Contrary to popular belief, the Silk Road wasn’t a single road, but a loosely connected series of roads and maritime routes stretching from China to Europe. The Silk Road in Xinjiang follows suit, dividing itself into northern and southern sections. Today, there’s a great deal to see and do on both the northern and southern routes, and both will have their fair share of ancient trading posts, history, culture, night markets and shops.Cycling the Silk Road is becoming more popular, and this once-in-a-lifetime adventure comes highly recommended – just make sure to come well-prepared for the rough weather conditions that can change sporadically and within minutes (make sure to bring a tent, food, warm clothes and plenty of water). For those driving or motorcycling, keep in mind that it’s common to go 200 km (125 mi) or more without passing any towns or gas stations, so fill up when you get the chance and consider bringing extra gas tanks for the ride.Taking the Hotan – Aksu Cross Desert Highway or the Cross Desert Highway straight through the Taklimakan Desert is extremely dangerous, and you can go days without seeing another person, while towns and gas stations are virtually nonexistent along these inhospitable lands. If you do decide to cross the barren desert on your own, it’s best to prepare for the worst-case scenario.
Northern Silk Road:
Turpan to Kashgar
There’s no reason to stop in Korla unless you are in transit from one place to another. Many describe it as a mini Urumqi since it’s dominated by Han and there are modern skyscrapers popping up everywhere. There is a dusty Old Town on the opposite side of the river that sees virtually zero tourists, and this is really the only worthwhile destination.
There are some budget accommodation in and around Old Town, but some may not take foreigners. If you’re looking for a nicer and more modern place to stay, there are plenty of options in the newer Han-dominated part of town.
Perhaps the best tourist destination between Urumqi and Kashgar, Kuqa has several places worth seeing and some good accommodation options.
Similar to Korla, there’s not much going on in this sleepy town, but it’s a good transit point from A to B; especially for motorcyclists and cyclists. Aksu is a more traditional Uighur town with a traditional vibe and a genuine bazaar in the city center. There are a few budget options around the bazaar if you want to stick around for the night.
Southern Silk Road:
Kashgar to Charklik
This offbeat village is known for two important trademarks of Uighur culture: knives and Isa Yusef Alptekin. The former is a Uighur specialty, and smiths here are known to make the sharpest and most decorative knives in all of China. The latter was the leader of the first East Turkestan Republic who passed away in exile in Istanbul in 1995. Yensigar is very close to Kashgar and makes a great day trip.
One of the more popular sites on the Southern Silk Road, Yarkand was a major trading post back in the day. One of the main attractions is the Altun Mosque (Ālètún Qīngzhēnsì; 阿勒屯清真寺) and the next-door Mausoleum of Ammanisahan (¥15). The burial site also has tombs from the Yarkand royal family from the 1500s to the 1600s. A short walk away is the town’s burial ground, where you can see a massive site with ancient Islamic tombs facing Mecca.
The other highlight of Yarkand is Old Town (to the east of Altun Mosque). Similar to other Uighur cities, it has a Sunday market, plenty of food stands, and souvenir shops selling time-honored merchandise.
This is the town where most travelers spend the night before heading south into Tibet on the awesome Highway 219, aka the Xinjiang-Tibet Highway. Make sure you have those Tibetan travel permits, though, because the road is strung with police. There’s also a pretty 15th century mosque in this town.
Because Hotan was a major jade trading post during the heydays of the Silk Road, the name may be familiar to some of you. Though Hotan has lost prominence since then, there’s still plenty to see around town. The town’s Carpet Factory (Dìtǎn Chǎng; 地毯厂; FREE) and the Silk Workshop (Sīchóu Chǎng; 丝绸厂; ¥5) show you how they make these specialized crafts, which have been hot Silk Road commodities for centuries.
Consider heading several kilometers outside of town to the Imam Asim (Four Imams) cemetery, a sacred Muslim pilgrimage site. An alternative is to visit the Hotan Cultural Museum (Hétián Bówùguǎn; 和田博物馆), a great spot to view Xinjiang’s old history and even a few Indo-European mummies. If ancient history is what you’re after, give the Melikawat Ruins (Gǔ Chéng; 古城; ¥10) a try. Around 25 km (15 mi) south of the city center, this 1,500-year-old settlement’s trump card is its collection of still-intact stupas. For one of the best markets on the entire Southern Silk Road, check out the local Sunday Market (which is also open on Fridays after afternoon prayer).
This small forgotten town is conveniently located between Hotan and Charklik, making it a great transit spot. Check out the Toghraklek Manor Museum (Tuōhūlākè Zhuāngyuán Bówùguǎn; 托乎拉克庄园博物馆; ¥20) for ancient unearthed artifacts and the Zaghunluq Ancient Mummy Tomb (Zhāgǔnlǔkè Gǔmùqún; 扎滚鲁克古墓群; ¥30) for more of Xinjiang’s freakiest Halloween costumes.
This predominately Han city has some hard-to-reach ancient ruins hundreds of kilometers outside of town. The Ancient City of Loulan (Lóulán Gǔchéng; 楼兰古城) near Lake Lop Nor (Luóbùbó; 罗布泊) will cost you a lot of cash just for the permit to see it, and you’ll have to join a tour group since it’s nearly impossible to reach on your own. The Miran Fortress (Mǐlán Gǔchéngbǎo; 米兰古城堡) is a bit closer, cheaper and more accessible, but you’ll still probably need to go through one of the many tour agencies that can be found all around town.