The Jiaohe Ruins
At the grand old age of 2,300 years, the Jiaohe Ruins represent one of the oldest earthen cities still in existence. This ancient city rose out of the dusty desert sometime during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) and became one of the focal oasis towns along the Silk Road. Unlike the Gaochang Ruins, which are now virtually unrecognizable as a city, the Jiaohe Ruins are in phenomenal condition thanks to the arid climate and their isolated location.
Nowadays visitors can physically walk through the remaining three districts of the city, admiring the Buddhist temples, governmental offices, and aristocratic mansions that once played host to a population of over 6,500 people. A particular treat is the Stupa Grove in the northernmost part of the city, which is home to over 100 stupas that date back to between the 5th and 7th centuries. As you tread the sandy tracks that thousands of merchants have done before you, you’ll undoubtedly be swept back to a time of danger, adventure, and lots of bargaining!
The Turpan Karez Water System
The Turpan Karez Water System is an ingenious series of vertical wells that channel water from the base of the Tian Shan Mountains and the Flaming Mountains into a system of underground canals that eventually resurface in the city of Turpan and become part of its irrigation system. It depends upon melted snow that has trickled down from the ice-capped mountains and takes advantage of the downward slope created by the Turpan Depression, which exploits gravitational force to propel the water through the canals. Talk about complex!
This water system is what allowed Turpan to thrive on the outskirts of the unforgiving Taklamakan Desert and enabled it to rise to prominence as an important oasis town along the Silk Road. Although karez systems exist in other parts of the world, the one in Turpan is considered the most complete and parts of it date all the way back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). Nowadays about 300 wells are still active and occasionally you might catch locals relaxing in them, as it’s the perfect way to escape the scorching heat! Read more about the Turpan Karez Water System.
The Mogao Caves
The Mogao Caves are a veritable treasure trove of ancient Buddhist art, boasting 492 caves that were each hand-carved into the cliff-face of Mount Mingsha and used to store some of the finest works of religious art in history. From hand-painted clay statues to vivid murals, this cave complex documents the progression of Buddhist cave art from the charmingly simple to the breathtakingly complex. Sometime during the 4th century, a monk named Le Zun supposedly had a vision of a thousand Buddhas bathed in golden light and thus began building the caves. By the Tang Dynasty (618-907) there were over 1,000 caves, so Le’s vision did in fact come true, give or take a few caves!
Although only just over 400 of these caves have been uncovered to date, perhaps the most phenomenal discovery came in 1900 when a Taoist monk named Wang Yuan-lu pushed through a walled-up cave and found a vast ancient library. Of the 1,100 bundles of scrolls and over 15,000 paper books that were excavated from this cave, several have now made their way into the collections of overseas museums. But plenty more still remain at the site’s own museum, where visitors can connect with the ancient civilizations that once dominated the Silk Road…Read more about Mogao Caves.
The Maijishan Grottoes
The drooping cypresses, wild flowers, and verdant grasses that surround the Maiji Mountains are a natural lover’s paradise, rich with inviting sights and fragrances. Yet break through the forest or look up through the trees and you’ll be met with the most awe-inspiring sight of all, a 16-metre (52 ft.) tall statue of Buddha that is over four times the size of a fully grown African elephant! This is just a small portion of the Maijishan Grottoes, a complex of 194 caves that have been cut directly into the cliff-face and filled with over 7,200 Buddhist sculptures and 1,000 square metres (10,700 sq. ft.) of intricate murals.
This colossal project began sometime during the Later Qin Dynasty (384-417 AD) but didn’t reach its peak until the Northern Wei (386-535) and Northern Zhou (557-581) dynasties. Construction and renovation of this cave complex continued well into the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties, representing over 1,000 years’ worth of effort and artistry. Thanks to the Silk Road, Central Asian culture rapidly disseminated across northern China and this can be seen most strongly in the artistic style of the earlier caves. The name “Maijishan” literally means “Corn Stack Mountain”, but don’t let that fool you; this scenic sight is anything but corny! Read more about Maijishan Grottoes.
Mati or “Horse’s Hoof” Temple
According to legend, a mythical horse once descended from heaven and the force of his landing caused his hoof prints to become embedded in the earth for all eternity. The locals promptly built a temple to house the hoof-prints, which came to be known as Mati or “Horse’s Hoof” Temple. After all, when it comes to sacred animals, you better not horse around! This temple is just a small part of a huge grotto complex that stretches across the countryside north of Zhangye, consisting of Shenguo Temple, Qianfo Cave, Jinta Temple, Upper Guanyin Cave, Middle Guanyin Cave, and Lower Guanyin Cave.
Nestled within the lush forests and flanked by the rippling rivers surrounding Mati Village, this temple complex dates back to the Northern Liang Dynasty (397-460) and is home to over 70 beautifully decorated shrines and caves. Stairwells, hidden passageways, and balconies lead to the many grottoes that were hand-carved from the cliff-face by diligent monks, providing stunning views from both the ground and the dizzying heights of the upper caves. Just don’t look down!
The Dunhuang Yardang Landform
Yardangs are bizarrely shaped rock formations that are made when wind erosion strips away soft material, leaving behind only the hard rock, and unsurprisingly Dunhuang Yardang National Geopark is full of them! These uniquely strange shapes formed over a period of 700,000 years and represent the largest collection of yardangs in China. It is sometimes referred to locally as the “Town of Demons”, because the noise of the wind whipping past the yardangs supposedly resembles the sounds of ghostly screaming!
And it seems that ghostly screams aren’t the only thing haunting the park, as several of the rock formations, known as “Stone Bird”, “Camel”, and “The Golden Lion Welcoming His Guests”, look like creatures frozen in time. Let’s just hope the lion’s lack of movement doesn’t put his guests off! Surrounded by the eerie silence of the desert and faced with the alien shapes of the yardangs, it’s no wonder people have become fascinated with this spooky place…Read more about Dunhuang Yardang Landform.
With its vibrant colours and delicate ripples, the Zhangye Danxia Landform is about as close as you’ll come to a living watercolour painting. Over a period of more than 24 million years, sandstone and other minerals have been deposited, weathered, and shaped to form brightly coloured outcroppings and hills that are almost beyond belief. Nicknamed the “Rainbow Mountains”, this surreal scenery has been featured in news articles across the globe.
Nowadays the Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park is the best place to get to grips with this alien terrain. The Linze Danxia Scenic Area just 30 kilometres (19 mi) west of Zhangye forms the core of the park and is the most popular area, exhibiting the famous “layer cake” hills whose perfect stripes of colour resemble a well-made trifle. Just don’t go trying to take a bite out of it!
The Qilian Mountains
The snow-capped Qilian Mountains rise up mistily between the borders of Qinghai and Gansu, forming a stunning tableau behind the lush meadows and sleepy settlements of these provinces. Having stood for thousands of years, this mountain range has been witness to mankind’s history from the construction of the Great Wall in its northern reaches to the bustling trade that took place along the Silk Road passing through the Hexi Corridor. One can only imagine how insignificant merchants must have felt as they walked along the base of these colossal mountains.
Its highest peaks tower in at over 5,800 metres (19,000 ft.) in altitude, making them nearly as tall as Mount Kilimanjaro. From the verdant valleys where nomads graze their sheep to the icy peaks untouched by mankind, the Qilian Mountains are a natural wonder that have provoked the curiosity of visitors for decades…Read more about Qilian Mountains.
Thanks to its auspicious location and low altitude, Crescent Lake has escaped the smothering sand and managed to survive for over 2,000 years. Resting deep within the vast Gobi desert just 6 kilometres (4 mi) south of Dunhuang, this crescent-shaped freshwater lake was once a focal oasis along the Silk Road. It earned the name Yueyaquan or “Crescent Lake” during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), and we’re pretty sure you can guess why! Nowadays, as in ancient times, visitors flock to the area to marvel at the surrounding sand dunes, visit the lake’s pagoda, and enjoy a spot of camel riding. Just don’t push the camels too hard, or they might give you the hump! Read more about the Crescent Lake.
Listed as one of the Five Great Mountains of China, Mount Hua has a pretty big reputation to live up to. Standing at an altitude of just 2,100 metres (7,070 ft.), it is nowhere near as tall as several of the other mountains in the country. Yet it is its spiritual significance that has earned it such fame and, once you set foot on one of the many mountain paths, its mystical quality is palpable. Taoists believe that the god of the underworld lives inside the mountain and historically it has been a site of pilgrimage for monks of various religions.
From Immortal’s Palm Peak, where the deity Juling reputedly descended from heaven and tore the mountains in half, to the Jade Spring Temple, where the Golden Fairy Princess supposedly lost her jade hair clasp, this mountain range practically exudes spirituality. Only the hardiest of hermits, with the strongest wills and most spiritual of natures, were believed to be able to conquer the mountain, so don’t be too disappointed if you end up having to use the cable car! Read more about Mount Hua.
Ürümqi is often regarded as the cultural melting pot of Xinjiang, with constituencies of Han, Uyghur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Mongol, Hui, and Manchu people influencing the city’s image in almost equal measure. This has resulted in a delightful mingling of cultures that can be seen throughout the city, from the 200 mosques scattered throughout its expanse to its local cuisine rich with Central Asian spice. It’s a plethora of inviting sounds and smells, from the sumptuous aroma of freshly baked naan bread to the boisterous cries of people bargaining in markets.
The city’s crowning jewel is undoubtedly the Grand Bazaar, a glorious throwback to its illustrious days as a Silk Road trading hub. Here people of all ethnicities gather to socialize, bargain, and hawk their handcrafted wares. Not far from this bustling market, the local Xinjiang Silk Road Museum is the ideal place to learn about this ancient trading route. With the calls of raucous traders in the background, you certainly won’t struggle to imagine what life on the Silk Road might have been like! Read more about Ürümqi.
Prior to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Xi’an was known as Chang’an, which means “Long-lasting Peace”. This noble city was one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China and served as the country’s capital for 13 feudal dynasties, so no wonder peace was their main concern! The remains of the Lantian Man, a human ancestor whose fossils date back over 500,000 years, were found just 50 kilometres (31 mi) southeast of the city, indicating that the area was one of the original cradles of ancient civilization.
Nowadays it’s earned great fame as the starting point of the Silk Road and the site of the legendary Terracotta Army. Thousands of tourists flock to the city each year, either to visit the army at Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum or begin their tour of the Silk Road. Yet Xi’an has a few more surprises up its sleeve! Its Muslim Quarter is home to the Hui ethnic minority, whose unusual culture and delicious cuisine have delighted locals and visitors for years. From the Great Wild Goose Pagoda and the Da Ci’en Temple to the Bell Tower and the Great Mosque, Xi’an boasts so many wonderful attractions that a lifetime may not be enough to discover them all! Read more about Xi’an.
The Ancient City Walls
The ancient walls of Xi’an serve not only as the site of several festivals and attractions, but as a living reminder of the city’s glorious past. These imposing fortifications were originally built during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), but were reinforced by the Hongwu Emperor during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) after he was told by a hermit named Zhu Sheng to “build high walls, store abundant provisions and take your time in proclaiming yourself emperor”. Perhaps taking the advice of a stranger wasn’t the wisest course of action, but in the Hongwu Emperor’s case it definitely worked out as these walls have protected the city for hundreds of years. That being said, nowadays they’re garrisoned by tourists and cyclists rather than soldiers and cannons!
The four main gates along the walls are Changle (Eternal Joy Gate) in the east, Anding (Harmony Peace Gate) in the west, Yongning (Eternal Peace Gate) in the south, and Anyuan (Forever Harmony Gate) in the north. With such soothing names, it’s no wonder visitors and locals keep coming back to relax on the wall’s expanse. After all, eternal joy, peace, and harmony are things we’re sure no one would want to pass up on! From the parks that line its exterior to the museums within its gates, this colossal structure is more than just another brick in the wall.
The Terracotta Army
The legendary Terracotta Army has captivated audiences across the globe ever since they were discovered in 1974. In fact, when the British Museum held an exhibition of just a small selection of real figures from the excavation site, it resulted in the most successful year they had had since the King Tutankhamen exhibition in 1972. So if the opportunity to see just a few of these magnificent statues was enough to send the British public into a frenzy, imagine seeing over 6,000 of them arranged in their original military formation!
Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China and founder of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), began building his mausoleum in 246 BC at the tender age of just thirteen. Talk about starting them young! This colossal necropolis took 11 years and over 700,000 laborers to complete, and perhaps its most exceptional feature is the Terracotta Army. Boasting approximately 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses, and 150 cavalry horses, this army is impressive enough in of itself, but what makes it so fantastically unique is that every single soldier is different. From their height and hairstyle to their uniform and facial features, each figure is unlike the one before it. Read more about The Terracotta Army.
The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda
With a history of over 1,000 years, the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda stands as a monument to the beginnings of Buddhism in China. Its illustrious backstory began during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), when the famous monk Xuanzang took over as abbot of Da Ci’en Temple and beseeched Emperor Gaozong to allow him to build a pagoda. Yet its fascinating and unusual history goes back further than that. According to legend, there were once two factions of Buddhism: one that permitted the eating of meat, and one that did not.
One day, members of the meat-eating branch were strolling through the city searching for some meat to buy. As they looked up to the sky, a flock of geese flew past them and, in their hunger, they prayed that the merciful Buddha provide them with some meat to eat. Suddenly the lead goose broke both its wings and tumbled out of the sky. The monks believed this was Buddha’s way of remonstrating them for focusing on worldly pleasures, so they renounced the eating of meat and marked the sacred spot where the goose fell. This is where the Great Wild Goose Pagoda was supposedly built; so don’t go in there dreaming of a meaty feast or Buddha will surely cook your goose! Read more about The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda.
 Stupa: A hemispherical structure with a small interior designed for storing Buddhist relics and for private meditation.