The oasis at the heart of the Silk Road

Note: We published this article here after the author of the article agreed us to publish it in our blog. This article published in Globaltimes.com website on 24th of Oct this year after the author Vera Penêda traveled in Kashgar and surrounding area with us. You can access to original article click here!

There’s lots to see in Xinjiang. Photos: Vera Penêda/GT

I have only two regrets about Xinjiang: that it took me so long to visit, and that I don’t know when I can return. Overlooked by media, the heart of the ancient silk route is ignored as foreigners flock to Tibet for a taste of atypical China. Obscured by friction, many Chinese worry about stepping into China’s westernmost region to explore the “new frontier,” the Mandarin name of Xinjiang, out of fear or ignorance. Those who venture into the dusty desert never forget the exotic balm of Xinjiang and long for more as soon as possible.

Fly directly to the heart of the Uyghur territory in southwest Kashgar. Landing alone in a remote region where you don’t master the language, the religion or the local customs immediately fill you with a sense of adventure. Yahshimusiz! – an informal “Hi!” in Uyghur – is often a safe pass to go around and receive a welcoming smile. I booked a guide online who helped me with a hotel reservation and directed the taxi driver at the airport.

Silky, sandy ‘highway’

I started my journey with a two-day tour along the Karakoram highway, famous for being one of the most scenic roads in the world. Leaving villages behind, the road trip took us along Oytagh, the red rusty range that then gave way to Corner Lake, in a valley surrounded by multi-colored mountains of sand topped by snowcapped peaks. We stopped regularly for photos and a bite of honey watermelon in scenic spots where an occasional fly or a stream of pristine water snaking down a mountain were the only sounds.

Driving towards Tashkurgan, a small town nestled on the Pamir plateau, we could feel the drastic change of temperature. Mostly a market town for sheep and wool, Tashkurgan is the town to the Tajic, many of whom are blonde and have blue eyes. Most Tajic only speak Sarikoli, and have no grasp of Uyghur or Mandarin. Located on the borders of both Afghanistan and Tajikistan, Tashkurgan was an old and important crossroad stop on the Silk Road for major caravan routes leading to other destinations.

Back to the road, we spent the night by Karakul Lake in a yurt owned by the nomadic Kyrgyz people with whom we shared dinner and a modest yet unforgettable breakfast of yak milk, nan bread and watermelon. Stepping out of the tent, the view of Karakul Lake is beyond words. A horse or camel ride is the perfect tour to awe at the lake’s blue hues.

Uyghur haven

At the foot of the imposing Pamir Mountains lies Kashgar, a vibrant metropolis with an exotic feel of the Silk Road era that physically and culturally indulges the senses. The smell of lamb meat from the kebab stalls mixes with the aroma of freshly baked nan bread coming out of clay ovens. From the gosh dirde (meat pies) to the mutton-filled puff-pastries called samsas or the fried fish, you’ll want to try every street delicacy before you set foot inside a restaurant in Kashgar.

A Turkic ethnic group native to Central Asia, Uyghur people are predominately Sunni Muslims but Kashgar has a fascinating mix of ethnicities – Uyghurs, Tajiks, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. Men with their Xinjiang-style hats keep guard over the streets where women covered with veils watch their children. Id Kah Mosque, China’s largest, sets the pulse of Uyghur life in Kashgar.

You can’t miss Kashgar’s colorful and lively markets, where thousands of people from the far corners of the region trade everything from cattle to raisins. The Sunday market ranks first, but the night market and livestock one are also exciting.

Two-faced Urumqi

After Kashgar, only old inner cities along the Takala Makan Desert ike Hotan, Kucha and perhaps Turpan will quench your appetite for a bit more of exotic ecstasy.

In the outskirts of Urumqi, Tianchi Lake is well worth a visit when you get away from the traditional Polaroid spots and venture into the woods by the lake.

“I see some resemblance with the French Alps. If only this were closer to Shanghai,” said a French couple on the tour. Enjoy a deep breath of the morning breeze and the silence while you see the horses and cows of the Kazakh people wondering free. You can stay overnight at the lake.

Back to the center of Urumqi, you’ll find a rambling metropolis mainly inhabited by Han Chinese and a good transport hub to cross over to Tibet and Central Asia. There’s a feeling of segregation between north and south. Mandarin speakers, sprawling consumerism and poor service rule at north, where the only place worth visiting is Urumqi’s huge museum Heading south, the architecture recovers its Muslim flare on the way to the lively market at Erdaoqiao, where you’ll find anything from Uyghur handicrafts, knives, silk carpets and clothing alongside dry fruits and kebabs. The Old Town area gives a glimpse of the Uyghur urban way of life, and if you stop by the night market don’t forget to try the self-service chuanr on the street.

Trip tips

Off the beaten path and with English speaking service, these are the tips that you can’t find in Lonely Planet:
Where to stay: Eden Hotel at 148 Seman Lu in Kashgar offers affordable accommodation. The rooms are average but the location is great as well as the breakfast.

Where to go for Wi-Fi and cappuccino: Karakoram café opposite the street from Chini bagh hotel,www.crowninntashkorgan.com/karakoramcafeesp.html

Where to book your tour: Contact Imam and Tudaji at www.kashgarguide.com

Where to buy your carpet: Kashgar carpet shop also boasts a shop in Beijing with the same name. It sells the real deal and delivers (call 135-5254-6031).

Uyghur man selling Nan bread

There’s lots to see in Xinjiang. Photos: Vera Penêda/GT

Uyghur man in Kashgar Old Town

There’s lots to see in Xinjiang. Photos: Vera Penêda/GT

Kashgar Id Kah Mosque

There’s lots to see in Xinjiang. Photos: Vera Penêda/GT

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