Our top picks of places to explore in Xinjiang, China


The Kumtag Desert Scenic Area feels like another realm. — Photos: ONG HAN SEAN/The Star

Xinjiang is a land of diverse cultures and heritage, where fruits grow in abundance and the sights are unforgettable. Something to take note of while in Xinjiang, located in northwest of China, is the time.

Although the clocks in Xinjiang are adjusted to China Standard Time, the real offset is actually two hours behind Beijing time due to Xinjiang’s geographical location.

Wearing warm clothing in the morning and evening is advisable as the temperature changes throughout the day from cold to hot and then cold again.

As related to us by our guide, Gulnur Sibihat, the Xinjiang locals have a saying about the weather: “Fur coat in the morning, silk garments in the afternoon, hug a stove and eat a melon in the evening!”

Certain places at higher elevation have a frigid climate but winter in Xinjiang is supposedly very cold and will require a whole set of suitable clothing. The locals have clothes for at least three seasons.

Here are some places to see, and things to do, in Xinjiang.

ÜRÜMQI

The capital of Xinjiang in its present form is relatively new as it was only founded more than 200 years ago during the Qing Dynasty. The name Ürümqi comes from the Mongolian language and means “beautiful pasture”. After the place was conquered by the Qing, it was renamed Dihua which means “to enlighten and civilise”. The name was restored to Ürümqi several years after the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

Ürümqi is a fast-developing modern city and home to some four million people of 47 ethnicities. Among them are the Han Chinese, Uyghur, Kazakh, Hui, Kyrgyz, Mongol, Manchu, Uzbek, Tartar and Russian communities.

Ürümqi is also widely claimed to be the only major city closest to the geographical centre of Asia, making it the most remote and furthest place from the open sea.

a) Xinjiang International Grand Bazaar

Touted as the largest bazaar in the world, this famous landmark has become a one-stop spot to do all touristy things. Soak in the culture of Xinjiang as the bazaar has everything from food and handicraft to traditional performances.

Visitors can also see traditional Uyghur delicacies such as naan and “matang” being made.

Visitors jostling for space to view the famous Beauty of Loulan mummy at the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Museum.Visitors jostling for space to view the famous Beauty of Loulan mummy at the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Museum.

b) Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Museum

A massive trove of artefacts and cultural relics dating from prehistory to the Qing Dynasty are collected in this regional museum. The exhibitions provide an insight into the unique past of Xinjiang and show how its society developed throughout history.

The “Five Stars Rising In The East” armband, one of 64 first-grade relics prohibited from leaving China, is displayed at this museum.

Also a must see are the Tarim mummies, which are exhibited in a special hall. These are the remains of people who lived in the Tarim Basin thousands of years ago and unlike the Egyptian mummies, they were “unintentionally” mummified due to the dry climate of the desert. The famous Beauty of Loulan is among the mummies showcased here.

The cool air and scenery of Nanshan makes it an idyllic resort during the summer.The cool air and scenery of Nanshan makes it an idyllic resort during the summer.

c) Nanshan Pasture

Nanshan, or Southern Mountains, is the scenery belt of the southern suburb of Ürümqi. Sheep, cattle and horses roam the countryside, grazing in the verdant grassland and spruce-covered mountain slopes. Visitors can also go hiking or horse-riding, or even stay in a Kazakh yurt.

d) A Thousand-Year Promise To Kunlun

This is a grand musical drama staged in an open-air set with actual mountains as the backdrop. It tells the ancient myth of King Mu of Zhou and his men’s harsh journey to meet with the Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu) in the mystical land of Kunlun. Check for availability as the show is seasonal. The venue is located about an hour out by road from Ürümqi.

A Thousand-Year Promise To Kunlun is a musical performance staged on an open-air set.A Thousand-Year Promise To Kunlun is a musical performance staged on an open-air set.

CHANGJI

The Changji Hui Autonomous Prefecture is named after the predominantly Muslim Hui people, who makes up a sizeable demographic here. The prefecture comprises two county-level cities, four counties and one autonomous county.

a) Xinjiang Agricultural Expo Park

Wander into a sea of colours at this garden with its myriad of chrysanthemums that bloom in autumn. The expo grounds in Changji City are also host to displays of the latest in agricultural technology.

Wander into a sea of colours at the Xinjiang Agricultural Expo Park.Wander into a sea of colours at the Xinjiang Agricultural Expo Park.

b) Tianchi

One of the most spectacular sights in Xinjiang is Tianchi, or Heavenly Lake, in Fukang City. Hop on a bus from the tourist centre and after a 40-minute ride up the winding road, the magnificent alpine lake surrounded by mountains will come into view.

On a clear day, the majestic snow-capped Bogda Peak can be seen in the distance. Visitors can hike along a walkway or take a ferry ride around the lake and also stop by a Taoist temple dedicated to Xiwangmu by the lakeshore.

A myth associated with Tianchi has it that King Mu promised Xiwangmu to meet her again at this lake. But for reasons unknown, he never showed up.

There is also a picturesque pond hidden by the road up to Tianchi. It is said that Tianchi was a bathing pool for Xiwangmu. Thus it is also said that this pond, at a lower elevation than Tianchi, was a foot basin for Xiwangmu.

TURPAN

While some places in Xinjiang can be chilly, Turpan is a complete change of pace as it has recorded the highest temperatures in China. Reports over the summer stated that surface temperatures on the Flaming Mountains in Turpan reached a scorching 80°C!

The oasis of Turpan can be reached within three hours by road or an hour by high-speed train from the capital city.

a) Karez Fairground

The karez irrigation system is made up of a network of thousands of vertical wells connected to underground canals that collect melted snow water flowing down from the mountains. Karez, which means “well” in Uyghur, has a history of 2,000 years and is the lifeblood of the Turpan oasis. Generations of Turpan settlers dug and created the karez to irrigate their farmlands. Visitors can head underground to see how the karez system works here.

Tourists taking pictures at a water outlet at the Karez Fairground. The karez irrigation system is considered one of the three great ancient projects on par with the Great Wall and Grand Canal.Tourists taking pictures at a water outlet at the Karez Fairground. The karez irrigation system is considered one of the three great ancient projects on par with the Great Wall and Grand Canal.

b) Grape Valley

Turpan is famous for its very sweet grapes and other fruits. Among the attractions in the Grape Valley are an amusement park, music and art museum, and folk village.

In contrast to the dry and hot climate in most places in Turpan, the shade of the Grape Valley vineyards provides a refreshing place to relax. Check out the “chunche”, traditional drying huts the Uyghurs use to turn grapes into raisins.

You can buy fresh grapes, jams, dried fruits and other local produce here too.

Grape vineyards in Turpan.Grape vineyards in Turpan.

c) Jiaohe Ruins

Jiaohe is the ruins of an ancient city that sits on a 30m-high plateau sandwiched between two river valleys. Peppering the barren landscape are fascinating ruins of dwellings, office buildings, temples, stupas and tombs, all carved from soil.

Jiaohe, which means “where two rivers meet” in Mandarin, is also called Yarghol by the Uyghurs, meaning “cliff city”. It is said to be the largest and best preserved earthen architectural site that still exists in China.

In 100BCE, Jiaohe was the capital of the Nearer Jushi state and it subsequently became the seat of government of Yar Commandery or Jiaohe County under the Kingdom of Qocho, then Xizhou Prefecture of Tang Dynasty, and then Uyghur Kingdom of Qocho. The city was destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century and has remained the same ever since.

Jiaohe is listed as part of the Silk Roads Unesco World Heritage Site.

Jiaohe is the ruins of an ancient city that sits on a 30m-high plateau sandwiched between two river valleys.Jiaohe is the ruins of an ancient city that sits on a 30m-high plateau sandwiched between two river valleys.

d) Flaming Mountains

This is the very mountain range from the Journey To The West fantasy classic where the Monkey King (Sun Wukong), uses a magical fan to extinguish its flames. Of course, that’s just a story written by Wu Cheng’en during the Ming Dynasty based on the actual Buddhist monk Xuanzang’s pilgrimage to India more than 900 years earlier during the Tang Dynasty.

Xuanzang travelled through Turpan and I imagine he would have likely seen the Flaming Mountains himself.

The reddish hue of the Flaming Mountains is in contrast to the Tianshan range. Dinosaur fossils have also been found in this area.

Part of the Flaming Mountains, which stands out with its reddish hue.Part of the Flaming Mountains, which stands out with its reddish hue.

e) Kumtag Desert Scenic Area

In the Uyghur language, kum means “sand” and tag means “mountain”. Stepping into the desert is like entering another realm because right next to the sand dunes is a city.

There are many activities at the scenic area, where visitors can ride camels or slide down the dunes on a sled.

Stepping into the Kumtag Desert Scenic Area is like entering another realm.Stepping into the Kumtag Desert Scenic Area is like entering another realm.


Travel notes

China Southern Airlines have connecting flights from Kuala Lumpur to Ürümqi with a stopover. A visa is required before visiting China. More information on the visa application can be found at www.visaforchina.cn/KUL2_EN/.

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