A typical view from the road as I travel through the Taklamakan Desert


I am standing alone on an endless two-lane ribbon of asphalt cutting across the deep bowl-shaped Talklamakan Desert in western China. This desert has one of the world’s most inhospitable climates. In summer, the temperatures here have risen to 130 degrees F. So inhospitable is the oval-shaped desert that sits below sea level, that ancient travelers would take the much longer northern or southern routes around it to transport their goods to market.

A few weeks ago I had been on my way to Vietnam to shoot for my client, Tour East, a leading Asian tour company in Canada. But then, as so often happens, plans change. Now I am here, in the middle of one of the world’s largest deserts, documenting my trip through this amazing part of the Silk Road.

The night bazaar in Urumqi

After a direct flight from Toronto to Beijing, then a fast connection onto Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, my journey westward begins. A room was booked for me at the new Sheraton in Urumqi where I grabbed a four hour sleep and a shower before being awakened and told my guide and driver were outside waiting for me.

The desert road stretching ahead of us day after day

Traveling light means you can respond quickly and not have too many things to worry about when packing up. I always travel with two bags, a versatile rolling duffle from Mountain Equipment Co-op that seems to grow with anything I shove into it – and of course, my constant companion, my camera gear backpack. The latter looks light but is deceptively heavy – which is a good thing when the overhead compartment weight limit maxes out at the combined weight of three cantaloupes. Nobody would expect this bag to be topping 40 pounds!

To make the most of every trip, vehicles are almost always overloaded - Often though, with tragic consequences

Spinning away from the hotel, my guide and driver sit upfront and careen through the crowded market streets in the Nissan Pathfinder. Planting my feet wide apart and clutching the seat and door, I manage not to flop about too much in the back seat! This rushing about sets the tone for the rest of my trip. There is much to shoot on my shot list, many locations to visit and a long, long way to drive before we reach the western Chinese city of Kashgar.

Leaving the outskirts of Urumqi, I instantly see what my next few weeks will look like… sand, sand, sand. And in case I have not stressed it enough, more sand!

Camels roam freely in the desert, often bringing traffic to a stand-still

Turpan is my first taste of the desert. It is a small city of a little over 250,000. This is an oasis location in the bowl-shaped Taklamakan that owes it’s existence to the ingenious underground karez water system. This system collects ground water from deep vertical shafts which then channel the water horizontally through the city with pressure coming from gravity. The main source of water are the Tian Shan, and the Flaming mountains.
Turpan enjoys an abundant harvest of grapes, kept watered by the karez. The wine produced in this area is predominantly table grape wine, but recently the government is focusing on developing the industry into finer grapes for a more mature wine industry.

...and more camels!

This area, and indeed most of Xinjiang is populated predominantly Uyghur (wee-gur) people. In Xinjiang, rich and varied cultures co-exist. Culture and religion, as well as trade goods has moved freely east and west along the Silk Road for centuries. From the west came various cultures practicing Islam. Also, with influences from northern India, via the Karakoram mountain range, came Buddhism. Other religions also found a home in this region including Manicheanism, and Nestorian Christianity.

Everywhere you go, raisins are sold. These are the sweetest and most succulent raisins I have ever eaten.

The area around Turpan deserves several days of exploration. Not far from Turpan are the caves at Bezeklik which is a small town carved into cliffs and offer important examples of Buddhist culture. The caves are located on the west side of a deep valley with the east side being rock, sand and trees.
PHOTO TIP: Since the caves are on the west side of the valley, the best time to shoot here is in the morning when the sun crests the opposite wall of the valley and shines on the caves. If you visit the caves in the afternoon, everything will be in shadow and you will have difficulty balancing your light between the deep shadows and the still-blazing sun above & behind the western wall.

Only 10 kilometres west of Turpan, and not to be missed is the ancient ruined city of Jiaohe. Indo-Europeans settled in the area no later than 1,800 BC. Founded approximately 2,000 years ago, the site still contains recognizable temples, a stupa, pagodas and other buildings including a Buddhist monastery in the centre of the city. Jiaohe was abandoned in the 13th century after Genghis Khan’s army destroyed the city, the result is a ruins worthy of spending the day and imagining what life must have been like for this once-prosperous Silk Road city.

The Flaming Mountains close to Turpan are an important source of watter for the oasis city.

Two kilometres east of Turpan is the Emin Minaret, a huge, 44 metre structure, tapering to an Islamic dome. Inside the minaret, there are no stories, only circular stone stairs winding their way to the dome above. One cannot climb to the top due to the preservation and protection of the minaret. The rest of the grounds are haunting and beautiful. Around the left side and rear are above ground tombs. I spent quite some time shooting here and marveling at the architecture. China is blessed with various rich cultural influences over the past centuries. And we are fortunate visitors to be able to enjoy a great many of these today since they are being preserved and protected by the government and also recognized by world bodies as significant cultural relics.

…more to come…

Categories : XINJIANG


  1. Ronna Pargo says:

    Really impressed! Everything is very, very clear, open is a description of the travels. It contains the information. I wanted to let you know that I linked to your site with a dofollow links so visitors can come to see your blog. It is all very new to me and this article really opened my eyes,and I guess since I like reading your blog, others will too.

  2. Leida Islar says:

    Thank you for sharing. I just readout interesting website’s your awesome interesting and informative topic. I really appreciate your thought about it. It’s really so useful for all

  3. Moira Sassman says:

    WONDERFUL article! Thanks for share… looking forward to more travels from you. You are all over the ‘net and someone to watch :)

  4. Aimê says:

    awesome blog to read…i enjoyed reading. keep posting.

  5. Leigh Evenson says:

    Great work! That is the type of information that should be shared across the internet. Disgrace on Google for not positioning this publish higher!

  6. Carla Riddel says:

    I have heard of this area in books. But now with your experiences, I would love to visit it. Will you take me?

  7. Matthew C. Kriner says:

    This is the PERFECT blog for anyone who wants to find out about travel in China. You see so much and make culturally significant observations and opinions without insult or stereotype. Exquisitely done.. You definitely put a new spin on a topic thats been written about for years. Great stuff, just great!

  8. Ramon Suderman says:

    Excellent post! I was checking continually this blog and I am impressed! Very helpful information. I was looking for this explicit info for a long time. Thank you and best of luck.

  9. Kenisha Clain says:

    I am not that much of a web reader to be trustworthy but your blogs very nice, keep it up! I will go ahead and bookmark your site to come again in the future. All the very best

  10. Alberta Vranich says:

    I have wanted to travel the Silk Road for years but thought it scary and dangerous. You make it sound wonderful. I will rethink it and make plans to go. :)

Leave a Reply