Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Xinjiang - a sum of its parts

I first became aware of Xinjiang in 2001, when I bought the Lonely Planet guide to Central Asia, in preparation for my move to Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Previous to that, I had little awareness of who lived in the western part of modern-day China or the fact that this region was a kind of continuum of the Turkic and Persian cultures of Central Asia. Of course, 2001 turned out to be somewhat of a turning point for Western societies, particularly the US. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the newly-independent stans of Central Asia, as well as Xinjiang started to become better-known to other parts of the world.

During my time in Central Asia, I visited Kyrgyzstan and took a trip up to Lake Issyk-Kul and the town of Karakol, which is not far from the Chinese border, on the other side of the mountains from Xinjiang. Whilst I left Central Asia with an awareness of Xinjiang and a desire to someday go there, I left with no real understanding of the different parts of the region and this is something I'd like to explore in this blog post.

The Tarim Basin and Turfan depression

Turfan Depression by Atou Hsu
Xinjiang is, in reality, a land divided into two main parts, which are separated by mountains running, more or less, diagonally across the top half. The southern part holds the Tarim basin, which used to be a separate 'mini-continent' that partly submerged when the Indian subcontinent crashed into the greater Eurasian landmass.

If I've understood it correctly, the Tarim basin is slowly being pushed underground by the mountains to the north and south of it. One part of the basin, the Turfan depression is, at its lowest point, 300 metres below sea level, which is amazing when you consider that some of the surrounding mountains are thousands of metres above sea level. It's a hot and dry area, so hot, in fact, that previous generations of Turfan's inhabitants lived in underground caves, to escape the scorching temperatures of the surface.

Lop Nor

Also part of the Tarim basin are the salt marshes of Lop Nor.  They occupy an area that used to be an actual lake but was eventually cut off from the sea by the shifting landmasses.  It's an area of great archaeological interest and has been the source of some very well-preserved mummies that tell us a lot about the area's original inhabitants.  In the 1960's, the Chinese government started testing nuclear weapons in the Lop Nor region, a controversial activity that has been (sometimes violently) opposed by the local population. 

The Taklamakan

Children in Kashgar by Kvitlauk

Most of the Tarim basin is a desert called the Taklamakan. It's the 18th biggest desert in the world and, at approximately 100,000 square miles (270,000 square kilometres), it covers a land area which is greater than the UK and slightly less than Italy. For my US readers, it's slightly smaller than Colorado. It has a reputation for being incredibly inhospitable and the name Taklamakan is believed to mean something along the lines of 'abandoned place'. Despite its inhospitable reputation, people have managed to settle in the Taklamakan, mostly in oasis towns with underground water sources, which are a result of melting ice from the northern Himalayas creating rivers that run under the Tarim basin. It's the heartland of Uyghuristan and the most important Uyghur towns, like Kashgar, Aksu and Khotan, lie on the periphery of the Taklamakan, in the foothills of the various mountain ranges that encircle the desert.


Urumqi skyline by Ying Chen
The northern part of Xinjiang, which is also where most of the Han Chinese currently live corresponds, more or less, to the ancient land of Dzungaria - previously inhabited by Dzungars or Western Mongolians (from the Mongolian for 'left hand'). The landscape in Dzungaria is more like the Mongolian or Kazakh steppe than the Taklamakan desert and this part of Xinjiang has seen more changes in terms of population shift than any other part of the region. It's of particular interest to me, as my partner is a western Mongolian (Kalmyk), whose ancestors moved from Dzungaria to the Volga delta (and later the southern Russian steppe, where the modern Kalmyk republic is). When I say 'ancestors', it was a relatively recent move, in the 1600-1700s. Dzungaria no longer exists, but this region is the heart of Han Chinese Xinjiang, with the regional capital at Urumqi.

The Tian Shan mountains

Tian Shan Mountains by zz77
Of course, one of the main features of the region is its amazing mountains. The Himalayas and Pamir ranges in the south and the Tian Shan mountains, also know as Tengri Tagh, running across the north of Xinjiang, dividing the bottom two-thirds of the region (the Tarim basin) from the top one third (the Dzungarian basin). The Chinese name translates as 'heavenly mountains' and the highest peak is Victory Peak (Пик Победы Pik Pobedi in Russian, or Жеңиш чокусу Jengish Chokusu in Kyrgyz). It's known as Tömür in Uyghur, which is the Turkic and Mongolian word for 'iron' (and the modern boys' name, Timur). Another famous peak is Khan Tengri which means 'lord of the skies' in Uyghur.

The Ili Valley

The Ili Valley of Xinjiang reminds me of the Ferghana valley in Uzbekistan, for several reasons, namely:

- it's the most fertile part of the whole region

- it's completely separate to the rest of Xinjiang

- its separate identity and closeness to Kazakhstan has earned the Ili Valley the reputation of being a hotbed of resistance to Chinese culture and rule

Lavender Harvest in Ili Valley by Arthur Ngai

The valley has been passed back and forth, down through the years, between various different rulers, but it seems to have maintained an identity, that is neither wholly Kazakh or Chinese, Uyghur or Russian. It must have been one of the most tense border crossings between China and the (then) Soviet Union and continues to provide a refuge, escape route and different perspective from the rest of Xinjiang.

The Silk Road: trade and migration

I read an interesting theory that the history of Xinjiang is the history of trade through the Taklamakan and migration through the Dzungarian Gate. The theory goes that, because of the inhospitable nature of the Taklamakan desert, even bandits couldn't survive there, which made it a safer route to transport precious goods between China and the West. The 'southern route' became the preferred option for the Silk Road, whereas the 'northern route' via Dzungaria was too dangerous, as the steppe and colder climate could support marauding tribes. However, in terms of moving populations, the northern route was preferable, as the Taklamakan was too perilous for large numbers of humans to cross. So, goods went south, people went north.

Perhaps this explains why the south of Xinjiang (the Tarim Basin) remains to be a Uyghur stronghold, as it has been for centuries. On the other hand, more recent population movements, ie. the millions of Han Chinese who have moved to China's western province, have settled in the north, where earlier populations, such as the western Mongolians have been displaced and moved on!

Image credits:

The image of the Turfan Depression was taken by flickruser Atou Hsu - you can see more of Atou's photos at

The picture of the kids in Kashgar was taken by kvitlauk aka Audun K who is from Bergen in Norway.  You can see more of Audun's photos on his flickrstream or contact him via his website (it's in Norwegian, but even I could understand it!)

The image of Urumqi in the evening, with the skyline, is by a journalist called Chen Ying aka chenyingphoto - you can see more of Chen Ying's photos at or on the website

The stunning image of the Tian Shan mountains was taken (on the Kyrgyz side) by flickeruser zz77 who is from Moscow.  See more of zz77's photos on

The image of women harvesting lavender flowers in the Ili Valley was taken by flickruser ckngai23 aka Arthur Ngai - see more of his photos at

I've used a lot of images from flickr today - partly for the pleasure of my readers and to illustrate my blog, but also because I want to showcase some of the amazing imagery that is available through flickr.  Thanks to all photographers for making these images freely available using the Creative Commons license.
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