Xinjiang is officially known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). It is not province but is an autonomous region presumptively set up of the Uyghur people. XUAR is the largest province-level division in China but one of the least densely populated. It is larger than Tibet and is roughly the same size as Alaska.

Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region covers 1,664,897 square kilometers (642,820 square miles), is home to about 25 million people and has a population density of only 15 people per square kilometer. About 49 percent of the population lives in rural areas. Urumqi is the capital and largest city, with about 3.5 million people. Ethnic: composition Uyghur: 45.84 percent; Han Chinese: 40.48 percent; Kazakh: 6.50 percent; Hui: 4.51 percent; Other: 2.67 percent. Languages and dialects: Uyghur (official); Mandarin (official); Kazakh: Kyrgyz: Oirat; Mongolian; 43 other languages. Religion in Xinjiang: Muslim 58 percent; Chinese religions, Buddhism or not religious: 41 percent; Christianity; one percent.

Like Chinese provinces, an autonomous region has its own local government, but an autonomous region — theoretically at least — has more legislative rights. An autonomous region is the highest level of minority autonomous entity in China. They have a comparably higher population — but not necessarily a majority — of the minority ethnic group in their name. Some of them have more Han Chinese than the named ethnic group. There are five province-level autonomous regions in China: 1) Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region for the Zhuang people, who make up 32 percent of the population; 2) Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (Nei Mongol Autonomous Region) for Mongols, who make up only about 17 percent of the population; 3) Tibet Autonomous Region Autonomous Region (Xizang Autonomous Region) for Tibetans, who make up 90 percent of the population; 4) Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, for Uyghurs, who make up 45.6 percent of the population; and 5) Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, for the Hui, who make up 36 percent of the population. [Source: Wikipedia]


Geography of Xinjiang

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Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region(XUAR) covers 1,664,897 square kilometers (642,820 square miles) and is by far the biggest of China’s regions and provinces. Accounting for more than one sixth of China's total territory and a quarter of its boundary length, it is more than twice the size of Texas and nearly as big as Alaska. Its mountains and deserts contain huge deposits of oil, natural gas, coal, gold and other minerals, but the province has just 25 million people.

Xinjiang occupies much of the sparsely-populated northwest part of China. It embraces two large basins: the Junggar (Dzungarian, Zhungarian Jungarian) Basin 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. Deserts include: Dzoosotoyn Elisen Desert, Kumtag Desert. Taklamakan Desert; Major cities are: Urumqi, Turpan, Kashgar, Karamay, Yining, Shihezi, Hotan, Atux, Aksu, Korla

XUAR is bounded by the Altay (Altai) Mountains in the north, the Pamirs in the southwest, and the Karakoram Mountains, Altun Mountains and Kunlun Mountains in the south. The Tian Shan Mountains divide Xinjiang into northern and southern parts — the Junggar Basin in the north, and the Tarim Basin in the south — with very different climates and landscapes. Much of the Tarim Basin is dominated by the Taklamakan Desert. Wheat, maize and paddy rice are the region's main grain crops, and cotton is a major cash crop. Since the 1950s, cotton has been grown in the Manas River valley north of 40 degrees latitude. The Tian Shan Mountains are rich in coal and iron, the Altay in gold, and the Kunlun in jade. The region also has big deposits of non-ferrous and rare metals and oil, and rich reserves of forests and land open to reclamation.

Xinjiang's vast expanse is mostly desert and grassland. Southern Xinjiang includes the Tarim Basin and the Taklamakan Desert, China's largest, while northern Xinjiang contains the Junggar Basin, where the Karamay Oilfields and the fertile Ili River valley are situated. The Turpan Basin, the hottest and lowest point in China, lies at the eastern end of the Tian Shan Mountains. The Tarim, Yarkant, Yurunkax and Qarran rivers irrigate land around the Tarim Basin, while the Ili, Irtish, Ulungur and Manas rivers flow through arable and pastoral areas in northern Xinjiang. Many of the rivers spill into lakes. The Lop Nur, Bosten (Bagrax), Uliungur and Ebinur lakes teem with fish.

Xinjiang’s highest point is K2 (8611 meters, 28,251 feet), the world's second highest mountain, on the border with Pakistan. Xinjiang has within its borders the point of land farthest from the sea, the so-called Eurasian pole of inaccessibility (46°16.8 N 86°40.2 E) in the Dzoosotoyn Elisen Desert, 1,645 miles (2,647 kilometers) from the nearest coastline (straight-line distance). The Tian Shan mountain range marks the Xinjiang-Kyrgyzstan border at the Torugart Pass (3752 meters). The Karakorum highway (KKH) links Islamabad, Pakistan with Kashgar over the Khunjerab Pass.

Xinjiang borders: 1) Gansu province to the east; 2) Qinghai Province to the southeast; 3) Tibet Autonomous Region to the south; 4) Jammu and Kashmir (India) Disputed and Gilgit-Baltistan (Pakistan) to the southwest; 5) Badakhshan Province, Afghanistan, Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province, Tajikistan, Osh, Naryn, and Issyk Kul Provinces, Kyrgyzstan and Almaty, East Kazakhstan Provinces, Kazakhstan to the west; 6) Altai Republic, Russia, to the north; and 7) Bayan-Ölgii, Khovd, Govi-Altai Provinces, Mongolia to the northeast.

Silk Road Sites in Xinjiang

Silk Road Sites in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region: Loulan: ) Ancient City of Loulan-Ba YinGuoLeng Mongolia Autonomous Prefecture (Coordinates: N 40 30 55, E 89 54 50; Niya Site-Hetian Area (Coordinates: N 82 43 14.4, E 37 58 32.9);

Turpan Area: 1) Ancient City of Jiao River, Turpan City (Coordinates: N 42 25 22-42 25 26, E 89 03 15-89 03 58); 2) ) Ancient City of Gaochang and Astana Cemetery, Turpan City (Coordinates: N 42 50 21-42 51 19, E 89 30 49-89 32 17); 3)Taizang Tower, Turpan City (Coordinates: N 42 52 03, E 89 31 36); 4) Bezeklik Grottoes, Turpan City (Coordinates: N 89 32 10-89 33 54, E 42 56 41-42 57 37); 5)Toyuk Grottoes, Turpan City (Coordinates: N 89 41 39-89 41 40, E 42 51 50-42 51 51)

Aksu Area: 1) Buddha Subash Temple Site-Aksu Area (Coordinates: N 41 51 20-41 51 40, E 83 2-83 3); 2) Kizil Grottoes-Aksu Area (Coordinates: N 41 46 59-41 47 11, E 82 30 03-82 30 32); 3) Kumtula Grottoes-Aksu Area (Coordinates: N 41 41 25-41 42 95, E 82 40 59-82 41 59); 4)Simsem Grottoes-Aksu Area (Coordinates: N 41 51 50-41 52 05, E 83 08 31-83 09 55); 20) Bedel Pass (Coordinates:N41 23 58 E78 23 40);

Silk Road Route in Western China

The overland Silk Road route to the west began in Changan (Xian), the capital of China during the Han, Qin and Tang dynasties (206 B.C. to A.D. 906). It stopped in the towns of Zhangye, Jiayuguan, Langzhou, Yumen, Anxi and Nanhu before dividing in three main routes at Dunhuang.

The three main routes between Dunhuang and Central Asia were: 1) the northern route, which went through northwest China through the towns of Hami and Turpan to Central Asia: 2) the central route, which veered southwest from Turpan and passed through Kucha, Aksu and Kashgar; and 3) the southern route, which passed through the heart of the Taklamakan Desert via the oasis towns of Miran, Khotan and Yarkand before joining with the central route in Kashgar.

On the southern route through western China the going began getting difficult near present-day Lanzhou, where the "Gate of Demons," marked the approach to an area, which the writer Mildred Cable said featured "rushing rivers, cutting their way through unfathomable lake hidden among the dunes...sand-hills with a voice like thunder" and "water which could be clearly seen and yet was a deception."

The going started to get really rough around the Yumenguan (Jade Gate Pass, near Dunhuang), traditionally regarded as the frontier of Chinese Turkestan and entrance to the vast and inhospitable Taklamakan Desert. where Cable wrote, the desert "is a howling wilderness, and the first thing which strikes the wayfarer is the dismalness of its uniform, black, pebble strewn surface." From here the Silk Road followed a line of oases to Kashgar or veered north into present-day Kazakhstan.

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “The routes around the Takla Makan desert in the Tarim Basin connected the Chinese capitals at Ch'ang-an (modern Xi'an) and Loyang with the western frontiers from the Han to Tang periods. The routes divided into northern, southern and central branches around the Tarim Basin at Dunhuang. The northern route started from the Jade Gate outside of Dunhuang and proceeded to the oasis of Turfan, near the Buddhist cave complex at Bezeklik. From Turfan, this route followed the southern foothills of the Tien-shan mountains to Karashahr and Shorchuk (near modern Korla) before reaching Kucha, an oasis surrounded by Buddhist cave complexes such as Kyzil and Kumtura. The northern route continued through Aksu, a junction for routes over the Tien-shan, and Maralbashi, near the Buddhist caves of Tumshuk, to Kashgar, where the southern route reconnects. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, Simpson Center for the Humanities, *]

“The southern route began at the Yang-kuan gate outside of Dunhuang and continued to oases on the southern rim of the Takla Makan desert such as Miran, Charklik, Cherchen, Endere, and Niya. This route followed the northern base of the Kun-lun mountains to Khotan and Kashgar. An intermediate route from Dunhuang led to the military garrison at Lou-lan on Lop-nor Lake, where branches diverged to Miran on the southern route and Karashahr on the northern route. Travelers' itineraries around the Tarim Basin depended on their goals and destinations, the political and physical environment, and economic conditions. *\

Archeological Evidence of the Silk Road Trade in China

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “Many artifacts demonstrate long-distance trade connections and cultural transmission between China, Khotan (Hotan in present-day Xinjiang, China) on the southern silk route, and the northwestern frontiers of the Indian subcontinent. Fragments of finely woven tabby silk from China reflect long-distance trade or tribute relations with Khotan during the third or early fourth centuries CE. Coins of Indo-Scythian (Saka) and Kushan rulers (see essays on Sakas and Kushans) and an incomplete manuscript of a Gandhari version of the Dharmapada were found near Khotan. Other items imported to Khotan from the northwestern Indian subcontinent included small Gandharan stone sculptures and moulded terracotta figures. Long-distance trade in highly valued Buddhist items (such as manuscripts, small sculptures, miniature stupas, and possibly relics) prefigured later connections between Buddhist communities in Khotan and Gilgit. Khotan was not only a regional commercial and religious center of the southwestern Tarim Basin, but also functioned as a connecting point between China, India, western Central Asia, and Iran. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, Simpson Center for the Humanities, *]

“The Shan-shan kingdom, which flourished on the southern silk route between Niya and Lou-lan until the fourth century CE, benefited from long-distance trade between China and eastern Central Asia. In exchange for luxury items from these regions, Chinese silk was probably used in commercial transactions, since silk was preferred to copper coins as currency. The economic prosperity of agricultural oases and trading centers on the southern silk route enabled Buddhist communities to establish stupas and monasteries. As Marilyn Rhie observes in Early Buddhist Art of China & Central Asia (vol. 1, p. 429), Buddhist sculptures from Miran and Khotan display many similarities with the artistic traditions of Gandhara, Swat, and Kashmir in the northwestern Indian subcontinent. Mural paintings at Miran reflect ties with both the art of western Central Asia and northwest India (Rhie, p. 385). Administrative documents found at Niya, Endere, and Lou-lan written in the Gandhari language and Kharosthi script demonstrate linguistic and cultural ties between the southern silk route oases and the northwestern Indian subcontinent in the third to fourth centuries CE. *\

“Intermediate routes through Karashahr and northern routes through Turfan probably eclipsed the southern route by the fifth century CE (according to Rhie, p. 392). Many of the most important archaeological sites on the northern silk route are clustered around Kucha and the Turfan oasis. Mural paintings in cave monasteries, stupa architecture, artifacts, and other remains from approximately the third to seventh centuries at sites around Kucha show closer stylistic affinities with the northwestern Indian subcontinent, western Central Asia and Iran than with China. Sites located further east along the northern silk route belonging to relatively later dates in the seventh to tenth centuries typically reveal more Chinese and Turkish elements. Mural paintings from the cave monastery of Kyzil demonstrate continuities between the art of the western part of the northern silk routes and the artistic traditions of Swat, Gandhara and Sassanian Iran in the middle of the first millennium CE. Monks and merchants traveling on the northern and southern silk routes were responsible for maintaining commercial, religious, and cultural contacts between India, Central Asia, and China. *\

“Material remains from sites along the silk routes reflect close relations between long-distance trade and patterns of cultural and religious transmission. Demand for Chinese silk and luxury commodities which were high in value but low in volume stimulated commerce. Valuable items such as lapis lazuli, rubies, and other precious stones from the mountains of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kashmir probably led travelers to venture into these difficult regions. Some of these products became popular items for Buddhist donations, as attested in Buddhist literary references to the "seven jewels" (saptaratna) and reliquary deposits (see Xinru Liu, Acient India and Ancient China, pp. 92-102). Long-distance trade in luxury commodities, which were linked with the transmission of Buddhism [see essay on Buddhism and Trade], led to increased cultural interaction between South Asia, Central Asia, and China. *\

Xuanzang's Account of Western China

In A.D. 629, early in the Tang Dynasty period, the Chinese monk Xuanzang (Hsuan Tsang) left the Chinese dynasty capital for India to obtain Buddhist texts from which the Chinese could learn more about Buddhism. He traveled west — on foot, on horseback and by camel and elephant — to Central Asia and then south and east to India and returned in A.D. 645 with 700 Buddhist texts from which Chinese deepened their understanding of Buddhism. Xuanzang is remembered as a great scholar for his translations from Sanskrit to Chinese but also for his descriptions of the places he visited — the great Silk Road cities of Kashgar and Samarkand and the great stone Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. His trip inspired the Chinese literary classic “Journey to the West” by Wu Ch'eng-en, a 16th century story about a wandering Buddhist monk accompanied by a pig, an immortal that poses as a monkey and a feminine spirit. It is widely regarded as one of the great novels of Chinese literature. [Book: "Ultimate Journey, Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment" by Richard Bernstein (Alfred A. Knopf); See Separate Article on Xuanzang]

In A.D. 629 (or 627, depending on the source), Xuanzang set off on a journey to India. It would be 17 years before he would return. Sally Hovey Wriggins wrote: “According to tradition, before Xuanzang left the capital of the great Tang dynasty, Chang’an (Xian), he had a vision of the holy Mount Sumeru. He beheld an unending horizon, symbol of the countless lands he hoped to see. Because the Tang Emperor had forbidden travel in the dangerous western regions, Xuanzang went forth as a fugitive, hiding by day and traveling by night. When the pilgrim finally reached the Jade Gate, he set out with his horse and a guide to cross the Gashun Gobi desert, a distance of 200 miles. [Source: “Xuanzang on the Silk Road” by Sally Hovey Wriggins, author of books on Xuanzang, \~/]

The further west he traveled from his starting point of Ch’ang An (Xian) the more difficult his journey became as he had to contend with long stretch of desert, mountain ranges and other obstacles. Of the Taklamaken desert he reported: "As I approached China's extreme outpost at the edge of the Desert of Lop, I was caught by the Chinese army. Not having a travel permit, they wanted to send me to Tun-huang to stay at the monastery there. However, I answered 'If you insist on detaining me I will allow you to take my life, but I will not take a single step backwards in the direction of China'." The officer himself a Buddhist, let him pass. In order to avoid the next outpost, he left the main foot-track and made a detour, which brought him to a place 'so wild that no vestige of life coult be found there. There is neither bird, nor four-legged beasts, neither water nor pasture'."Source: Irma Marx, Silk Road Foundation]

Here, according to Wriggins, “his guide tried to murder him, he lost his way and he dropped his water bag so all the water drained out into the sand. Whether by miracle or by the horse's instinct for finding water, Xuanzang reached the oasis of Hami, known as Iwu in Tang times, the easternmost of a string of oases at the foot of the Tian Shan mountains. From the summits of these mountains, rivers flow down to the desert dunes until they disappear in the sand. The precious water is transported through underground channels called kariz. With fertile land, and the increasingly prosperous trade of China with the West and the West with China, these oases flourished greatly." \~/

On the first leg of his journey Xuanzang reported: ““Leaving the old country of Kau-chane, from this neighbourhood there begins what is called the 'O-ki-ni country (Anciently called Wu-ki). The kingdom of 'O-ki-ni (Akni or Aani) is about 500 li from east to west, and about 400 li from north to south. [p.18] The chief town of the realm is in circuit 6 or 7 li. On all sides it is girt with hills. The roads are precipitous and easy of defence. Numerous streams unite, and are led in channels to irrigate the fields. The soil is suitable for red millet, winter wheat, scented dates, grapes, pears, and plums, and other fruits. The air is soft and agreeable; the manners of the people are sincere and upright. The written character is, with few differences, like that of India. The clothing (of the people) is of cotton or wool. They go with shorn locks and without head-dress. In commerce they use gold coins, silver coins, and little copper coins. [Source: “Xuanzang's Record of the Western Regions”, 646, translated by Samuel Beal (1884), Silk Road Seattle, |:|]

The king is a native of the country; he is brave, but little attentive to (military) plans, yet he loves to speak of his own conquests. This country has no annals. The laws are not settled. There are some ten or more Sanghârâmas with two thousand priests or so, belonging to the Little Vehicle, of the school of the Sarvâstivâdas (Shwo-yih-tsai-yu- po). The doctrine of the Sutras and the requirements of the Vinaya are in agreement with those of India, and the books from which they study are the same. The professors of religion read their books and observe the rules and regulations with purity and strictness. They only eat the three pure aliments, and observe the method known as the"gradual" one. |:|

Marco Polo in Western China

After passing through the Pamirs, Marco Polo (1254-1324) 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 Dunhuang, Nanhu, Anxi, Yumen, Jiayuguan and Zhangye and finally Shangdu. [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001]

Describing Kashgar Marco Polo wrote: "The people are for the most part idolaters, but there are also some Nestorian Christians and Saracens...the inhabitants live by trade and industry. They have fine orchards and vineyards and flourishing estates. Cotton grows here in plenty, besides flax and hemp. The soil is fertile and productive of all the means of life. The country is the starting point from which many merchants set out to market their wares all over the world." **


Turpan (200 kilometers, southeast of Urmuqi on a nice, new highway) was an important oasis during the Silk Road days. 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.

Located on the northern edge of the Turpan Depression and surrounded by irrigated fields, Turpan 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.

Turpan used to be an important strategic point on the Silk Road. As early as two thousand years ago, a town called Jiaohe was built forth kilometers from today's town of Turpan. Jiaohe then was the capital of the Outer Chshi Kingdom. During the first century, Jiaohe came under the rule of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 220). During the sixth century, Turpan was under the administration of Gaochang Kingdom. During the reign of Emperor Tai Zong (626-649), the Gaochang Kingdom was conquered by the Tang Dynasty (618-906), and Turpan again became a frontier town of China, serving as a stopover for merchants, monks, and other travelers on their way to the west.

Anna Sherman wrote in the New York Times: “The Uyghurs emerged as a regional power around A.D. 750 in what is now Mongolia. Turpan has been a Uyghur city since the ninth century, when the Uyghurs migrated to the area and started the kingdom of Qocho. It was a kingdom, the archaeologist J.P. Mallory and the Sinologist Victor H. Mair wrote in their 2000 book “The Tarim Mummies: Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples From the West,” that once “combined, apparently harmoniously, a myriad of different ethnic groups, religions and languages.” [Source: Anna Sherman, New York Times, May 11, 2020]

Xuanzang in Turpan

Xuanzang stayed in Turpan for some time. The king there was enchanted by the monk's knowledge of the sacred Buddha books, refused to let him leave, only reluctantly relenting when Xuanzang threatened a hunger strike. Thus, Xuanzang had peaceable conquered to royal will. The king gave him letters of introduction the rulers of the oases along the way, thereby providing the assistance that made his pilgrimage successful." [Source: Irma Marx, Silk Road Foundation]

Sally Hovey Wriggins wrote: “Several months after Xuanzang visited Hami, the kingdom reverted back to China. Like many another oasis it was caught between the depredations of Turkic nomads from the north and Chinese conquerors to the south and east. Xuanzang's reputation preceded him. When Xuanzang was still at Hami, the king of Turfan sent an escort to conduct him to his kingdom, some 200 miles to the west. The king of Turfan was a powerful monarch with great influence throughout the Taklamakan desert, and happily for Xuanzang, he was also a devout Buddhist. The king's subjects in the ancient kingdom of Turfan were neither Chinese nor Turks nor Mongolians, but an Indo-European people speaking a dialect of the Tocharian language. The government's institutions however, were based on Chinese models. Reflecting this composite culture, modern excavations around Turfan have brought to light Christian, Nestorian, Manichean and Buddhist manuscripts, sculptures and paintings. Bezeklik monastery in the nearby mountains contained sixty-seven (some say fifty seven caves) dating from the fourth to the fourteenth century. [Source: “Xuanzang on the Silk Road” by Sally Hovey Wriggins, author of books on Xuanzang, \~/]

“The king was so attracted to Xuanzang that he tried to detain him by force. Xuanzang staged a hunger strike; the king relented. Once convinced of his determination, the king equipped him with gold, silver, rolls of taffeta and satin, 30 horses, and 24 servants. More important, he gave him 24 letters to be presented to the kingdoms he would pass through. Finally, he commissioned one of his officers to conduct him to the Great Khan of the Western Turks. Xuanzang was overcome by his generosity. Well he might have been, for the Empire of the Western Turks at that time extended from the Altai mountains in the former Soviet Union to what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan.” \~/

Silk Road Sites in the Turpan Area

Silk Road Sites in the Turpan Area: 1) Ancient City of Jiao River, Turpan City (Coordinates: N 42 25 22-42 25 26, E 89 03 15-89 03 58); 2) ) Ancient City of Gaochang and Astana Cemetery, Turpan City (Coordinates: N 42 50 21-42 51 19, E 89 30 49-89 32 17); 3)Taizang Tower, Turpan City (Coordinates: N 42 52 03, E 89 31 36); 4) Bezeklik Grottoes, Turpan City (Coordinates: N 89 32 10-89 33 54, E 42 56 41-42 57 37); 5)Toyuk Grottoes, Turpan City (Coordinates: N 89 41 39-89 41 40, E 42 51 50-42 51 51)

Toyuk (about 25 kilometers east of Gaochang) is a Muslim pilgrimage center at at the base of the Flaming Mountains. Shrines in the area honor the first Uighur ruler to convert to Islam, as well as a local version of the legendary Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. The village's main mosque has a green roof and dome. In the area are many building with pierced walls that is used for drying grapes to make raisins. Raisins are one of the major products of the region. The Buddhist grottoes at Toyuk (also spelled Toruq and Tuyuk) date from the 5th to the 10th centuries AD, when the Uighurs converted to Islam. The river, winding down from the mountains, would have provided water and greenery to sustain the resident monks. [Source:]

Taizong Tower (40 kilometers east of Turpan in Sanb Oxiang, near Gaochang and Astana Tombs) looks like an eroded mud-brick apartment building. Reaching height of 20 meters, it has Buddhist shrines on all four sides. Prior to its collapse, the Sirkip Tower was also constructed in similar fashion. Scholars suggest the structures were tied to the ancient city of Gaochang. []

According to “If the Astana Tombs are of interest to you, you can stop there before heading out to Taizang Tower or the ancient city of Gaochang. However as Taizang Tower is absent from travel guides, it may take some exploring on your part to discover this site on your own. You need to hire a private taxi to visit Taizang Tower. Rates depend on the size of your party and how many places you would like to visit on the way, but generally you can push to have a standard taxi take you to Astana, Gaochang, and Taizang Tower for 400-600 RMB. Entry Fee: When I visited, the gate was locked and visitors were not permitted inside. I was told that the entry fee used to be 30 RMB. Information I found indicated a man across the street held the key and would let us in, but after much negotiating he wouldn’t allow it. Fortunately, even if you come up against the same problem, it’s still possible to walk around the perimeter of the tower.”


Gaochang (45 kilometers east-southeast 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 6.5 kilometers (four miles) around and the inner city wall is 3 kilometers (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 Manichaeans and Nestorian Christians.

Scattered over an area of two million square meters, Gaochang City was the political and cultural center in China's northwest for 1,500 years from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 220), when the government began to station garrisons there, until the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), when the city began to deteriorate. Most of the city walls are still well preserved, the highest section being twelve meters high. Within the city walls are the remains of broken houses, earth pagodas, and a network of streets. Most of the houses were built with rammed earth or mud bricks, with arched doorways and windows.

According to the International Dunhuang Project: Gaochang: The Tarim Basin lies north-west of Dunhuang across the Gobi Desert. It is the second lowest place on earth with the Heavenly Mountains rising to its north. Meltwater, fertile soil and searing heat produce fine crops here, especially grapes. From the 5th century the capital was at Gaochang, a large walled city. The area fell under the control of several nomadic powers before being conquered by the Chinese in 640. Two centuries later it was taken by the Uyghurs, a confederation of Turkic tribes who called the capital Kocho. The plain north of Gaochang, known as Astana, was used as a cemetery from the late 4th century. Almost all the manuscripts from the tombs are in Chinese, but Manichaean texts in Sogdian and Uyghur and numerous Buddhist texts in various languages have been found in the ancient city itself." ^/^

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.


Jiaohe (10 kilometers west 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, flood plains, 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.

These ruins are considered to have been the frontier post of the outer Cheshi Kingdom during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 220). In the sixth century Jiaohe Prefecture was established with the original Jialhe City as the seat of the prefectural government. Jiaohe City was built on an island at the confluence of two rivers, occupying an area of 230,000 square meters. Most of the remaining buildings are from the Tang Dynasty (618-906) and later times, and they fall into three categories: temples, civilian residences, and administration buildings.

What is left of the town indicated three interesting things about it: (1) that its doors and windows did not face the street-a peculiarity of Tang Dynasty (618-906) architecture: (2) that courtyards and rooms were dug from the earth, like cave dwellings — a specialty in China's northwest; and (3) that no city walls were necessary because the town was surrounded by cliffs — a feature decided its peculiar terrain. The fact that Jiaohe's houses have been preserved so well is mainly due to the area's dry climate.

Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves

Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves ( 50 kilometers 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 or have recently been restored .

These caves are among the best known grottoes in Xinjiang. Built during the late Northern and Southern Dynasties (420-581), the grottoes are known mainly for their murals, which still retain their fresh, bright colors though bits and pieces are missing here and there. The themes of the paintings are taken mostly from Buddhist tales. Influence from western regions in China and Central Asia are strongly evident in the artistic style of these murals.

Shengjinkou (forty kilometers north of Turpan) contains ten mud-brick caves that were part of a Buddhist temple during the 7th to 14th centuries and was founded during the Tang Dynasty (618-906). The murals on the cave walls depict lotus blossoms with cloud patterns, a lone crown on dry tree branches, vines laden with grapes, rows of willow trees, and Buddhist portraits. Most of the paintings are accompanied by annotations in the Urgur language. Other discoveries at this site include Buddhist scriptures written in Sanskrit and Han languages, and coins of the Tang Dynasty (618-906).

Tian Shan Mountains

The Tian Shan (western Xinjiang) is a formidable mountain range in Central Asia and 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 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 in Kyrgyzstan. The most impressive mountain — and highest point of Kazakhstan — is Khan-Tengri peak (6995 meters) in on the Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan border.

The Tian Shan are lovely mountains with some of Central Asia and China's most beautiful scenery: towering cliffs, massive glaciers, snow-capped peaks, mountain streams, sweet-smelling spruce forests, boulder-strewn gullies and deep gorges. The name "Tian Shan" means "celestial mountains" in Chinese. The northern The Tian Shan mountains are is located in the southeastern part of Kazakhstan. The Western Tian Shan runs along the Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan border in the Almaty and Bishkek areas and extends all the way to Uzbekistan. region. The Central Tian Shan runs from central Kyrgyzstan to China. The Eastern Tian Shan is in western China. The entire range extends about 300 kilometers from north to south.

Of the five mountains that exceed altitudes of 7000 meters in ex-USSR territories, three are found in Kyrgyzstan. The Pobeda Peak (at 7439 meters) is the highest and most difficult to climb, due to unpredictable weather conditions. The second highest peak, Lenin (at 7134 meters), on the other hand, is the most accessible. Khan Tengri (at 7010 meters) is on the world climbers’ elite list. In the view of climbers from Russia and in the former Soviet Union every self-respecting mountaineer must climb this peak, at least once in their life.

The Tian Shan were first described by the 7th century Chinese explorer Xuan Zang who spent seven days crossing a snowbound pass, where half of the 14 people in his party froze to death. The first European to extensively explore the central Tian Shan was the Russian explorer Pyotr Semyonov who traveled extensively in the region in 1856.

Tien Shan Corridor of the Silk Road

According to UNESCO: “The Tian-shan corridor is one section or corridor of this extensive overall Silk Roads network. Extending across a distance of around 5,000 kilometers, it encompassed a complex network of trade routes extending to some 8,700 kilometers that developed to link Chang’an in central China with the heartland of Central Asia between the 2nd century B.C. and 1st century AD, when long distance trade in high value goods, particularly silk, started to expand between the Chinese and Roman Empires. It flourished between the 6th and 14th century AD and remained in use as a major trade route until the 16th century. [Source: UNESCO, World Heritage Site, 2014]

“The extremes of geography along the routes graphically illustrate the challenges of this long distance trade. Falling to 154 meters below sea level and rising to 7,400 meters above sea level, the routes touch great rivers, alpine lakes, crusty salt flats, vast deserts, snow-capped mountains and ‘fecund’ prairies. The climate varies from extreme drought to semi-humid; while vegetation covers temperate forests, temperate deserts, temperate steppes, alpine steppes and oases.

“Starting on the Loess plateau at Chang’an, the central capital of China in the Han and Tang Dynasties, the routes of the Tian-shan corridor passed westwards through the Hosi Corridor across the Qin and Qilian Mountains to the Yumen Pass of Dunhuang. From Loulan/Hami, they continued along the northern and southern flanks of the Tian-shan Mountain and then through passes to reach the Ili, Chuy and Talas valleys in the Zhetysu Region of Central Asia, linking two of the great power centres that drove the Silk Roads trade.

“The series of Buddhist pagodas and large, elaborate cave temples extending from Kucha (now Kuqa County) in the west to Luoyong in the east, record the eastward transmission of Buddhism from India via Karakorum, and demonstrate an evolution in the design of stupas as local ideas were absorbed. Their elaboration reflects the sponsorship of local authorities and the central Chinese imperial government as well as donations of wealthy merchants, and the influence of monks that travelled the routes, many of whose journeys were documented from 2nd century B.C. onwards. Other religious buildings reflect the co-existence of many religions (as well as many ethnic groups) along the corridor including Zoroastrianism, the main religion of the Sogdians of Zhetysu region, Manichaeism in the Chuy and Talas valleys and in Qocho city and Luoyong, Nestorian Christianity also in Qocho city, around Xinjiang and in Chang’an, and Islam in Burana.

“The massive scale of the trading activities fostered large, prosperous and thriving towns and cities that also reflect the interface between settled and nomadic communities in a variety of ways: the mutual inter-dependence of nomads and farmers and different peoples such as between Turks and Sogdians in the Zhetysu region; the transformation of nomadic communities to settled communities in the Tian-shan mountains, resulting in highly distinctive construction and planning such as semi-underground buildings; and in the Hosi corridor the planned agricultural expansion of the 1,000 mile corridor after the 1st century B.C. as an agricultural garrison and its transformation to settled agricultural communities. Diverse and large scale water management systems were essential to facilitate the growth of towns, trading settlements, forts, and caravanserai and the agriculture necessary to support them, such as the extensive Karez underground water channels of the extremely arid Turpan basin, many still in use, that supplied water to Qocho city, and were supplemented by deep wells inside Yar city; the grand scale of the network of open canals and ditches along the Hosi corridor that drew river water to the settlements, 90 kilometers of which survive around Suoyang city; and in the Zhetsyu region, river water distribution through canals and pipes and collection in reservoirs.

Silk Road Routes from Xinjiang (China) to Central Asia

The route from Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan to Kashgar in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang is one of Central Asia’s premier overland adventures.The distance between Bishkek and Kashgar, China is about 710 kilometers (440 miles) and takes between 15 hours and two days depending on the vehicles you take, the stops you make and your luck clearing customs and immigration on the Chinese side of 3752-meter-high Torugart Pass. Along the way many travelers stop in and around Kochkar, Song Kul lake or Naryn.

It is said that this route follows the Silk Road route in Central Asia. The Silk Road routes in Central Asia were very complicated and usually defined by oases and passes which were open and accessible. Many goods carried across Central Asia were transported on the backs of shaggy, two-humped Bactrian camels or horses, or, in the high elevations, on yaks. The Himalayan caravan routes from India that passed through Karakoram Pass and Khunjerab Pass (on the modern Karakoram Highway) joined the Silk Road in Kashgar or Central Asia.

The two main routes that entered Central Asia from China were: 1) the northern route, which passed from western China into what is now Kazakhstan and went through or near what is now Alma Aty (Kazakhstan), Bishkek (Krygyzstan) and Tashkent (Uzbekistan); and 2) the southern route which left Kashgar and passed from western China in Central Asia through passes of the Tien Shan and Pamirs mountains that are now on China's borders with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

The main route likely passed through Irkeshtam Pass between Kashgar and the Fergana Valley in present-day Uzbekistan. Many Silk Road tours go from Kashgar over Torugart pass to Bishkek and then Tashkent and Samarkand because modern roads traverse this route. This route however is much longer and out of the way than the direct route from Kashgar to the Fergana Valley. Marco Polo used a route through the Pamirs between China and Afghanistan.


KASHGAR (1,600 kilometers from Urumqi, 320 kilometers from Pakistan) is a famous Silk Road oasis situated between the Tian Shan, the Pamir Mountains, and the Taklamakan Desert. Also known as Kashi and more reminiscent of a town in Uzbekistan or Turkey than one in China, it features bazaars, narrow alleys, scull caps and mosques and is home to about 350,000 people.

A lot of travelers are drawn to Kashgar as they are to Tibet. Part of the attraction is the adventure of getting there and part of it is the atmosphere and history of the place. If you make it to Kashgar you're almost as closer to the Black Sea than you are to Beijing

Water flows through canals along the main streets and nourish trees and garden plots with melons and vegetables. Back streets are lined by houses made from mud-brick. Women do chores while men sit around drinking tea, playing card games, getting a trim from a sidewalk barbers and shooting pool on outdoors billiard tables. The ochre-colored alleys and archways were so evocative of Old Kabul that the old city was used as the setting in 2007 for the filming of "The Kite Runner." Only a small section is left today for tourists. About 200,000 people, almost all Uyghurs, are being relocated to bland, modern apartment buildings in the suburbs (See Below).

Kashgar was a major stop on the Silk Road. Located in the extreme west of Xinjiang-China's westernmost province, Kashgar grew upon a lucrative crossroads: the junction of the northern and southern forks of the Silk Road. Much of the westbound and southbound traffic in silk, spices, tea, jade and porcelain passed through Kashgar streets during the Silk Road's 1000-year run. The word Kashgar means "place where jade gathers".

Over its long history Kashgar was controlled by Tibetans, Huns, Arabs and Chinese, and was fought over by Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. Marco Polo wrote: "The people are for the most part idolaters, but there are also some Nestorian Christians and Saracens...the inhabitants live by trade and industry. They have fine orchards and vineyards and flourishing estates. Cotton grows here in plenty, besides flax and hemp. The soil is fertile and productive of all the means of life. The country is the starting point from which many merchants set out to market their wares all over the world."

Mausoleum of Mahmud al-Kashgari (in Upal, 35 kilometers southwest of Kashgar) is one of the few sites in the Kashgar area that dates back to Silk Road era. Mahmud ibn Hussayn ibn Muhammed al-Kashgari (1005-1102) was an 11th-century Kara-Khanid scholar and lexicographer of the Turkic languages from Kashgar. He died in Upal and was buried there. A mausoleum was erected on his gravesite. Al-Kashgari studied the Turkic languages of his time and composed the first comprehensive dictionary of Turkic languages, the Dīwān Lughāt al-Turk ("Compendium of the languages of the Turks") in 1072-74 in Baghdad.. It was intended for use by the Abbasid Caliphate, the new Arab allies of the Turks.

Silk Road Passes Between Xinjiang and Central Asia

Torugart Pass (3,672 meter, 12,100 feet, 165 kilometers north-northwest of Kashgar) is the main road pass between Xinjiang and Central Asia today. It is regarded as one of the sorriest, most problematic and adventurous border crossings in the world, complete with a howling wind, chilly temperatures, excruciatingly long waits, patrol dogs and the meanest and most difficult border guards you are ever going to meet. Even so many travelers jump at the opportunity because of scenery along the way, its association with the Silk Road, the stories they can tell afterwards and the sheer adventure of doing it.

The Torugart Pass was used by Silk Road caravans but was not the most heavily used one. Irkeshtam Pass was the primary one because it linked Kashgar with the fertile and bountiful Fergana Valley in present-day Uzbekistan . Traveling over Torugart Pass and the mountains on the what is now the Kyrgyzstan side required much more work.

Irkeshtam Pass (100 kilometers south of Torugart Pass) was one of the main passes used by Silk Road caravan traveling between China and Central Asia linking up Kashgar with the Fergana Valley. It is strictly off limits to foreign travelers because of its sensitive location between Chinese and Kyrgyzstan border, which was even more sensitive when it was the border between China and the Soviet Union until 1991.

Bedel Pass is a mountain pass in the Tian Shan Mountains range between Kyrgyzstan and Xinjiang. It reaches an elevation of 4,284 meters (14,055 feet) and linked China to Barskon, a settlement on the southern shore of lake Issyk-kul. Bedel Pass served as a Silk Road trade route between China and Central Asia. The Bedel Beacon Tower is located along the path in the foothills on the Chinese side. It was built during the Han dynasty and renovated during the Tang dynasty.

During the Sui and Tang dynasties, the pass was the main trade route linking Tarim Basin and Western Turks in Central Asia. Many scholars believe (but some do not) that Xuanzang used this pass in the 7th century on his journey to India. Xuanzang used a passage northwest of "Kingdom of Baluka", modern day city of Aksu. Other argue that it was Muzart Pass. The pass is currently closed to traffic. Kumtor Gold Mine is located down the road on the Kyrgyz side. Along the path on the Chinese side is also the ruins of a KMT era sentry post which is a local cultural heritage site.

Muzart Pass is a high mountain pass that crosses the Tian Shan mountains in Xinjiang, China, connecting the city of Aksu in the Tarim Basin with the city of Yining (Kulja) in the upper Ili River valley. The route over Muzart Pass is more commonly referred to as Xiate Trail, Xiate being the name of the village in Tekes River valley at the base on the northern side of the route.

Tash Rabat and Caravanserais on the Silk Road of the Inner Tien Shan

Tash Rabat Caravanserai (110 kilometers from the town of Naryn in Kyrgyzstan) is one of the first caravanserai after leaving China. It is a fortified Silk Road caravanserai that dates back to the 15th century and was restored in 1984. One of the best Silk Road spots on Kyrgyzstan, it is beautifully situated among highlands and mountains in the valley of Kara Koyun at an altitude of 3200 meters. It is built of stones and particularly beautiful in the winter when it is surrounded by snow. It contains a well, a dungeon, a tunnel and some rooms once used by well-heeled travelers. There are some nice hikes in the area. It is expensive and hard to get to.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Another type of the monuments located on the Tien Shan branch of the Silk Road is caravans-sarays. Two sites have preserved: Tash-Rabat and Manakeldy (Chaldyvar). [Source: National Commission of the Kyrgyz Republic for UNESCO]

Tash-Rabat is located in the western part of the At-Bashy valley, on the small river of Kara Koyun, at the altitude of 3200 meters. Square construction, with the length of external perimeter of walls 32,4х34,8 by 32,4х35,1 meters, is made of slate plates. Facade, decorated with towers, is turned to the east. Internal lay-out consists of the central corridor, the square hall and a number of premises ceiled with the big dome and 19 domes of small diameter. It was constructed in Karahanid times, in A.D. 11th-12th centuries, functioned till Timur's time and served as caravan-saray for the routes going to Kashgar through Tash-Rabat and Torugart passes.

“Manakeldy is located in Ak-Talaa area, at the altitude of 2500 meters, on the bank of Ala Buka river inflow. It is a square construction, with the sizes 64х64 meters, maid of mud bricks and pakhsa. Entrance was in the centre of the northern wall, limited by two rectangular towers-pylons. Other corners and walls of the construction were fortified by towers, and the front northern wall was decorated by a half goffers. The internal lay-out had the following appearance: two lines of corridors along the walls and square and rectangular premises between the corridors. Adobe feeding troughs for animals were traced in different places of the external corridor. A court yard occupied the centre of the construction. Casing and domes were applied for ceilings. The caravan-saray provided services for travelers of the route from Fergana valley to areas of inner Tien-Shan and Issyk Kul. Main period of functioning is 10th-12th centuries AD.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Nolls China Web site; CNTO; Perrochon photo site;; University of Washington; Ohio State University; UNESCO; Wikipedia; Julie Chao photo site

Text Sources: CNTO (China National Tourist Organization),, UNESCO, reports submitted to UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, China Daily, Xinhua, Global Times, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2020

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