysterious place. The lifestyle of many of its people has changed little since the 13th century when Marco Polo visited the region and nomads lived in the mountains and settled people lived around the oases, where the Silk Road caravans stopped.

Xinjiang map
Today, some see Xinjiang as a kind of Chinese Wild West. Many Chinese have gone there in hopes of striking it rich in the region's oil field or trade centers, with local Muslim minorities being pushed aside like American Indians. There are large deposits of oil and important minerals in Xinjiang, which is one reason why the Chinese don't want to lose control over it.

Xinjiang is home to 13 major ethnic groups and borders eight countries, more than any other Chinese region or province. Xinjiang occupies two large basins: the Zhungarian (Jungarian) and Tarim basins. The latter is the largest inland basin in the world. Junggar basin lies in a region surrounded by tree-covered snow-capped mountains that are reminiscent of the Alps. Many Kazakhs and Torgut Mongols live there

Han Chinese now account for at least 40 percent of Xinjiang’s 20 million people. Many experts feel there are far more Han Chinese than are reflected din the statistics. Northern Xinjiang cities like Urumqi and Turpan can be reached by train. The Silk Road city of Kashgar in the south can be reached from Pakistan via the Karakorum Highway or by a new train that began service in 2004. Tourist Office: Xinjiang Tourism Administration, 16 South Hetan Rd, 830002 Urumqi, Xinjiang China, tel. (0)- 991-282-7912, fax: (0)- 991-282-4449 Web Sites: Wikipedia Wikipedia Government site Photos: Synaptic Synaptic

20080317-sand cnto.jpg
Sand dunes in Xinjiang
History of Xinjiang See Minorities, Minorities in Xinjiang, Early History of Xinjiang, Later History of Xinjiang

Marco Polo in Western China: After passing through the Pamirs, Marco Polo entered western China near Tazkoragan, near where China, Afghanistan and Tajikistan meet, and traveled to Kashgar. At this point in their journey the Polos had been traveling for about two years and had covered around 5,000 miles and still had 2,600 miles to go before they reached their goal:Shangdu (Xanadu), not so far from Beijing. The Polos followed the Silk Road caravan route through China. They stopped in Kashgar and then crossed the Taklamakan Desert to the north-central Chinese towns of Dunhaung, Nanhu, Anxi, Yumen, Jiayuguan and Zhangye and finally Shangdu.

The Polos traversed the forbidding gravel plains and sand dunes of the Taklamakan Desert, whose names means "go in and you won't come out." They most likely were part of a caravan of double-humped Bactrian camels that traveled about 15 miles a day with a month's supply of food, stopping at infrequent water holes and oases. Marco wrote, of oases that "have great abundance of all things and places where "nothing to eat is found" and "you must always go a day and night before you find water."

Marco Polo wrote: "It often seems to you that you hear many instruments sounding and especially drums. The old people believe they are hearing devils speak...One night I heard, three times, a terrible noise, like crying, like someone dying."

"Beasts and birds there are none," he wrote, "because they find nothing to eat. But I assure you that one thing is found here, and that a very strange one...When a man is riding by night through this desert and something happens to make him loiter and lose touch with his companions...the spirits begin talking in such a way that they seem to be his companions. Sometimes, indeed, they even hail him by name. Often these voices make him stray from the path, so that he never finds it again. And in this way many travelers have been lost and have perished."

Silk Road Map: China Map Guide China Map Guide China Highlights China Highlights

Weather in Xinjiang: Xinjiang sometimes experiences fierce dust and sand storms. A boran is a fierce sandstorm wind. A bad one may halt bus and train transport, kill several people, thousand of farm animal and destroy tens of thousands of acres of farmland.

Iron Rooster is the name of train that carries people on the longest railway journey in China (4½ days) between Beijing to Urumqi. It was also the name of a book on China by Paul Theroux. The name, Theroux was told, implies stinginess because "a stingy person does not give away even a feather---nor does an iron rooster."

Earthquakes : See Nature, Natural Disasters, Earthquakes

Taklimakan Desert

Taklimakan Desert occupies much of southern Xinjiang. Regarded as most difficult obstacle on the Silk Road caravan route, it embraces the Tarim Basin, places that receive rains only once every ten or twenty years and 150-foot sand dunes. Winter temperatures often fall below zero; summer temperatures often exceed 120̊, with the temperature of sand reaching 150̊F. Storms kick up from time to time that hurl not only sand but also pebbles.

Sometimes called the Sea of Death, the Taklimakan desert is larger than Poland. Its name means "Once you get in, you can never get out." Located in a basin with the same name, it has large deposits of oil and other minerals. Many of the people that live in the region are men working at the oil camps. It was once thought that the Taklimakan Desert might contain as much oil as Saudi Arabia but that now seems to be a gross overestimate.

Turpan Depression

satellite image of
Taklamakan Desert
Turpan Depression(northern Xinjiang) is one of the hottest and driest places on earth (temperatures of 130̊F have been recorded along with rainfall of less than an inch a year) and the second lowest point on earth (505 feet below sea level) after the Dead Sea. You would think these conditions would make it one of the most desolate places on earth. But that is not the case.

Nestled between gray eroded hills, the Turpan Depression is one of the greenest and most densely planted valleys in China, famous for its orchards, vineyards, grapes and melons---all made possible by unique karez canals used for over 2000 years and fed by snowbelt and runoff from the 16,000-foot peaks of the Tien Shan range. The deserts around Turpan are a barren mix of black pebbles, boulders, dust patches, and sand.

Karez Tunnels

Karez Tunnels underlie large areas of Turpan depression. One of the ancient world’s great engineering feats, they are underground canals and boreholes used to carry water---from melted snow, springs and water tables under hills--- from the highlands to farming areas. Some date back to the time of Alexander the Great.

Karez tunnels follow slopes down hill and are built underground so the water doesn't evaporate in the hot sun. From the sky they look like a long rows of gopher holes, giant anthills or donuts. The holes are outlets for vertical shafts that provide ventilation, and a means of excavating material. Dirt is piled around the entrances to prevent potentially-eroding rainwater from entering the system. Most of the holes are about 10 to 30 feet deep but some drop down almost 100 feet.

The karez system in Xinjiang ranks with the Great Wall of China and the Grand Canal in terms of time and labor spent building it and may exceed them as an engineering feat. The tunnels carry water, much of originally snow melt from the Tian Shen Mountains, to oases like Turpan. The combined length of all the karez canals in Xinjiang is around 1,900 miles, with about 60 percent of them still in use today.

Karez tunnel
Karez technology was imported from Persia (Iran), where the underground canals are called qanats . The tunnels have traditionally been communally owned, with villagers splitting the cost of building and maintaining them.

Karez tunnels have largely been dug by hand from head wells on high ground near the source of the water to places where the water is used. It is believed millions of hours of forced labor was needed to build them. The long, downward slopping tunnels were dug using the vertical holes to reach the underground tunnel from the surface.

Digging the tunnels and maintaining the karez system is hard and dangerous work. The men who do the digging, repairing and cleaning have traditionally been highly skilled and well paid. To repair the tunnels workers climb down holes from the surface to the underground tunnels. There they clean out the tunnels and stabilize weak sections with ceramic hoops. The work is often done by lantern light in extremely cramped conditions---most of the tunnels are barely large enough for a man to crawl through. Web Site: Wikipedia Wikipedia



Turpan (three hours, 200 kilometers, southeast of Urmuqi on a nice, new highway) was an important oasis during the Silk Road days. Located in the Turpan Depression and surrounded by irrigated fields, it was fought over and controlled for 1,500 years by successive waves of nomads, Chinese, Tibetans, Ugyurs and Mongols. About 400 years it began to decline and beginning about a 100 years it was raped of its treasures---frescoes, statues and 2,000-year-old relics---by Western archeologist who carted away their booty to museums in New York, Boston, London and Berlin.

Today Turpan is primarily Uyghur agricultural town with a few Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Tadjiks and Han Chinese. The people that live in Turpan are renowned for their longevity. Turpan is also famous for it grapes. The fields and orchards around the town in the Turpan Depression are as green and bountiful as ever with some oddly places chateaus and vineyards.

Because it is often so hot in the day Turpan comes alive at night. The Central-Asian-style bazaars sell embroidered handbags, handmade knives, shish kebabs, watermelons, about twenty kinds of dried fruit, almonds, walnuts, and mutton. Mud-brick houses still predominate. Acrobats, card trick magicians and fire-eaters still perform before old men in skull caps, women in headscarves and barefoot children with matted hair.

The Xinjiang mummies are the centerpiece of a recently refurbished museum in Turpan, 140 miles from Urumqi, where ethnic Chinese mummies discovered in the region are on display. In an ancient graveyard in Astana, near Turpan, a man and a woman are buried together in an underground crypt that dates from the Tang dynasty (AD 618-906) and is one of the few places that the public can see mummies in their original graves. Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The woman looks younger than the man. Her mouth is in a grimace; forensic specialists say her arm and neck were broken shortly before her death. "We think she might have been beaten and buried alive to be with her husband. He died naturally,'' said Bai Yingcai, a tour guide and mummy expert who was taking visitors through the crypts.

Tourist Office: Turpan Tourism Division, 41 Qingnian Rd, 838000 Turpan. Xinjiang China, tel. (0)- 995-523-706, fax: (0)- 995-522-768 Web Sites: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet Travel China Guide Travel China Guide Map : China Highlights China Highlights Budget Accommodation: Check Lonely Planet books; Getting There: Turpan is accessible by bus from Urumqi and lies about 50 kilometers form a station on the main east-west train line between Beijing and Urumqi. Travel China Guide (click transportation) Travel China Guide Lonely Planet (click Getting There) Lonely Planet

Flaming Mountains

Flaming Mountains (25 kilometers east of Turpan) is a 1,500-foot-high ridge of mostly red and yellow sandstone that covers an 10-by-100 kilometer area. In the evening and early morning, the mountain's colorful, wind-carved faces are set ablaze by the setting and rising sun. During the day, they are not quite so spectacular, and instead look like gray eroded badlands.


The Flaming Mountains have also recorded China's highest temperatures (160̊F in the sun), another reason why they are called "flaming." All Chinese schoolchildren know the Flaming Mountains from its association with the story Journey to the West , which traces the travels of a Chinese monk and his sidekick Monkey Sun Wukong. On the east side of the Turpan Depression are huge sand dunes called appropriately enough the Sand Mountains.


Gaochang (50 kilometers east of Turpan) is an ancient city founded in the 1st Century B.C. and abandoned by the end of the 13th century. Situated at the foot of the Flaming Mountains, and best visited around sunrise, Gaochang rests on two million square meters of rammed earth and consists of three parts: The inner city, the outer city and the palace city.

The outer city wall is four miles around and the inner city wall is two miles around. There is a high terrace with a 50 foot high structure called "Khan's Castle" and there are remains of temples in the southwest and southeast corners of the city. Over the centuries Gaocheng controlled by Muslims, Buddhist and even Manchiaeans and Nestorian Christians.



Jiaohe (20 kilometers southwest of Turpan) is another ancient city. Last inhabited in the 15th century, it was a Silk Road caravan stop, and an important Buddhist center, as evidenced by the ruins of hundreds of temples, monasteries and shrines found there today.

Set upon a 100-foot-high boat-shaped plateau sided by two dry rivers, floodplains, and cultivated fields, Jiaohe contains a residential area with a clearly defined wide avenue, chiseled into the plateau; a ruined grand palace near the plateau's stern; and a temple complex with unique prong-shaped central shrine surrounded by 100 smaller shrines, grouped into four checkerboard squares containing twenty-five shrines each.

Archaeologists believe that the plateaus was inhabited by esteemed Buddhist monks and upper class families while peasants tended farms in the surrounding lowlands. It is believed the city reached it peak during the Han dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 220). A thousand or so years later, the city was sacked by Moslem invaders who defaced many of the Buddhist's monuments.

Astana-Karakhoja Ancient Tombs (between Turpan and Gaochang) contains the burial mounds of noblemen and the tombs of common peoples. Scattered over a 10-square-kilometer area, the cemetery contains three underground tombs that are open to the public. Two of them contain 600-year-old corpses that visitors can examine and photograph. Theroux wrote they are "perfectly preserved, grinning, lying side by side on a decorated slab." Mummified corpses, more than 1000 years old, have been unearthed from more than 500 tombs.

Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves (25 miles east of Turpan) is situated in the cliffs of the Mutougou Valley. The caves were a Buddhist center from the 6th century to the 13th century. Forty of the 77 caves contain murals. The best works however were carted off by Western archaeologists. Bezeklik is a former Buddhist retreat. Domed monasteries carved into cliffs in the forth century are currently being restored.

Loulan Beauty

Loulan (eastern edge of the Taklamakan Desert) is an oasis town on the eastern edge of the Taklamakan Desert, where the northern and southern branches of the Silk Road came together, and near the Lop Nur nuclear testing site. The kingdom of Loulan thrived for 700 years beginning in the 2nd century B.C. It is famous its mummies with Caucasian features. There isn’t much to see in the town.

Most of the discoveries come from the Xiaohe tombs there. The Xiaohe Tombs were discovered in 1934 by a Swedish explorer and excavated by a Chinese team starting in 2000. They have been dated as being between 3,000 and 4,000 years old, making them between 2,000 and 1,000 years older than the Loulan Kingdom. Strange pools ring the Xiaohe Tomb site.

The most famous mummy unearthed in the Taklimakan desert is that of woman with long reddish blonde hair. Discovered near Loulan in 1979 and nicknamed the "Loulan Beauty," she was five feet tall, possessed a high nose, and was buried wearing a goatskin wrap, woolen cape, leather shoes and a hat trimmed with goose feathers. Carbon-dating indicates that her body is 3,800 years old but similar tests of the wood of the coffin of mummy found nearby suggest that she could be 6,000 years old. See Minorities, Minorities in Xinjiang, Early History


Urumqi (4½ days by train from Beijing) is the capital and largest city of Xinjiang. Sprawling out of a northern spur of Tian Shen Mountain and sided by brown and green mountains to the west and irrigated fields and desert to the east, it is a boom town, enriched by oil and coal money, whose population has increased 17-fold since 1950 and gone through profound changes in the last two decades to around 2.3 million people.

In 1990, Urumqi was an Uyghur city of a million people, with wide streets, shops with dead rare animals, kebab restaurants, street performances with musicians playing drums and Arabian pipes and child acrobats performing on a beds of nails, and lonely Han Chinese officials and soldiers, By 2000, it had become a city of 1.6 million people, 70 percent of whom were Han Chinese, with glass-and steel office buildings, four-star hotels, shopping malls, pool halls, Jeeps, Audis, Mercedes Benzes, Holiday Inn, Rock'n' Roll Cafe, and discos.

"Every employee I saw in my Western-style hotel was a Han," wrote Thomas Allen in National Geographic in 1996. "All the police officers I saw were Han. Even unskilled laborers were Han, lured from other provinces to work on the dozens of high rises, sprouting in Urumqi."

By the mid 2000s Urumqi had become home to 4 million people and looked like any other Chinese city. It was dominated by pale apartment buildings and a People’s Square in the center of town and had a downtown with KFCs, new 50-story buildings, and nightclubs such as “One Way,” with a door man in a plaid kilt and white knee-high boots.

Thirteen different ethnic groups, including Kazaks, Tatars, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Mongols, and several hundred thousand Uyghurs, live in and around Urumqi but they have all but lost their influence as the Chinese government makes a major oil and trade center.. Urumqi is so important to the western Chinese economy that it has been declared a port even though it is further from the sea than any other major town or city in the world (around 2,000 kilometers from the Arctic Ocean, Yellow Sea and Indian Ocean).

20090526-urumqi cnto.jpg
Tombs outside Urumqi

Urumqi has become a major trading center for Central and South Asia. It is closer to New Delhi than Beijing (1,900 kilometers versus 3,300 kilometers) and is linked to Alma Ata in Kazakstan by bus with serious discussion about opening up a train link between the two cities. Afghan and Pakistani traders in skull caps and shalwar kameez come to buy boxes of consumer good and clothes, packed in plastic-wrapped bundles, which they haul back home on buses trucks and planes. Deals for machinery and electronics and other goods are worked out in Mandarin, Uyghur and English.

The word "Urumqi" is Mongol for "beautiful pasterland." Few grasslands are visible but irrigation that harnesses waters from the Tian Shen mountains has made a lot of the land around the city agriculturally productive. Urumqi has a Han Chinese section and a Uighur section. In the Uighur section there is a large Carrefour megastor next to a mosque. There is lots of construction. Urumqi has prospered perhaps better than any other place by Beijing’s effort to develop the West. Transportation links, power plants and infrastructure have been built ,

Tourist Office: Urumqi Tourism Bureau, 32 Guangming Rd, 830002 Urumqi, Xinjiang China, tel. (0)-991-283-2212, fax: (0)- 991-281-9357 Web Sites: Travel China Guide Travel China Guide Maps: China Map Guide China Map Guide Hotel Web Site: Sinohotel Sinohotel Budget Accommodation: Check Lonely Planet books; Travellerspoint (click China and place in China) Travellerspoint Getting There: Urumqi is accessible by air and bus and lies at the end on the main east-west train line from Beijing, It is connected to Kashgar and other Xinjiang cities to southwest by a new train that began operating in the early 2000s.Travel China Guide (click transportation) Travel China Guide

Sights in Urumqi

Xinjiang Exhibition Hall of Ethnic Customs is a museum with displays, pictures, artifacts, dioramas, costumes and tools that introduce visitors to ethnic groups found in the area such as the Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Daur and Mongols. Also worth visiting outside of town is an enormous Muslim graveyard with thousands of compact rectangular tombs, all neatly arranged. Encroaching on this site are hundreds of walled Chinese burial mounds that take up a lot more space and are scattered much more haphazardly. Russian markets are filled with goods from Russia and Central Asia . In Stalinist times there was a strong Russian presence here. Today the Russian mafia is strong.

The Xinjiang mummies are the centerpiece of the recently refurbished museum in Urumqi---Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region Museum. Some of the mummies found in the Tarim Basin with Caucasian features. Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Almost invariably when visitors approach the middle-aged woman enshrined in a climatized exhibit case they pause and do a double take. What gets the most attention is her nose: high-bridged, slightly hooked, the sort of nose that reminds you of Meryl Streep. Then a little gasp. "Weiguoren!" (A foreigner!), one young woman exclaimed to her friends. They were touring the museum earlier this month on a Chinese public holiday. Nearly 4,000 years after her death, the so-called Beauty of Loulan still has the ability to amaze."

Tien Shan

Yurts outside Urumqi

Tien Shan is one of the great mountain ranges of the world. Extending for 3000 kilometers in a northeast-southwest direction along the border between China and Central Asia from the Altai area---where where Mongolia, Russia and China all come together---to the Pamir Range in the Tajikstan and southwest China. The highest point is 24,406-foot-high Pobeda Peak.

The Tien Shan are lovely mountains with some of China's most beautiful scenery: cliffs, snow-capped peaks, mountain streams, sweet-smelling spruce forests, boulder-strewn gullies and deep gorges. The name "Tien Shan" means "celestial mountains" in Chinese.

Describing Nanshan, which is only 20 minutes from Urmuqi in the Tien Shan, Theroux wrote: "What distinguishes these mountains from others in China are the spruce forests, tall, cool and blackish green. On some of the meadows there were goatherds and shepherds with their flocks, and Kazaks living in mud-smeared huts and log cabins. There were yurts, too, and near them men wearing fur hats with earflaps, and boots and riding breeches; and there were women in shawls and dresses and thick socks. They looked like Russian babushkas, and unlike the Chinese, these women were long nosed and potbellied. They tended vegetable gardens near their cabins, and they had donkeys and cranky dogs and snotty-nosed kids who, because of the cold, also had bright red cheeks." Web Site: Wikipedia Wikipedia


Heavenly Lake

Heavenly Lake (outside Urumqi) is half way up Mt. Bogado in the Tien Shan Mountains. The mountainous alpine scenery found here is more reminiscent of Switzerland than western China.

Ili is 167,000-square-mile region of steppe and mountain in Xinjiang bordering Kazakstan. It is dominated by Kazak herdsmen, driving herds of sheep, goats and yaks. Sayram Lake (90 miles west of Tuoli) in the Tien Shen is filled with Kazak herders in the summer.

Image Sources: Province maps from the Nolls China Web site. Photographs of places from 1) CNTO (China National Tourist Organization; 2) Nolls China Web site; 3) Perrochon photo site; 4); 5) tourist and government offices linked with the place shown; 6); 7) University of Washington, Purdue University, Ohio State University; 8) UNESCO; 9) Wikipedia; 10) Julie Chao photo site; Wiki Commons

Text Sources: CNTO, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Page Top

© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.