The history and culture of China’s western regions are some of the country’s most interesting, for it is here that the Middle Kingdom interacted with a wide variety of peoples, especially the nomads of the Steppe. The fabled Silk Route crossed this region. Xinjiang saw the historic interaction of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Nestorian Christianity, Shamanism and Islam.
China’s ancient capital, Chang’an (Xi’an), has Ming Dynasty walls, and nearby are the Terracotta Warriors in the mausoleum of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. The city is linked geographically to the Taklamakan and Gobi deserts and beyond them the steppe by the Gansu corridor. This wide valley, flanked by high mountain ranges, has been travelled by warriors, monks and merchants for millennia.
From the Gansu city Lanzhou, one may visit the extraordinary sculpted caves and huge Tang dynasty Buddha at the Binglingsi Thousand Buddha Caves and Labrang Lamasery, one of Tibetan Buddhism’s greatest monasteries. Further west, the corridor was protected by the western-most part of the Great Wall of China and Jiayuguan Fortress.
Beyond the corridor is Dunhuang, once a frontier garrison town. Nearby, the Mogao Caves are the greatest Buddhist decorated cave system in the world. Mogao has statues and paintings dating from 400 to 1600 AD. Across the Gobi lies the depression of Turfan, second lowest region in the world. It produces melons and grapes, prized for millennia. Turfan is watered by amazing karez (underground aqueducts) and has the ancient mud-brick Jiaohe City ruins and a distinctive Central Asian mosque.
To the north, the Xinjiang Museum in the city of Urumchi exhibits over 200 remarkably well-preserved mummies discovered in the western deserts. At the western end of this desert is the ancient Uyghur city of Kashgar. It has age-old trading streets in which craftsmen create all manner of goods from copperware to musical instruments. It has wonderful Muslim shrines, a huge Friday Mosque and a famous animal market trading donkeys, camels and other livestock. From Kashgar the spectacular Karakoram Highway leads south, skirting Mt Kongur (7,719m) and Mt Muztagata (7,546m), among the world’s highest peaks, to Lake Karakol (3,800m).