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Journey to the West

From the deadly Taklamakan Desert to the heavenly Tianshan Mountains, here is our traverse through Xinjiang's Silk Road

In the vast expanse of China's western region lies Xinjiang, the nations largest, and most untamed province. This remote and rugged province has long been a crossroads of cultures, a melting pot where East meets West along the ancient Silk Roads, blended together by perhaps the most dangerous deserts and mountains known on Earth. Embarking on a journey through Xinjiang those many centuries ago is to embark on a game of life verses death.

In the summer of 2017, my wife and I embarked on our own journey through this province, laying the framework for our travels through the silk roads ever since. We stumbled upon so many adventures, stories, and mishaps during the course of this journey, we are still quite literally processing and sharing the unbelievable experiences of this part of the world very little travel to, yet alone even know about. We narrowly missed a life threatening flash flood, we lost each other for several hours in the wilderness, and even had an encounter with the police. This trip exhausted and excited, with a wind of conflicting emotions constantly engulfing us. But at the end of it all, sitting on the overnight train heading home, an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and desire overcame us. 

The difficulties of the Silk Roads may have been long in the past, but for us, it felt more tangible than ever before.

The Heavenly Way Map_edited_edited.jpg


On June 15 that year, we set off from Jiangyou, Sichuan, (our home at the time), for a long journey of three consecutive overnight train rides to our first destination of Kashgar and the surrounding South Xinjiang. With our two packs filled to a brim, including a tent, sleeping bags, and food to last a few days, we were determined to see all of Xinjiang that we could possibly fit into during the month. We crossed the world's second largest sand desert, ascended one of the highest and most dangerous roads, witnessed the tallest natural arch, walked through ancient Silk Road ruins, rode Kazakh horses through pristine meadows, traversed around towering granite peaks, haggled in time-tested bazaars, and slept in a nomad’s yurt.

At every moment were the locals who helped us above and beyond we could imagine. Take for instance our over 1,000 kilometers traversed by hitchhiking alone. Whether Uyghurs, Hans, Kirghiz, or Kazakhs, they all stopped on the side of the road to pick up two dirty strangers, and never once did they ask anything in return. For sure, it was humbling. It also challenged us - are we also showing this same kindness to the strangers in our lives at home?


Following the long, long journey to Kashgar (and nearly missing one of the connections in Turpan), we felt as if we stepped into a different country. Located in the extreme southwest of China, Kashgar borders several countries. In fact, Kashgar is closer to Istanbul or Egypt than it is eastern China, and is true not only geographically, but also culturally and spiritually. Predominately Muslim, the local Uyghur population are still very much holding on to their past, though it is slipping at an alarming rate. Old towns are being razed in order to construct new “old” towns, while the age-old culture is slowly vanishing as more and more Han Chinese are moving here.

Despite these difficulties, Kashgar’s cultural heritage is still seen in the very fabric of everyday life, where local handicrafts, grand bazaars, and daily trading permeate the streets. Our first day in Kashgar was Sunday, the best day to experience the locals going about their life. At the center of town is the Grand Bazaar, the largest of its kind in Asia. Further outside of town is the livestock market, a hectic conglomerate of animals and people looking to buy, sell, or trade their livestock. Scattered throughout the streets of Kashgar are various shops and stalls displaying the Uyghurs beautiful heritage, whether it be music, crafts, or food. The midpoint of the routes geographically, there is no better place to begin our journey through Xinjiang than here, the Heart of the Silk Roads


Leaving the desert oasis of Kashgar behind, we set our sights to greater heights - the Pamir Mountains. A road extends south from Kashgar to dizzying elevations - coined the Karakoram Highway - crossing soaring peaks, alpine lakes, glacial rivers, and stone ruins before heading into Pakistan through the highest international border in the world. Cramped in the back of a truck, we were utterly captivated by the views, where impossible yet spectacular peak after peak appeared then vanished in the mysterious mist. Every foot we climbed, the temperature dropped and the air thinned. The fact this road exists is hard to fathom, and even more so when considering caravans had to traverse this same route to enter South Asia. The worlds most dangerous road, as it is known today. I imagine those merchants would have called it the same a millennia ago.

At its near highest section, we stopped for the night at the ancient outpost of Taxkorgan. Nauseous from the elevation coupled with the rocky ride up here, I made an embarrassment of myself in the first small dining establishment we found. Following a hearty meal, and feeling much better, we head towards the ancient stone fort that has stood sentinel over this route for nearly 2,000 years. Atop its stone walls, a primitive landscape unfolded of snowy peaks and vast grasslands dotted with yurts. Naturally, we felt drawn to these grasslands. What happened next was one of our fondest memories ever, making friends with a nomad and his shy little puppy while seated inside his warm and colorful yurt sipping milk tea and munching on naan. Such a simple yet profound experience we have never forgotten.


Back in Kashgar, we headed east towards the Tarim Basin, a vast desert “sea” with ancient oasis cities dotting the perimeter. The Silk Road branched in two directions, following either the southern route or the northern route. No one dared enter the Taklamakan Desert, the point of no return. As the second largest sand desert in the world, very little who enter that forsaken landscape ever make it out alive. We chose the southern route first, stopping in the town of Hotan, known in the past as Khotan. This town would likely have been forgotten despite one valuable commodity that transformed Hotan into a Silk Road oasis - jade. At the foot of mighty mountains and a broad alluvial fan, some of the finest specimens of this green gem have been found here. Naturally, we joined locals in the jade fever that still persists thousands of years later, scouring the rocky river beds for glints of green.

Where we went next was only possible in the last 20 years or so - straight across the Taklamakan. Thanks once again to Chinese infrastructure ingenuity, a road now runs directly across the endless sands, with vegetation built to stop the desert encroachment over the road. One overnight bus ride was all it took to reach Kuqa, the most famous outpost along the northern branch of the Tarim Basin. Once a mighty Buddhist kingdom, with remnants still seen at the Subashi Ruins, the town today is a colorful display of the hospitality of the Uyghurs.


Beyond Kuqa, past red rock canyons and winding roads, leads to the stunning Tianshan Mountains. These peaks, also known as the Mountains of Heaven, span spectacularly across the fertile lands of Central Asia, originating in Eastern Xinjiang and terminating in Uzbekistan. Long standing as a barrier along the Silk Roads, but even longer standing as the home of many peoples and nationalities, the mountains here are nothing short of majestic. Backpacking through these peaks and grasslands felt at times unreal. Incredible peace when observing eagles flying overhead, walking along blue lakeshores, to greeting the nomads that live in these areas.

It was an unlikely journey, made possible by the generosity of locals who helped us along the way. From hitchhiking on the Heavenly Road to ridge-riding with Kazakh shepherds on horseback and staying in a nomad's yurt on Sayram Lake, we felt like family in this in these mountains. Considering what the people here have endured, losing their traditional lifestyle and often much more, their warm welcome of outsiders like us was all the more meaningful. So much more can be said of our few days here, which is why I’ve compiled a three part story - The Land of Nomads - highlighting in detail just how spectacular and utterly ridiculous our experience was.


  • Hemu Village hike

  • Keketuohai


Situated in the heart of Xinjiang lies the Turpan Depression, one of the most extreme places in Asia as it is situated 154 feet below sea level with temperatures exceedingly high. And, the final leg of our journey through Xinjiang in 2017. However, the local Uyghurs have lived and thrived in this region for centuries.


Rolling out of the deserts of Xinjiang into the Hexi Corridor of Gansu, our journey concludes. To be honest, it was a journey neither of us wanted to end. Back in 2017, this was our first real adventure into the Silk Roads, and thereafter, we made it our goal to be just the beginning of a decades long quest. We felt humbled by the kindness shown to us by the locals, amazed by the endless, untouched nature, and inspired by the stories left behind in rubble.

Through it all, we felt as if we were welcomed as family into this strange land. It was more than we expected. And then again, nearly every facet of the trip tested us in new ways. It taught us to embrace the unexpected, where the best moments are during those times when everything seems to unravel.

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