Seasoned travelers give practical tips for driving in Xinjiang

By Lu Wen’ao Source:Global Times Published: 2016/9/7 21:18:39

A vehicle drives through the distinctive yardang landscape created by wind erosion in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Photo: IC

Xinjiang attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, but driving oneself over the Uyghur Autonomous Region's dusty roads to see its mountains and lakes, deserts and historical sites on one's own schedule is an increasingly popular way to see this part of Central Asia.

"Unlike other provinces, Xinjiang's best scenery is mostly along the region's roads instead of in designated scenic spots," said He Mengxuan, secretary-general of the Xinjiang self-driving travel league.

Spanning over 1.6 million square kilometers, Xinjiang harbors not only parched deserts but also snow-capped mountains.

From its picturesque north to its culture-rich south, the Tianshan Mountains split Xinjiang into these two distinct areas, each presenting Xinjiang's rich resources in a different way

Visitors enjoy the colorful scenery beside Kanas Lake in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Photo: IC

Head to Kanas

The north of Xinjiang is often the first choice for first-time visitors to the region, with many making the crescent moon-shaped Kanas Lake just south of the Altai Mountains their initial port of call.

"If you are new to Xinjiang, I'd suggest going to the northern part," said He. "Its natural scenery is very rich."

It takes about seven hours by car to get from the regional capital Urumqi to Burqin, a county next to the lake that is often used as a sort of base camp for those looking to visit Kanas.

But ahead of the long journey, you need to double check your car and make sure you pack plenty of food and water just in case your journey takes longer than planned.

After seeing Kanas, He recommends heading to Baihaba, a nearby village bordering Kazakhstan under Habahe county which is famous for its shady canopy of trees. It takes about two hours to drive to Baihaba from the Kanas area.

"The village is phenomenally beautiful in the autumn, with the leaves of the trees there varying from green to yellow to red," said He. "It's like a living museum of trees."

Leaving the border village, you can travel along mountain roads to Karamay, a city known for its oilfields. Herds of cattle may block the roads as you head south, but it is best to approach this problem with patience.

"Do not sound your horn if you meet a herd, sometimes they can be frightened by the horn … Just wait until they leave the road," He noted.

Cross-desert driving

It is a long trip to Karamay, but after that journey, something even more challenging awaits the intrepid traveler - driving through seemingly endless expanses of desert.

Karamay stis on the western edge of the Dzungarian Basin, which contains the Gurbantunggut Desert. This is not a trip to be taken lightly and proper preparation is crucial.

"It is always better to have an extra gas tank before crossing the desert, I recommend taking a 30-liter tank per car when traveling through the desert," He said.

He also recommended that travelers top up their tank whenever the opportunity presents itself, as sometimes the gas stations in the middle of the desert run dry.

There is no need to worry about the condition of the roads even in remote regions, as they are mostly well-paved. But He also noted that its best not to drive on these routes during the summer.

"The surface temperature is extremely high, it could reach more than 50C," He said, before adding that driving through the desert alone is not the best idea.

"It is better to travel in a group of several cars," He said. "When you drive alone in the sands and suddenly sandstorms come, having company means you can always have an extra hand when facing problems."

He said that if one car gets stuck in the sand, another car can help pull it out with a tough rope, something every convoy of cars should take with them during a desert crossing.

"It is not only about sandstorms, parking randomly is also likely to leave your car trapped by the sand," he said.

Some may consider going camping, hoping to lie beneath the uncountable pinpricks of light that riddle the night sky in the desert, but He warns that camping in a random place is dangerous, recommending that travelers stick to established campsites.

Following the desert tour, one can drive to Wucaiwan, an area filled with yardangs - a kind of rocky protuberance carved from hard rock by wind erosion - which has unique charms as its yardangs and mountain ridges are in a variety of colors.

If you have enough time you can also drive to the Heavenly Lake of Tianshan, an alpine lake, less than two hours from Wucaiwan.


Turpan history

After you've seen the lakes and deserts of northern Xinjiang, and shaken the sand out of your shoes with a brief rest in Urumqi, its time to drive into the more densely-populated south of the region.

The city of Turpan, about a 2 and a half hour drive from Urumqi, is a must-see destination.

While the city is known for its dried grapes, and its Grape Valley offers both pastoral calm and a variety of grapes to try, the region has much more to offer a visitor than simple orchards and villages.

The more technically minded tourists may be interested to view Turpan's karez water system, an ancient method of irrigation which keeps the city's farms watered despite the surrounding desert through a system of vertical wells and underground canals which collect and distribute water. Those wishing to know ever more about this system, first developed in Iran over 2000 years ago, can visit the Turpan water museum.

The preserved ancient ruins that are scattered around Turpan, especially the ancient towns of Jiaohe and Gaochang, are perfect for visitors who want to get a glimpse of the history of the city, once an important stop on the Silk Road between China and Europe.

The notoriously scorching and aptly named Flaming Mountain is also very popular among Chinese visitors due to its inclusion in the classic novel Journey to the West.

A huge thermometer has been erected amid the mountain's striking gullies and trenches, and its readings can reach over 50C in the summer.

Taklamakan tour

The landscape of the south is also very attractive, with a grand poplar forest - stretching about 400 kilometers and skirting the Tarim Basin - greeting visitors to Korla, a city known for its juicy pears.

The poplar trees extend all the way to Yuli county, while the Tarim River borders the Tarim Basin, which is dominated by the Taklamakan Desert, the world second largest shifting sand desert.

Wang Jian, an experienced driver-tourist based in Urumqi, said driving across the Taklamakan is not as easy as traversing the Gurbantunggut.

"The dunes in Taklamakan are very tall," he said. "The roads in the desert are full of ups and downs, it's like driving on a roller coaster."

It is better to have an extra driver in the car when crossing the Taklamakan, said Wang, noting that spending a long time driving in the desert can make the driver feel dizzy.

"I think after every hour of driving the driver needs to take a rest, or it would jeopardize the safety of the trip," said Wang.

Wang also noted it is better to drive into the Taklamakan in the autumn and the beginning of winter.

"Summer is scorching hot in the desert," Wang said.

"But the strong winds in the spring and late winter are also not good for traveling as they blow a lot of sand into the air."

Cultural sites

Many choose Ruoqiang county as the first stop on their south Xinjiang tour. It is rich in cultural heritage - including the famed ruins of Loulan in the northeast of Ruoqiang - as the county sat on the ancient Silk Road.

A nature reserve in Altyn-Tagh, south of the lake-turned-desert Lop Nor, is also a hot destination for those who want an eyeful of natural scenery before heading to the neighboring Qiemo county.

If you are interested in the historical side of Xinjiang and want to learn about local customs, you can travel west along the Silk Road route through Qiemo and Hotan - both known for their cultural relics - before heading to Kashgar, a city also known for its vibrant traditional culture.

Or you can skip Kashgar, tilting north from Hotan, to go deep into the Taklamakan again toward Kuqa county in the city of Aksu, a route considered by some drivers as the best area to enjoy the clear night sky in the desert before going back to Urumqi.

Newspaper headline: Hit the open road

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