Silk Road Urumqi to Jiayuguan | Crescent Lake, Dunhuang
Crescent Lake, Dunhuang.

Silk Road: Urumqi to Jiayuguan (7 days)

See the sights along a key stretch of the northern Silk Road—Turpan's Jiaohe Ancient City Ruins and Ayding Lake, Dunhuang's Mogao Grottoes and Crescent Lake, Yumenguan Pass and the fortress at Jiayuguan, plus hikes and walks in scenery that goes from grassland to desert.

Level 2+
Easy hikes and walks. (Can I do it?)

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Had to cancel this one, sorry.

Trip overview
Day One main activities Fly to Urumqi, hike in grasslands in Kazakh area, overnight in Urumqi.
Day Two main activities Drive to Turpan, stopping for a hike; visit Jiaohe Ancient City ruins, Aiding Lake. Overnight in Turpan.
Day Three main activities Drive to Hami, visiting ‘Devil City’ for a hike on the way. Overnight in Hami.
Day Four main activities Drive to Dunhuang, desert hike to Crescent Lake and the Singing Sand dunes. Overnight in Dunhuang.
Day Five main activities Tour of Mogao Grottoes, hike at Yumenguan Pass. Overnight in Dunhuang.
Day Six main activities Drive to Jiayuguan, stopping for a look at ruined Han Dynasty Great Wall. Tour of Jiayuguan Fortress. Visit 'First Beacon Tower of the Great Wall'. Overnight in Jiayuguan.
Day Seven main activities Visit the Hanging Great Wall, Wei and Jin Tombs, Jiayuguan Lake. Fly back to Beijing.

This is a reworked version of our Journey from the West trip along the Silk Road.

In the classic of Chinese literature ‘Journey to the West,’ Monk Xuanzang and the Monkey King passed through Gansu and Xinjiang on the way to India, following the northern Silk Road.

On this seven day trip, we’ll make our own Journey from the West, crossing the desert, stopping at many of the major locations on the northern Silk Road, and seeing the traces left behind by the ancient travellers.

Highlights

Urumqi's Nanshan Grasslands

We fly into Urumqi on the first day of the trip, and will make an afternoon visit to the Nanshan Grasslands, a forested and grassy scenic area below the peaks of a spur of the Tianshan Mountain Range. The grasslands are part park, part grazing area for Kazakh nomads.

Turpan and the surrounding area

Turpan is an ancient city, located on the northern Silk Road. It’s sited in a depression in the earth, and the nearby Aydingkol Lake is China's lowest point at 154m below sea-level. Aydingkol Lake is also China's hottest spot, with a high of 50.3°C recorded in 2015.

The ruined city of Jiaohe, near Turpan
The ruined city of Jiaohe, near Turpan. (Click for larger image)

Nearby Turpan is the ruins of an ancient city named Jiaohe. The area was first settled in 1 B.C. During the 9th Century, rivers flowed around the city, and it was a key point on the Northern Silk Road. It was sacked by Genghis Khan after a long siege in the thirteenth century, and now only ruins remain. The ruins are extremely interesting, and cover quite a large area. Walking around, we’ll see the eroded but still impressive mud walls that outline the buildings and different precincts of what was once a large and busy stop on the Northern Silk Road.

Another place of interest near Turpan is Grape Valley, where houses and vineyards line the banks of a stream that flows down from the mountains. We'll visit Grape Valley for a meal at a local family's guesthouse.

Moguicheng 'Devil City'

Called 'City' because some of the rock formations look like castles, and called 'Devil' because of local legends of strange sounds and ghosts, Moguicheng is a bare and rocky landscape of strangely-shaped rock formations.

We'll stop for a hike at Moguicheng on the way to Hami.

Also known as Kumul, Hami is famous for its “Hami melons,” a very sweet type of muskmelon.

Hami was the capital of the Hui Emperors, and in town there is a large mausoleum that holds the tombs of the Hui kings and queens. The last king was buried more than 300 years ago.

We won’t spend a lot of time in Hami, just stopping overnight on the way to Dunhuang.

Dunhuang, Gansu Province

Dunhuang was a key stop on the northern Silk Road, allowing travelers to stock up on food and water before heading on through the desert. It’s said that a fort was built in Dunhuang around 100 B.C., and the area holds plenty of historical interest – in particular, the Mogao Grottoes, and Crescent Lake.

Mogao Grottoes, Dunhuang
Mogao Grottoes, Dunhuang. (Click for larger image)

Mogao Grottoes

A UNESCO site since 1987, the Mogao Grottoes were dug out by Buddhist monks, starting around 366 AD. Initially, the caves were used as a place to meditate, but, over time, they began to fill up with scriptures and painted murals. Four-hundred and ninety-two caves still remain, containing statues and murals. We’ll visit around 10 of the caves to have a look at the frescoes and statues. The area is a little touristy, but well worth a look. Photography is forbidden inside the caves, but you can get a good look by bringing a torch.

The Mogao Grottoes are one of the main highlights of the trip—consider the amount of work required in construction, and then the fact that they were preserved in mostly pristine condition by being buried by blowing sand, and forgotten about for nearly 400 years.

Crescent Lake, Dunhuang
Crescent Lake, Dunhuang. (Click for larger image)

Crescent Lake, Mingsha Sand Dunes

Crescent Lake is a crescent-shaped lake of clear water that has somehow managed to avoid being filled in by the shifting sands of the desert. A temple is located next to it, as well as the Mingsha Sand Dunes. The dunes are known as the Echoing Sand Dunes because of the strange sounds made by wind – and feet! – over the sand. The dunes are around 250m in height, from top to bottom. After climbing up, it’s super-fun to run down!

Yumenguan Pass

At Yumenguan Pass we’ll see the remains of a massive Han Dynasty-era gate in the Great Wall. Built around 121 B.C., it was one of two gates through which all traders passed through on the way to Dunhuang.

The rammed earth base of the main gate is all that is left now. It must have been an impressive gate—the base is measured as approximately nine metres tall, 24 metres deep, and 28 meters wide, which would make it larger than a basketball court.

The gate here was used until around about the sixth century, after which traders began to take a route through Hami instead.

Jiayuguan's 'First Beacon Tower of the Great Wall' is sited by a deep canyon
Jiayuguan's 'First Beacon Tower of the Great Wall' is sited by a deep canyon. (Click for larger image)

Han Dynasty and Ming Dynasty relics near Jiayuguan

Some of the earliest Great Wall was built during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), including a line of rammed earth ramparts that stretched out into the desert. It’s said that these fortifications, and the soldiers stationed on them to repel attacks from nomadic tribes and bandits, played a large role in making the Silk Road safer for travelers and increasing the volume of trade along the way..

Some Han Dynasty sites remain, and on this trip we’ll visit ancient Jin and Wei Dynasty tombs to see frescoes that are illustrative of the customs and dress of the times, and we’ll take a look at a section of the Han Dynasty Great Wall known as the 'Hanging Wall', said to have been restored using the Han Dynasty construction techniques.

The fortress at Jiayuguan marked the western end of the main line of Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 AD) Great Wall, but some watch towers were built further to the west. Near a deep canyon, we’ll find ‘The First Beacon Tower’, built to give early warning, via smoke signal, of approaching attackers.

The fortress at Jiayuguan, seen from the outside
The fortress at Jiayuguan, seen from the outside. (Click for larger image)

Jiayuguan Fortress

Jiayuguan Fortress is known as the western-most end of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall, and was one of the most important fortifications of its time, guarding the western entrance to China from the Hexi Corridor. The fortress has three defense lines – a moat, an outer city wall, and an inner city wall. There are gates on the east and west side. The fortress looks spectacular, with Great Wall climbing from it to the mountains in the north and south, and multi-storey towers and halls inside the walls and moat. We’ll visit the fortress on the first day of the trip.

In ancient times, banishment was a common form of punishment. If you were banished ‘to the West’, it's out through the west gate of the Jiayuguan Fortress that you'd pass.

Ethnic groups in Xinjiang

Xinjiang is home to many different Chinese minority groups, and in some places you might really feel you’re not in China. As we travel, we will get a good look at the customs of different minority groups, including different styles of clothing, different types of food, and religious beliefs. Many of the people in Xinjiang and Gansu are Muslim. Their religion forbids the eating of pork and donkey meat. Customers must not take their own food into Muslim restaurants. In mosques and other religious establishments, please be quiet, respectful and unobtrusive. Dress modestly at all times; this particularly applies to women.

Bargaining with stallholders, as is done in many Chinese cities, is to be avoided in Xinjiang.

Kid's prices

Ages 6–11: ¥15,220
Ages 12–17: ¥15,670

More photos

The ruined city of Jiaohe, near Turpan
The ruined city of Jiaohe, near Turpan. (Click for larger image)
Dinner at a family restaurant in Grape Valley
Dinner at a family restaurant in Grape Valley. (Click for larger image)
Crescent Lake, Dunhuang
Crescent Lake, Dunhuang. (Click for larger image)
Camels at Crescent Lake, Dunhuang
Camels at Crescent Lake, Dunhuang. (Click for larger image)
Camels at Crescent Lake, Dunhuang
Camels at Crescent Lake, Dunhuang. (Click for larger image)
Seeing sunset from the dunes above Crescent Lake
Seeing sunset from the dunes above Crescent Lake. (Click for larger image)
Mogao Grottoes, Dunhuang
Mogao Grottoes, Dunhuang. (Click for larger image)
Mogao Grottoes, Dunhuang
Mogao Grottoes, Dunhuang. (Click for larger image)
Mogao Grottoes, Dunhuang
Mogao Grottoes, Dunhuang. (Click for larger image)
Repaired Han Dynasty era Great Wall near Jiayuguan
Repaired Han Dynasty era Great Wall near Jiayuguan. (Click for larger image)
Repaired Han Dynasty era Great Wall near Jiayuguan
Repaired Han Dynasty era Great Wall near Jiayuguan. (Click for larger image)

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