Located just one kilometre (0.6 mi) from the city of Shanshan, the Kumtag Desert is the closest desert to any city in the world. In spite of widespread desertification across northwestern China, this city has miraculously been spared, as it does not lie in the path of the powerful winds that shift the ever-encroaching sand onto the plains. In 2002, it was established as a national park, making it the ideal place for any visitor who’s ever dreamt of adventuring out into the wilderness like Indiana Jones! It originally covered just 1,880 square kilometres (726 sq. mi), but was expanded to include the 1,000-square kilometre (386 sq. mi) Kanas Geological Park in 2007.
Scientific exploration and sight-seeing may be the park’s main draws, but it is also renowned as a place of healing. Sand treatment, which involves burying affected body parts in warm sand for extended periods of time, is rumoured to cure rheumatism, pelvic problems, backaches, and a variety of other disorders. The sands of time may bring the ailments of old age, but the sands of the Kumtag Desert are sure to heal them!
Covering a colossal area of 22,900 square kilometres (8,842 sq. mi), the Kumtag Desert spans from Ruoqiang County in Xinjiang to the city of Dunhuang in Gansu province, and forms the eastern section of the much larger Taklamakan Desert. In the language of the Uyghur people, the word “kum-tag” means “sand-mountain” and refers to the looming dunes that populate this barren expanse. The desert itself was formed over a period of centuries, as a result of strong winds colliding and depositing the masses of sand they were carrying in unusual formations.
Sand dunes within the desert can rise to heights of up to 76 metres (250 ft.), making them taller than the Leaning Tower of Pisa! While the region is resplendent with these natural monoliths, it’s also home to a number of magnificent sand statues that have been crafted by local artisans. Lifelike figures, towering fortresses, and miniature sand cities rise up in its barren expanse, creating a dazzling fairy-tale world. Riding camels through the baking hot desert, you’ll be transported back to life as a traveling merchant on the ancient Silk Road.
Nestled within the Yarnaz Valley just 10 kilometres (6 mi) west of Turpan, the Jiaohe Ruins will transport you back to the heart of the Silk Road. The history of this ancient city stretches back over some 2,300 years, making it one of the oldest earthen cities still in existence, and it was unsurprisingly incorporated into the Silk Road UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014. After all, at the grand old age of 2,300, you’d expect to finally be able to retire!
It was once the capital of the Jushi or Cheshi Kingdom, which ruled the area throughout most of the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), but the city was captured by the Han court during the 1st century BC. It soon became a focal trade hub along the Silk Road and, as an oasis town, it was considered invaluable. The entire region, including Jiaohe, was annexed by the Gaochang Kingdom (531-640) during the 6th century but returned to Chinese control in 640, during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), when it was conquered by Emperor Taizong. It was during this period that the city flourished as a centre of trade between China and Central Asia.
At the beginning of the 9th century, the area came under the control of the Uyghur people and was part of a kingdom known as the Uyghur Khaganate (744–840), until their territory was eventually conquered by the Kyrgyz people in 840. Though the city continued to thrive under Uyghur and Kyrgyz rule, it was destroyed during warfare towards the end of the 13th century when the Mongolian warlord Kaidu rebelled against his cousin Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan and the founder of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). It remained a ghost town for many hundreds of years, until it was finally rediscovered and partially excavated during the 1950s. Since then, Jiaohe has gone from deserted spectre to adored superstar!
The city was built on a large islet nestled between two deep river valleys and was thus named Jiaohe, which translates to mean “where two rivers meet”. Yarkhoto, the alternative name for the city, may be derived from the Turkic word “yar”, meaning “ravine”, and the Mongolian word “khoto”, meaning “town”. The steep cliffs on all sides tower in at over 30 metres (98 ft.) in height and once served as a natural protective barrier, so city walls were never constructed. There were originally only two gates leading into the city, but the South Gate has since vanished and only fragments of the East Gate remain.
The city is separated into three districts: eastern, western, and northern. The eastern and western districts were residential, with the east largely inhabited by aristocrats and the west belonging mainly to commoners. The northern district was reserved entirely for religious sites, such as Buddhist temples and stupas. Towards the centre of the city, there are a number of governmental buildings that have been exceptionally well-preserved.
According to Tang imperial records, in its heyday the city was home to 6,500 residents, 700 households, and 865 soldiers, and many of its surviving buildings date back to the Tang Dynasty. The doors and windows of the buildings do not face the street, which is a peculiarity of Tang-style architecture, and several of the courtyards have been physically dug out from the earth like a pit, which is a rare phenomenon found mainly in northwest China. All of the buildings are made from packed-earth and they have managed to remain in such good condition thanks to the extremely dry climate in the region.
A stroll down Jiaohe’s central avenue rewards visitors with the greatest views, as it cuts through the city and provides access to all three districts. At the end, there is a stunning Buddhist temple known as Jiaohe Temple or the Great Monastery and, in the northernmost part of the city, there are a group of 101 stupas that date back to between the 5th and 7th centuries, known as Stupa Grove.
Many of the relics that were excavated from the city are now housed in either the Turpan Museum in Turpan or the Xinjiang Museum in Ürümqi. However, near the ruins there is a museum dedicated to the Cheshi (Jushi) people, who were Jiaohe’s original inhabitants. Bizarrely these people were of Caucasian descent and had light hair and blue eyes, unlike the Han and Uyghur ethnic groups that populate the area now. They have enjoyed some fame recently as evidence suggests they were probably the first cultivators of cannabis (marijuana). We’re sure this discovery must have given the researchers a real high!
 Stupa: A hemispherical structure with a small interior designed for storing Buddhist relics and for private meditation.
Throughout their long and illustrious history, the Uyghur people have adopted numerous religions, including shamanism, Tengrism, Manichaeism, and Buddhism. However, by the 17th century, the vast majority of Uyghurs had converted to Islam. This means that they pray in mosques, follow priests known as imams, and worship the holy book known as the Quran. They rank as the second largest Muslim group in China, directly after the Hui people. That being said, Uyghurs and Hui people rarely worship in the same mosques.
Nowadays, the majority of Uyghur people follow the Sunni branch of Islam, although there are existing conflicts between those who subscribe to the mystical tradition of Sufism and those who do not. Generally speaking, Uyghurs living in the southern regions of Xinjiang, particularly surrounding the city of Kashgar, are much more conservative. In these regions, women will most likely wear the full veil, which is uncommon in other parts of Xinjiang. In less conservative areas, many people will still drink alcohol, will not object to women working, and will allow young women to wear Western clothes.
In rural parts of Xinjiang, many shamanistic and animistic traditions endure. These traditions appear to have intertwined with Islam, as shamans will chant passages of the Quran to heal the sick and people will wear amulets inscribed with Arabic script to ward off evil spirits. In Gansu province, there is a small pocket of people known as the Yugurs or “Yellow Uyghurs” who still practice Tibetan Buddhism. It is thought that they share a common ancestry with the Uyghur people, although they are a distinctly different ethnic group.
 Shamanism: The practice of attempting to reach altered states of consciousness in order to communicate with the spirit world and channel energy from it into the real world. This can only be done by specialist practitioners known as shaman.
 Tengrism: This is a Central Asian polytheistic religion that incorporates features of shamanism, animism, totemism, and ancestor worship. The religion is founded on the belief that the meaning of life is to live in harmony with the natural world. Historically, it was of great significance to the Turks, the Mongols, and the Hungarians.
 Animism: The belief that all non-human entities, including animals, plants, and even inanimate objects, possess a spiritual essence or soul.
The Uyghur people are renowned for their skill at processing gold, gemstones, silk, and leather wares. Among all of these glittering jewels, the most prized are the knives of Yengisar. Yengisar is a small town in Yengisar County of Xinjiang that has been manufacturing handcrafted knives for over 400 years. There are over 20 different types of Yengisar knife that come in around 40 diverse designs. They can range from small pocket knives to formidably large swords. In short, they’re not the kind of knife you’d keep in a kitchen drawer! The hilt is typically carved with a myriad of intricate patterns, while the blade is made of stainless steel and the cutting edge is notoriously sharp. For men, carrying a knife is a major part of Uyghur culture and these spectacular knives are a symbol of the wearer’s masculinity.
Since the Uyghur people are predominantly Muslim, they mainly observe Islamic festivals and follow the Islamic calendar, which is a lunar calendar that has 12 months and 354 days in each year. Therefore one year in the Islamic calendar is 11 days shorter than in our Gregorian calendar, meaning they have to wait less time between festivals! The two main religious festivals observed by the Uyghur people are known as Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.
During the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, the Uyghur people observe a religious practice known as Ramadan. Throughout Ramadan, men older than 12 and women older than 9 must fast during daylight hours and can only eat and drink once it is dark (i.e. before sunrise and after sunset). It is practised during the ninth month because, according to the Quran, this is when Allah bestowed his teachings upon the prophet Mohammed, meaning this is the most sacred month in the Islamic calendar.
Muslims fast during Ramadan in order to experience starvation and thus empathise with those less fortunate. Once the fasting has ended, they celebrate a festival known as Eid al-Fitr, which takes place on the 1st day of the 10th month. To begin, people get up early in the morning, take a bath, and thoroughly clean their house and surrounding streets. They then light incense and head to the mosque in their formal clothes, where they will attend a religious service and listen respectfully to the imams giving lectures and sermons.
Once these are completed, they must go to their family’s cemetery and hold activities in honour of their ancestors. The family will then gather together and cook up a grand feast. After a month of fasting, it’s a small wonder that anyone has the patience to prepare food and not just wolf down the raw ingredients! This food will usually be shared with relatives, friends, and neighbours as a sign of goodwill.
The term “Eid al-Adha” means “sacrifice and self-devotion” in Arabic, so it is unsurprisingly also known as the Feast of Sacrifice, and the Festival of Fidelity and Filial Piety. It is a four-day festival that begins on the 10th day of the 12th month according to the Islamic calendar and revolves around the sacrifice of an animal, usually an ox, which people will divide into three portions. The first portion of meat is given to family members, the second is gifted to relatives, friends, and neighbours, and the final portion will be used as alms to help the poor. The older family members boil the meat and inform the children that, after they have finished eating, they must bury the bones underground and cover them with yellow earth instead of giving them to dogs.
They traditionally sacrifice animals during this festival in homage to the ancient prophet Ibrahim. According to the Quran, Allah spoke to Ibrahim and ordered him to sacrifice his son Ishmael. Ibrahim sharpened his knife and approached his son, but relented and begged his son to leave. However, Ishmael told his father that, if it was the will of Allah, then he must be sacrificed.
Ishmael lay down in acceptance of his death and Ibrahim felt tears stream down his cheeks as he placed the knife on his son’s throat. At that moment, Allah stopped Ibrahim and provided him with a “greater sacrifice” than Ishmael, although it is never explicitly mentioned what this sacrifice was. This festival honours both Ibrahim’s devotion to Allah and Ishmael’s filial piety in obeying his father without hesitation.
During the festival, most families will host a gathering and share a feast of beef, mutton, fruit, fried cakes, and other delicious dishes with their relatives, friends, neighbours, and sometimes local imams. This feast will be followed by vibrant performances of folk song and dance, such as the Twelve Muqam or the Sanam Dance.
The Uyghur people are renowned throughout China for their excellent dancing skills, particularly in reference to a type of performance art known as the Twelve Muqam. This classical epic is comprised of 340 folk songs and dances that are separated into twelve parts called Rak, Čäbbiyat, Segah, Čahargah, Pänjigah, Özhal, Äjäm, Uššaq, Bayat, Nava, Mušavräk, and Iraq. If you were to play them all back-to-back in full, it would take an average of 24 hours to complete! In 2005, UNESCO designated this incredible folk art as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Historically speaking, the precursor to the muqam was a type of music called the “Great Western Region Melody”, which originated from Central Asia and appeared in China during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). It became particularly popular during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), when it was developed as an art form and greatly enjoyed at court. The Uyghur people masterminded several local muqam systems and named them after oasis towns in Xinjiang, including Dolan, Ili, Kumul, and Turpan. Many of these regional varieties of muqam still exist and are widely popular today. However, arguably the most magnificent of these systems is the Twelve Muqam. They represent a body of folk art and dance that was edited and systemised during the 1950s by celebrated performers such as Turdi Akhun and Omar Akhun.
Although the Twelve Muqam are grouped together, they each differ in musical style, dance choreography, and type of instruments used. Some are performed solo, while others are group pieces. Each muqam begins with a long free rhythm introduction, which is followed by characteristic rhythmic patterns that gradually increase in speed. The overall structure can be separated into three parts: the naghma, the dastan, and the mashrap. This can be further subdivided into smaller pieces known as täzä, nuskha, small säliqä, jula, sänäm, large säliqä, päshru, and täkit.
The content of the pieces ranges from folk ballads right through to poems written by classical Uyghur poets, giving a broad spectrum of Uyghur history and culture. In-keeping with this local aesthetic, many of the dance moves are based on everyday tasks or scenes, such as flower picking, carrying the bowl on the head, and imitation of various animals. When it comes to musical accompaniment, there are over 62 types of instrument used by the Uyghur people, including a type of long-necked lute called the dutar, a sheep skin tambourine with small iron rings attached to the rim known as the dap, and a smaller stringed instrument called a rawap.
The Twelve Muqam are commonly performed at a traditional type of Uyghur gathering known as a meshrep. This is an all-male event that is held within the courtyard of a participant’s family home. Traditionally they were only held on special occasions, such as the harvest, wedding days, and coming-of-age ceremonies. Each meshrep consists of a leader, who is typically the elder, a disciplinarian, and a group of 30 or so younger men. They all sit on a carpet together in sequence according to seniority. The women and children of the host’s family are not permitted to join in, and are instead relegated to the task of serving the guests food. Talk about getting the raw end of the deal!
Meshreps are primarily male bonding events, where the men will play muqam melodies, perform whirling circular dances, sing songs, act out comedic skits, and recite lectures from religious leaders. However, there is a darker side to this noble pastime. A substantial portion of the meshrep is sometimes dedicated to scolding the attendees for their moral transgressions, such as the drinking of alcohol or the taking of a second wife. Generally speaking, however, the meshrep is a time for entertainment and, in some parts of Xinjiang, they can last the whole night!
On other special occasions, such as weddings, parties, or festivals, the Sanam Dance is usually performed. This popular folk dance has a lively musical accompaniment and is characterised by an increase of pace, starting slowly and gradually becoming faster. The style of dance varies from region to region, and dancers may even improvise in the midst of the festivities. After all, it never hurts to get a little lost in the music!
Although Uyghur men were polygamists in the past, nowadays they are firmly monogamous and must follow a strict ritual before winning over the woman of their dreams! Courtship begins with what is known as a marriage interview, which is a necessary step if a young man wishes to marry a woman or if the family wants to arrange a marriage for their son. Before the interview, the prospective groom must learn everything about his lady love’s background, including her age, appearance, personality, and family history. If you thought first dates were hard, imagine having a full-blown interview first!
Only once he feels that he is ready will he propose the idea of marriage, although the man and woman may have previously been courting one another long before the marriage interview. In this instance, they would first agree to marry each other and then ask the woman’s family members to conduct the marriage interview, so as to publicise their relationship and make it legitimate. Once the intention to marry has been announced, the groom’s family will hire a go-between to make the marriage arrangements.
This go-between will first visit the woman’s family with a number of gifts. If the family accepts the gifts, this is a sure sign that they will allow the marriage to take place. If the gifts are rejected, then the suitor’s success is doubtful. It is after the gift-giving stage that the nerve-wracking marriage interview must take place. The prospective groom will visit the woman’s family and be asked a series of questions about his plans for their future, such as where they will live and how often they will visit. If he answers these questions to their satisfaction, then they will begin discussing the cost of the wedding and what sort of dowry they intend to provide. Finally, they arrange a third meeting where they will fix the date for the marriage ceremony.
On the day of the wedding, the groom will travel to the bride’s house with a group of musicians. She will wait for him wearing a traditional red wedding dress, although nowadays some women opt for a white dress instead. The groom and his party must enter her home presenting gifts and singing lively songs. The ceremony itself is overseen by an akhoond, a type of Islamic cleric who is responsible for leading religious ceremonies. The akhoond will first ask if both the bride and groom wish to marry each other. After they have both agreed to the marriage, the akhoond will take a piece of naan bread, break it into two pieces, dip it in salt water, hand one piece to the bride, and hand the other to the groom. This act is meant to symbolise that the couple will spend the rest of their life together both in wealth, as represented by the bread, and in sorrow, as signified by the salt water.
The bride is then carried to the groom’s house, where the couple will be blessed by the oldest female member of his family. This female relative is also the one who lifts the bride’s veil, allowing the groom to see and kiss his new wife, potentially for the first time! After the formal ceremony is over, the young guests will party, drink, and dance late into the night. Throughout the following week, both the groom’s and bride’s families will host large banquets for friends and relatives.
The snowy Kunlun Mountains stretch 2,000 kilometres (1,250 mi) from the far reaches of the Pamirs in Tajikistan through to the centre of Qinghai province in China and represent one of the longest mountain chains in Asia. They tower along the border between Xinjiang and the Tibet Autonomous Region and, at their westernmost point, form the Inner Asian rampart between the Tibetan Plateau and the Tarim Basin. At the southern edge of the Takla Makan Desert, these snowy mountains form a protective barrier against the icy expanses of Tibet and appear strangely beautiful surrounded by the soft golden sands. This range is so colossal that it branches off into several other mountain ranges, including the Altun Mountains and the Qilian Mountains. Unsurprisingly this has earned it the nickname the “Forefather of Mountains”.
The highest peak of the range, Mount Keriya, can be found in Yutian County of Xinjiang and sits at a staggering elevation of 7,120 metres (23,300 ft.), making it over 1,000 metres (3,300 ft.) higher than Mount Kilimanjaro! Unfortunately this high altitude and the desert conditions that prevail throughout the range largely inhibit the growth of vegetation and make the area virtually uninhabitable. Or so it would seem!
Much of the terrain consists of rock deserts, punctuated only by the occasional stagnant pool of water. Not exactly the most welcoming sounding place! Yet a number of rare animal species still manage to scrape a living in these barren wastes, including the Tibetan gazelle, Tibetan antelope, and wild yak. In the more humid and hospitable western portion of the mountains, argali sheep graze on the high grasslands and the upper crags are home to blue sheep and ibex. The willow thickets provide the perfect habitat for brown bears, wolves, and the occasional snow leopard, so don’t tread through them lightly!
In fact, the animals aren’t the only ones making a home out of this seemingly desolate place. The mountain range supports both permanent and migratory populations of people from the Uighur, Mongol, Tibetan, Tajik, and Kyrgyz ethnic minorities, as well as large constituencies of Han people. This is evidenced by settlements around the Kunlun Mountain Pass, just 160 kilometres south of Golmud City, which once made up part of the Silk Road.
It is an obligatory section on the route between Qinghai and Tibet and represents a sudden rise in altitude from 2,800 metres to 4,700 metres (9,200-15,400 ft.). The temperature and air pressure drop rapidly as you ascend, so this hike isn’t for the faint of heart. It has also enjoyed great fame for the stunning Kunlun Jade, which is predominantly mined here.
The mysticism surrounding this mountain range is undeniable and it has featured in numerous Chinese folk legends, including those of Chang’e (the goddess of the moon), Journey to the West, and The Legend of the White Snake. In other legends, it was believed to be the origin or father of all mountains. That being said, it is unclear whether the Kunlun Mountains were named after the legendary Kunlun Mountain of Chinese mythology or whether they are believed to be the site of the Kunlun Mountain itself.
In terms of the Taoist faith, these mountains are incredibly sacred and, according to legend, were first visited by King Mu (976-922 BC) of the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1045-256 B.C). It was here that he supposedly discovered the location of the Jade Palace, where the mythical Huang Di or “Yellow Emperor” lived, and met the Queen Mother of the West, who was the focal figure of an ancient religious cult that peaked during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD).
The Taoist connection to the mountains has led to a style of kung-fu known as Kunlun Mountain Fist being associated with it, although it bears great similarity to another style called Kunlunquan that originated from Kunlun Mountain in Shandong province. Its history can be traced all the way back to the Zhou Dynasty and it is one of the few Taoist sects of martial arts where students of both genders are accepted and members are allowed to marry. So in short, don’t mess with any of the married couples around the Kunlun Mountains!
With titles like “Number One Village of Northwest China” and the “First Village in the Northwest”, there are no prizes for guessing where Baihaba Village might be! It rests on the natural border between China and Kazakhstan, at the very northwesternmost corner of China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Since it is only 3 kilometres (2 mi) from this border, tourists must get permission before travelling to the village. Its location just 31 kilometres (19 mi) west of Kanas Lake makes it a popular stop on any tour of the Kanas region, but this bucolic paradise is more than just a glorified rest-stop! Flanked by the misty Altai Mountains and split by the shimmering Baihaba River, it’s a veritable utopia for nature lovers.
The nearby forests are full of pines, white birches, and poplar trees, meaning the landscape is awash with luscious greens, pearl whites, and deep chestnut browns. Temperatures in this virtually Siberian region regularly plummet to below 0 °C (32 °F) in autumn, yet photographers annually brave the cold to enjoy this most picturesque of seasons. When the leaves turn, the forests are flecked with reds, golds, and yellows that perfectly complement the dark green pines. The village’s characteristic log cabins blend seamlessly into their natural surroundings, with only the faint wisp of smoke from their chimneys indicating that they are still inhabited. No matter what the season, the scenery in Baihaba looks like it has just leapt out of a pastoral oil painting!
Water trickling down from the melted ice-caps of the mountains runs through the village’s centre and forms the Baihaba River, separating the community of Tuvan people on one bank from the Kazakh people on the other. Although they come from distinctly different cultures, these two ethnic groups have shared this fertile land and enjoyed a peaceful rural life for decades. The Tuvans are a Siberian people who have Mongolian, Turkic, and Samoyedic roots, while the Kazakhs are a Turkic people who mainly live throughout Central Asia.
The Tuvan people believe that they are descended from the legendary soldiers who served under Genghis Khan, so many Tuvan homes boast a portrait of the great Mongolian warlord above their fireplace. Similarly, the Kazakh’s trace their ancestry back to several medieval Mongolian tribes, including the Argyns and the Huns, as well as ancient Iranian nomads such as the Sarmatians and the Scythians. Although both groups speak their own language, the Tuvan’s Turkic language has been heavily influenced by and bears great similarity to the Kazakh language. So it seems these two diverse ethnicities have more in common than meets the eye. And they both certainly have impeccable taste when it comes to their choice of location!
Thanks to their relative isolation and remoteness, the villagers have managed to preserve their unique traditions and customs. Their homes are lavishly decorated with hand-embroidered tapestries, which add a smattering of colour to their modest furnishings. They cook their meals over quaint woodstoves and sleep on heated brick beds, living a life of humble simplicity. Although tourism now plays an important part in supplementing their income, many families still rely on hunting and raising animals for their livelihood. Every day, farmers graze their sheep and cattle on the verdant pastures, while women wash vegetables in the river and youths ride their horses deep into the mountain valley.
Some of the locals run horse rental businesses, offering guided tours of the countryside for those visitors adventurous enough to take the reins! A handful of Tuvan families have even opened small hotels or restaurants, where tourists can indulge in a brief taste of their rich culture. And the good news is most Tuvan people greet their guests by giving them snacks! Normally they will receive guests with an array of delicious home-made dairy products, such as yogurt, milk wine, milk tea, and freshly baked cakes. Generally speaking, it is not considered impolite to refuse the food, but some B&Bs will welcome visitors with a Tuvan tradition involving two compulsory bowls of milk tea. The host will pour the first bowl and offer the drinker butter, which they can add to taste. As soon as the first bowl is finished, the host will fill it again. According to local belief, it is this second bowl that will grant the drinker good luck. That is, unless you’re lactose intolerant!