After being based in Beijing for the past 6 years and having extensively traveled throughout the country, I think I can claim not to be someone easily impressed by stunning geography and historic sites.
But I have discovered yet again, another fascinating location within the country of 1.4 billion people. Xinjiang, located in the West of China officially named The Uyghur Autonomous region, with its 1.6 million square kilometers, is China’s largest subdivision and a place loaded with history. It borders no less than eight countries – Russia, Mongolia, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
Xinjiang’s demographics differ from the rest of Mainland China. Uyghur and Han contribute in equal numbers to more than 90 percent of its population. Representing China´s, namely the Qing dynasty´s first attempt of an integration of people other than the Han Chinese into its territory using the 内外一家 (Nei Wai Yi Jia – Interior Exterior One Family) idea it is at the present deeply shaken by inter-ethnic conflicts which primarily materialize in the Southern regions where the majority of Uyghur people live.
While there are many things to see in Xinjiang, the Taklamakan Desert is the focus of my current expedition. The desert’s northern and southern borders were vital arteries of the ancient trade route, the Silk Road. As one of the fastest moving deserts worldwide it is full of archaeological treasures which little by little are being uncovered from the sand dunes while in other places being slowly buried.
My itinerary includes the oasis towns of Turpan, Kashgar and Hotan as well as the Karakoram highway which connects Kashgar with the Pakistani border passing by Tashkurgan and Karakul Lake surrounded by a mountain range with three peaks topping 25,000 feet. Geographically the province can be divided into three main regions: the Junggar basin in the north and the Turpan depression in the East separated by the Tianshan mountains from the Tarim basin in the South.
Urumqi, the capital of the province, is the starting point of my journey through the Wild West of China. Apart from the number of not really Chinese or what you would imagine as Chinese looking people living there, it is not very different from other second tier cities in the People´s Republic.
Why have I named this article the heart of Asia? The answer, a monument erected in the southwestern suburbs of Urumqi, marks the geographic location in Eurasia with the furthest distance from the sea in any direction.
With a Chinese driving license in hand, I rent a car to make my way down to Turpan. Eastern Xinjiang’s Turpan depression, is after the Dead Sea and the Danakil depression in Ethiopia, the third lowest point on the planet. Turpan gets quite hot in the summer and people claim to be able to have their eggs boiled on the road on a sunny day. Important religious sites to both Buddhists and Muslims such as the Bai Zi Crick Thousand Buddha caves and the Emin Minaret are located in and around the Flaming Mountains – red sandstone hills which form an indescribable contrast with the dark blue sky.
Kashgar, about one hour by plane to the West from Urumqi is more reminiscent of a Middle Eastern town than of a typical Chinese one. There are numerous mosques scattered around the city and it is here where Central Asia´s biggest market opens its gates on Sundays.
My travel guide He Hao, who also runs Kashgar´s most famous hostel, the Pamir Youth hostel, takes me in her 4×4 SUV all the way to Tashkurgan passing by the breathtaking views of the surrounding Pamir mountain range. One of the highlights in this region is to arrive at the shores of Karakul Lake before sunset, stay overnight and see the reflections Muzthagh Ata with its peak covered in snow after sunrise in its calm and crystal clear waters. And thinking nothing could possibly top this experience, we hike up to the Shiptain´s Arch, accurately labeled by National Geographic as a geological wonder.
The final stage of my travels through this stunning and diverse region is a camel trek into the Taklamakan desert starting from the oasis town of Hotan on the desert´s southwestern edge.
Welcomed by Mr. Kurban, a perfect English speaking and very knowledgeable guide, we venture out for a two day ride staying overnight between the sand dunes with nothing but endless stars flickering above us in the vast desert sky.
As I return to Beijing, this journey has indeed left me, a self-proclaimed seasoned traveler that’s not easy to impress, with a deep and surely lasting impression, of a very special place and people.
If you´re interested in taking a tour into the Taklamakan Desert you may contact Mr. Kurban directly via email email@example.com.
All Photographs Are © Emanuel Luttersdorfer
Emanuel Luttersdorfer Photographer Bio
Austrian-born Emanuel Luttersdorfer is a medical doctor based in Beijing working with the international community. His interest in foreign cultures and places led him to study Tropical Medicine in Thailand which was the starting point for a life as an expat in Asia. After studying photography with internationally acclaimed travel-photographer Mark Edward Harris, the camera became an essential tool for his life abroad, always on the lookout for special places and moments to record.
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