Looking for a place in China that does not have too many tourists, yet still has enough activities to wow you over? Look no further because such places hardly exist anymore. Thankfully, southern Xinjiang is still out of the Chinese tourist’s radar due to its tense security situation. Nevertheless, southern Xinjiang is an extremely safe place to travel and has so much to offer as a tourist destination. Here are nine things to do in southern Xinjiang and hopefully you will be convinced to put southern Xinjiang on your bucket list!
1. Indulge in Kashgar’s charms
There is a Uyghur saying that goes something like this “Not visiting Kashgar is as good as not visiting southern Xinjiang.” True that because southern Xinjiang would be nothing without Kashgar. Kashgar is the cultural capital of the Uyghurs and was where the Uyghur kingdom was based for centuries.
Take a walk in the charming old city, explore the little alleyways and meet the many Uyghur children who cannot wait to take a picture with you. Experience the liveliness of the city at the Sunday bazaar or the animal bazaar. Indulge in Uyghur music at a traditional teahouse or watch the artisans craft beautiful metal art pieces. There is something that will attract your attention regardless of what you find interesting. Kashgar is a beautiful ancient city that is pouring with culture and vibes that you will never find in another Chinese city.
2. Be overwhelmed by Uyghur hospitality
Uyghurs are one of the most hospitable groups of people I have met after so many years of travelling. Take the initiative to interact with them and they will be more than happy to share their culture with you. Visit a traditional teahouse in any part of southern Xinjiang and you will be treated to bread and tea. Spend some time listening to the grand masters play beautiful Uyghur muqam music on a traditional guitar known as the dombira. You will be amazed by the passion and energy the Uyghurs have towards music and life.
3. Appreciate what it is like to live in a police state
Southern Xinjiang is the most policed area in China. There are police stations every 200m in cities and checkpoints for going in and out of any city. You will find police checkpoints at random spots on the highway as you travel from one city to another. Take your passport with you as you will be checked whenever you enter a building. You will also have to go through x-ray scanners and body checks. There are many security measures that you will not be used to and it is an eye-opener to experience it yourself. It is hell of a frustration to go through these checks, but you will also be more appreciative of the security that you have always taken for granted!
4. Enjoy a breath-taking drive to Taxkorgan
Some road trips are simply just better than others. The way from Kashgar to Taxkorgan is one of the most scenic ones I have seen in China. Thanks to the beauty of the Pamir and Kunlun mountains, the road to Taxkorgan is flanked by beautiful snow-capped mountains and alpine lakes. The magnificence of the mountain ranges here is no less inferior to that of the Himalayas. Some of the peaks are simply stunning, such as the Muztagh Ata. On the way you will pass by a lake surrounded by sand dunes, and another lake that is enveloped by dozens of snow-capped peaks.
5. Experience a unique Tajik culture
As a result of historical migration, some Tajik subcultures have disappeared entirely from Tajikistan. Ironically, they are still very much well preserved in the Tajik autonomous region in southern Xinjiang. Taxkorgan is the capital of this region. Almost every woman wears the traditional clothes, in a style that I have never seen before. The Tajiks are the only native Caucasian people in China and they sure are beautiful people. Talk to the Tajiks living in the yurts around town and you would be invited inside for tea. If you are lucky, you could also be in time to witness the elaborate Tajik weddings, which are celebrations full of music, food, dancing and fun.
6. Conquer the Taklamakan desert
The Taklamakan desert is the second largest desert in China. Crazily enough the Chinese have managed to build a 500-kilometre road that cuts through the heart of the Taklamakan desert. If you are courageous enough, take the challenge to drive through this road, which connects Hotan city with Kuqa city. The more adventurous ones can make the same trip through the untouched sections of the desert. There are many ruins of great civilisations hiding in the harsh desert and waiting for the brave to discover.
7. Taste freshly baked Uyghur bread
Caution: bread will never taste the same after you have tried Uyghur bread! I was never a fan of bread (thanks to an Asian diet), but I instantly fell in love with Uyghur bread, otherwise known as nan. Every city makes its own unique version of nan. For example, the nan in Kuqa is as big as a bicycle wheel while that in Kashgar is the size of a plate. Some nans are coated with butter and sesame seeds, others are plainly baked or even baked with rose petals. Go for the nans that are fresh out of the kiln – warm nan tastes better than cold ones. Also, you can keep your nans for up to a month because the dry Xinjiang weather keeps the nans fresh.
8. Explore the ancient necropolis in Aksu
Situated on a plateau that oversees the city, the necropolis in Aksu is a vast graveyard that has existed for centuries. Many families buried their loved ones here and built beautiful mini mausoleums over the graves. Made entirely out of mud and sand, many graves still withstand the trial of time. Some of the graves were carved out of the cliffs and the erosion over the years has revealed the skeletons within. It may sound strange to visit a graveyard, but this one in Aksu is a beautiful architectural masterpiece that is situated just next to the magnificent Tien Shan mountain range.
9. Sleep on a rooftop in Turpan
Turpan is not exactly in southern Xinjiang, but it is still mostly populated by Uyghurs. Situated in a depression 220m below sea level, summers are extremely hot in Turpan. When I was there, temperatures went up to 52 degrees Celsius and I could feel the air heating up my lung each time I breathed in. Even at night, it was a sweltering 45 degrees Celsius.
Do not be put off by the weather though! It is this dry and hot weather that made Turpan the capital of grapes and the location of many great ancient civilisations. The entire city is covered in grape vines, and you can just pick some grapes along the way. You can also explore the ruins of ancient civilisations around the city such as Jiaohe, which is located on a plateau that oversees Turpan city. Join the locals and sleep on the rooftop at night. It is definitely much cooler than in the hotel room!
Southern Xinjiang is an extremely under-rated place. People talk more about how unsafe they think it is rather than how beautiful it is. There are so many places to explore and wow yourselves in southern Xinjiang. If you are a big fan of culture, history or nature, southern Xinjiang has all of it to offer. Southern Xinjiang has to be on your bucket list, so note down these nine things to do in southern Xinjiang.
What do you think of Southern Xinjiang? Drop me a comment below. Also, do share this article with your friends so more people are aware of the beauty of southern Xinjiang!