Encompassing shifting sand deserts, lush grasslands, breathtaking lakes, snow-capped mountains, verdant forests, lively cities, historical relics, religious sites, natural wonders, and a cultural mix of ethnic minorities all in one province, Xinjiang is China’s best kept travel destination secret.

Tianchi - Xinjiang
Photo: (Image by Sophie Steiner) Tianchi is an Alpine Lake in Xinjiang – China.

As China’s largest administrative division, the land-locked Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region spans 1.66 million square kilometers, covering an altitude from 157 meters below sea level in the Turpan Depression, the third lowest place on Earth to 8,611 meters above sea level at K2 – the second highest peak in the world. 

Summer sees boiling, dry heat waves, while winter plummets into Arctic-level freezes, but spring and autumn allow visitors to enjoy the best of both worlds, along with an abundant harvest of seasonal fruits and nuts, like Turpan grapes, Korla pears, Kucha apricots, Yecheng pomegranates, Atushi figs, Hotan walnuts and Hami melons.

Multi-Ethnic Population - Xinjiang
Photo: (Image by Sophie Steiner) Multi-Ethnic Population in Xinjiang – China.

As vast as its climate, altitude and landscape span, Xinjiang’s population is equally diverse – a rich Silk Road-influenced history culminating in a cultural melting pot of Uyghurs, Tajiks, Mongols, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Han Chinese and many more. 

Still relatively new to the tourist scene, Xinjiang provides travelers with bona fide experiences, meaningful encounters and authentic interactions with the people, culture, cuisine and history of this extraordinary region of China.

Kashgar Old Town 

On the far western side of Xinjiang sits Kashgar, a once crucial trading point along the Silk Road between China, the Middle East and Europe. At the center of the now modern city is Kashgar’s Old Town, a replica of what once existed that still maintains its cultural significance.

Hustling food vendors dot the twisting alleyways, calling out their daily specials between handicraft stalls packed with local products – like embroidered silk scarves, Hotan carved jade, pounded copper tableware and dried fruits and nuts – all spilling out onto the street. 

Weekend mornings see hordes of people congregating at the Kashgar Sunday Bazaar, a bustling livestock trading point, filled with food hawkers and street vendors on the outskirts. Only interested in street snacks? There’s a night market filled with all the local delicacies every evening along Ou-er Daxike Lu, directly across from the Id Kah Mosque, the largest of its kind in Xinjiang.

Don’t miss the Afaq Khoja Mausoleum, a masterpiece of Uyghur traditional architecture just a few kilometers away from the Old Town, or a hiking trip out to Shipton’s Arch – the highest rock arch in the world – less than two hours outside of Kashgar.

The heavenly Karakoram road originates in Kashgar, crosses the Pamir and Karakoram mountains and continues onwards through the Himalaya and Hindu Kush mountain ranges – the highest on the planet – before descending into the Indus River valley in Pakistan.

After passing through the Ghez River Canyon, stop at the Baisha Lake – surrounded by powdery sand dunes – followed by a visit to the stunning Karakul Lake, with its pristine backdrop reflecting the ginormous Muztag Ata mountain behind it.

Known as the most beautiful drive with the highest border crossing on Earth, China travelers can finish this scenic journey at Taxkorgan, the final town before the border crossing. The nearby Stone City Ruins – with its 2,000-year-old history – coupled with the sprawling Golden Grasslands, make this primarily Tajik-influenced village a worthwhile visit.

Xinjiang’s Capital City is home to 3.5 million people, modern skyscrapers & a contemporary lifestyle, yet it’s one of the most remote cities on the planet and farthest from the ocean than any other city in the world.

Although it lacks an ancient history and an old town per se, it is a major jumping off point for seeing northeast and southeast Xinjiang, plus a foodie haven for regional favorites.

Referred to as The City of Grapes, Turpan is one of Xinjiang’s jewels, famous for its Uyghur culture, unique geographical location and historical value.

From the majestic Yarkhoto (Jiaohe) Ancient City Ruins – the oldest, best preserved earthen architectural site in the world, dating back to the second century BC – to the looming, crimson Flaming Mountains that appear to be on fire in the midday heat, Turpan is a true desert town.

Find respite from the heat in any of the sprawling grape vineyards that surround the city, the ideal place for a local lunch, or at Emin Minaret, an 18th century mosque converted into a photographer’s playground.

Referred to as The City of Grapes, Turpan is one of Xinjiang’s jewels, famous for its Uyghur culture, unique geographical location and historical value.

From the majestic Yarkhoto (Jiaohe) Ancient City Ruins – the oldest, best preserved earthen architectural site in the world, dating back to the second century BC – to the looming, crimson Flaming Mountains that appear to be on fire in the midday heat, Turpan is a true desert town.

Find respite from the heat in any of the sprawling grape vineyards that surround the city, the ideal place for a local lunch, or at Emin Minaret, an 18th century mosque converted into a photographer’s playground.

The Tianshan Mountains stretch from Uzbekistan into Xinjiang, with Bogda Shan, one of the easternmost sub-ranges, being particularly impressive. With fantastic glacial peaks rising over deep alpine valleys, Tian Chi, or Heavenly Lake, is a national park blanketed in grasslands, forests and glistening waters.

Hike around the park for a visit to a monastery built into a mountain, a dribbling waterfall and panoramic views across this mountainous paradise.

If it’s more stunning lake views you’re after, the Kanas Lake – located in the valley of the Altai Mountains, is a picturesque body of water bordering Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia.