Stretching vast distances across oasis-studded deserts and snowy mountain peaks, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, slightly larger than Western Europe or Alaska, is home to a population on par with that of Shanghai, with just under 20 million people living in cities and towns that go back to the days of the Silk Road. Of those 20 million, a 45% majority are Uyghur, with Kazakh, Hui Chinese (ethnic Chinese Muslims) and smatterings of other ethnic minorities mixing with a Han Chinese population that has shot up in the last 50 years from around 8% of the total in 1949 to nearly 41% today.
For travelers, Xinjiang (Xīnjiāng, 新疆) makes for a fascinating experience. In a few weeks, you can stay with quasi-nomadic Kazakhs in traditional yurts on the shores of Tian Chi (Heavenly Lake), explore the ruins of the desert city of Jiaohe, haggle over a silk carpet or finely wrought knife in a Kashgar bazaar and see caves full of ancient Buddhist statues and frescoes near Kuqa. You'll find that Xinjiang is like no other place in contemporary China, the people and culture retain a distinct Central Asian quality despite many centuries of Chinese influence.
The Silk Road was long the only link between East and West, connecting Han Dynasty China (206 BC-AD 220) to the Roman Empire and providing a conduit for the spread of Buddhism into China, followed later by Islam. In the 13th century, Marco Polo entered "Cathay" with his father and uncle via the Silk Road through today's Xinjiang.
After 14th century advances in ocean travel reduced the importance of the Silk Road, many of its wealthy oasis cities declined and even disappeared beneath desert sands. Before the Han Dynasty took control of the area and its valuable trade route to the West, the land known now as Xinjiang lay beyond the boundaries of China proper, and the region's nomadic inhabitants were considered barbarians by the citizens of the Empire. The Yuezhi were one of the major tribal peoples in the area; archaeological evidence of their presence goes back to the first millennium BC.
The famous Tarim mummies, unearthed in the 20th century and on display at museums around Xinjiang including the Xinjiang Museum, indicate that Xinjiang's early inhabitants were Caucasoid in appearance, resembling the people of today's Central and Western Asia more than those of China and the Far East—a finding that has resonated with Uyghur claims to the land. Even 3,000 years ago, trade between West and East was already shaping the region, as the Yuezhi supplied the earliest of China's rulers with jade from the western mountains. The Yuezhi were displaced by another nomadic group, the Xiongnu, who hailed from what is today Mongolia; they in turn were ousted by the Han Empire in 60 BC. From then on, the region would slip in and out of Chinese control, though never for long. Turkic peoples—direct ancestors of today's Uyghur—controlled the Silk Road for a period in the 5th and 6th centuries AD, only to be overwhelmed by Sui and Tang Dynasty China. By 659 AD, the Tang Emperor would claim dominion over the Silk Road route to the boundaries of Persia.
Buddhism, which had entered China via the Silk Road in the first century AD, experienced its Chinese golden age—evidence remains in what's left of the many monasteries, temples, holy caves and grottoes still to be found along the Silk Road route all the way from Kashgar to Xi'an. The fall of the Tang in the 8th century was followed by a rise in Uyghur power in eastern Xinjiang and the expansion of Tibet in the west, wresting the region from direct Chinese control. It wasn't until Genghis Khan swept through in 1218, making room for his son Kublai and the Yuan Dynasty, that the area was restored to greater China, albeit a China under Mongol rule.
The Ming replaced the Yuan in 1368 but let Xinjiang slip away, leaving the Chagatai Khanate to rule Xinjiang, though often in name only as the region fell into a chaotic period that lasted until the Qing brought it back into the embrace of China in the 18th century. In the 20th century, Xinjiang's Uyghur, Hui (Chinese Muslim) and Kazakh peoples fought for various degrees of independence as troubled transition from Qing to Nationalist (Kuomintang) to Communist rule saw the quick rise and fall of two Uyghur states, the first and second East Turkmenistan Republics (1933 and 1944-49 respectively).
With the establishment of the PRC, the region's intrigue and struggles did not end, and to this day Uyghur separatists and Islamists are active in Xinjiang. As in Tibet, the cultural balance is shifting as people from other parts of China migrate from the crowded east to settle down and build new lives in the PRC's western expanses. With the violence of 2009, Xinjiang's immediate stability is in question, as the Uyghur population chafes against centralized rule from Beijing even as many parts of the region begin to reap the economic benefits of increase in tourism and the development of the region's vast mineral and fossil fuel resources.
Xinjiang is a land of extremes. It is home to China's highest and lowest points—the peak of K2 on the Kashmir border stands at 8,611 meters above sea level, the Turpan Basin situated near the Flaming Mountains sits 155 meters below sea level.
Xinjiang is also China's most landlocked area—the most landlocked in the world, actually—and its continental Asian weather is dominated by the presence of huge mountain ranges that block moisture, creating vast deserts as well as wetter semi-alpine and alpine ecosystems where grasses and forests thrive.
Summers are blistering hot at lower altitudes and pleasant at higher points, with winters being prohibitively cold in the mountains and desert alike. Spring and fall are short but glorious. Summer in the desert can soar to highs up to 50°C (120°F), so be very careful if you're trekking in low, dry areas. Be equally careful of winter temperatures.
Within a single day, temperatures can also vary widely. A warm day in the Nanshan Grasslands near Urumqi, for example, can turn into a chilly night, so be prepared.
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