A 10 Day Silk Road Tour in Xinjiang
Every year the Xinjiang tourism bureau holds an international tourism festival where they invite busloads of foreign and local tourism professionals to come to Xinjiang as VIP guests These VIP guests are wined, dined and taken on a full expense paid five star tour of the Silk Road.
I was lucky enough to be one of these VIP guests and this post outlines the highlights of that tour travelling the Silk Road
Day One – Join the Ninth China Xinjiang International Tourism Festival
Nothing Happens – The only thing that ever happens on day one of a tour is you check into your hotel and meet the other members of the tour. This tour was no exception and I booked into the hotel which was the Mirage 5 star business hotel, met my roommate for the trip and enjoyed the hotel buffet.
Day Two – Tourism Exhibition and Drive to Korla
Tourism Fair – The day started with a tourism fair at a massive local expo center where politicians gave speeches (bearable), there was a display of minority dancing (very good) and a couple of hours to network with local tourism operators. Nothing really exciting but the tourism bureau is picking up the tab so you go with the flow.
Journey and Scenery – The real part of the Silk Road experience started with a 5 hour bus trip to Korla which is one of the major cities on the edge of the Taram Desert. When you travel in the Silk Road it is the journey itself as much as the tourist attractions you visit that make the experience so rewarding and enjoyable. You get to watch the slowly changing scenery though the car/bus window (in between sleeping, talking or reading) which is often beautiful and always fascinating.
Korla – All seven buses and police escort arrived at the Huayuan Grand Hotel in Korla at around 9pm where we checked in and either retired for the night or had a quick walk around Korla.
Day Two – The Kizil Thousand Buddha Caves and Aksu
The Caves – After a couple of rest stops and a lunch break, the convoy arrived at the Kizil Thousand Buddha Caves at around 3pm. The caves are set in cliffs along the edge of the Weigan River. The river scenery on the way to the caves was impressive and more enjoyable than the caves. The history of the caves is fascinating and the role they played in the development of the Silk Road two thousand years ago is incredible. The actual caves themselves though are very ordinary and visiting the caves was an anticlimax. Click here for photos and information on the Kizil Thousand Buddha Caves.
Toilet Breaks – Tourism in Xinjiang in general and on the Silk Road in particular is still developing and some infrastructure such as toilets is a little inadequate. After leaving Korla and travelling along the edge of the Taklamagan Desert, there were no toilets. For toilet breaks the convoy would stop in the middle of nowhere and women would go to the right side of the road while men went to the left side.
The toilet break that afternoon stood out because the police escort blocked off the main highway for at least 10 minutes so the ladies could cross the road safely and use the more sheltered side.
Long Drive – Most of the day was taken up by the drive to Kashgar with a lunch stop, a couple of desert toilet breaks and a change of police escort. For most of the drive the Tianshan Mountains dominated the view to the right/north and the Taklamagan Desert to the left/south.
Kashgar Grand Bazaar – We arrived in Kashgar at around 6pm and went straight to the Bazaar. The bazaar is an enormous and incredible indoor and part out door market that sells anything and everything. We were told to meet back at the bus in an hour which was a shame because you can easily wander the market for at least 2-3 hours enjoying the atmosphere, the exotic mix of customers and stall holders and the bewildering range of goods on sale. Click here for photos and information on the Kashgar Grand Bazaar
Day Four – Seeing the Sights In Kashgar
The Id Kah Mosque – The day started with a walk down Handcraft’s street which is a restored (and somewhat bland) part of Kashgar’s Old City to the Id Kah Mosque in the center of the city. The Id Kah Mosque is the largest and oldest mosque in China and a focal point of the city for the local Uyghur people who are the main ethnic group in Kashgar. Click here for photos and information onthe Id Kah Mosque
Kasghar’s Old Town – After leaving the mosque, we had a tour of Kashgar’s Old Town which has been the heart of Kashgar for over 2000 years. The Old Town is in the process of being demolished which is controversial and a tragic loss of history. The tour included a residence, several work shops and the remains of a number of the older mud brick buildings. Click here for photos and information on the Old Town
Kashgar’s Sunday Market – After lunch we visited Kashgar’s Sunday market which is a large and bustling animal market on the outskirts of the city. The Sunday Market was hot, dusty, filthy, noisy and great fun to visit. Watching Uyghur farmers and business people haggle over the sale of animals was an eye opening experience. Click here for photos and information on the Sunday Market
The Apak Hoja Tomb – Though not as impressive as the Id Kah Mosque, Old Town or the Sunday market, the Apak Hoja Tomb is one of Kashgar’s key tourism attractions. You get to see several very attractive mosques, a lot of tombs and learn the story of the Fragrant Concubine. You can also dress up in period costumes and go for a camel ride at the tomb. Click here for information and photos on the Apak Hoja Tomb
Kashgar Folk Handicraft Market – If you are visiting Kashgar as part of a tour group, you will inevitably end up here. It is one of those places that is of no real interest travel wise but the tour companies have a deal with the market to bring tourists to be fleeced. The market had beautiful hand made carpets and all kinds of jade jewellery. The carpets went up to 200,000rmb in price and the jade up to 60,000rmb. They accept credit cards and were generous enough to offer free shipping for the carpets to most foreign countries. Still can’t work out why we ended up going there.
A couple of local tourism professionals and I decided to leave the main group, hire a care and driver and keep travelling west on our own.
Taxkorgan – Taxkorgan is a small city south west of Kashgar in the mountains on the border of Tajikstan and at a junction on the old Silk Road. The drive to Taxkorgan passes through some beautiful mountain scenery and two stunning volcanic lakes. The highway starts at Kashgar and goes through Taxkorgan all the way to the Pakistani border.
Highway Checkpoint – There is a checkpoint on the highway around two hours out of Kashgar that is almost as strict as a cross country border point. All car and bus passengers must disembark, pass through security, show passports or ID cards and write down personal details. I took a few photos after passing the checkpoint and had one of the guards delete those photos. The toughest security I’ve seen anywhere in China.
Taxkorgan’s Stone City – With the crumbling remains of a fortress over 1000 years old, the Stone City was easily the most historically impressive site of the whole trip. Click here for information and photos on the Stone City
Tajik Pastures and Summer Quarters – The other main tourist attraction in Taxkorgan is the pasture lands that take up most of the valley that are used by the local Tajik ethnic minority for grazing and for their summer quarters.
Karakul Lake – On the drive back to Kashgar we stopped at the Kala Kule lake for a lunch of Naan bread and watermelon. One of the domestic camels grazing at the lake stole our watermelon. You can sleep on the edge of the lake in a yurt for 50rmb a person.
Kashgar to Shache – Our driver dropped us off at the bus stop in Kashger, collected his pay and left us to the mercies of the local drivers. There were no buses leaving for Shache so we hired a car and an insane driver.
Aletun Mosque – Shache is a smallish Chinese city on the southern Silk Road route and about the only touristy thing to do there is visit the small Aletun Mosque and graveyard.
Train Station Security – At most Chinese train stations, you dump your bags on the security scanner’s conveyer belt, pick it up at the other end and you are in. The Shache train station was different and had very high security. Every one had to show passports or Chinese ID cards which were carefully examined. Even the Muslim women with face veils/masks had to show their faces at the train station check point.
Sichuan Food and the River – After being without pork for days, the guys decided to have dinner at a Sichuan restaurant. Hetian has a very large Uyghur population and that restaurant was one of the few that served non halal food. After dinner there was a trip to the river that runs through the center of Hetian. The river is a great place to hang out, locals swim there at night, you can see families picnicking there with the men (no women) having prayer sessions and people just hanging out and having fun.
Hetian Museum – With a car and driver hired for the day, we had a few places to visit and the Hetian Museum was the first. The museum was great to visit and had relics from Qing, Tang and Han dynasties, photos, maps and two well preserved mummies. Definitely one of the places you must visit when you are in Hetian.
Walnut Garden and Fig Tree Garden – These are two parks on the outskirts of Hetian that are famous for having one of China’s oldest trees and China’s largest fig tree. An enjoyable walk and great for a picnic but basically boring.
Lunch – The highlight of the day was a lunch stop at a small village on the way to an oasis. An intersection at the entrance of the village was used as an outdoor food court where local Uyghur traders had set up stalls and restaurants. The method of cooking, the food served, the style of dress worn by the locals and the atmosphere made eating there a uniquely Xinjiang experience.
The Desert – No Silk Road trip is complete without visiting the desert so we drove out to the edge of the Taklamagan Desert after 7pm when the temperature was more bearable. Walking across the sand dunes on the edge of the desert was a very enjoyable experience.
Trouble on the Streets – The original plan was to take a train to Minfeng but there was a terrorist alert in Hetian that day and the city was under semi martial law. We were walking the streets that morning when armed police or paramilitary told the shop keepers to close up and advised us to go back to the hotel. From 3pm to 6pm the entire mobile network was shut down with no phone calls, text messages or internet. After 6pm calls could be made but text messages and the internet was still blocked.
Stuck in the Hotel – We were stuck in the hotel for most of the day with a brief outing for food and drink. The atmosphere on the streets was tense so we called it a night and spent the evening in the hotel.
Day Ten – Back to Urumqi and out of Xinjiang
Avoiding Crowds – Life on the streets was back to normal apart from a lot of heavily armed police and soldiers that the locals took for granted. We went for a walk around the city, avoiding potentially dangerous crowds and ended up at the river.
Goodbye to Hetian – The three of us caught a flight from Hetian to Urumqi where we split up, transferred planes, said goodbye to Xinjang and each other and went home.
A special thanks to China Culture Tours for making this incredible trip possible.