Category Archives: Xinjiang

The world’s best grapes

Turfan is famous for its table grapes which are said to be the best in the world. The hot, dry climate means that grapes have a sugar content of 22-26%. Loads. The whole town and its surrounds are draped in vines.


We sampled a range of grapes in raisin form. We wouldn’t count ourselves as experts, but it was remarkable how different the varieties tasted. One, for example, tasted a lot like desert wine.

Lost in the sands of time

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Turpan is about halfway between Beijing and Tehran. A fertile oasis, it was an important way point on the northern silk road route through the deserts of what is now Western China. Outside the modern city, in inhospitable desert, stand the remains of two ancient cities:

  • Gaochange or Khoco was the capital of the Uighur empire  in 850 CE. It survived as an important trading post until the fourteenth century when it was burnt down.  The earthen city walls are still clearly. They mark the bounds of a city that has mostly been blown away. Foundations are still visible though. The city was dug into the ground in a way that kept houses (relatively) cool in summer and warm in winter.
  • Jiahoe was  a Chinese garrison town built by the Tang dynasty about 1600 years ago. The detail of the city has withered away but its scale and location are impressive. It’s considered to be one of the largest and best preserved ancient cities in the world. At its peak it housed 6,500 residents and it rises up on an island that splits two rivers. And it’s massive.

Both sites were impressive. We especially enjoyed the absence of other tourists, which was a massive change. Many Chinese consider Xinjiang dangerous because of the Uighur separatist movement. The caves at Dunhuang over the border in Gansu were teeming with tour groups, but the ruins around Turpan felt lonely, if anything.

Hey cow/Chinese sentry

If you don’t know the road trip game Hey Cow, you should. You go round the car taking turns to yell “hey cow!” at each full paddock you pass. You get a point for every cow that turns to look.

There are no cows as we walk around Urumqi. But every hundred metres or so there’s a small group of Chinese military. They’re decked in their cammo, helmets on, riot shields, bayonets and automatic weapons at the ready.

We’ve taken to smiling vigorously at each group we pass in the hope of engendering some kind of response. One point if they stare you down, three points if they smile. Ten points for a wave. Any reaction a tough ask. The sentries seem to be taking themselves pretty seriously, which is reasonable, I suppose, when they’re there to guard against terrorists. Although I would think at least the ones stationed outside a baby clothes store, flanked by onesies and yellow duckie beanies could give us a grin.

The wild west

En route to Kazakhstan we’re in China’s most westerly province. The Chinese call it Xinjiang which literally means new frontier. And then they’re surprised that there’s a separatist movement*. It’s like, come on guys, there’s a clue in the name!

Xinjiang is not a historical part of China. The ten million Uighur people that it encompasses were once an independent empire, and an influential one along the silk road. The Uighurs were ruled by the Soviets for a time before Xinjiang became part of Mao’s China. Their inclusion is uneasy at best. Xinjiang is theoretically an ‘autonomous region’, but it’s hard to imagine how you can have autonomy without democracy.

In debunking the idea that nations are primordial and eternal Benedict Andersen talks about how modern a concept the border is. Historically there was no clear line between one empire and the next. Instead the empire’s power was strongest at its centre, but faded with distance from its capital. Modern China feels a bit like this, except that Beijing’s influence has spread with its highways and high speed rail. They carry goods and Han Chinese migrating in search of new opportunities. Cities at their terminus, like Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, are still very Chinese. But outside the city limits is a different story.

More Middle East than Middle Kingdom

We visited an Uighur village an hour’s drive from Turpan. This village welcomes tourists who pay a small fee, but it probably doesn’t get many. There wasn’t much set up with us in mind except some obnoxious Mulberry Juice. But we were very happy to wander and soak up the difference.

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The Uighurs are a Muslim people. Among them we’ve seen more heads covered – men and women – than any other Islamic people we’ve visited. They speak a Turkic language that’s written in Arabic script. They’ve rounder eyes and bigger noses than the Chinese. It felt wrong to greet them with ni hao but we received many cheery “hellos”. Whereas the Chinese are always happy to be photographed, mothers of village children hid them away when we motioned requests to take pictures.The kids playing on the streets had toy guns. Maybe they were playing Uighur separatists. A grandma stood stripping a foul smelling sheep carcass that was gathering flies while her toddler grandson grabbed at intestines. In the mountains behind the village winds were whipping sands to obscure the view. It felt like a scene from the Kite Runner.

It felt so different that we were moved to think of ourselves as starting the next part of our trip: Central Asia and the Middle East. But not quite: we’ve returned to ‘real China’ for a few days in Urumqi now. It’s got all the Chinese brands we’ve come to enjoy, and the feeling of all the big Chinese cities. To the Chinese who live here it must feel like an Oasis in the desert. To the Uighur who now make up a minority of its population it must feel like an outpost of the oppressor they’ve come to fear and loathe.

*We’ll write more about the ongoing conflict here, and what we understand of what the Uighur think of China’s dominance, when we’re free from Xinjiang’s intense censorship.