VAST is the word most people use to describe Xinjiang.
One-sixth the size of China and with a population of only 23 million, Xinjiang borders several countries on China’s north-western frontier.
From Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan to the west and Russia to the north, Xinjiang makes a fascinating cultural hotpot with its long history and little known ethnic minorities, and is often viewed as a “must-go” in China among travel enthusiasts.
Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, is a bustling city with more flyovers than Beijing or Shanghai. Five-level flyovers are not uncommon.
Within the city itself, there is the Central Bazaar, where the Uighurs, who are mostly Muslims, ply their exotic wares and hawk their mouth-watering food.
At the major corners of Urumqi and specifically the Central Bazaar, there are still many teams of military police who stand on guard. I was told that in the event of a riot, they are supposed to reach the site of the incident within two minutes.
One of the traditional restaurants that I visited was the Miraj, a beautifully decorated place with Uighur influences. The decor is lively, with colourful mosaic windows and a big teapot in the middle of the restaurant.
Its samosa spring rolls, zhua fan (rice eaten with hands), kebabs and yoghurt are worth trying.
Other than the delicious authentic Uighur cuisine, there was also impromptu dancing. Led by an elderly man accompanied by traditional Uighur musical instruments, the music was joyous and loud. Much laughter ensued as the graceful elder invited a female customer to dance with him.
Located 110km east of the capital of Xinjiang, Heavenly Lake was a pleasant 90-minute ride from Urumqi.
From the hustle and bustle of the capital, the ride was a good introduction to the breathtaking remote wild landscape of Xinjiang.
Legend has it that Heavenly Lake was where the Heavenly Queen washed her feet. Nestled in the valleys of Heavenly Mountains, the crystal-clear turquoise water in the lake was so icy cold that it numbed the hands.
Around Heavenly Lake was an oft-neglected hiking path. I ventured deep into the path, away from the crowd and noise. There, I was able to hear birds chirping, leaves rustling and water splashing. It was not hard to see why the lake was revered as a site used by heavenly beings in the past.
The attraction is also a favourite camping ground for holidaymakers of all ages to enjoy the scenic landscape from the comfort of their tents.
Valley of Grapes
There are many attractions in Tulufan, a four-hour drive from Urumqi. While we opted to make a day trip, you can also stay overnight.
En route to Tulufan, we drove past vast seemingly endless plains. On the plains were hundreds of windmills turning, with the snow-capped Tianshan in the distant background.
In Tulufan, grapes are grown and harvested by the locals, then sold by the truckloads. With close to 16 hours of intense sunshine a day during summer, coupled with unpolluted mineral water from the mountains, the fruit is especially fragrant and sweet in the Valley of Grapes.
Locals live right inside this tourist attraction, in low mud huts.
Xinjiang is steeped in legends, most notably Chinese novel Journey To The West.
In one story, the Monkey God, or Sun Wukong, had to borrow a fan from the Iron Fan Princess to extinguish the fires at the Flaming Mountains, which was where we headed.
Situated in Tulufan, the Flaming Mountains live up to their name. At 8pm, the thermometer in the car registered 48 deg C. The 500m-high sandstone mountains were blistering red, and about 2km from the base of the mountains where we stood, we could feel the heat from the arresting sight.
Air China, China Eastern Airlines and Hainan Air fly to Urumqi. Transit stops include Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Haikou, Shanghai or Shenzhen, depending on the airline.
■ Miraj Restaurant (Mi La Ji) is located at Shayibake District Kelamayi East Street North Alley 176, Urumqi. Its cuisine is halal.
■ High-end accommodation includes Torch Hotel Xinjiang (55 Gaoxin Street, South Beijing Road, Urumqi), which costs 450 yuan (S$90) a night. Centrally located, it offers a bird’s-eye view of the city.
■ For mid-range accommodation (about 200 yuan a night), there are many budget lodgings, such as Home Inn.
■ Inquire at hotels and guesthouses for local tour packages, or book a driver. Sometimes, it is better to travel with tours as they offer better deals. Prices range from 150 to 250 yuan and usually exclude entrance fees to attractions.
■ Visit the Central Bazaar in Urumqi for its architecture and shopping. Scarves, dates, raisins and walnuts are some local products worth taking home.
■ From summer to autumn (May to September), the sun sets at 11pm and it is a good time to visit because the flowers are in full bloom.
Source: SG Travellers © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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