Travel to Far West China (Xinjiang) – Episode 515

categories: asia travel

Travel to Far West China (Xinjiang) - What to Do, See and Eat in this Ancient Crossroads of Many Cultures

Hear about travel to Far West China (Xinjiang) as the Amateur Traveler talks to Josh Summers from about his adopted home where China meets Central Asia.


Josh says, “there’s a lot about China as a whole that draws people in, but I feel like Xinjiang is the hidden pearl that people miss, partly because it’s so far out there and very few people just have the time to come out here. But the fact is that there is so much hidden beauty. I am talking about not just natural beauty but we’ve got the second-largest desert and the second largest mountain in all the world. K2 comes up against Xinjiang. But we also have some of the most interesting cultures. We have the Uyghur culture, we have the Hui culture, Kazakh, all of Central Asia just comes to a head here in Xinjiang.”

“The Xinjiang region makes up 1/6 of China’s total land area so it is a massive place.” We start in the capital of Ürümqi which has both air and high-speed train access from the rest of China. From there us down to cities in or near the Taklamakan Desert like Turpan with its historic Karez water system that waters the desert from the nearby mountains. We talk about mummies and bout the Uyghur who are a Turkic people who make up a large amount of the population in Xinjiang.

We pass by the Flaming Mountains, the Jiaohe Ruins to Tuyoq which is a village that early European explorers would still recognize.

Josh talks about the city of Kashgar known for the Id Kah Mosque which is the largest mosque in China and the Afaq Khoja Mausoleum where you can visit the burial site of the “Fragrant Concubine” (maybe).

The Josh heads us south along the beautiful Karakoram Highway towards Pakistan. Snow-capped mountains, grasslands, and yurts give entirely different vistas in this area near the border with Central Asia. If you are lucky maybe you will see a game of Buzkashi which will give you at least one more idea of what to do with the carcass of a dead goat.

Xinjiang is going to challenge your notion of what China is like.

subscribe: rss feed | Apple podcasts

right click here to download (mp3)
right click here to download (iTunes version with pictures)

Show Notes
Taklamakan Desert
Travel the Silk Road in China’s Gansu Province – Episode 436
Urumqi’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region Museum
Astana Cemetery
Tarim mummies (Loulan Beauty)
Han Chinese
Turpan water system (karez)
Jiaohe Ruins
Tuyoq Valley
Aurel Stein
Why is there tension between China and the Uighurs?
Id Kah Mosque
Afaq Khoja Mausoleum
Fragrant Concubine
Riding the Night Train in China
Tian Shan (mountains)
Kanas Lake
Karakoram Highway
K2 Hostel Tashkurgan
K2 Hostel Tashkurgan (reviews)
Tashkurgan Hotels
July 2009 Ürümqi riots


Jere wrote:

You need to update your story on Naples and the Almafi… We have spent several months living in Napoli over the past two years… taxis are now well regulated (fixed prices to the train, airport, etc.) and I have never seen garbage. Repeating these old tapes have a negative effect on travelers who will otherwise miss a wonderful city and people

Eamonn wrote that he would like to see shows on “Algeria, Russia’s North Caucuses, Kosovo [we have one], Mauritania! Really enjoying the podcasts. Listened to the Sudan, Colombia, Medellin, Panama and Western Sahara episodes this evening. Great insights.”

Travel to Far West China (Xinjiang) - What to Do, See and Eat in this Ancient Crossroads of Many Cultures


Chris: Amateur Traveler episode 515. Today the Amateur Traveler talks about deserts and mummies, mosques, markets, and snowcapped mountains as we go to Far Western China to the province of Xinjiang.

Welcome to the Amateur Traveler. I’m your host Chris Christensen with no further ado let’s talk about Far Western China. I’d like to welcome Josh Summers to the show, a travel writer from, who has come to talk to us strangely enough about Far Western China. Josh, welcome to the show.

Josh: Thank you so much, Chris. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Chris: And I see Far West China, and the province we’re talking about, I’m going to let you pronounce it.

Josh: It’s the Xinjiang region, which is the far northwestern. Most people are familiar very much with Tibet. But this is the region that is right above Tibet borders about eight different countries all throughout Central Asia, Russia, Mongolia.

Chris: Excellent. And you are currently living there and have been now for 10 years?

Josh: Well, my wife and I first arrived in ’06. Yeah. So we’ve been living here for a while and I’m currently in my office. It’s in the Capital city of Urumqi.

Chris: And why should someone come visit Xinjiang, China.

Josh: That’s a very good question. There’s a lot about China as a whole that draws people in, but I feel like Xinjiang is the hidden pearl that people miss, partly because it’s so far out there and very few people just have the time to, I guess, come out here. But the fact is that there is so much hidden beauty. I am talking about not just natural beauty but we’ve got the second largest desert and the second largest mountain in all of the world. K2 comes up against Xinjiang. But we also have some of the most interesting cultures. We have the Uyghur culture, we have the Hui culture, Kazakh, all of Central Asia just comes to a head here in Xinjiang.

Chris: Cool. And what would you recommend for an itinerary? How do we explore if we had just a week or two? What would we do?

Josh: There’s a couple different ways that you can enter in Xinjiang. And I remember last time I heard your podcast you were talking with Lee Moore who is bringing you a little bit through Gansu. And there’s a way that you can take the train or the highway up through Gansu and then you’re hitting a couple different places that direction. So you’re heading from east to west. Most people, however, fly into Urumqi just because it’s a much faster way to get around the region. And the reason I say that is because most people don’t realize the Xinjiang region makes up one-sixth of China’s total land area. So it is a massive place. I get emails all the time from people that are, “Hey, can you look at my itinerary?” And they’ll be going all over the place and have to remind it’s going to take you 20 hours to get from point A here to point B there, so you need to watch out. But for most people, I’d say it’s a good idea to stop at Urumqi for night. The regional museum is a good foundation to start from where you get to see a little bit of the history. Granted, it’s Chinese history they have a way that they want to display it of course. But still, there’s a lot to be learned.

Chris: You don’t just mean the history of China. You mean that all of that is presented in the museum is controlled at a higher level than the museum curator.

Josh: That is exactly correct.

Chris: Okay.

Josh: There’s a lot of about this region that’s controversial and history is just one of them.

Chris: Okay.

Josh: But getting to see the mummies and getting to get an overview with the maps and in understanding how the Silk Road played such a vital part of this region’s history, it really sets the stage for the rest of your trip around the region. So you spend the night maybe two if you really want to look around here in the capital city of Urumqi. And then, I love, one of my favorite places to go is the city called Turpan. Now, whether you’re coming from Gansu east to west to whether you’re going down from Urumqi to Turpan, there’s a high-speed train now that reaches that city. And from Urumqi, it only takes an hour from let’s say, Dunhuang which is I think one of the last places you stopped with Lee Moore. It would take about five to six hours maybe, I think.

Chris: Before we go there, though, I want to interrupt you just a little bit here because you left us in the museum. You mentioned mummies, you through that line away and then you went on. I think for most people they heard mummies and they thought they were in Egypt because they don’t think of mummies anywhere else. Who were we looking at there when we were looking at the mummies in the museum?

Josh: That’s a good point. If you were to look at Xinjiang on a map, one of the things that would really stand out to you is there’s this oval-shaped massive part of the region in the south that is blank. And what that means is that the Taklamakan desert. That’s the largest desert in the Chinese region and one of the largest deserts in the world. And in this region, it used to actually not be that big. It’s grown over time. But there are numbers of villages and small places where people had just established places to live and outposts for trade. Because like I said before, a lot of the Silk Road had different routes that went through this region. And over time, the sand took over some of these villages and because of the dry climate, there have been a number of mummies that have been pulled out of the ground both.

They were in regular tombs as well as I was about bring you to Trupan, there’s a region there called the Astana Tombs. It’s where they buried their kings or their leaders so they’ve been able to pull out extremely well-preserved mummies from that region. The great thing about it though and I think one of the reasons why it’s such a popular thing to see. The most famous of the mummies is named the Loulan Beauty, you can still see her eyelashes. But when you’re in the museum, you can get up-close and you can see the strands of hair, the eyelashes, the clothes that she was wearing when she was buried, and this had to have been more than just centuries. They estimate at least 1,000 years that this lady was buried back in the sand. And it provides such an interesting view pf the history of the region because she doesn’t look Chinese nor does she really look Uighur. They call her European, I think and might be mispronouncing that.

Chris: And when you say she doesn’t look Chinese, she doesn’t look like Han Chinese the predominant thing that most of us think of when they think of Chinese people.

Josh: Correct, yeah. Very good correction. It’s the Han Chinese because they would be offended if I didn’t call that the Uyghur Chinese as well because they do hold Chinese passports or identification.

Chris: Okay.

Josh: So, yeah. These mummies have become a symbol of the history of the region. So when you travel down to places like Trupan, where we’re about to go, and the Kashgar, and around the Taklamakan desert, these are the anchors that hold down the history of what you’re about to see. Because it’s these people that are the ones that first broke the ground and build settlements in this region in order to provide stopping points for the merchants that were going back and forth between Central Asia and China doing trade.

Chris: Okay. So now you took us down to Trupan?

Josh: Yeah. So Trupan is one of my favorite cities pretty much in all of Xinjiang. It’s small. In my opinion, in terms of tourism, it’s not yet the most popular. Most people would probably tell you to go to Kashgar, bar none. And I agree. We’re going to go there in just a little bit. But I think that Trupan really offers that small town feel without the big tourism that in my opinion, makes the region lose its luster just a little bit. But here you have a number of ancient cities. You’ve got the Uyghur culture that is very strong in Trupan. And you’ve got just a lot of really interesting regional aspects of I guess, the climate, and the geography. So for instance, when you’re driving there or when you’re taking the train, either way, you’re going to notice that on either side of you there’s nothing. It’s just like there might be mountains in the distance, but it’s just sand. And maybe rolling hills a little bit but no grass on it, just sand. And then you reach Trupan and all of a sudden it is a literal oasis in the desert. And the reason is because hundreds of years ago the Uyghur people dug what are called Karez. And these, Chris, have you ever seen there was a movie I’m trying to remember that, The Great Escape. Have you ever seen the movie The Great Escape?

Chris: Sure.

Josh: So the movie is talking about I think it was World War I.

Chris: The movie with the name The Great Escape is Steve McQueen, and it’s World War II flyers.

Josh: All right, great. So they dig this tunnel in it. It was considered just this incredible feat where they’re taking and digging out underneath, and doing it very quietly, and I think they made it just a few hundred yards. And it took them forever. Well the thing about the Uyghur Karez that I was just mentioning is they were [inaudible 00:09:12] on the mountain. And what the Uyghur did is they build canals to bring the snowmelt from the mountains down to Turpan except if they were to do it above ground, the water would have all evaporated. So they had to do it below ground and so about 10 to 20 feet below ground, they would dig tunnels all the way from the mountains down to the city. They would dig one hole basically like a well down and then let’s say dig about 20 meters further south. And then they’d go and dig another well down and then 20 meters south. And so if you were to get a bird’s-eye view of this area, you’d just see a line of dots that make up the Karez. Considered one of the most important engineering feats of the Uyghur people was the creation of these Karez because they had over 5,000 kilometers of these Karez that would bring the water down to Turpan.

Chris: Well, it looks like this was dug predominantly in the two centuries B.C.

Josh: Yes.

Chris: So this is a long time ago. We’re not talking about power tools here.

Josh: Oh, no. This is by hand. It’s unbelievable. You’ve got the Karez. You’ve got their ancient cities like Jiaohe and Gaochang, which have a history in the region that are a little bit newer than the Karez but not by much where they were the seats of power in different times before the city of Turpan actually came into being. So you can walk through these cities and just see the mud walls and the temples and even in Gaochang you can see [inaudible 00:10:42] that’s still there. It’s a really fascinating thing to walk through and because of the dry climate, it’s incredibly well-preserved. It’s not like some parts of China where they’ve rebuilt history. This is truly the history that is just still standing right there.

Chris: Well, in seeing some of the pictures, I was reminded of Timbuktu just because again, the mud construction and the very non-familiar architectural styles. I’m just surprised, honestly I hadn’t heard about this before.

Josh: Yeah. Well, in Jiaohe, and to me is fascinating because not only is it the mud walls but it’s one of the few ancient cities where they actually dug the city out of the ground instead of building it out. Does that make sense?

Chris: Yeah. Okay.

Josh: So you’re walking through let’s say, the main road. And instead of it being something where the walls on either side of you were built up, what you’re actually doing is walking where they’ve dug out a road. And when you go into the government offices, you go down the stairs and to basically caves that they dug out.

Chris: Fascinating.

Josh: This is another thing that I love about the city. I was in Turpan. I was literally just riding a bike through the city and I ran across…I was probably about, and I’m not exaggerating, about 50 to 60 bride and groom just standing on the side of the road. And of course, you stop and you’re like, what in the world is going on here? Every year, around I guess, it would be August time, they have The Grape Festival because this region is famous for its grapes like the ancient Emperors of China would have these grapes and raisins mostly raisins sent from Turpan all the way out. Because they were such prized raisins. So they annually have a Grape Festival, and during that time the government sponsors a mass wedding, a wedding where people who perhaps can’t afford their own wedding or just want to be part of a mass celebration are able to take part. They line them up on donkey carts. I had a whole bunch of pictures of it. And they paraded all these different couples who are very finely dressed all through the city and had a mass wedding there in Turpan.

Chris: What else would you do while we’re in Turpan?

Josh: You have the ancient cities, and you’ve got a lot of the history that’s involved with the Silk Road. But I would say that by far, my favorite place to go is about 40 to 50 kilometers outside of the city.

Chris: Okay.

Josh: If you’re driving east out of the city to the north, you’re going to see a whole bunch of what they call flaming mountains, which is just a very interesting formation of rocks and mountains that looks very colorful. Lots of different colors that at sunset just has a very beautiful look to it. But if you keep going from there, there’s a village called Tuyoq. Tuyoq is an ancient Uyghur village that has been very well preserved. It’s one of my favorite places to just walk through. It’s the quintessential mud-brick village. All the bricks on the road, it’s brick paved, but it’s all mud bricks, all of the houses are bricked up. And it has this authentic feel because it is authentic, it allows you to step back in time for a moment and see this is what this region felt like a couple hundred years ago when the foreign explorers would come through this area.

We got Aurel Stein and Albert von Le Coq when he and others would go through. And they would do a lot of archaeological digs in these places like Jiaohe and Gaochang. They would stay in villages like Tuyoq. And if you walk through Tuyoq, you can see there’s one small place where there’s a sign that says Albert von Le Coq during his expedition in 1904 or 1905 stayed here. And you look inside and there’s nothing in there now. But it hasn’t changed in a hundred and plus years and the whole village is quiet. And I did a home stay there. You can stay with the family. It was actually during the winter. So it was quite cold. I had an outhouse I slept not far from all of their cows and sheep. And it was a fascinating, wonderful experience.

Chris: Now, we should say, and I’ll put a link to it in the show notes, as you’ve been saying the name of these people, in my head was spelling this poorly. We’re talking about Uyghur, U-Y-G-H-U-R-S. So that may not have been how you were spelling it in your head as you were hearing that word.

Josh: And actually, there’s a couple different ways to spell it. That’s the most common way. And unfortunately, the Uyghur, most people have only heard of that through unfortunate news events that have made it out in the international news whether that’s…

Chris: I would say I have never heard of it.

Josh: Okay. Where you ask people from those that are from the United States, there’s the Guantanamo stuff that’s made the news and that had to do with Uyghur. And then there’s been some incidents here and in the region five or six years ago that thrust that name out in the international spotlight. For those that may be have heard it, I would say that all it takes is one trip to Trupan or one trip to Tuyoq, and you’ll really fall in love with the people and the culture.

Chris: Well, and the other thing that surprised me and I guess, it shouldn’t have given where we are on the map is we’re talking about a Turkic people, people who are related to the current people who are living in Turkey.

Josh: Correct. And there couldn’t be a broader difference between the Han Chinese and this Turkey-based Uyghur people that are coexisting in this region peacefully at the moment. But there’s definitely tension involved. But it’s not hard to differentiate between the two groups.

Chris: Before we go on to your next stop, we’ve been talking about how to connect with the Uyghur people and with the people who lived here a while ago through some of the old sites. What kind of recommendation would you have for connecting with the people who live there now and the culture of today?

Josh: I think that maybe one of the best ways to do that is either spending time in the southern portion of the capital of Urumqi or especially in Trupan and Kashgar. There are two places that I enjoy going one is the market.

Chris: Oh, sure.

Josh: And the other would be what they call the night market, but it’s more of snacks stalls. It’s a time where everyone gathers late at night and eats together. And that’s just a fun place to really get to see the culture as it is now, and the people in their normal gathering time just enjoying each other’s presence.

Chris: Well, in night markets, I’m all in. Wherever you go in Asia, if they say night market, you should go.

Josh: Absolutely.

Chris: When we go there, particularly what would you order? What kind of food stall would you go to?

Josh: Well, there’s a lot that the Uyghur in particular people are known for. But I would say some of the best is their kebabs. It’s traditional all over Central Asia, a lot of food is very similar.

Chris: Well, that’s one of the reasons I could tell now that we’re talking about Central Asia.

Josh: Correct.

Chris: We are not talking about Chinese food once you go to kebabs. Okay.

Josh: Yeah. And so you’ve got barbecue stands that are doing kebabs. You have noodle dishes, which are like lagman that are very good. And then one of my favorite things to do particularly in the night market during the summer after it’s been blazing hot for the entire day is the Uyghur ice cream. It’s this handmade ice cream that is just so delicious. They’ve got different flavors but it’s hard to really tell which is which. You just go and by a cup of ice cream, and it’s wonderful.

Chris: Excellent. And I’m guessing we’re not going to find as much as many pork dishes in the markets.

Josh: No, probably not a single one. But that’s perfectly fine. There’s still Chinese restaurants pretty much all throughout Xinjiang. But if you were for some reason really, really wanting pork, I’m sure you could find some. Your best bet especially while you’re traveling through this region is just to enjoy the local cuisine as much as possible.

Chris: Well, and the reason I bring up pork there was supposed to be a softball there to give you the clue to say, “No, these people is predominant or comes from a predominately Muslim background.” I don’t know whether they’re practicing as much nowadays after years in the people’s republic of China.

Josh: Yeah. Well, for the Uyghur people that’s one of the things that really differentiates them other than the fact that they’re ethnically different. But religion and food are the two things that really they very much want to set them apart from the Chinese, Han Chinese people. And it’s not something where they’re extremely devout or at least I would say the majority don’t seem to be extremely devout. Part of that has to do with a lot of the restrictions that China puts on this region because it has been a difficult region and what many news outlets called a restive region. And we’ve had incidents and so they clamped down on a lot of things. So for a regular male going to pray five times a day, just isn’t possible. So I think because of that there’s been a lot of just dying out of the truly pious religious people. Although Ramadan comes around and all bets are off. Everybody stops eating during the day and that’s hard here in Xinjiang where there are days the sun comes up at 6 a.m. during the summer and goes down at 10 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Chris: That’s a long day. Okay.

Josh: It’s a long day for them to not be eating.

Chris: Next level. Where are we going next?

Josh: Speaking of Ramadan, I think especially as we’re reaching out right now towards the summer, heading out to Kashgar you can take a train or a bus from Turpan and going across the northern edge of the Taklamakan desert. Now, there’s a number of different places that you can stop along the way that I could talk about, but I’m just going to go ahead and bring us to Kashgar. Because it’s in Kashgar where you’re going to find just more of a deeper sense of the Uyghur identity. Like I said, I really love Trupan but most people when they think about the Uyghur people when they think about the Silk Road and the Xinjiang outpost, Kashgar is the first thing that comes to mind. The iconic symbol of that region is the Id Kah Mosque. It’s a yellow-tiled mosque that sits in the center of the main old city. And it is the pillar of the region. And it is the largest mosque by land area in all of China. And let’s say you’re coming to Kashgar towards the end of Ramadan, they break their fast in the evening at the end of Ramadan. And the next morning, the tradition for the Muslims is to come to the nearest major mosque and to pray as a part of the breaking of the fast. So if you’re able to make it to the Id Kah Mosque, this is…we’re recording this now in 2016 so that’s going to be July 6th and 7th.

So on the 7th in the morning, you wake up and literally 20,000, 30,000 I think upwards of 40,000 people gather on this mosque to pray all together. And whether or not you’re very religious person, just being able to see that experience of the culture is such a fascinating part of this region. I’ve been able to do it twice now. It’s a funny story. The first time I saw it, I saw it from ground level, and I just knew that this is really cool but if I can get a higher view. And I’d seen some reporters that had gotten up to a building and I went to the door and then the security guard waved me off. But the second time I went a day early and basically talked to one of the guards. And said, “Hey, what’s it going to take for me to get up there?” And he was reluctant at first but eventually, I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m not breaking any laws. It’s all just about the building owner and who they want to let up. So I basically sweet talked him, gave him a little something for his time and effort. And the next morning, sure enough, he let me up to the top of the building and got some gorgeous views of just the people that are surrounding this yellow tile Id Kah Mosque and together doing their prayers to end the Ramadan. So anyway, we’re here in Kashgar.

There’s so much to see in Kashgar. One of the great things about Kashgar is that there’s so much surrounding it, so you don’t necessarily have to stay in the city. But within the city, there are things like I mentioned, the mosque, there’s the old city which over the past few years, has had some news because China’s torn down some of the old city and rebuilt it a little bit. But there’s still sections that you can see where you walk through and it’s just these tiny alleys that are reminiscent of mosques that you would find throughout Central Asia where it’s the mud brick and you’re peering into people’s homes. It’s very much a communal living environment. [inaudible 00:23:06]. It’s a really neat place to see again, the Uyghur culture and just get to have fun walking around. The new old city is a little bit different. It’s wide streets and nice-looking shop signs and all that stuff. But in my opinion, still, a place where the Uyghur people gather. So there’s interesting things there.

Chris: While you’re catching your breath there, the one thing I did want to tell people is one of the reasons you were saying very specifically what day Ramadan would be in 2016 is that it changes by roughly 10-11 days a year. So it keeps moving forward in the calendar year. So if you’re listening to this 5 years from now, it’s roughly 50 days before the date that we were talking about. So look it up. But it really does move sometimes it’s in the summertime and then later on it will be in the spring a few years later.

Josh: Absolutely. All my friends here complain about it when it’s in the summer because the days are so long. And according to Muslim tradition, you’re not supposed to eat from sun up to sun down. So in the winter when the days are really short, that’s not a big deal. You can eat until 10 a.m. and then you can eat it 6 p.m., 7 p.m. But when the sun comes up at 6 a.m., and goes down at 11 p.m. it’s a long day.

Chris: Yeah. Well, I had to look it up because we had a Turkish exchange student live with us not all that long ago probably 10 years ago. And it was in October. So I was like, really hasn’t moved that far, okay. How much does it move a year? I had to look that up.

Josh: Yeah, exactly.

Chris: Excellent.

Josh: So in Kashgar, you have things like the Afaq Khoja Mausoleum. Some people may have heard of the Fragrant Concubine. It’s an old story where one of the Chinese emperors had come out of this region and apparently, this woman, her smell was so intoxicating that he brought her back to Beijing and had her live with him as one of his concubines in the Forbidden City. What I find very fascinating about the story is you go in and you can see the mausoleum and there’s a place where they think this lady is now buried although a lot of historians now say that probably isn’t the case. But the fascinating thing to me is that there are actually two stories, you have the Chinese story and the Uyghur story. And the Chinese story, of course, says that she willingly came out and she loved her time in Beijing. And then, of course, the Uyghur story says she really did not want to go out there, and she hated being apart from her people, and she did not want to be out there. Which story is true? I don’t know. But the fact that this lady is celebrated by both sides using both different stories, it’s a funny thing to me.

Chris: Interesting. Before we go someplace else, I missed how we were going to get to Kashgar that was a question I wanted to ask you.

Josh: Sure. There is a train that goes from both Urumqi of and from Trupan all the way to Kashgar. Takes between 20 to 26 hours depending on which train you take.

Chris: So we’re past the high-speed train at this point.

Josh: Correct. The high-speed train only goes west to east from Urumqi into China, China proper.

Chris: I was surprised they went that far out, though. To be honest, when you mentioned taking a high-speed train, I didn’t know that was going to be an option.

Josh: Well it just opened last year. So it’s a relatively new thing. And you can also take a bus. Buses are a little less comfortable. If you can take the train, I highly recommend especially for a 20-hour trip, I would recommend a hard sleeper. These are the type of terms that you’ll hear all over China, hard sleeper, soft sleeper, hard seat. It’s the same thing here in Urumqi. A hard seat for 20 hours if you can imagine just by hearing hard seat, is not the most comfortable way to travel.

Chris: So a hard sleeper I can lie down, but it’s going to be a hard bench?

Josh: It is essentially the difference between a hard sleeper and the soft sleeper is that yes, it’s going to be a little bit harder. But in a let’s say, a cabin. There’s going to be six beds, three on each side. For me, I’m a 6 foot 2, 1.8 meters tall guy. I can’t really fit on those beds. My feet hang out, right?

Chris: Okay.

Josh: Whereas with the soft sleeper, you’ve got two beds on each side. You can close and lock the door if you need to. And the beds are a little bit more comfortable, a little bit longer. So for instance, when I had my family here, my wife and I, and then my two parents we got a soft sleeper so that we could shut the door and just have some privacy.

Chris: But even with the hard sleeper, you say three beds on each side but is there a door?

Josh: No. There is no door. So it’s a lot more open.

Chris: Yeah. I’ve been on one of those. Okay so about 60 different people in one car.

Josh: Exactly.

Chris: Yes, okay. I have a blog post on taking the night train in China. So I know what you’re talking about.

Josh: Okay, yeah. So it’s pretty much the same thing. So yeah train, bus, you could hire a private car if you really want to make a lot of stops along the way. Because there are some historically, relevant places to visit in places like Kucha, Korla, and Aksu. If you’re looking at a map, those are all cities and towns that are along the northern edge of the Silk Road between Turpan and Kashgar. But I think you’re going to see a lot of that if you have limited time, which I think most people that are coming out here do. Then I would spend most of my time in Turpan and in Kashgar.

Chris: And you mentioned the historically interesting sites, which of course, you know I’m very interested in. But are there other reasons that tourists even Chinese tourists are coming out to the region? Now, you mentioned tourism.

Josh: The entire region is cut down the Middle West to east by the Tien Shan Mountains. So south of the Tien Shan which we call Nanjiang which is southern Xinjiang is mostly the Uyghur culture a lot of Silk Road history. Everything north of the Tien Shan, which we call Beijiang or Northern Xinjiang is a lot more of the natural scenery things like Kanas Lake or a lot of their national parks or grasslands are all up there. Now, I say that however, I will mention let’s say you’re in Kashgar and this by far is one of my favorite things to do in Kashgar is that there’s an old highway. It’s called the Karakoram highway that goes from Kashgar south and crosses the border into Pakistan. And it’s the highest paved international crossing in the world if I remember correctly. But the views along that highway are unbelievable. I mean we’re talking about glaciers, grasslands, mountains that basically hug the road and lakes that are glacier-fed and pristine crystal-clear lakes. It is one of my favorite drives to make. And it’s up until perhaps this year when they were there opening up a new road, it’s been a very rocky road to get there.

Chris: Well, my impression is it’s not a road you want to take if you have a fear of heights.

Josh: Yeah. That’s probably true. But the reward at the end is worth it in my opinion. Let’s say you’re starting from Kashgar. You go from Kashgar all the way down to Tashkurgan, which is one of the largest villages or cities before you reach the Pakistani border. And it’s there where you’ll see a lot of the Tajik culture here in Xinjiang. Basically, it’s the largest concentration of Tajik in all of China.

Chris: Okay. Well, we’re only like 70 miles from Tajikistan so that’s not too surprising.

Josh: Correct. But making a border crossing into Tajikistan is very difficult. I think it’s impossible at this point for foreign travelers. But it’s also the last place that you can go without a visa to go on to another country. Does that make sense?

Chris: Okay.

Josh: There’s no visa on arrival for Pakistan. So if I want to continue beyond Tashkurgan, I would have to have proof of a visa for Pakistan. There’s the Stone City in Tashkurgan, which many believe is the Stone City that is mentioned by Ptolemy. It sits up on a hill on the edge of the grasslands very picturesque with the mountains in the background. For most people, that’s the stop there. They have a few hostels which like the K2 hostel would probably be one of my favorite hostels, very comfortable, not very expensive. But there’s also some really good hotels that are much more aimed at the luxury…I wouldn’t say luxury traveler, but the traveler who wants something more than a hostel. So you’re talking about things like the Crown Inn or just hotels in the region. So you can stay there. I just love walking around the grasslands there. And then I’ve driven down.

I’ve bike down from there because you’ve gone pretty high in elevation at this point. And as you’re going down back to Kashgar, that’s the trip that most people take. They take a round trip from Kashgar to Tashkurgan and again, we’re on the very far western edge, pretty much the farthest west you can go in all of China is this Highway. And you’re going down and most people make a stop at the Karakul Lake, which is right at the base of Muztagh Ata which is one of the picturesque mountains in the region. And here is where I would recommend any traveler that’s going to stay the night in one of the yurts or gers. These are the old…in this case, it’s Kyrgyz are the people that are around this area. And they’ve set up these, I guess, you’d call it a tent. I’m sure you’re familiar with it with a yurt or a ger, right?

Chris: Oh, sure yeah.

Josh: And so just staying in there right at the edge of the glacial lake called Karakul is a fun experience not just because of the beauty that you see and the culture that you see around the lake, but one of my favorite things is at that altitude going out at night and seeing the stars, Chris, it’s unbelievable.

Chris: Oh, I can imagine. Well, actually I’m not sure I can imagine. But I’ve seen pictures. Let’s put it that way.

Josh: It is amazing. So I think a lot of people take this particular side trip from Kashgar. It’s at least a two-day trip. I would say make it at least three if you can. But they take it because, in all of Xinjiang, a lot of what you’re seeing is the Uyghur culture that we’ve been talking about. Right?

There’s a lot to see. There’s a lot to experience but when you’re on the Karakoram highway that goes from Kashgar towards Pakistan, you’re getting to experience not just the Uyghur culture, but the Kyrgyz culture and the Tajik culture. I’ve just run into a Tajik wedding all of a sudden. And there’s such friendly people that they invited me. Or a game of buzkashi, which is the Afghan national sport.

Chris: Oh, that’s the one with the goat?

Josh: Exactly. It was just…they were playing it out on the…

Chris: All right, you have to explain to people. Because I’m not sure that everybody else went to, “It’s the one with a goat.” It’s the one where you’re playing almost polo except no mallets and you’ve got a goat cart.

Josh: So someone explain it to me like this, Chris. And I thought it was hilarious. They said this is what polo would look like if it was played in prison, right? And essentially, what you’ve got is…

Chris: On horseback.

Josh: Well, and in some cases, the Tajik people actually do it on yak back believe it or not.

Chris: I cannot.

Josh: But for those who haven’t heard of this, it’s a game on horseback where you have let’s say, 10 to 20 riders and what they’ve done is instead of the traditional ball that we think of they’re using a headless, footless goat carcass or sheep carcass in some cases. What they’ve done is they have soaked it in water for a period of probably about 24 hours. Because what they’re going to do is they’re going to be tussling over this goat carcass, and they don’t want to rip apart. And by soaking it in water overnight, it keeps that from doing it. So you have… They’re just pulling at this goat and trying to get it into… I actually got to see two matches one in which the main goal was to put it into a hole in the ground. And then the other they had this big truck tire, like I’m talking about Caterpillar large truck tire. And they had to get the goat carcass into the tire.

Chris: Just as it was played in olden days.

Josh: Exactly.

Chris: I, for one, was just really not pleased when they substituted the hold goat thing with a sheep. I think that’s like when baseball put in the designated hitter. I thought it’d ruin the sport I don’t know about you.

Josh: Yeah.

Chris: Well and you talked about them. Really, we said how close you were to Pakistan and Tajikistan. You’re actually even closer to Kyrgyzstan when you’re in Kashgar. So it really is a place where all these cultures are meeting.

Josh: Exactly. And from Kashgar, there’s a bunch of different…there are two in particular ports that allow you to go through and for Kyrgyzstan at least at this point, it’s a visa on arrival very easy to get in.

Chris: Interesting. Now, one clarification. You mentioned the Stone City that Ptolemy referred to or that Tashkurgan was possibly the Stone City that Ptolemy referred. So just for everybody who doesn’t have their Ptolemaic history at the tip of your fingertips, you’re talking about one of the Egyptian rulers between Alexander the Great and Caesar. So roughly 300 BC to 0 AD.

Josh: Correct.

Chris: Okay. I don’t know which Ptolemy you’re talking about. There were 14. But that means that that city, that Stone City, dates back more than 2,000 years.

Josh: Correct. I mean as far as historians agree on, that they can agree on, that it goes back at least 2,000 years. Whether it’s actually the place that Ptolemy is referring to, that’s up for debate but there is a lot of history involved in that region.

Chris: Interesting. We’re going to have to start to think about winding this down.

Josh: Sure.

Chris: Which I don’t want to do. So what is going to surprise me when I go there? We’ve talked about football with a goat on horses and all sorts of other things. But even knowing all of that, what surprised you when you went there?

Josh: I think what would surprise you most and you and Lee touched on this in the Gansu area because in the Gansu area you’re working with the Hui people a lot. And there’s just a lot of Muslim culture there. And so it doesn’t quite feel like the China that you’re expecting. Take that and multiply it by 10 or 20 times, and that’s probably what you’re going to be feeling once you hit Xinjiang. It truly is the intersection between China and Central Asia where there are points where you’re like, “Oh, yeah. I’m in China.” And then you go 20 feet and all of a sudden, you’re like, “Well, wait a second, no.” These are Central Asian alleyways. All of a sudden, I went from a two-lane paved road and now I’m in this little alleyway meandering through people’s homes.

And I think that’s part of the beauty of it is just this mixture of so many different cultures, but at the same time, there’s a differentiation between all of them. That’s what I love about this place is that I can have a meal that is a Chinese meal, a traditional Chinese meal that things that you would get in inner China. And then I can turn around and the next day, I can have a rice pilaf, which is that central Asian staple rice dish that is so good. And I’m in the same city probably even in the same neighborhood.

Chris: I don’t always ask this question but you’ve been there 10 years now. When did you feel closest to home? This is a very familiar place just like being where I grew up. And when did you feel furthest from home. Just this is so unfamiliar, I can’t believe it.

Josh: I would say that the most unfamiliar I felt was probably in the far Southern Xinjiang where you’ve got the Uyghur culture in places like Hotan. And there’s a lot of just desert living. And it’s hard to describe, it’s like you’ve got part city but part desert. And I don’t really enjoy. A lot of people really want to experience the desert track, getting on a camel, doing a couple of days in the desert. That’s not me. I get over the crest of one of the sand dunes and I feel lost. And I don’t like the extreme heat and it’s hard to climb. Kind of that desert living, that desert culture is where I feel probably the most uncomfortable even though it’s such a part of that particular region.

Chris: And the most familiar.

Josh: The reason I love Trupan so much is because it has become so familiar to me. For me, it’s when you get people gathering around at night markets and in small-town atmosphere. There’s not a whole lot of traffic but the cars that are there…it feels just very intimate and that’s what I love. I just love let’s say, walking around Trupan in the evenings going up and down some of the alleyways, and that’s what feels very comfortable to me.

Chris: Interesting. I had to look it up because I was curious when you were talking about the northern part. I think you said Beijiang?

Josh: Beijiang, yeah the Northern China.

Chris: So Northern China. Is it really literally what that means? So I had to look up what Xinjiang means and it’s new frontier, which I didn’t realize. So even in China, this is considered the frontier, which is not surprising it is.

Josh: People would consider it the Wild West I guess, of China. Unfortunately, even the name new frontier has a controversy around it.

Chris: That’s not the traditional name I’m guessing.

Josh: Well, yeah. It’s the name that Chinese gave and China claims a long history here. And then, of course, there’s opposition to that and there’s a history to the name that’s long and not necessarily something we want to go into here. But it is a region that is very integral part of what China’s strategy nowadays in terms of integrating Xinjiang into the trade that reaches out into Central Asia and Europe.

Chris: You’re standing in the prettiest spot in the whole region. Where are you standing? What you looking at?

Josh: I’m standing in the prettiest spot in the region. In my opinion, I’m standing on the shores of Karakul Lake. Let’s say about 10 o’clock at night where I can still kind of see Muztagh Ata, the shadow of Muztagh Ata in the background. And then I’m looking up and I’m seeing millions of stars up in the sky. It’s seeing the Milky Way is crystal clear, and I probably saw 10 shooting stars.

Chris: You’ve been there for 10 years. Tell us a moment when you said to yourself, “Gee, I didn’t think I would ever do that.”

Josh: I remember and I don’t want to go into too much history here. So if you really want to know about the history of conflict in this region, just look up 2009 and the word Xinjiang. The year 2009 and you’ll get a whole history of what’s happened. And again, it’s not something I want to go into here. But it was a conflict that resulted in the internet being cut off. All right? We literally had 10 months…

Chris: And you were there at the time?

Josh: And I was there at the time, yeah. So we had 10 months where there was no internet outside. It was more of an intranet where we could view a couple sites that were hosted here in the region. But outside of that everything else was cut off. I couldn’t call my parents. I couldn’t get on to check my email. I couldn’t do anything. So one of the weirdest things that I’ve ever done is I have in my opinion, I guess, I got on a train for…at the time the high-speed train wasn’t available. And so I got on a train for about 10 to 12 hours, got off at Dunhuang, which is one of the first stops in the Gansu region which is right to the east of Xinjiang.

Chris: Right. [inaudible 00:41:50] talked about.

Josh: Yeah. Got into a hotel and the only thing I did is opened up my computer and answered 400 emails, just that had piled up over the course of a couple of months. And then got back on a train two days later. That’s all I did. I didn’t go out and see anything. There’s so many great things to see in Dunhuang. You’ve already talked about it. I didn’t do a single one of them. Because all I did is I got my computer, and I called my parents. I checked my email. I figured out what had been going on in the world over the past two months. And then I got on a train and I went back home.

Chris: One thing that makes you laugh and say, “Only in Xinjiang.”

Josh: It’s only in Xinjiang that you will have a large city like Urumqi overrun by sheep during the [inaudible 00:42:32] festival. I’m talking about poop in the streets. I’m talking about sheep that are just hanging from trees after they’ve been sacrificed during the festival. It’s just sheep everywhere.

Chris: All right, I never know what kind of answers I’m going to get for that, sometimes I am left speechless. Before we get to my last two questions, what else should we know before we go?

Josh: What else should you know? There are two primary questions that I guess I receive from people that are coming to Xinjiang. The first is, “Do I have to be able to speak Uyghur in order to get around?” And my answer to that is that no. Yes, it would be helpful, but no, you don’t have to. So if you have even just a bit of Chinese, that would be helpful. But even if you just have a map, a lot of the main places particularly the ones that we’ve talked about Urumqi, Trupan, Kashgar, they cater mostly the tourists so they would know where you’re wanting to go if you just said Jiaohe in Trupan or Id Kah in Kashgar. And you don’t have to be able to say anything else. The second question that I receive has to do with safety. Anyone who does just a little bit of research on this area, unfortunately, I hate to say this you’ll notice that there is conflict that exists here. It’s not to the scale that you’ll see in the Middle East. But it’s enough that scares people to thinking, “Maybe I shouldn’t be heading out that way. Maybe it’s better off…” And my answer to that is that I’ve lived here for 10 years. I have a family here, Chris.

My son lives here with me, and I wouldn’t have brought him into a situation that I thought was extremely dangerous. I think that a lot of the conflict, first of all, happens between ethnic groups, between the Han Chinese and the Uyghur. So we as foreigners usually have absolutely no involvement in that and throughout all of it no traveler has been injured. But also, it happens in the small villages or outside of the tourist areas. So every person that has asked me about just the safety concerns and I’d say I’ve never felt any less safe here that I have traveling around the rest of China. You want to be careful of pickpockets. You want to be careful about being in certain place in the dead of night. But I’ve felt perfectly safe traveling around the region.

Chris: Okay. Last two questions. Finish the sentence. You really know you’re in the new frontier when what?

Josh: You really know you’re in the real frontier when you’re driving along and you pass an old man who is riding on a donkey cart. He’s got a donkey pulling his cart, and he’s just sitting on the back of the cart. That to me is the picture in my mind of the new region.

Chris: Okay. You don’t see that in other parts of China nowadays?

Josh: Not that I’m familiar with. Of course, my experience outside of Xinjiang isn’t quite as expensive as my experience here in the region.

Chris: Okay. And if you had to summarize the region in three words, what three words would you use?

Josh: Culture, nature, and food.

Chris: Excellent. Our guest again, is Josh Summers and where can we read more about your travels?

Josh: Absolutely. You can read more about this region on my website, which is basically anywhere, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube. I’ve got videos of a lot of the things that I’ve talked about up there. All can be found by just using the Far West China term. I’ve started now actually doing business running cycling tours from Tashkurgan down to Kashgar. One of the most fun things in the world. And you can find that at that’s www.cyclethekarakoram, all one word, .com. And yeah, both of those.

Chris: How far is that?

Josh: It’s a good 400 kilometers, and we do it over eight to nine days and setting up tents sleeping in yurts. It’s a great cultural experience. But it’s also, in my opinion, so much better to see this part of the world without the cover of a car roof over your head.

Chris: Excellent. Well, Josh thanks again for coming on the amateur traveler and talking about a fascinating region of China.

Josh: Thank you so much, Chris. I really enjoyed being with you.

Chris: In news of the community, I’m going to be travelling a bit in the next coming months here. And we may, in fact, have some weeks without new episodes. I may redo some other podcasts have done and do some episodes from the archives because I know a lot of you have not heard some of the earlier shows. I heard from and I’m going to say Jere, J-E-R-E about the episode we did recently on Naples the Amalfi Coast. You need to update your story on Naples and the Amalfi. “We have spent several months living in Napoli over the last two years. Taxis are now well-regulated, fixed prices to the train, airport etc. And I have never seen garbage. Repeating those, old tapes have a negative effect on travelers who would otherwise miss a wonderful city and people.” That was certainly not our intention. As we say, we think it’s a place that you should go.

I also heard from Eamonn who is looking for shows on Algeria, Russia’s North Caucasus, Kosovo, which actually we’ve done a show on, and Mauritania. So if anybody has a show you want to pitch me on those, we can make Eamonn happy. He also wrote and said, “I listened to Sudan, Columbia, Medellin, Panama, and Western Sahara episodes this evening. Great insights.” And that seems like that’s quite an interesting trip you’re planning. If you’re talking about going to all five of those places, perhaps not. With that, we’re going to end this episode of the Amateur Traveler. If you have a question, send an email to or better yet leave a comment on this episode at If you want to help the show, leave a review wherever you found the show so that other people can be encouraged to listen as well. And as always, thanks so much for listening.

Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.

Share this:
Chris Christensen

by Chris Christensen

Chris Christensen is the creator of the Amateur Traveler blog and podcast. He has been a travel creator since 2005 and has won awards including being named the "Best Independent Travel Journalist" by Travel+Leisure Magazine.

One Response to “Travel to Far West China (Xinjiang) – Episode 515”

Hanuman Chalisa


Thanks for sharing another podcast! China is a wonderful country!

Leave a Reply

Tags: , , ,