Emin Minaret

The Emin Minaret is located just 2 kilometres (1 mi) east of Turpan’s city centre and, towering in at 44 metres (144 ft.) in height, it is the tallest minaret in China. Surrounded by willowy trees, dusty fields, and the ancient ruins of the city, it serves as a reminder of the country’s ancient past and the vital historical connections Turpan once had with Central Asia. Those who visit the minaret tend to have mixed feelings about it, with some describing it as a unique combination of architectural styles and others saying it looks like an industrial chimney! Yet this tower’s significance lies perhaps not in its outer beauty, but in the touching story behind its construction.

During the 1750s, a subgroup of Mongolian people known as the Dzungars occupied large parts of Xinjiang and decided to openly rebel against the Qing Empire (1644-1912). The Uyghurs, who had long been at odds with the Dzungars, joined forces with the imperial government and helped defeat them. This coalition was led by a Uyghur general named Emin Khoja, who was subsequently promoted to governor inheritable of Turpan as a reward for his allegiance.

He was an illustrious figure in Turpan’s history and was one of the few local Muslims to have made a successful pilgrimage to Mecca. On his death, his son Suleman succeeded him as governor and used his own money to build the Emin Minaret in honour of his father. Construction of the tower was completed in 1778 and its Chinese name, Sugong Ta, literally means “Governor Su’s Tower”. So if you thought you were a good son remember, Suleman built his father an entire tower!

Emin Minaret 02The minaret rests at the northeast corner of a rectangular mosque, which is in turn divided into an inner and outer hall. The outer hall is for use during the warmer months and is made of thin wooden pillars that support an exposed timber frame, making it large and spacious. The inner hall is predominantly used in winter and is thus fully enclosed, meaning it is far smaller.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this minaret is the intermingling of features from different styles of architecture. Since the area surrounding Turpan was once the site of several major trading cities along the Silk Road, it also acted as a conduit between Central Asian and Chinese culture. The outer decoration of the Emin Minaret incorporates geometric patterns, which were typical of Middle Eastern Islamic architecture, but also includes floral patterns and waves, which were commonly used in Chinese architecture. The Uyghur people who built these structures had been influenced by these two cultures in equal measure, which is part of what makes their constructions so unique.

These craftsmen used locally sourced materials, so the minaret is predominantly made of wood and sundried mud-bricks. The tower visibly tapers as it rises upwards, with a diameter of just over 14 metres (46 ft.) at the base and approximately 3 metres (10 ft.) at the top. Long, narrow windows are placed at random intervals to provide light and ventilation, and there are no storeys within the structure, only a 72-step spiral staircase leading to a platform at the top. So if you thought your weekly session on the Stairmaster was bad, imagine climbing this tower every morning to perform the call to prayer!

The entrance is flanked by two steles[1]: one with an inscription in Chinese that explains the purpose of the minaret and its connection to the Qing Dynasty, and one in the Uyghur language that extols Emin Khoja and contains excerpts from the Quran. Visitors are no longer allowed to climb the minaret, but are welcome to explore the accompanying mosque.

[1] Stele: An upright stone slab or pillar that bears an inscription and usually marks a burial site, like a tombstone.

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Grape Valley

The scorching bedrock of the Flaming Mountains may not seem like the ideal place to grow anything, but the deep lush valleys along the mountain range act as oases for plants of all kinds. None are more famous than the illustrious Grape Valley, which has provided visitors with the finest grapes in the country for over 1,000 years. This fruity paradise has been made possible thanks to the long hours of sunlight that the region enjoys, coupled with an ingenious construction known as the karez irrigation system, which funnels melted snow down from the Tian Shan Mountains and uses it to water the grape vines. Needless to say, the only things wining in Grape Valley are the delicious grapes themselves!

The valley is located about 11 kilometres (7 mi) northeast of Turpan, on the west side of the Flaming Mountains, and takes up an area of approximately 2 square kilometres (0.8 sq. mi). Though it may be small, it boasts 13 different types of grape and produces over 300 tons of raisins every year. The sheer variety means you’ll find grapes as green as emeralds, as red as rubies, as small as pearls, and as large as buttons, so walking through the trellises represents a feast for both the tongue and the eyes!

Among the many kinds of grape, Manaizi and Wuhebai are the most prized. Manaizi literally means “mare’s nipple” as the long, pointed shape of these grapes resembles that of a teat, while wuhebai are white, seedless grapes that are reputed for their sweetness. Alongside the luscious grapes, several other fruits such as peaches, apricots, apples, and pomegranates are also grown in the valley. These sugary snacks are so delicious that, after a visit to Grape Valley, you’ll end up with more than just one sweet tooth!

Though the focus of the valley is primarily on fruit production, it has been opened to the public and is a pleasant diversion from the otherwise arid landscape of Xinjiang. There you can enjoy a peaceful stroll through the orchards, take a look at the drying rooms where the sweetest raisins are produced, purchase a few of the locally made jams and wines, or admire one of the daily performances of traditional dance by the Uyghur people. This cosy enclave of shops, restaurants, gardens, and hotels surrounded by fragrant fruit trees is a paradise that we’re sure you’ll be happy to get lost in!


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The vibrant oasis city of Kashgar rests at China’s westernmost point and is located near the border with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. It lies on a fertile stretch of land at the base of the Pamir Mountains, towards the western end of the Tarim Basin. Its population of just 500,000 people is made up predominantly of the Uyghur ethnic minority, whose culture largely dominates the city. So be prepared for bustling markets, colourful silks, and noisy livestock ambling through the streets!

The city’s location means the climate in the area is extremely arid. Average temperatures range from a mild −6 °C (21 °F) in January to a sweltering 26 °C (79 °F) in July, with an average precipitation of just 77 millimetres (3 in) per year. To put that into perspective, good old foggy London receives about 594 millimetres (23 in) of rainfall per year, over seven times that of Kashgar. So be sure to buy plenty of bottled water and forgo packing your umbrella!

It was once a major trade hub along the Silk Road, serving as the meeting point where its northern and southern branches finally met. The earliest mention of the city dates back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), when an imperial envoy travelled along the Northern Silk Road in order to explore the unknown lands to the west. The Chinese first took control of the area from the Yuezhi people in the 2nd century BC, but the Yuezhi swiftly reoccupied the area during the 1st century BC. This short-lived conquest would be characteristic of the region, as it would change hands many times!

The Chinese weren’t able to recover the territory until the late 7th and early 8th century, during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), but soon lost it once again in 752. Talk about unlucky! From then on, it was successfully occupied by the Turks in the 10th century, the Uyghurs in the 11th century, the Kara Khitans in the 12th century, and finally the Mongols in 1219. Under these rulers, trade between China and Central Asia flourished as it never had done before.

Unfortunately the city suffered greatly throughout the 14th century due to numerous wars and wasn’t reoccupied until 1755, during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). Yet peace wouldn’t grace Kashgar for long, as it was soon the centre for two Muslim rebellions. This social and political unrest lasted until 1943, when the city was finally restored to the Chinese government’s control.

The old part of the city has long been revered as one of the most well-preserved examples of a traditional Muslim city. Its characteristic mud-brick houses, though slightly dilapidated, still make for a stunning panorama when viewed from above. Gazing out over this ancient city, with the sun beating down on you and the Silk Road before you, one could even fancy themselves as a sort of modern-day Lawrence of Arabia!

Nowadays the city’s greatest draw is its lively Sunday market, which attracts thousands of merchants and tourists each week. Though the livestock market only functions on Sundays, the ordinary market continues throughout the week and is the ideal place to pick up a few locally made handicrafts, such as carpets, wooden jewellery boxes, and copper teapots. On market-day the city is alive with the sound of merchants from across China and Central Asia, just as it once was thousands of years ago. There are currently 20 large-scale bazaars operating in Kashgar, of which the largest is the one located near the East Gate. From the rich fragrance of meaty kebabs to the soft touch of hand-woven silk, the market is a real awakening of the senses.

Nestled within the heart of the city, Id Kah Mosque is the largest mosque in China and was originally built in 1442, although it has undergone major expansions and restorations since then. It’s a beautiful example of traditional Uyghur-style architecture and its religious significance only adds to its prestige. Yet it is tragically dwarfed in importance by the Tomb of Afaq Khoja just 5 kilometres (3 mi) northeast of the city centre, which is widely considered the holiest Muslim site in Xinjiang.

The tomb was built in 1640 and contains the remains of the religious and political leader Afaq Khoja, along with those of five generations of his family. He is regarded by several Muslim communities as a great Saint or Auliya. However, the greatest draw for many domestic tourists is the tomb of Xiang Fei, which rests within the complex. She was the only Uyghur woman to be taken as a concubine by a Chinese emperor and is occasionally referred to as the “Fragrant Concubine”, as it was rumoured she had a naturally enchanting aroma.

About 191 kilometres (120 mi) outside of the city, the spectacular Karakuri Lake stretches out at the foot of Mount Muztagata and marks a refreshing change from the typically barren landscape of Xinjiang. It looks like a crystal clear mirror, reflecting the surrounding grasslands, snow-covered mountains, and azure sky in its watery expanse.



If you think Ürümqi doesn’t look like a particularly Chinese name, you’d be right! It derives from the Oirat words for “beautiful pasture” and was so-named because, before Xinjiang came under national control, it belonged to the Dzungar Khanate, a rival kingdom ruled by a Mongol subgroup known as the Oirats. As the capital of Xinjiang, it is only befitting that Ürümqi should have an Oirat name. Located on a fertile patch of land along the northern slope of the Tian Shan Mountains, it features in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most inland city in the world and is over 2,500 kilometres (1,600 mi) away from the nearest coastline. So, if you’re taking a trip to Ürümqi, you may want to forgo packing the beach gear!

Although the Han ethnic group still represent the majority in the city, a large portion of its 3-million-strong population are religiously Muslim and so it boasts over 200 mosques. Its substantial constituency of Uyghur people means it has largely remained a culturally Uyghur city and the Turkic Uyghur language is the most widely spoken. Other prevalent ethnic minorities include the Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Mongol, Hui, and Manchu people. With all these cultures and languages mingling together, it’s no wonder Ürümqi is regarded as Xinjiang’s melting pot!

ÜrümqiIt was once one of the many trade hubs along the Silk Road, but its importance paled in comparison to the city of Turpan just 200 kilometres (120 mi) to its southeast. The area around the city first came under imperial control during the 7th and 8th centuries, but was abandoned by the Tang Dynasty (618-907) in the 750s. It wouldn’t be fully recovered until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), when the imperial court established military colonies in the area and founded the city of Dihua in 1763. This city, which would eventually become modern-day Ürümqi, grew rapidly into one of the most important trading centres in Central Asia. After so many years spent in the shadow of its big brothers Turpan and Kashgar, the city was finally ready to shine!

Nowadays one of its crowning jewels is the Erdaoqiao or Grand Bazaar, a traditional Muslim market area. It’s the ideal place to sample some traditional Uyghur delicacies, browse through the stunning locally-made handicrafts, and perhaps pick up a few souvenirs.

The Hong Shan or Red Mountain is the symbol of the city and is located in Hongshan Park. It is named for the reddish-brown colour of its rocks and, though it’s more of a hill than a mountain, visitors still hike to the top regularly to enjoy the panoramic view of the urban sprawl below. The Buddhist temple and pagoda only add to the park’s aesthetic with a touch of manmade beauty.

As the cultural centre of Xinjiang, the city simply wouldn’t be complete without a few museums! The Xinjiang Regional Museum hosts a myriad of cultural relics, including pottery, weapons, terracotta figures, and even some mummies that date back to sometime between 2,000 BC and 400 AD! The Xinjiang Silk Road Museum is full of fascinating exhibitions about the history of the Silk Road and is fittingly located right next to the Grand Bazaar. What better way to learn about China’s ancient trading past than with the sounds of the bustling market in the background?

Urumqi01When it comes to food, you’re never too far away from a freshly baked naan, smoulderingly spicy kebab, or steaming bowl of pilaf rice! Xinjiang is renowned throughout China for its delicious cuisine, with punchy flavours reminiscent of its Central Asian cousins.

Nature lovers need only venture a short way out of Ürümqi to find some of the most exquisite scenery in Xinjiang. Just 70 kilometres (40 mi) to the south, a grassy mountain area known as South Pasture stretches as far as the eye can see. Its home to the Kazakh ethnic minority, who have continued to herd sheep, cattle, and horses on these verdant grasslands as their ancestors once did centuries ago. Visitors can even stay overnight in yurts and sample some of the spicy local cuisine. About 110 kilometres (70 mi) to city’s east, the Tian or Heavenly Lake fills one of the craters high on the Bogda Mountains and welcomes visitors to enjoy its shimmering sapphire waters, a refreshing change from the characteristic deserts of the region.


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Multiculturalism in Xinjiang


The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is located in the northwest of China. There are a number of ethnic groups living there, including the Uyghur, Han, Kazakh, Tajik, Hui, Kyrgyz and Mongolian people. Most of these ethnic groups are Muslim.

This mixture of ethnicities has led to several of the cultures blending together or adopting features from one another. If you are not familiar with these ethnic groups, it is not easy to spot the differences between them, particularly in terms of their traditional dress and the architecture of their buildings. Yet each ethic group does have its own distinctive features and locals can distinguish members of their own ethnic group from others very easily.

Xinjiang is also one of the most beautiful places in China and boasts a variety of different terrains. There you can find barren tracts of land and parts of the Gobi desert but you will also come across stunning prairies and crystal clear lakes.


To be completely frank, Xinjiang is not considered a very safe place, particularly for foreign tourists. There are many travel packages there that are provided by various travel agents but these are very sheltered tours and rarely bring up the issue of safety in Xinjiang. However, if you want to witness real multiculturalism in China first-hand, along with some beautiful natural scenery, then you will have to take a bit of a risk. We suggest that you employ a private guide when traveling in Xinjiang unless you can speak the Uyghur language fluently (most Uyghur people will not speak English and very few of them will speak fluent Mandarin).