A bit more background – this time on the logistics front – before I get into the “meat and potatoes” of Xinjiang.
Why an organized tour?
Knowing our time in China is limited (we were able to get a one month visa in Hong Kong; we are banking on receiving an additional, month-long extension while in Guangxi province), that the country is HUGE and that there will more that we want to see than there will be time for us to be able to see, we decided to ask for a bit of help for Xinjiang.
We heard good things about Abdul Wahab Tours and we’re so glad we were able to explore a bit of the region with their help. (I’ll write a full review about them later on.)
We booked a tour with them focusing on Kashgar and other points of interest in western Xinjiang, all accessible by car. It was a private tour for just Roman and me. We were provided with both a guide and a driver. The itinerary was very full and allowed us to see as much as possible in our limited time. In the end, we spent a little over a week in Xinjiang; the tour was five days.
I was totally captivated by the province and feel like I only was fed an “appetizer”. At the same time, it was pretty demanding travel and there was SO much to take in that staying longer (if we continued to travel at that clip) would probably have been too much; I think it would have left me utterly exhausted.
As it was, I do feel like we had a wonderful and satisfactory introduction to the place, thanks to Abdul and his team. I left Xinjiang feeling totally spellbound by it, amazed by its unexpected and fascinating sights, sounds, tastes, textures, knowing that for me, this is one of the big highlights of our big trip. What more could I want? 🙂
Our days in Xinjiang
Click the image for a detailed view. Thanks to www.maps-of-china.net for the map images!
The itinerary was as follows:
Day 0: Arrive at Kashgar late Friday night.
Day 1: The tour began the next day, early. Departing the city to drive along the Karakoram highway to Karakul Lake, where we would spend the night.
Day 2: Up early again the next morning, driving from Karakul Lake to the mountain town of Tashkurgan where we would spend the night.
Day 3: Leave before sunrise the next day to return to Kashgar in time for the action at the livestock Market (which only takes place on Sunday). Sightseeing in and around Kashgar.
Day 4: Next morning drive to Yarkant where we would take camels out into the Taklimakan desert, overnighting in a tent.
Day 5: Return to Kashgar for the completion of the tour
Day 6: One full day in Kashgar on our own
Day 7: Flying to Urumqi.
Day 8: One full day in Urumqi on our own
Day 9: Depart for Yangshuo mid-day.
Why Xinjiang first?
Roman pointed out that we traveled from Hong Kong to Kashgar (check out the distance on the map), only to return to Yangshuo, which is, relatively speaking, a stone’s throw from Hong Kong and no doubt a MUCH more pleasant journey. So, travel isn’t always logical…! 🙂
Xinjiang is about as far north as we expect to travel in China; it’s probably also the roughest terrain we’ll be seeing here. We wanted to have our Chinese course at the beginning of our trip (that at least makes sense!), but we’ve turned soft with all these months in tropical Southeast Asia and the days are getting shorter now… Basically we didn’t want to end our time in China miserably freezing our butts off up in the mountains so it was either start with Xinjiang or forget it. As it was, even in September things get pretty frosty up in those mountains!
Getting to Kashgar
What this meant for us was one extremely long day of travel. It wasn’t as many hours as my trip from Thailand to the States but it sure felt nearly as long (and it was nearly as expensive!).
I don’t think Xinjiang/Kashgar is particularly easy to get to from most places. If you are considering it, I’d encourage you to try to break up the journey for yourself if you have the means/time to do so.
We had three stop-overs on the way from Hong Kong to Kashgar – Wuhan, Xi’an and Urumqi. It was an interesting first experience of Mainland China, flying domestic and being literally the only westerners hanging out in the departure lounges!
The airports became simpler and smaller with each subsequent destination on our itinerary. There were delays in Xi’an and we were anticipating having to do a mad dash to get our luggage and check-in at Urumqi (China is like the US – you have to pick up and re-check your luggage at each stop).
Amazingly there was someone waiting with our names on a sign as we got off the plane. She walked us onto the tarmac where we got to peer into the under-belly of the plane to identify our bags for quick transfer, then whisked us efficiently through the nearly empty airport. We had our own private security check – the fastest I’ve ever experienced, and then were escorted directly to our plane. Total VIP treatment when we had been bracing for possibly missing our flight. Roman and I got such a kick out of it! 🙂
The plane views from Hong Kong to Urumqi had been non-existent – all of China seemed to be covered in a drab, obfuscating haze that day. From the runway we had seen that things looked clearer in Urumqi, but as we took off into the dark night sky and headed west towards Kashgar, there was nothing to see below. Every once in a LONG while, there would be a small clutch of lights clustered together, but mostly the land was a vast, mysterious expanse of black underneath us. My imagination percolated, wondering what exactly we were flying over. Our flight back nearly a week later would prove that there really wasn’t much in the way of civilization under the airspace between Kashgar and Urumqi – mostly just tracts of desert and color-infused mountains. Simply gorgeous!