Xinjiang: Korla, Khotan, Kashgar, and the Taklamakan Desert (7 days)

Make a seven-day expedition through an almost empty area of southwest Xinjiang Province, traversing the huge Taklamakan Desert on the way to an obscure line of old Silk Road.

This trip is not currently scheduled

Contact us for schedule updates or set up a private trip

Street scene in small town southwest Xinjiang Province
Street scene in small town southwest Xinjiang Province

Trip overview

Day 1—Fly to Korla via Urumqi, have a look at Korla’s old quarter.
Day 2—Drive to Shaya, picnic lunch and walkabout midway, visit old Great Wall near Shaya’s old quarter.
Day 3—Drive highway through middle of Taklamakan Desert, camp in desert.
Day 4—Drive to Khotan, picnic lunch and walkabout midway, look about Hotan’s old quarter.
Day 5—Visit Khotan Bazaar, visit King of Walnut trees and King of Fig Trees, drive on to Kashgar via Kargalik and Shache.
Day 6—Tour Kashgar’s Old City, Bazaar, and Id Kar mosque
Day 7—Visit Livestock Market, fly to Beijing via Urumqi.

The Taklamakan Desert

Between the peaks of the Tianshan Mountain range, the Pamir Mountain range, and the Kunlun Mountain range is the Tarim Basin, a vast sandy emptiness filled by the Taklamakan Desert.

Legend has it the name means “If you go in you’ll never come back out.” Another nickname: The Sea of Death! Don’t worry though – our drivers have been through more than a few times, and the big new highway through the middle means it’s a lot easier than it was for the old Silk Road travelers.

The Taklamakan Desert is the largest in China. Measurements have it as somewhere between 270,00 and 330,000 square kilometres in area. That’s larger than some entire countries—for example, Italy covers an area just over 300,000 square kilometers; the United Kingdom covers around about 240,000 square kilometres.

The Silk Road splits at the desert, with lines following the northern and southern fringes of the sand – obviously you wouldn’t want to take your camels straight through the middle of the “Sea of Death”! We’ll drive a short stretch on the north side, and then we’ll cut right through the middle to join up with the southern line.

Desert camping

To break up the 600km drive from Shaya to Hotan, we’ll spend a night camping in the 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.

Silk Road Stops


There has been a settlement at Korla since at least the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), when the town there was known as Weili and had a population of around 10,000 people. A river runs through Korla, and the river valley formed a natural passage between mountains and desert—no need for the Silk Road traders to cross the high mountain ranges nearby. One of the key fortifications in the area is the Tiemen (Iron Gate) Pass, a military checkpoint from the Tang Dynasty (618– 907).

The population has grown since the Han Dynasty, with a population of 470,000 recorded by the 2007 census. The majority of inhabitants are Han Chinese, and there's a substantial percentage of Uyhgurs, Mongolians, and Huis. Our jeep drivers come from Korla, and, for some of them, Mongolian is their first language.

The economy has also changed in modern times, particularly with the discovery of oil in the Taklamakan Desert. Another key product of the area is the fragrant pear, which we're sure to get a taste of!

In the book version of Journey from the West Xuanzang convinced a local river-ogre to become Buddhist, and to stop terrorizing villagers and travellers. In the actual journey, Xuan Zang passed through carrying his copies of sutras.


Shaya is a small town (by Chinese standards) on the edge of the Taklmakan Desert, and there’s been a settlement here for a long time. We’ll be able to do a bit of walking about here: there’s a river and sand dunes to visit, and we plan to have a look around the town center – a good chance to do a bit of people-spotting.


Kuqa was one of the Four Garrisons of Anxi, active during the Tang Dynasty. (The other three garrisons were Khotan, to the south, Kashgar, to the west, and Karashahr, north of Korla.) The garrisons were built during a time when the Tibetan Empire was vying with China for control of the area. Later, during the eighth century, Kucha became the center of the Uyghur Kingdom.

In Kuqa we'll make visits to the King’s Palace, and the Mosque.

Khotan (AKA Hotan / Hetian)

Khotan is an old trading town, and was an important stop on this line of Silk Road. The mountains west of Khotan hold several routes through the mountains and over to India.

It’s sited on an old oasis, fed by the rivers that run down from the mountains, making the area an island of green in the midst of the desert.

The current population of Khotan is just over 100,000, with most inhabitants belonging to the Uyghur ethnic group.

In recent years Khotan has become well known for jade, a special type known as Hetian Yu.

In the desert close by are several forests of chestnut and walnut trees, which we’ll take a look at.

Minarets top an ornate building in Kashgar’s Old City

Minarets top an ornate building in Kashgar’s Old City. View a larger photo.


Kashgar is an ancient city in the far west of China, with many historically interesting sites and a strong Muslim influence from the large Uyghur community.

The earliest recorded mention of Kashgar can be found in Han Dynasty records that date back to 125 BC. At that point it was already one of the many stops on the Northern Silk Road, and, despite wars and battles, has been populated ever since.

In Kashgar, we will visit many of the most interesting sights.

Kashgar Old City

Known as an excellent example of a traditional Islamic city, Kashgar’s Old City has undergone significant changes in recent times—some parts have been knocked down due to new regulations about building to meet earthquake and fire codes, and some sections are undergoing reconstruction.

While the Old City might not be totally as aesthetically pleasing as it used to be, it’s still very much worth a visit just to get a look at the daily life of the local residents, and to sample a little bit of the naan bread sold at streetside stalls.

The Id Kah Mosque, Kashgar

The Id Kah Mosque, Kashgar.

Id Kah Mosque

With a history that stretches back until at least the 14th century, the Id Kah Mosque is an active mosque and perhaps the largest in China. While we can’t enter during the times of prayer, we plan to time it so we can get a look inside.

Grand Bazaar

Kashgar’s Grand Bazaar covers a huge area and sells a little of everything—carpets and silk, spices, dried fruit, animal skins and fur, hats, clothing, trumpets, drums, and other musical instruments, and much more!

Livestock Market

The livestock market is where local shepherds and farmers meet up to sell and trade livestock. We’ll visit for a look at this very interesting slice of local culture on the last day of the trip, and see if we can spot anyone using the secretive method of agreeing on a price.

Full itinerary

There’s a chance that the flight times will change. We’re aiming to fly at the stated times, and will provide updates of any changes.

  1. Day 1
    07:30 – Meet at the Beijing Capital Airport for an 8:40 flight (exact time TBC)
    08:40 – Flight to Urumqi
    12:40 – Arrive in Urumqi
    15:30 – Onward flight from Urumqi to Korla
    16:15 – Arrive in Korla
    16:50 – Check in at hotel, head out to explore Korla’s Old City
    19:00 – Dinner at restaurant
    20:00 – Back to the hotel

  2. Day 2
    09:00 – Breakfast at hotel
    09:30 – Check out and drive to Shaya
    11:30 – Stop for a short hike in the desert outside Shaya
    13:00 – Picnic lunch
    14:00 – Board jeeps and head on toward Shaya
    16:30 – Check in at hotel in Shaya
    17:00 – Visit old city.
    19:00 – Dinner at restaurant
    21:00 – Take a stroll after dinner, bed time

  3. Day 3
    09:00 – Breakfast at hotel
    09:30 – Check out and drive on to Taklamakan desert
    11:00 – Enter the Taklamakan desert
    13:00 – Stop for a short hike in the desert
    13:30 – Picnic lunch
    14:30 – Follow the highway through the desert
    17:30 – Leave the highway and find our campsite.
    18:00 – Set up camp
    19:00 – Dinner at campsite

  4. Day 4
    09:00 – Breakfast at campsite
    09:30 – Break camp, drive on to Khotan
    11:30 – Stop for a hike in the desert
    13:30 – Picnic lunch
    14:30 – Board jeeps and head on toward Khotan
    16:30 – Check in at hotel in Khotan
    17:30 – Visit Khotan’s Old Town
    19:30 – Dinner at restaurant

  5. Day 5
    09:00 – Breakfast
    09:30 – Drive to Khotan Bazaar
    10:30 – Visit Khotan’s ancient trees
    13:00 – Begin the drive to Kashgar
    13:30 – Lunch
    14:30 – Drive on to Kashgar
    19:30 – Check in at Kashgar Hotel

  6. Day 6
    09:30 – Breakfast at hotel
    10:00 – Tour of Kashgar's Old City
    14:00 – Lunch at restaurant
    15:00 – Visit Kashgar’s Grand Bazaar
    17:00 – Visit the Id Kah Mosque
    18:30 – Visit the markets
    19:30 – Dinner

  7. Day 7
    09:00 – Breakfast at hotel
    09:30 – Vist Kashgar’s livestock market
    12:00 – Lunch at restaurant
    13:30 – Head to airport
    14:35 – Fly to Urumqi
    16:20 – Arrive in Urumqi
    18:25 – Fly to Beijing
    22:05 – Arrive at Beijing Capital International Airport

    All times are approximate, and depend on our speed of movement