Tourists hike in the Keziliya Grand Canyon in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (PAMELA TOBEY)
For many people in China, traveling during the national Golden Week holiday in early October means taking excursions around China or to foreign destinations. And those trips usually involve seeing the famous sites and monuments of whatever place is chosen. For me and my husband, we decided to head off the beaten path to see a side of northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region that not many get to see.
So instead of planning a trip to a famous tourist destination, which would likely be crowded during the holiday, we signed up for a weeklong trip to Xinjiang, organized by Beijing Hikers, an English-speaking group of outdoors enthusiasts. Described as a trip along the Silk Road from Korla to Kashgar, it was planned to take advantage of the region's beautiful scenery from central to southwest Xinjiang. We were divided among a group of all-terrain SUVs piloted by experienced drivers who took us on a route skirting the northern fringes of the Taklamakan Desert over seven days. We hiked once or twice each day in the sparsely populated wilderness.
The ever-changing scenery was beautiful, with the valleys and mountains of the Tianshan Mountain Range clad in varying shades from red and gold to gray and green, and each place had different hues and landscapes. Our first hike after leaving Korla was among arid, undulating landforms colored in shades of white and gray sand that looked like we could be hiking on the moon. With plenty of water stashed in our small backpacks, we wove around small conical shapes and wound our way atop narrow ridges, our views only of more white and gray hills and valleys stretching into the distance, the soft sand making us expend more energy with each step.
The next day, after an overnight stay in Kuqa, we headed to the Subashi Buddhist ruins which were built about 2,000 years ago. They cover a large area and encompass both sides of the Kuqa River, although only the east side allows visitors. Under royal blue skies, the colors ranged from the dark green foothills to the golden mud brick ruins of the temples and buildings. After an easy walk among the ancient city ruins, our caravan headed out to the Keziliya Grand Canyon, where we walked along a dry riverbed flanked by tall red mountains framed by bright azure blue skies. The towering red mountains ranged from slanted peaks to eroded yardang landforms that resembled a fantastical ruined city and our hike included a few forays into the lower reaches of the cliffsides. The third day of our tour was supposed to end with a night of camping in the desert not far from the canyon, but the area was closed so we stayed at a hotel in Baicheng after having a camp-style cookout in the valley.
The fourth day included a visit to the Kizil Buddhist Caves, which didn't involve hiking but instead quite a lot of climbing stairs to see the intricately painted caves carved into the cliffside around 1,800 years ago. It was a rather strenuous trek to see six of the 236 open caves discovered along 2-km jagged rocks. We ended our day with a short hike across a mostly dry riverbed lined with tumbled rocks that snaked along the highway to Aksu. We skirted the base of some small rugged mountains colored with alternating stripes of beige, gray and red, while the more adventurous and experienced hikers climbed to the tops of the steep slopes.
I missed out on our final hike after succumbing to a short illness that had me napping in the back of one of the SUVs to gain enough energy for the last two days of the tour while my traveling companions hiked the nearby mountains. Maybe it was the surfeit of scenery that laid me low. The drivers prepared another camp-style picnic with their portable stoves, large woks and charcoal grills before we bade farewell to the wilderness and headed to Kashgar, where our hiking was limited to walks around the city to see markets, neighborhoods and historical attractions.
Leaving Kashgar by plane allowed us to look over some of the same area we had traversed. Our flight from Urumqi to Beijing led us over imposing black mountains topped with snow, a magnificent goodbye as we left Xinjiang, a land of inspiring beauty.