Because of its proximity to Russia, much of this region was closed to foreigners until the 1990s. Even now the number that venture here is small, the central and southern parts of China’s largest province, known as ‘The Classic Silk Road’ is far more popular. Even my ageing Lonely Planet guide has little detail beyond a few major cities and the nature reserve of Kanus Lake.
Northern Xinjiang is separated from the southern part by the Tien Shan mountain range that cuts east to west across the province. It’s northern borders with Russia and Mongolia are defined by the Altai and Alataw mountain ranges to form a triangle that almost encloses the Junggar Basin at its centre. The mountains and their accompanying foothills are cooler and wetter, and in places they are high enough to have year-round snowy peaks and glaciers. The slopes have tracts of forest and lush grasslands and are in stark contrast to the land between, where the wild rivers of glacial melt rush into before slowly drying up in the semi desert.
Only 4% of Xinjiang is habitable, not surprisingly its sparsely populated and there is limited fast transport beyond the cities. The twisty mountain roads are closed by snow during the winter and frequently blocked by rock and mudslides at other times. Having your own transport is an advantage and I’m meeting up with a Chinese family who have spent the last week driving the 3000km from Beijing to the provincial capital Urumqi.
I came to Xinjiang 4 years ago and remember the security being tight. But as a tourist it was only an inconvenience in checking passports and scanning bags everywhere. It’s got tougher since then, I’m stopped regularly and questioned about where I’m going, where I’ve just come from and why I am here. The local health apps are not set up for foreigners without ID cards and despite being tested before travelling, I’m told to take a Covid test on my first day in Urumqi and even in the capital they are unsure how to process me.
After a breakfast of freshly made Kaobaozi ( a type of Cornish pasty) we leave the city and take the mountain road called Duku Road. It traverses the Tian Shen mountains and is renowned as the prettiest road in China.
It starts badly with the views spoiled by electric pylons, stones and soil bulldozed into flat platforms, piled into small hillocks or dug out to make shallow holes. But it’s a long road, and as you wind slowly upwards, evidence of man become insignificant compared with the increasingly dramatic scenes. The stark landscape changes as you progress. The first slopes look like mud, grooved and guttered from rainwater washing them into the valley below. Later the sides become dark rock, rising high and sheer from the river bubbling and frothing at the base.
There’s a series of hairpin bends and with every turn a photograph, but you can’t stop. The road is narrow and the cavalcade of cars behind mean you have to wait for a viewing spot to pull over. Of course, they never feel as good a view as the one that you missed, but there are only so many pictures you can take.
At 3440 meters the road reaches its zenith, and the air temperature has dropped so that even beneath the fierce sun you can feel the chill. The mountains are now a grey shale below the peaks, white with ice. One glacier descends as far as the road and its a popular place for people to slip and slide while taking selfies. Local entrepreneurs have set up BBQs and camel rides at the roadside and above the peeks, against the tails of clouds that drift across their tops, large birds circle.
It’s down hill after the glacial peeks and the northern side is a lush green, made more vivid after the colourless crawl of the ascent. Pencil thin Spruce cover the lower slopes and below that cows, goats, sheep and a few horses graze around small clusters of white yurts.
At the end of the mountain road there is another police check and a very long queue of cars. I have to leave the car to be passed up the chain of command for questions about my itinerary, my reasons for being there and have my passport photocopied again Unlike the other checkpoints experienced this policeman is highly stressed and surly and together with the groups of young locals hanging around make an air of menace I haven’t felt in China before. I am asked to take another Covid test and we search to find someone who knows how this can be done for a foreigner. Eventually, a nurse says she knows the procedure. She tells us she’s never tested a foreigner before.
The road away is known as the ‘100 Li Landscape Gallery’. It starts between low foothills covered in grass and wildflowers. The greenery is so even and the hills so rounded, it’s like a cloth has been laid over a shelf of loaves.
The wild stream that raced out from the receding mountains is now a fast-moving shallow river that begs to be canoed along. Periodically, there are hotels formed by fields of yurts with pillars of smoke rising from BBQs and staff dressed in local costumes. In the low sun, with the smoke hanging over the valley of tents they look like medieval rock festivals.
As dusk falls we stop at a small village of restaurants that line one side the road. Their fronts are decorated and brightly lit, hiding the square plain units that lie behind them. The street face is like the 2 dimensional wild west towns of a film set. While the group were explaining to a passing policeman why a foreigner was here, some excited children, an albino boy with blonde hair like mine and a flock of sheep are more welcoming. If I’m not the first foreigner here, I’m certainly the first for a long time.
Next stop on the road is Bagua, a city famous for being laid out in the shape of the 8 diagrams used in Taoist cosmology and more recently for removing all its traffic lights. On the ground though, its just another Chinese city, with nothing of interest except as a convenient place for visiting the high grasslands of the Tekes county. A huge region full of wildflowers, golden eagles, horses and the Kazakh minority. It’s another long twisting climb on the shuttle bus to the plateau which is refreshingly cool and breezy. There is not much to see beyond the view of endless grass, and local children posing for photographs holding sheep. An Uyghur teenager, waiting to start university at the end of summer, surprisingly asks to friend me on Wechat.
Hotels that accept foreigners are hard to find and here we have booked an AirBnb. The host asks not to include me in the booking as in Xinjiang a special licence is required to host foreigners. As a consequence, in a twist to the last few days of vigour in checking my details and itinerary, I spend a night defiantly unregistered.
We travel west the next day towards the westernmost point of China that borders with Kazakhstan. We breeze through police checkpoints on the way who have had advanced information about the car travelling with the foreigner. The region is famous for its fields of lavender and we expect to see large fields of purple lining the roads, but there are only brightly coloured houses.
We stop for lunch in a small family run restaurant where only another diner speaks Chinese and we watch the women make and cook noodles while the men help by relaxing. We ask about the lavender fields and are told they had been recently ripped up for new housing.
As we approach Khorgas, there’s another 2 gruelling checkpoints and we waste an hour as my details and itinerary is again poured over by a group of police and recorded. I’m pleased that even my Chinese companions are getting irritated. My details are on a database, the passport and facial recognition prove my identity, registration at each hotel and checkpoint shows my location, what else is there to know? In the office of one checkpoint there is a line of local minorities that also need some special check, but with their Chinese ID cards they’re all processed far more quickly than me.
Although Khorgas is right on the border, it doesn’t have the bustle and edgy feel of typical border towns, its quiet and empty. Many of the newly built shops and website recommended restaurants are closed, but there is new construction everywhere; more malls and apartments and an artificial lake. Over dinner, in a small restaurant full of locals, the boss, of Dong Xiang minority, told us he used to see a thousand Russians and Kazakhs every day. Now the border is closed, he says, I am the first foreigner he’s seen for 2 years.
We visit the border after dinner under the watchful eye of the police. As it gets dark, the town is lit up in a pulsing coloured display of light that might have once impressed visitors crossing, but in these times there’s few people around to see the show.
We head north east next, away from the pass of the North Silk Road towards the central basin region. On the way we pass Sailimu Lake. A large body of freshwater, brilliantly blue under today’s cloudless sky. The few visitors are spread thinly among the meadows of wildflowers that surround its sides. At the far end, the receding snow-capped Tian Shan mountains separate the crystal clear water from the sky. Only bees, tiny frogs and the lapping of the water disturb an unusual peace.
The unspoiled lake is the last stop before the mountains lose their influence over the land. As we push out into the Junggar Basin the land flattens, becomes barren and stony as though recently spread with waste from a building site. There is no housing or wildlife, even the patches of plants are dry and coarse, the odd tree stunted and misshapen. It’s the ugliest landscape I’ve seen, unvaryingly barren for hours of driving.
Perhaps because the area is so empty that the service station car park is full of adventure. I’m asked to be photographed with a young group promoting a local brand of bottled water and then meet Mr Ye Ke Bei who is returning home with his horse similarly called Ye Le Gai after proudly winning the regions top horse race.
As we approach our destination of Karamay, nodding donkeys appear, initially sparsely scattered they grow denser as the city nears. Built to exploit one of the world’s largest oil fields, the symbol of the industry rhythmically pumping in the wasteland looks like a scene from an environmental apocalypse.
Karamay, which means black oil was founded in the 1950s and is reputed to be the richest city in China. As we approach the centre, we pass an aqua centre, a sports complex and a theme park. I imagine this remote city needs all the inducements it can to attract and keep the skilled workforce necessary to keep the oil flowing. Over dinner we meet our first westerners. A group of German travellers on their last day before returning to Shanghai the following morning. We swap stories of security and hotel hassles and the ghost town we plan to visit tomorrow. “It’s ok,” they tell me uncommittedly.
The Ghost town is an area of rocks scoured into shapes over time by the surrounding desert sands. Its name comes from the haunting sounds that are made as the wind funnels through and around the stones. Today, the only stirring of the air is from the passing shuttle busses that ferry people around the site. My phone tells me its 38 degrees. Under the sun it’s far hotter and probably why using the shuttle bus rather than exploring on foot is mandatory. Perhaps off the track, away from the pointless road signs and the twee name plaques for rocks that resemble a crocodile foot or a tortoise. And away from the music distorted from the on-board speakers, or the crowds of tourists and camel rides, there might be an eeriness found that justifies the name. But even here, in the region’s only natural attraction, there are nodding donkeys emphasising the most important draw is oil.
In the afternoon I say goodbye to my patient friends. I will fly back to Beijing while they continue north to the Altai mountains and the national park around Kanus Lake. I’m sure they are pleased to not have the burden of the foreigner wasting their time at checkpoints and driving between our separate hotels. I too am frustrated with unnecessary checks but at the same time want to see more of my favourite province of China. The conflict of feelings is typical of the contrasts found in Xinjiang. The extremes of climate, terrain and beauty are just like the hostility of the bureaucracy made tolerable by the welcoming friendliness of the people.