People are endlessly fascinated by deserts. The combination of isolation, extremity and stark beauty fires the imagination, no more so than in the Gobi Desert of China.
The desert itself sprawls throughout the western part of China, edging into Mongolia for long stretches, making it difficult to say exactly where it officially begins and ends. Adjoining the Gobi is the still more mysterious Taklamakan desert, which translates, ominously, as the place where people venture in and do not come back.
Maybe it is that edge of danger that attracts people to visit and explore desert regions. In days of yore, Silk Road traders had little option but to traverse the edges of the sand mass, as it was the quickest way for the camel trains to head to the Far West of the country, their loads ultimately destined for the Middle East and beyond.
They must have been hardy people, to walk for weeks on end between oasis towns, surviving the blistering heat of summer and the stinging winds of unpredictable sandstorms. Dotted around that desert region - then and now - are oasis towns, places where the water gushes plentifully, allowing bountiful farming.
During the Silk Road's heyday, income from passing traders brought the outposts great wealth. Merchants would fund paintings, or statues, at local temples and sacred caves, in a bid to secure good luck for their hazardous passages across tough terrain. If they returned safely, they would spend part of the gold from the successful transactions on yet more adornments, to give thanks to the gods.
One place in particular benefitted from this largesse. The 400-plus desert caves of Dunhaung, which have fabulous paintings on the walls, were rediscovered early in the last century by foreign archaeologists. They were amazed by what they found: the dry desert air and covered-up entranceways had left the caves intact, pretty much the same as they were a thousand years early.
Inside were priceless silk scrolls adorned with intricate calligraphy, unique relics of a bygone era. The archaeologist-adventurers filled trunks with the artefacts - often damaging the paintings and carvings in their frantic rush -- and carted them home by camel train to the West.
But despite the desecration, enough remains to dazzle contemporary tourists, whether it is in Dunhuang, or at the Bezelik Thousand Buddha Caves just outside Turpan. In fact the oasis town is a veritable treasure trove of ancient history: close by are the surprisingly intact cities of Jiaohe and Gaochang, once thriving centres that welcomed people of different religions and nationalities.
Gushing water from the Tian Shan mountain range was diverted into a cleverly- engineered irrigation system. Plentiful water allowed residents to reap rich harvests of grapes and melons, with the surplus exported to towns throughout China.
Not all the Silk Road oasis towns survived to the present day. Some were buried by the shifting sands, lost for ever, while others crumbled and fell into disrepair. This region was the furthest outpost of the Great Wall, the amazing structure designed to keep out barbarian would-be invaders.
The Far West of China has many well-preserved examples of civilisations long gone. The city of Yinchuan was once the capital of a mysterious 11th century kingdom which, to this day, has a strong Islamic influence. The king, in the extravagant manner of the time, built 72 tombs for himself.
In days gone by, the safest and sturdiest form of transport was the camel, the two-humped Gobi Desert beast that can go for weeks without water. It is still popular, used for both work and leisure purposes. A dawn camel-ride into the Gobi Desert, up and over the delicately-lit dunes, allows visitors to have an authentic taste of Silk Road life.
The silk that gave the road its name remains popular. Few people leave without acquiring some kind of silk-made garment, or, perhaps, a carved piece of jade from one of the master craftsmen en route. Another alternative is to visit the richly-stocked bazaars of the desert region, colourful and vibrant places which sell everything the desert-dweller could ever need...
Hotan, a city in southwest Tarim Basin in Xinjiang, bordered by Karakorum Mountains and Tibet to the south, was the part of Keriya Kingdom in ancient times, and the centre of Buddhism for Xinjiang in the earliest days. It is a charming oasis that abounds in jade, silk and carpets.
The meaning of Kashgar is “Jade”. It is situated at the southwestern part of Xinjiang and is located in the western extremity of China, near the border with Tajikistan. It is the constellating point of Chinese and Western cultures.
It is a city in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and is under the administration of the Aksu Prefecture. It was once the home of an ancient Buddhist Kingdom of Kucha and played a vital role on the ancient Silk Road.
Taklamakan Desert is located in the Tarim Basin in the south of Xinjiang. It is the second largest desert in the world and the largest in China. Its moving sands continue to shape the desert during the wind season. Due to its mysterious landscape, Taklamakan Desert is also called ”Sea of Death” – people got in would hardly find the way out in the old days.
Turpan, located in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, has the lowest elevation of any place in China. It is a basin in the mountains of east Xinjiang. Aydingkol Lake is 505 feet below sea level and is the second lowest area of the world, behind the Dead Sea in Jordan. The temperature in the summer can get as high as 50ºC, which is why it is also known as "The Fire Prefecture".
Famous historical sites include the ancient cities of Jiaohe and Gaochang, and the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves. It is 113 miles from Urumqi with expressways linking the two cities.
Urumqi means "a beautiful pasture land” in ancient Mongolian used by the Junggar tribe. It is the capital of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in China. Urumqi was an important town on the new northern route of the Silk Road, which made vital contributions in promoting Sino-foreign economic and cultural exchanges 2,000 years ago.
Urumqi is a city where ethnic minorities live in compact of mixed communities. They are the Uygur, Han, Hui, Kazak, Mongolian, Kirgiz, Xibe, altogether over 40 ethnic groups of people. It is interesting that Han people are the major ethnic group in China, but in Xinjiang, they are minority group. The city's uniqueness, the strong colorful ethnic life styles and local customs are quite attractive to visitors.
Xian (also Xi’an)
Xian, the capital of Shaanxi Province, is located in the heart of the Guanzhong Basin, with the Weihe River running along the northern border of the city. It is the largest metropolis in northwestern China. Known as Chang'an in ancient China, Xian is a world-renowned ancient capital.
For 1,062 years beginning in the 11th century B.C., Xian was the capital of 13 dynasties including the Western Zhou, Qin, Western Han, Eastern Han, Sui, and Tang. The continuous dynastic occupation kept the city beautiful and magnificent. More than two hundred and seventy palaces and temples were built during its heyday, such as the "Three Han Palaces" in the Han dynasty, namely Changle, Weiyang, Jianzhang Palaces, and numerous other palaces and watch towers. The most well-known among these is the Tomb of Emperor Qin Shihuang, with the Terracotta Warriors and chariot. Xian is also the starting point of the ancient Silk Road.
Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Xinjiang is located in northwest China and covers 617 thousand square miles. Its population is 16.62 million. It contains one sixth of the total area of China, and is inhabited with different minorities and nationalities including Uygur, Han, Kazak, Hui, Mongolian, Kirgiz, Xihe, Tajik, Uzbek, Manchu, Daur, Tatar, and Russian.
Xinjiang is far from the sea and is surrounded by snow-capped mountains, boundless deserts and vast grasslands. There are many basins and oases scattered over the region. The dry climate has created the peculiar natural scenery such as the Gobi Desert and salt deserts. The clear water from melted snow and ample sunshine make it an invigorating place.
After entering the border of Xinjiang, the Silk Road splits into three routes: the north, middle and south. Many ruins of ancient cities, watchtowers and numerous historical sites of the Han and Tang dynasties that have been swallowed by the sand remain along the routes. There are also important cities and towns such as Urumqi, Turpan, Kashai, Kuqa, Hotan, and Taxkorgan along the ancient Silk Road.
After a fantastic couple of weeks in China we leave for Hong Kong tomorrow. We have had a great time and the memories will stay with us for a lifetime.
Could you please forward our sincere thanks to our local guides, ZHAO in Beijing, SUSAN in Xian and SISSI in Shanghai who have made our trip so memorable? They have all been extremely kind and helpful making sure we experienced the local culture and history in each location.
Thank you also for organising the trip and ensuring we had such a great time.
With sincere thanks.
Kevin & Sallie Redmond
The Titan Times Hotel in Xian is very recommendable. The guide Mary Qu was excellent, her English is outstanding and she is very friendly. The pre-tour briefing was very good.
Ms. T. Lesaffre
24-28 Sep 09
Conditions along the Silk Road vary from a typical continental climate around Xian to a desert climate as you travel westward. Average daily variation is about 12°C. Temperature in certain desert areas may vary up to a maximum of 36°C in one day between noon and midnight.Despite the hot weather, the summer months of June, July, August and September are a popular time to travel when the oasis towns are full of life, flowers are blooming, fruits are in season, and the fragrance of sweet melons and grapes fill the air. Spring and autumn though short and barely noticeable, are a comfortable season to travel too. Winter is cold but offers a different perspective in scenery.
Light cotton dresses, sunglasses and a hat to guard against sunburn for the summer. Wool and fleece layers, topped with a down jacket with wind-breaking shell, scarves, gloves, hats and woolen socks for the winter.Wear layers that can be added on or discarded as weather changes. Comfortable rubber-soled shoes are recommended.
“Culture Hotel” is our hotel brand that aims to bring to you a unique hotel concept. Each hotel blends in with local architectural style and décor to preserve the indigenous flavour of the region. During your trip, you may have a chance to stay at one of below distinctive hotels that have character and soul:
: Lusongyuan Hotel
: The Silk Road Dunhuang Hotel
: Pingjiang Lodge
: Tunxi Lodge
: Turpan Oasis Hotel
: Xidi Travel Lodge
: Tsongkha Hotel
Food & Beverages
Hotels in China usually offer buffet breakfast or continental breakfast. You may bring some snacks along with you for the trip. Avoid drinking tap water and eating cold dishes or beverages at the street market. Drink only bottled water and well cooked food during the trip.
The most efficient and comfortable way to travel is by air. Air China, China Southern Airlines, China Eastern Airlines and Hainan Airlines operate regular flights along the Silk Road cities using aircraft models Boeing 707, 737, 757 and Airbus A320. In addition, the Lanzhou - Urumqi Railway line operates train service along the Silk Road. For the more adventurous travellers who prefer to trace the footprints of Marco Polo, they can consider entering China by road through the Khunjerab Pass from Pakistan on the KarokoramHighway, or by the International Railway from Moscow to Urumqi.
China Visa & Travel Document
Most of the overseas passport holders are required to apply for a China Visa to enter China. Please check with your local Chinese embassy for visa application. To visit Tibet, all overseas passport holders are required to apply for a special permit. Please allow at least 14 working days to apply for the Tibet Permit. Remember to check if your passport is valid for at least 6 months’ before your departure date.
There are two service systems for China Cell Phone – GSM and CDMA. China Mobile's feature is the GSM system, while China Unicom the CDMA system. Cell phone network covers most provinces in China except that transmission may sometimes be interrupted in certain desert areas. Most hotels have IDD lines where you can make IDD calls in your room. Internet access is available at the business centre of most hotels.
The currency is called Chinese Yuan (CNY), which is also known as Renminbi (RMB) locally. International credits cards like Visa and Master are accepted by hotels in the major cities. US Dollar Travellers Cheques are acceptable for money exchange in most hotels.