South of the grasslands of central Xinjiang, southern Xinjiang opens up to arid deserts and amazing mountainous landscapes. Coming from the north, you will have to drive through the mostly unchanging landscape of the Taklamakan Desert to get to the southern cities.
Make a stop to walk among (and on, and leap off of) the sand dunes and, if you're lucky, spot a herd of wild camels making their way across the warm sands. At the southern end of the desert lies a place nicknamed Xinjiang's Grand Canyon.
Walking through these enormous red rock canyons is like taking a step into a Martian landscape. The scale and scope of these canyons is remarkable, although one must be cautious due to flash floods during rainy weather.
As you leave behind the sand dunes, the first major settlement is the town of Hotan, home to a fairly traditional Uyghur population and a bustling street-food scene at night that offers a variety of Middle Eastern-style foods, from chicken and lamb kabobs to Xinjiang rice, as well as different desserts.
The town is also known for a large market that sells local and Pakistani goods and caters far more to locals' day-to-day needs than to tourists.
Heading farther west, you eventually arrive in Kashgar, the well-known one-time major hub along the Silk Road and the westernmost city in China.
The city is quickly becoming visually indistinguishable from most other Chinese cities as more tall buildings in typical contemporary architectural styles appear, and the ongoing demolition of the old areas underscores this fact. Nonetheless, walking around the old city is still a day well spent.
With its unique architecture, language, and culture, Kashgar is distinct from China, and a visit is like leaving China without needing a stamp in your passport.
The old town area is rather large and lies not far from one of the largest bazaars in the world, where goods like Turkish tea, locally grown raisins, and an assortment of souvenirs can be purchased.
Unlike the market in Hotan, this is a tourist market, so buyer beware! Kashgar also holds a famous livestock market that usually occurs every Sunday.
Heading west from Kashgar you drive along the Karakoram highway (permit required) for breathtaking natural views of massive mountains and vast lakes. Ancient glaciers along the road seem just a stone's throw away, and the fresh frigid air forms a stark contrast to the warm, dry air of Kashgar. As you enjoy a lunch beside one of these crystal clear lakes, you can't help but think that it is the perfect way to finish off a Xinjiang adventure.
This article was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 62 ("Traffic").
Photos provided by PureQuest Adventures. For more adventure ideas, please visit PureQuest.