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Xinjiang: Magnificent Land of Mountains and Deserts

Xinjiang, in China’s far west, is a place of adventure and jaw-dropping natural beauty. Our circular journey through China’s largest province traversed five thousand kilometres, taking us along the Silk Road across deserts, through mountain ranges, and alongside some of the world’s most stunning land formations. dotted throughout with green oasis towns full of colour and life and wonderful local Uyghur people.
I so often write about the food and people of a place, that it can be hard for you all to get a sense of the physical landscape we’re traveling through. I thought it was time to redress that with a series of photos, many taken from the passenger seat of our campervan, of the passing spectacle. I warn you – I’m not much of a landscape photographer, but the landscapes of Xinjiang are quite out of this world.
To put the area in context, Xinjiang borders Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tibet. Silk Road travelers passed through Xinjiang in both directions, bypassing the central desert.

Here’s the path we followed, skirting around the barren Taklamakan Desert via Turpan, Kashgar and Hotan, following first the northern then the southern Silk Road. The green alphabetical tags refer to the locations of the photos below.
If you would like more details about traveling off the beaten path in this part of the world, a very recently published guidebook by Jeremy Tredinnick – Xinjiang, China’s Central Asia – gives a detailed detailed look at the province and would have been a great help for us but was published just as we arrived in Xinjiang. We’ll definitely be getting hold of it for next time!
A. Gansu/Xinjiang Border
After seeing no-one for miles, suddenly there were four men in a row erecting new wiring, like some extraordinary roadside circus act framed by the distant mountains.
B. The Turpan Basin                                        The Turpan Basin is the lowest, hottest place in China yet thanks to an ancient system of irrigation the area is home to China’s most abundant and tastiest grape varieties. In the arid plains on the basin’s edge, latticed brick sheds are used to dry the grapes in the hot, dry conditions.






















C. Flaming Mountain

East of Turpan lies the legendary Flaming Mountain, where in the epic story ‘Journey to the West’ the Monkey King defeats the flames with the help of a Magic Fan.  ‘After the first shake, the flames of the mountain died out. After the second shake, a cool gentle breeze arose. After the third, gentle rain fell everywhere and the pilgrims proceeded on their journey in comfort.

D. Borto-Ula Pass                                             The G30 road from Turpan to Kashgar passes first through a steep north-south mountain valley, the winding road tracing the path of a dry riverbed between high, magnificent peaks. The midday sun struggles to reach the depths of the valley in places as you wind through bend after bend. 

E. Halik Mountains                                          Flat, salt-crusted plains suddenly heave themselves vertically into impressive corrugated folds. 

F. I still find it extraordinary that anyone could live in a landscape like this one. Treeless, almost devoid of plant life, and yet wild, rugged and magnificent.

G. Kalpinchol Tag  An awe-inspiring sight just east of Kashgar, these rows of multi-coloured mountains actually made me think of something very small, reminding me of the scenes made from layers of coloured sand in a tiny bottle. 

H. Ortagh Valley                                           You’ll see the turn-off to this alpine valley on the Karakoram Highway west of Kashgar. Its green fir trees, fertile meadows and glacial meltwaters are such a stark contrast to the arid cliffs of the Ghez Dariya Canyon nearby. At the head of the valley lies the black ice Ortagh Glacier  (below), cleaving a path between mountains covered with snow. 
I. Kumtagh                                                        The Ghez Dariya canyon climbs higher and higher, past a military checkpoint, until you arrive finally at this unexpected windswept sight. The mountains on the far side of the man-made lake are actually imposing sand dunes of silver-coloured sand rising from the aqua waters – soon to be the head waters of a hydroelectric scheme.

J. Lake Karakul                                             Worth every bump of the long ride from Kashgar and every bit of the high-altitude headache you’ll have when you arrive, Lake Karakul is simply magical. Reflecting the snowy peaks in its crystal clear waters and dotted around its edge by small Kyrgyz villages, it’s a place of clear, clean air, yurts and yaks. Breathtaking.

K. Taklamakan Desert                                    And then there’s this: although the Southern Silk Road doesn’t take you through the formidable Taklamakan Desert it does skirt its edges. West of the city of Hotan it’s about as bleak as it gets with dust hanging heavy in the air, blocking the sun, and dust storms flaring on every bend in the road. If you could see through the dust it would look just like the scene below – flat infinities of gravel and grit.

L. Washed-out Bridge                                         In the parched country south of Cherchen is a winding river bed, filled with smooth, rounded stones suggesting that at some point in the river’s past the water flowed hard and fierce. Not now. Now the river is completely bone dry, but some time recently a raging torrent passed through, tearing away part of this bridge. It was kind of worth driving all that way and having to turn back just to see this scene.

M. Astin Tag                                                        A mountain pass climbing to almost 4000m separates Xinjiang from neighbouring Qinghai Province. It’s spectacularly beautiful, with the colour of the sky and the mountains intensified by the rarified air. A fitting departure from the magnificent countryside of Xinjiang. I’ll miss it.