Hike schedule is reduced due to coronavirus—closures and restrictions mean there are few options for hiking. Read more about it here

Xinjiang: Journey from the West

See the sights along a key stretch of the northern Silk Road—the Flaming Mountains and Jiaohe Ancient City Ruins, the Buddhist artwork in the Mogao Grottoes and Bezeklik Caves, the Ming Dynasty fortress and ancient Han Dynasty Great Wall at Jiayuguan, and more!

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A person on camelback heading towards red-coloured mountains
The Flaming Mountains, near Turpan, Xinjiang Province.

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 include the Flaming Mountains and the ancient ruined city of Jiaohe, the Han Dynasty Great Wall in the Gobi Desert, the fortress of Jiayuguan that marks the western end of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall, the Buddhist cave art of Dunhuang’s Mogao Grottoes, and a night camping in the desert.

Extra! Add on the October 6–10 Zhangye Danxia Landform trip for just 4,500 RMB!

Trip overview

Day 1—Fly to Urumqi, Urumqi Bazaar (if time), drive to Turpan.
Day 2—Karez Irrigation Exhibit, Jiaohe Ruins, Flaming Mountains, Thousand-Buddha Caves. Drive to campsite in the desert.
Day 3—Drive to Hami, visit Mausoleum of Hui Emperors, watch traditional music performance.
Day 4—Drive to Dunhuang, picnic and short hike to see Han Dynasty Great Wall in the desert.
Day 5—Visit Mogao Grottoes. Three-hour walk to Crescent Lake and Mingsha Sand Dunes.
Day 6—Drive to Jiayuguan, picnic and short hike in desert. Night time walk about Jiayuguan.
Day 7—Visit Jiayuguan Fortress, Han Dynasty Great Wall. Fly back to Beijing.

Highlights

Turpan

Turpan is an ancient city, located on the northern Silk Road. It’s sited in a depression in the earth, and in places the area is actually below sea level. In Turpan City, and in the surrounding area, there are many sites of interest.

The Bezeklik Thousand-Buddha Caves

The Bezeklik Thousand-Buddha Caves.

Flaming Mountains, Thousand-Buddha Caves, Ancient City Ruins

The Flaming Mountains are located on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert, in one of the hottest places in all of China. The name ‘Flaming Mountains’ is appropriate for several reasons: they’re formed from a striking red-coloured sandstone; and, when the sun shines on them on a hot day, you can literally feel the heat. In the classic of Chinese literature “Journey to the West,” the Flaming Mountains are mentioned as a place passed by a Buddhist Monk and the Monkey King on their journey to India.

In one of the valleys of the Flaming Mountains lie the Thousand Buddha Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage site that features 77 caves dug out of the rock. The walls of the caves are painted with Buddhist art - some in good condition, some in poor condition, and some, unfortunately, completely absent due to ‘borrowing’ by archaeologists in the late nineteenth century. Not all of the caves are open, but we’ll be able to get a good look at a few.

Not far from the mountains, a little further into the desert, are 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. We’ll visit these three sites on the second day of the trip

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 on the evening of the first day of the trip for a meal at a local family's guesthouse.

Desert Camping

Sunrise in the desert

Sunrise in the desert.

To break up the 400km drive from Turpan to Hami, we’ll spend a night camping in the rocky desert. We’ll light a bonfire, and if the weather is clear, we’ll have amazing views of the starry sky in an area with barely any light pollution.

The town of Hami

Also known as Kumul, the town of Hami is famous for its “Hami melons,” a very sweet type of muskmelon. Like Turpan, parts of the area around Hami are below sea level, including the dried Lake Ayding, which is 154m below sea level, the third lowest exposed point on the surface of the Earth. We won’t spend a lot of time in Hami, but we will pay a visit to the Mausoleum of Hui Emperors. The Hui are an ethnic group that practice Islam, and there is a large mosque next to the mausoleum. The tombs are of an Islamic design, and are the burial place of Hui kings and queens. The last king was buried more than 300 years ago. As well as the mausoleum, we’ll have a quick look at the mummy in the town museum, and take in an entertaining song and dance performance in the local traditional style.

Great Wall in the Desert

The remnants of Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) Great Wall can be found in the Gobi desert. The section that we will look at is part of a stretch that crossed the desert from Hami to Jiuquan, the Great Wall in this area was made out of layers of reeds and rammed earth and gravel. Two thousand years later, some of the wall remains in reasonable – but weathered – condition. The wall here, and the soldiers who garrisoned it, made the area safer for the traders and pilgrims on the Silk Road.

Dunhuang City

Dunhuang was another 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.

Mogao Grottoes

The exterior of the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang

The Mogao Grottoes are carved into this cliff face. Behind the structure seen in the photo is a huge Buddha statue.

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 with your torch.

The Mogao Grottoes are one of the main highlights of the trip, a sight not to be missed.

Crescent Lake, Mingsha Sand Dunes

A view of Crescent Lake from the surrounding sand dunes high above.

A view of Crescent Lake. View another photo »

The other two main sites of interest in Dunhuang are located in the same area. 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!

Hikers sitting on a high up sand dune

Hike through the desert dunes to reach Crescent Lake. See a bigger photo »

Desert hiking

We’ll hike over to the Crescent Lake from the hotel. On our scale it’s probably a Level 3+ hike, but hot weather will make it feel more difficult. There are some big sand dunes to climb up, and with the sand it’s 2 steps up, 1 step back. We’ll walk through a small village just before we get to the big dunes.

Hiking over gives us some quiet time in the dunes before we run into all the tourists – and camels! – at the popular Crescent Lake.

Jiayuguan Fortress and Han Dynasty Great Wall

A view of the West Gate of Jiayuguan Fortress, seen from outside the walls

The West Gate of Jiayuguan Fortress, seen from the desert outside the walls. See another photo of Jiayuguan »

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.

The fortress was undergoing some renovations when we visited in May, 2013, and it should be looking good by the time we get there. The interior of the fortress is subdivided by several gates, and by making a circuit atop the walls we'll get a good look inside. The gates are huge, with the original flagstones worn smooth by centuries of traffic. Outside the gates, we can get an idea of what it would have been like to walk up to the tall and thick walls as a Silk Road traveller. And, if you're brave, you can pay microlight pilots to take you on a quick flight for a birds-eye view of the whole lot!

A short walk from the fortress is the Jiayuguan Great Wall museum, which is also well worth a look. The museum contains scale models of many famous Great Wall locations throughout China, as well as artifacts from the Silk Road.

Also close by is a stretch of Great Wall that was orginally built in the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). It's been restored by locals using Han Dynasty mudbrick techniques, and we'll have enough time to climb up to a high point for a look at the surrounding hills and mountains.

We’ll visit the fortress and the restored Han Dynasty Great Wall on the final day of the trip.

Ethnic groups in Xinjiang

Dancing in a muqab performance

Muqab is a traditional song and dance used to tell stories. We'll see a performance in Hami.

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.

Weather

In October, the temperature is around 28°C during the day, and around 18°C at night. It’s unlikely that it will rain, but there is a small chance of encountering a sandstorm.

Accommodation

Aside from the camping in the desert, we’ll stay in the best hotels we can find – 4-star (or the local equivalent) at least!

You’ll be sharing a room at the hotel with another hiker. If you'd like a hotel room to yourself, it can be arranged at an extra cost of 870 RMB, if rooms are available—usually not a problem! If you're travelling with your significant other and would like to share a bed, add on 120 RMB for the upgrade to rooms with a double bed.

Further details about room shares and single supplement can be found in the documents we send you as part of the registration.

A man with a sour expression stands in front of a gang of camels

Camels at Crescent Lake, Dunhuang.

Flights and transport

We’ll flying to Urumqi, and back from Jiayuguan via Lanzhou. For the rest of the trip, we’ll be in big and comfortable jeeps.

Frequent flyers: Please let us know if you would like to use your frequent flyer miles or if you are a frequent flyer member. If you would like to organise your own flights, we can provide further details.

Road map: Click to see a series of maps that show where we will be going on this trip

More photos of the Silk Road sights near Turpan

  1. Day One
  2. Day Two
  3. Day Three
  4. Days Four and Five
  5. Days Six and Seven

Food

The following meat, bread, and vegetables feature prominently in the local cuisine: roast lamb, beef; naan bread; potatoes, tomatoes, green peppers. While in the cities and towns, we’ll take our meals at restaurants, and we’ll bring basic food to cook while on the road and camping.

Some of the drives are rather long, and cross a lot of empty territory. Prepare some snacks for the drives; we’ll supplement them with nuts and biscuits and water.

Please let us know if you have any special dietary requirements or food allergies.

More photos

Things to bring

  • Passport
  • Waterproof jacket and trousers
  • Thermal underwear and other warm clothing (it could get cold!)
  • Gloves
  • Hat
  • Thick socks
  • Hiking boots
  • A day pack to take on outings, suitcases or bigger bags can be left at the hotel
  • Camera and charger, batteries
  • Suncream
  • Torch or headlamp
  • Mobile phone, charger
  • Any personal medicine or things that may be required but not available in small towns (chocolate, for example!)

Full itinerary

Xinjiang has an unofficial time difference of two hours from Beijing. All times listed are Beijing time, but we’ll be trying to time the meals for Xinjiang time.

  1. Day 1
    07:15 — Meet at Beijing Capital Airport for our flight to Urumqi.
    13:15 — Arrive at the Urumqi Airport.
    14:00 — lunch, visit Urumqi Bazaar if there's enough time.
    16:30 — Drive to Turpan.
    18:30 — Dinner at local family house in Grape Valley.
    20:30 — Check in to 4-star hotel, free time for a stroll or rest.

  2. Day 2
    07:30 — Breakfast, check out.
    08:30 — Visit the Karez Irrigation and Jiaohe Ancient City.
    12:00 — After lunch, drive to the Flaming Mountains.
    13:30 — Arrive at the Bezeklik Thousand-Buddha caves.
    14:30 — Short hike to a high point after visiting the caves.
    15:30 — Drive to the campsite in the desert.
    18:30 — Set up camp.
    19:30 — Picnic dinner and bonfire.

  3. Day 3
    08:00 — Get up and make breakfast, option for short hike.
    09:30 — Drive to Hami.
    11:30 — Check in at 4-star hotel, lunch.
    14:30 — Visit Hui Emperors Mausoleum, museum, song and dance performance.
    17:00 — Back to the hotel.
    18:30 — Dinner at restaurant.

  4. Day 4
    08:00 — Breakfast and check out.
    09:00 — Drive to Dunhuang.
    10:30 — Short break to hike around Han Dynasty Great Wall ruins.
    11:30 — Continue the drive.
    13:30 — Picnic lunch, option for short hike.
    14:30 — Continue to drive.
    17:30 — Check in at 5-star hotel.
    20:00 — Dinner at hotel.

  5. Day 5
    08:00 — Breakfast.
    08:30 — Drive to Mogao Grottoes, tour of caves and museum.
    12:00 — Lunch at hotel.
    13:30 — Hike from hotel over sand dunes to Crescent Spring and Mingsha Dunes.
    16:00 — Arrive at the peak of the dune that overlooks the Crescent Spring.
    17:30 — Follow the road back to the hotel.
    19:00 — Dinner at the hotel.

  6. Day 6
    08:00 — Breakfast and checkout.
    09:00 — Drive to Jiayuguan.
    12:00 — Picnic lunch.
    13:00 — Short hike in rocky desert.
    14:00 — Continue the drive.
    17:30 — Check in at 4-star hotel.
    18:30 — Dinner at hotel.
    20:00 — Stroll about Jiayuguan or have a rest.

  7. Day 7
    08:30 — Breakfast and checkout.
    09:00 — Visit Han Dynasty Great Wall.
    10:30 — Visit Jiayuguan Fortress.
    12:30 — Lunch at local restaurant.
    13:30 — Drive to Jiayuguan Airport.
    16:50 — Take off for Beijing.
    21:30 — Arrive in Beijing.
    All times are approximate, and depend on our speed of movement

  8. Deposit and Payment

    First, make a deposit of 5,000 RMB per person so we can be sure of getting your flight tickets during the peak holiday season.

    Pay the deposit before August 26 to qualify for the early-bird price. Please pay the balance before September 18.

    Extra! Add on the October 6–10 Zhangye Danxia Landform trip for just 4,500 RMB!

Related content

Photos and trip reports: Xinjiang: Journey from the West

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