In the last year living in Beijing, I've been to the Forbidden City four times. I've traversed the Great Wall three times. And I've lost track of how many times I've walked from one end of Tiananmen Square to another. Even when traveling on business or personal trips to Shanghai, I've found myself in the same places numerous times: the Expo (three times) and the Shanghai World Financial Center (twice).
Needless to say, I needed a change of scenery. Not to mention an escape from the "people mountain, people sea" crowds of Beijing.
Friends suggested I take a vacation to China's south. A cruise down the Yangtze River would be a nice option, too. But despite not having visited most of the cultural relics of China's eastern provinces, my eyes turned westward - to Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Way out west, friends had told me, were picture perfect mountain ranges and a landscape imaginable only in dreams. There were the non-Han Chinese Uyghur minority group and their Muslim traditions. And there was the food -oh, the food - that I'd come to eat on a weekly basis at Uyghur restaurants around Beijing. It would essentially be like visiting a different country entirely, one full of adventure. And there would be NO large crowds of tourists.
I booked my flight after hearing those words. My girlfriend would be going too, to act as travel companion and interpreter.
Even before getting off the plane bound for Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital, I could tell we were in for a real treat snow covered mountains lay off in the distance as the plane descended, surrounded by a desert-like landscape. It was a sight I'd only seen in movies.
Our first day of touring took us to Central Xinjiang's Tian Chi, also known as Heavenly Lake. The lake dazzled our eyes with its light blue water. I couldn't remember the last time I'd seen water that clean, that pure, in either China or the United States. But, much to my chagrin, the mountain behind the lake was overshadowed by the mountain of people around the lake, the noise from which was seriously hindering my ability to enjoy the peace and tranquility of my surroundings. They also found their way into almost every photo I tried to take.
Our second day was a bit more successful. We headed to Turpan, a desert oasis about four hours from Xinjiang's capital where most tourists overlooked. The drive was impressive as the landscape changed from greenish brown mountains to dark brown mountains to flat open plains of dirt. We passed several wind farms with hundreds, if not thousands, of wind turbines.
Turpan is located on the northern part of the Turpan Depression, one of the lowest points on Earth and also one of the hottest and driest places in China. The weather that day was brutal, but I had my adventure hat and we wanted to see the ruins and scenery around the oasis city.
Our first stop was Tuyoq, a pilgrimage city for the Uyghur people. One part was carved into the side of a mountain, similar to the cliff dwellings of American Indians in the western United States. We also stopped near the Flaming Mountain, named because of its red color and fiery appearance - not to mention the fact that it's in part of Xinjiang that's just about as hot as the fires of Hell.
But it was the ruins of Jiaohe, an ancient city fortress, that really stood out as a pinnacle of the whole Xinjiang trip. A river used to surround the city - now the river is gone and all that remains is an elevated islet with sand and stone carved structures weathering the tests of time. Like a kid in a candy store, I wandered through the ruins, unrestrained by ropes or guardrails and explored. Part of the ancient city was residental, another was the area where a market once stood. And the large groups of tourists all around didn't faze me at all - I was too caught up by the ruins to notice or care.
As impressive as Turpan's hotspots were, it wasn't until visiting Kashgar in the western tip of China that my Xinjiang adventure kicked into overdrive because here was where the China that I've known for the past year completely melted away.
For additional photos, visit http://www.btay200.blogspot.com/
(Next: Journey to the Center of Asia)
Brandon Taylor is a language consultant/foreign expert for the Beijing Review, an English language weekly newsmagazine in Beijing, China. He is a former correspondent for the TIMES NEWS. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.