Xinjiang Odyssey

China

Culture

Uncover the mysteries of remote Xinjiang

14 days £2,395 pp This is the per person group tour price, based on 2 sharing. The price is subject to change with exchange rate and flight cost fluctuations.
Dates & Prices

Intro

Journey through remote landscapes and discover ancient traditions on this fascinating tour through China's wildest province, Xinjiang. Begin at the foot of the mountains in the business hub of Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi, and explore its Grand Bazaar and fascinating Regional Museum. Skirt along the fringes of the Gobi Desert and visit the quintessential oasis town of Turpan to sample its famous fruits.

Xinjiang's natural contrasts, from the crystal-clear waters of Heavenly Lake to the fiery red sandstone hills of the Flaming Mountains, are a tonic for the soul. Penetrate the defences of the ruined cliff city of Jiaohe, before uncovering the secrets of the ancient Buddhist kingdom of Kuqa. Marvel at Kashgar's iconic Sunday market, where farmers haggle over camels, sheep, donkeys and more as they have done for centuries.

Follow in the footsteps of the Silk Road travellers, browsing for jade, silk and carpets in Hotan's bazaars and meet Tajik villagers in the mountain settlement of Tashkurgan. Finally, take the dramatic Karakorum Highway through traditional Kyrgyz settlements and up to the stunning Karakul Lake, where you can take in the breath-taking natural beauty of this astounding region with a backdrop of the snow-capped Pamir and Tien Shan mountain ranges.

TOUR HIGHLIGHTS

  • Merchants, camels & caravans of Urumqi
  • Ancient relics of Turpan
  • Natural mummies of the Astana Tombs
  • UNESCO-listed Jiaohe ruins
  • The desolate Taklamakan Desert
  • The buried city of Mallikurwatur
  • Silk Road trading centre of Kashgar
  • Visit the ornate Afak Khoja's Tomb
  • Historic Silk Road stop at Tashkurgan
  • Visit the traditional Uygur Opal Village
  • Admire beautiful scenery at Karakul Lake

Places Visited

Urumqi - Turpan - Heavenly Lake - Tuyoq village - Gaochang - Jiaohe Ruins - Kuqa - Tianshan Grand Canyon - Taklamakan Desert - Hotan - Mallikurwatur - Kashgar - Yarkent - Tashkurgan - Opal village - Karakoram Highway - Corner Lake - Mount Muztagata - Khunjerab Pass - Tashkurgan Grassland - The Pamir Mountains - The Tien Shan Mountains

What's Included

Arrival & departure transfers
Ground transport with driver
Domestic flights
Accommodation
Meals (refer to itinerary for meal plan)
English-speaking guides
Entrance fees to sites & parks
Itinerary & Map
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Day 1 : Arrive in Urumqi, Xinjiang

Arrive in Urumqi, where you will be met by a Travel The Unknown representative and transferred to your hotel. If time permits, visit the Grand Bazaar. Overnight in Urumqi.

Meal plan: n/a

Although no longer teeming with camel caravans, Urumqi still sits on its lush plain beneath the Tian Shan Mountains. The modern business hub still exudes an exotic Middle Asian ambience - whilst a visit to ​the market stalls of Erdaoqiao Market and the nomadic communities of the surrounding mountains provide an insight into traditional Uighur ways of life.

The Uighur people are a Turkic ethnic group who predominantly live in Eastern and Central Asia (though mostly in Xinjiang). Their ancestry can be traced back to the ancient Uighurs of Mongolia, where they have a long history in agriculture and trade. Predominantly Muslim, the Uighurs briefly declared independence in the early part of the 20th century.

Xinjiang (previously known as Eastern or Chinese Turkestan) in Western China is easily China’s largest province. Ostensibly a Uighur province, with additional autonomy to reflect this, the population is less than 50% Uighur these days though Uighurs still predominate in southern areas and rural parts of the province. Its landscape is dominated by the mighty Tien Shan mountains and the vast Taklamakan Desert.

The Grand Bazaar in Urumqi is the largest bazaar in the world. It is one of the most iconic landmarks of the city, which fosters Islamic culture, architecture and ethnic commerce. The bazaar is home to a striking 80 metre tower, an open theatre and a mosque. Visitors, and locals alike, can enjoy the bustle of the market, watch stage performances and sample local delicacies.

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Day 2 : Urumqi - Turpan

Visit the Regional Museum of Xinjiang before departing Urumqi for Turpan, stopping en route at Heavenly Lake. Overnight in Turpan. 

Meal plan: Breakfast & lunch

Turpan, is the quintessential oasis town. Sat on the fringes of the Gobi desert and at the second lowest point on earth, it is the hottest and driest place in China. It fruits - grapes and melons in particular - are famous throughout China for their sweetness.

The Regional Museum of Xinjiang was built in 1952 and holds a collection of cultural relics from the region. The museum is home to over 50,000 items representing folk customs and ethnic lifestyles of Xinjiang, some dating back over 4,000 years. 

Heavenly Lake is nestled in the middle of Bogoda Peak, which spans almost 5 square kilometers. Melted snow from the peaks of surrounding mountains feeds crystal clear water into the lake. Legend has it that the West Queen, Xi Wang Mu, fell in love with King Mu of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1100 - 771 BC) here.

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Day 3 : Turpan

Spend the day exploring Turpan. Highlights will include the Astana Tombs, Gaochang, Tuyoq Village, the Flaming Mountains and the Thousand Buddha Caves. Overnight in Turpan.

Meal plan: Breakfast

The Flaming Mountains are located just outside of Turpan on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert. Also known as "Red Mountain", the sandstone hills of the Tian Shan Mountain Range are the hottest place in China. According to the classical novel 'Journey to the West', this heat was caused by the Monkey King who created a disturbance in the heavens. This knocked a kiln over, causing embers to fall from the sky to the spot where the Flaming Mountains lie. 

The Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves date back to between the 5th and 14th century. 83 caves across 3 levels are shown here. Little remains of the original artwork as most were destroyed by Muslim invaders, the rest swiped by Westerners.  The drive here however passes through the spectacular Flaming Mountains, a dramatic landscape with some worthwhile viewpoints. The rock temperatures here have been known to reach 80 degrees Celsius.

The picturesque, Tuyoq village, is a traditional oasis village in the Gobi desert. Here, you can meet local Uighur families and learn about their unique culture and customs. It is also home to the oldest Buddhist caves in the Turpan area, dating to the 4th century, though these are currently closed due to a flood.

The Astana tombs near Turpan date back to between the 4th and the 8th century. The arid environment has preserved the 456 tombs of the Gaoching kingdom, meaning that today, you can see natural mummies, along with their offerings, artefacts, manuscript fragments and wall paintings.

The ruins of the ancient oasis city of Gaochang lie in the northern realms of the Taklamakan Desert. Initially built as a fortress town in the first century, it became a significant point along the Silk Road. The city was later damaged during Mongolian and Uigur warfare. Now, some 2,000 years later, it is one of the best-preserved ruins of ancient China and proudly displays its former glory.

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Day 4 : Turpan - Kuqa

Spend the morning visiting the Karez irrigation system, before seeing Emin Minaret and the Jiaohe Ruins. Later, transfer to the station to catch your evening train to Kuqa. On arrival you will be transferred to your hotel. Overnight in Kuqa. 

Meal plan: Breakfast

The UNESCO-listed Jiaohe Ruins (also known as “Yar city”, meaning “cliff city” in Uighur) are located between steep cliffs above two river valleys, forming a natural fortress. Dating back almost 2000 years, most of the houses were dug into the earth due to the lack of wood and the difficulty of obtaining stone.

Emin Minaret is the tallest minaret in China, standing 44 meters high in the city of Turpan. It was built to honour the Turpan general, Emin Khoja, who defended the unification of China. The stunning brickwork contains a mix of styles including geometric patterns (Islamic) and floral designs (Chinese).

Karez, meaning "well", is a type of ancient irrigation system derived from Persian “qanats”. It is made up of a system of vertically dug wells, linked by underground water canals that funnel the meltwaters of the Tien Shan mountains under the Gobi desert to Turpan. This was a crucial element in Turpan’s ability to serve the caravans and trading bazaars of the Silk Road. Today the majority of these wells have dried up, though some 150 still function.

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Day 5 : Kuqa

In the morning, visit the Grand Canyon and Kizil Buddha Grottoes. Spend the afternoon sightseeing in Kuqa, where highlights will include the Old Mosque and Beacon Tower. Overnight in Kuqa. 

Meal plan: Breakfast

The ancient Buddhist kingdom of Kuqa is situated on the northern edge of the Taklamakan Desert. Kuqa was once a significant centre for Buddhism and a thriving city along the Silk Road. Today the city is home to many desert ruins that highlight its remarkable history. 

The Kizil Buddha Caves are situated on the northern bank of the Muzat River - once a commercial hub of the Silk Road. 236 cave temples have been carved into the cliffs, along a stretch of 2km, making the Kizil Cave complex the largest of its kind in Xinjiang. It is the most historic Buddhist cave complex in China, which dates back to between the 3rd and 8th centuries.

The Tianshan Grand Canyon, also known as "Keziliya Grand Canyon" can be found in the Keziliya Mountain. "Keziliya" translates to "red cliff" in Uighur, referring to the striking stone colour there. The canyon was formed after years of natural weathering and is 6 km long, with an average altitude of 1,600 metres. 

The Old Mosque of Kuqa is the second largest mosque in Xinjiang, with the capacity to hold up to 3,000 worshipers. The original mosque was built in the 15th century and later reconstructed in 1931 following fire damage. The ornate architecture and colourful carved designs are typical of traditional Uighur architecture. 

Beacon Tower, also known as "Kixilgaha Alarm Tower", was built during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) as an alarm tower for guards of the frontier. The tower stands at 13.5 metres high. Fire would have been used to send signals through the night, and smoke through the day. 

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Day 6 : Kuqa - Hotan

Rise early and depart Kuqa, travelling across the desert highway through the Taklamakan Desert for the long journey to Hotan. Stop along the way for a break in Aksu. On arrival, check in to your hotel. Overnight in Hotan. 

Meal plan: Breakfast

The Taklamakan Desert, roughly the size of France, covers a quarter of the land of Xinjiang. Bounded by the Kunlun, Pamir and Tian Shan mountains and the Gobi Desert, it became the resting place for many a Great Game adventurer. Contrary to popular belief “Taklamakan” does not mean 'if you go in, you don't come out'' in the Uighur language.

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Day 7 : Hotan - Mallikurwatur - Hotan

Spend the morning visiting local craftsmen, including carpet makers and silk weavers. Continue to the ancient city ruins of Mallikurwatur. Return to Hotan for overnight.

Meal plan: Breakfast

Hotan is an oasis city located just north of the Kunlun Mountains. The city was once an important stop along the Silk Road. Evidence of this has been found in excavations that unearthed silk, cotton and colourful tapestries. Today, the city is still known for its bustling bazaars that trade such goods as jade, silk and carpets. 

The ancient city of Mallikurwatur (translated as "White Castle") lies at the fringes of the Taklamakan Desert. Most of the ruins here still lie deep beneath the sand, making it difficult for archeologists to paint a picture of the mystical city as it once stood. Visitors to the site can trace what remains of the northern walls and see ancient relics like pottery pieces, coins and stone tools.

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Day 8 : Hotan

Enjoy a free day spent at your leisure exploring your surroundings and relaxing. Overnight in Hotan.

Meal plan: Breakfast

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Day 9 : Hotan - Yarkent - Kashgar

Continue to Kashgar, stopping in Yarkent to visit the Royal Family Cemetery en route. Learn more about Uighur traditions on a visit to the Yengisar Knife Factory before continuing the journey to Kashgar. On arrival in Kashgar, check in to your hotel. Overnight in Kashgar. 

Meal plan: Breakfast

The Royal Family Cemetery, also known as "The Cheeltanlireem Cemetery" or "Golden Graveyard", houses the tombs of Yarkent's former kings. The burial ground is framed by a grand entry gateway, its ornate design displaying the 17th century style from when the site originated. 

Yarkent lies in the Tarim Rim on the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert. The oasis town was once known as the "silk capital" and became a focal stop along the Silk Road. Yarkent is a predominantly Uighur settlement that remains famous for its minority music and culture. This little visited region is home to ancient archaeological sites, traditional crafts and rugged rural landscapes. 

The Knife Factory of Yengisar provides visitors with an insight into the local craft of knife making. The handmade Uighur knife has long been an important part of the Xinjiang culture, which is a skill that has historically been passed from father to son. Visitors to the Knife Factory can watch local artisans at work, shaping and sharpening steel blades and ornate handles made from bone, horn and shell. 

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Day 10 : Kashgar

Spend the day seeing the many sights of Kashgar. Begin the day at Afak Khoja's tomb before moving to the stunning livestock market. After a couple of hours here take a walk through the remains of Kashgar's old town. Later visit Idkah mosque and handicraft street before stopping off for tea in a 100 year old tea house. Finally drop in at the Former British & Russian consulates. After dinner, if you have any energy, there is an optional visit to the night market. Overnight stay in Kashgar. 

NOTE: This day is designed to fall on a Sunday only.

Meal plan: Breakfast

Kashgar can be found in the westernmost point of China. Throughout history the city has been under Chinese, Turkic, Mongol and Tibetan rule. It has been an important trading centre since the days of the Silk Road and remains so today - said to have the largest Bazaar in Asia, it’s still famed for its craftsmen, markets and weekly livestock trading. 

Idkah Mosque, dates back over 500 years and is the largest mosque in China, receiving around 3000 daily worshipers.  During festivals up to 20,000 have prayed here.

The sublime Afak Khoja's Tomb is the holiest place in Xinjiang for Sufi Muslims. It was originally built in 1640 as the tomb of Muhammad Yusug, a Sufi master, who had come to this region during the 17th century. The ornate mausoleum is an excellent example of Islamic architecture, and is decorated with colourful mismash tiles and silks.

For centuries, Kashgar's Sunday Market has been a meeting place for traders and travellers. The market remains important today - the population of the town can grow by almost 80,000 on a Sunday. The livestock market has moved out of town but is every bit the unique and lively spectacle it always was, with wrinkled men in traditional dress arriving on vehicles of all types to haggle and strike deals for sheep, cows, goats, horses, donkeys, camels and yaks.

Though mostly neglected by the local government the former British & Russian consulates were important power bases during the Great Game, when Russia and Britain jostled for power from 1830 to 1895. Both are now put to rather humbler uses.

Kashgar’s night market is a small but lively and photogenic market serving noodles, grilled meats, fruit, juices and snacks. It makes a good spot to walk off dinner.

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Day 11 : Kashgar - Tashkurgan

Depart Kashgar and drive to Tashkurgan, stopping along the Karakorum Highway at Opal Village, the sand mountains of Corner Lake and Mount Muztagata. On arrival in Tashkurgan, check in to your hotel. Overnight in Tashkurgan.

Meal plan: Breakfast

The Silk Road town of Tashkurgan stands at an elevation of 4000 metres. ”Tashkurgan” translates to 'stone tower' after its fortress, which was thought to have marked a midway point between Europe and China. It is the seat of the Taxkorgan Tajik Autonomous County and the population is over 80% Tajik.

The traditional Uighur Opal village has beautiful views of Bulunkul Lake and white sand hills. The region is home to many historic sights including the Mausoleum of the famous 11th century Uygur philologist, Mohamed al Kashgari, and the ruins of an old caravanserai, which lie on the bank of the River Gaz. Here, you can also visit nomadic Kyrgyz people, and see their traditional yurts. 

Karakoram Highway's peak elevation of nearly 5,000 metres makes it one of the highest paved roads in the world. It passes through the Karakoram mountain range, connecting Pakistan with the Xinjiang region of China, and dissects an area of outstanding natural beauty. 

Corner Lake, also known as "Bulong Kol", lies along the Karakoram Highway. Sand is carried by the River Ghez into the lake, which is picked up by wind and blown across the surrounding banks to create striking sand mountains. Their reflection, on Corner Lake's tranquil surface, creates picturesque views.

Mount Muztagata, also known as "Muztagh Ata", is one of the tallest mountains to form the northern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. As its highest peak is separated from the plateau by the Yarkand River valley, Muztagata is generally seen to be a part of the Eastern Pamir mountains. 

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Day 12 : Tashkurgan - Karakul

Depart Tashkurgan and travel via the Khunjerap Pass, visiting the Stone Fort and Tashkurgan Grassland. Continue on to Karakul lake, enjoying views along the way of the Pamir and Tien Shan Mountain ranges. Overnight in a traditional yurt beside Karakul lake.

Meal plan: Breakfast & dinner

Located at the foot of the Muztagata Mountain, Karakul Lake lies at an altitude of 3,600 metres. It boasts beautiful scenery of snow-capped mountains that are clearly reflected on the surface of the lake. From this location you can also typically see yurts and traditional Kyrgyz settlements.

The Khunjerap Pass lies between the Xinjiang region of China and Pakistan's Gigit-Baltistan Hunza-Nagar district. It is situated at the highest point of the Karakorom Highway in the Karakoram Mountains, at an elevation of over 4,500 metres. The pass is believed to be the highest paved border crossing in the world. It's high altitude means it is often covered in snow, and therefore closed, during the cold winter seasons.

The Stone Fort of Tashkurgan dates back over 2000 years, when Tashkurgan was a meeting point between the middle and southern Silk Road routes from Kashgar, Yarkand and Kargilik. The ruins of the Stone Fort provide undisturbed views across the surrounding grasslands and mountainous landscape. 

Tashkurgan Grassland, also known as the "Golden Grassland", is situated next to the Stone Fort of Tashkurgan. The vast grasslands are set against a dramatic backdrop of the snow-capped Pamir mountains and are home to traditional yurt houses, grazing animals and nomadic Tajik communities. 

The Kyrgz yurt is a traditional nomadic dwelling. Its frame is covered by felt and braided rope, while the interior is decorated with woven geometric tapestries created by women of the community. The yurt is the place where all festivals, ceremonies, births, weddings and funerals are held. As such, it has become a significant symbol of the traditional identity of the Kyrgyz people. 

The Pamir Mountain range lies in Central Asia, stretching across Tajikistan, Afghanistan, China and Kyrgystan. They stand as one of the world's highest mountain ranges, leading them to be known as the "Roof of the World". 

The Tien Shan is a mountain range that can be found on the border between China and Kyrgyzstan. "Tien Shan" translates to "Heavenly Mountains". The Tien Shan ranges in altitude from arid valleys at 700 metres above sea level to glacial peaks of 4,500 metres - providing an extraordinarily rich biodiversity. 

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Day 13 : Karakul - Kashgar

Return to Kashgar, enjoying views of Mount Muztagata and across the Karakul lake along the way. On arrival, the rest of the day will be free to spend at your leisure. Overnight in Kashgar.

Meal plan: Breakfast

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Day 14 : Kashgar - Departure

Transfer to Kashgar Airport for departure flight. 

Meal plan: Breakfast & dinner

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