China is a vast and varied land, but few places are as compelling as the diverse and enigmatic Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
This is where China meets Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and other central Asian countries. It’s worth making the effort for the long journey from Beijing; once you get there you’ll find culture, food and scenery unlike anywhere else in China.
This ancient oasis town is closer to Tehran than Beijing, in both geography and atmosphere. Sleepy, dusty paths wind around each other through the old town, where freshly baked nang (traditional round flatbreads) fill the air with a heady, bready aroma.
It’s worth planning your trip so that you’re in Kashgar for the Sunday livestock market, a visceral and unforgettable experience. There’s no discernible rhyme or reason to the raucous crowds of farmers and cattle – watch out for the occasional bolting bovine – but this is local life at its most raw. The squeamish will want to avoid the piles of decapitated goat heads around the edges of the market, but it’s also where you’ll find food stalls serving fresh lamian (hand-pulled noodles) and samsa: fat parcels of juicy spiced beef or lamb in a wheat- based pastry, known in China as kao baozi.
What to eat Samsa and fresh nang, are available anywhere and everywhere in the city.
Where to stay The Kashgar Old Town Hostel is convenient, friendly, charming and has dorm rooms for around 45RMB per night.
About 200km southwest of Kashgar is Karakul Lake, a stunning expanse of icy water rippling in the shadows of snow-topped mountains, reached via a five-hour drive from Kashgar along the epic Karakoram Highway. The most reliable way of getting there is to go with a guide, who can also organise lunch in a yurt.
A 16-hour train journey from Kashgar, Turpan is 'China’s Death Valley' – the hottest place in China and the second-lowest depression on earth at 150 metres below sea level. Proceed with caution, but definitely proceed as the surrounding area has some awesome sandy sights. You can drive out into the desert for an existential contemplation across those rolling dunes, or head to the Jiaohe Ruins for some very ruined relics of ancient Buddhist architecture.
What to eat The specialty here is dried fruit, specifically grapes. Gorge yourself on Roman quantities of fresh and dried bunches.
Where to stay Dap Hostel has helpful staff, a beautiful courtyard that’s perfect for lounging in, and a few friendly pets. Dorm rooms start at 45RMB per night and include a simple breakfast spread each morning.
Things to know
Security in Xinjiang is a matter in a perpetual state of flux, and at the time of writing is very tight. Expect to see armed police and armoured vehicles in busy areas and frequent passport checks at, to and from tourist sights. Heightened security means that foreigners with plans to roam completely off-piste may have to do so with a guide, which is easy to arrange. Don’t let this put you off, however; there are still plenty of opportunities to soak up local life and enjoy the pleasure of Xinjiang.