Road trips re­veal Xin­jiang splen­dor

China Daily (Canada) - - XINJIANG -

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 sec­ond­largest 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 back­drop 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.

Con­tact the writ­ers at cui­jia@chi­nadaily.com.cn

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

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

PHO­TOS PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY CHINA DAILY

Kash­gar Yin­ing Kuqa Urumqi Korla Tur­pan Hami Some of the high­lights along six of 10 de­tailed self-drive routes in Xin­jiang (clock­wise from far left): Muz­tagh Ata (Kash­gar-Pamir route), the G217 High­way (western Tian­shan route), Urho ghost city (north­ern Tian­shan route), the Flam­ing Moun­tains in Tur­pan (east­ern Tian­shan route), Mi­ran ru­ins (Tarim Basin route), Bosten Lake (south­ern Xin­jiang route). See more on in­tro­duc­tions of in­di­vid­ual routes marked by their cor­re­spond­ing color.

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