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Road trips reveal Xinjiang splendor

? ? Travelers visit the Urho ghost city in Karamay, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.

? ? ? ?Detailed routes give access to the region's diverse cultures and scenic attractions. Cui Jia and Mao Weihua report from Urumqi.

? ? ? The diverse cultures and breathtaking views found in the vast Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, which covers a sixth of China's territory, make it perfect for road trips.

? ? ? Locals often tell people proudly that, apart from the sea, everything on their travel bucket list can be found in the region: golden deserts; great, red-tinged canyons; turquoise high-plateau lakes; and snowcapped mountains. Xinjiang has been described as China's best-kept secret by CNN Travel.

? ? ? The region's roads have improved considerably in recent years, luring people back for more road trips.

? ? ? "Many of my clients have told me that driving around Xinjiang is an addiction," said Zheng Jinbin, who runs a recreational vehicle rental company in the regional capital, Urumqi. "So many of them are frequent customers from other parts of China. They particularly enjoy the transitions in scenery, which can sometimes be so different even when they are driving along one road."

? ? ? The Tianshan Mountains divide the region into two parts - north and south - with different climates and cultures.

? ? ? Xinjiang is home to people from 14 ethnic groups, and their cultures have been well preserved, while at the same time having greatly influenced their neighbors. In the region, people driving out of a Mongolian autonomous prefecture can find themselves entering a Kazak autonomous prefecture.

? ? ? Head south to experience Uygur culture and find traces of the ancient Silk Road. Many roads in southern Xinjiang were built along the ancient trade routes connecting China and Central Asia.

? ? ? You can feel and taste the Silk Road in Xinjiang today. Kuqa county in Aksu has long been famous for its big naan bread, a legacy of the Silk Road. Travelers passing through Kuqa, a kingdom during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), needed to stock up on food there, since the next place they could replenish their supplies was far away. Instead of carrying many regular-sized naan, they found it more convenient to carry the bigger version.

? ? ? Kuqa is just one of the counties in southern Xinjiang whose name resonates with Silk Road history. Driving through them takes travelers on a journey back in time as they pass the names of ancient kingdoms dotted along the edges of the Taklimakan Desert, the world's second-largest shifting sand desert and the largest desert in China.

? ? ? In ancient times, the Taklimakan, which means "the place of no return" in the Uygur language, was a place travelers were likely to avoid. But modern-day travelers can drive along roads built in the desert for a unique experience.

? ? ? The first road across the Taklimakan was opened to traffic in 1995. At 522 kilometers, it is still the world's longest desert highway. The second one, stretching 424 km, was completed in 2007, and a third, covering about 330 km, is expected to open in 2021.

? ? ? "Driving on the road in the Taklimakan is like driving on another planet," said Wang Yong, 63, who has been driving around Xinjiang in a recreational vehicle with his wife. "You are on your own most of the time, with the company of sand dunes that are like ocean waves. Human beings just seem so insignificant."

? ? ? As of Monday, the couple had spent 40 days in Xinjiang since leaving their home in Yulin, Shaanxi province.

? ? ? Head north to roam the grassland with Kazak nomads on horseback. And don't be surprised to see a special lane on the highways dedicated to sheep and herdsmen during seasonal migrations. In fact, the drivers are the trespassers because the highways were built on the routes used by locals for thousands of years to move livestock in search of pastures among the mountains.

? ? ? Unlike other places in China, Xinjiang's vast grassland stretches through mountain valleys, meaning travelers can enjoy views of green pastures against a backdro of snowcapped mountains.

? ? ? There are shortcuts in Xinjiang, cutting through the Tianshan Mountains, that allow people to travel between the north and the south of the region. The most famous is the G217, a highway built for military purposes in the 1970s. The 562.7-km road, which is closed in winter, connects Dushanzi, in the city of Karamay in northern Xinjiang, with Kuqa in the south.

? ? ? Many have called it the most beautiful road in China, because it takes travelers through the snowcapped Tianshan Mountains, verdant valley grasslands and the Kuqa Grand Canyon.

? ? ? "As soon as you climb over to the southern side of the Tianshan Mountains, the view changes suddenly," Wang said. "The snow on the mountain vanishes and is replaced by green grassland. You know you've arrived at Kuqa when you are weaving through incredible landforms weathered from red sandstone by wind and rain over centuries. It is just magical."

? ? ? Long road trips between the scenic spots in the vast region may have put many people off in the past, but more people are now discovering that the road trips might actually be the best part of the journey.

? ? ? The regional tourism research institute recently released 10 detailed routes in Xinjiang for people to follow while driving around the region at their own pace. Each route takes six to nine days to complete.

? ? Northern Tianshan?Eight days, 2,243 km??What to see :?Urho ghost city

? ? ? It is named "ghost city" for the frequent strong winds that whistle and howl over a series of yardang formations, rocky protuberances shaped by wind moving over what was once the bottom of a lake. Urho is one of the top three such landforms in China according to China National Geographic. It has also been used as a location for several famous movies, including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

? ? Kanas Lake (photo above)

? ? ? The lake lies on the border between China and Kazakhstan. The turquoise mountain lake is surrounded by forest and grassland. It is said to be the most beautiful lake in China, so watch out for crowds. The locals call it "the garden of God". The view in Kanas is often compared with that in the Alps. Some say a "monster" inhabits the waters of the lake, which is 188 meters deep.

? ? Tianshan Tianchi (Heavenly Lake)

? ? ? The alpine drift lake was shaped in the Quaternary Glacier period. People can walk around the lake on a boardwalk while enjoying the view of the snowcapped Bogda range of Tianshan.


? ? Nine days, 2,224 km?What to see:?Sayram Lake

? ? ? The lake, renowned as a pearl of the Silk Road, is the largest alpine lake in Xinjiang. It is like a brilliant emerald inlaid in a basin surrounded by the Tianshan Mountains. Summer and autumn, when the water is peaceful and the lake's surface is as smooth as a mirror, are the best seasons to visit.

? ? Tekes county

? ? ? Tekes' county seat is the only community in the world planned in the shape of a bagua - the trigram symbols used in Taoist cosmology to represent the fundamental principles of reality. Hop aboard a hot-air balloon to see the community from above and try to work out why the county seat doesn't even need traffic lights.

? ? Narat grassland (photo above)

? ? ? Narat means "the place wher sunshine first appears" in the Mongolian language. Located in the heartland of Tianshan, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Though outshone in scale by the Hulunbuir grasslands in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, the most famous grassland in China, Narat features rolling grassland, undulating slopes, soaring peaks, fertile valleys and crisscrossing rivers.

? ? Eastern Tianshan?Nine days, 2,500 km?What to see :?Jiangbulake

? ? ? Harvest time in Xinjiang turns the wheat in a giant field and the different shades of grassland and forest at higher altitudes into a sea of gold and green in Jiangbulake. People in Jiangbulake, which means "source of the holy spring" in the Kazak language, have been planting wheat near the mountains for more than 2,000 years.

? ? Yiwu desert poplar forest (photo above)

? ? ? The desert poplar forest in Yiwu county is famous for its strangely shaped trees, the result of enduring such a harsh environment for thousands of years. Some of the trees are more than 4,000 years old, and it's the densest desert poplar forest in China. Fall, when the leaves turn golden, is the best season to visit.

? ? Yargul ancient city

? ? ? With a history of more than 2,000 years, it is one of the best-preserved ancient cities in China. The ruins of mud-brick buildings still visible feature temples, civilian dwellings and government offices.

? ? Southern Xinjiang??Eight days, 2,465 km??What to see :?Bayanbulak grassland

? ? ? Bayanbulak means "abundant spring" in Mongolian. It is the second-largest grassland in China. A winding river flows through the middle section. When the sun reaches a certain height, people can see its reflection at every turn of the river. To add more romance to the grassland, it is the highest-altitude breeding ground for swans in the world. Every year, when the snow melts and flowers bloom, thousands of swans and other migrant birds fly in from India and Africa.

? ? Kuqa Grand Canyon (photo above)

? ? ? The red sandstone walls in the canyon twist at every turn, bouncing light in different ways. Some have likened it to Antelope Canyon in Arizona, United States. It's best to come in the late afternoon, during the "golden hour" of the sun's light.

? ? Kizil thousand-Buddha caves

? ? ? The caves are said to comprise the earliest major Buddhist cave complex in China, having been developed between the third and eighth centuries. There are 236 cave temples in Kizil. Although the site has been damaged and looted by explorers from Europe, Japan and the US, around 5,000 square meters of wall paintings remain.

? ? Tarim Basin?Six days, 2,600 km??What to see:??Tarim desert poplar forest

? ? ? Stretching over 100 square kilometers, it's the largest wild desert poplar reserve in the world. People can enjoy the tree-lined scenery along the Tarim River by driving on the road in the reserve.

? ? Miran Ruins

? ? ? Miran is an ancient oasis town on the southern rim of the Taklimakan Desert. The town, with a sophisticated irrigation system, was once on the ancient Silk Road. It was also a thriving center of Buddhism with many monasteries. Many artifacts found in Miran demonstrate the extensive and sophisticated trade connections these ancient towns had with places as far away as the Mediterranean Sea.

? ? Taklimakan Desert (photo above)

? ? ? It's the world's second-largest shifting sand desert and the largest desert in China. Meaning "the place of no return" in the Uygur language, the desert was a place travelers were likely to avoid. But modern-day adventurers can drive along roads built in the desert for a unique experience.

? ? Kashgar-Pamir??Eight days, 2,120 km??What to see:??Kashgar old town (photo above)

? ? ? When walking around the maze-like old town in Kashgar you will be surrounded by Uygur-style buildings with beautiful decorations. You can also get a taste of authentic Uygur culture and food. For the best old town experience, dro the map and get lost in the maze. The old town was used as a stand-in for Afghanistan in the 2007 movie The Kite Runner.

? ? Karakul Lake

? ? ? At an altitude of 3,600 meters, it is the highest lake on the Pamir Plateau. The lake is popular among travelers for the reflection of Muztagh Ata (7,546 meters) in the mirror-like water, whose color ranges from a dark green to azure and light blue.

? ? Tashkurgan stone fort

? ? ? It's also called the stone city. Located on the Pamir Plateau, the fort with a history of more than 2,000 years, served as a major stop along the Silk Road and was the capital of various kingdoms. Although it's now a ruin it still has a commanding view of the area, from the majestic snowcapped mountains behind it to the beautiful wetland in front of it. A permit is required to travel from Kashgar to Tashkurgan.