Crossing the border from mainland China into Xinjiang (literally 'new frontier' in Chinese), I feel I've truly entered another country; a world away from the China I've been living in for the past eight months. Making up a mammoth sixth of China's total area, this remote province at the tip of China's north-west resonates with an irresistible Central Asian and Middle Eastern feel. Gone are the pagodas, red lanterns and shao kao stands, replaced by mosques, bazaars and sherbet-sellers. The opaque, terracotta skies of the Chinese mega-city I call home give way to an expanse of blazing, cloudless blue; the smoggy soup of air to aromas of cinnamon and cloves; the endless din of construction to the Muezzin's prayer call and locals haggling over the price of a camel. The language barrier ceases to be one of dialect here – locals speak the Turkic language Uighur, and while its Arabic script shares road signs in the larger towns, as you head further away from the urban centres Mandarin is cold-shouldered altogether.
As I sit in the airport waiting to return to what I'm already thinking of as 'China proper', I feel that my trip to Xinjiang has given me a tiny little bit more insight into the teeming mass of contradictions that is my adopted country; another piece or two in the jigsaw that is the face of modern China. I'd urge anyone considering a visit here to stray beyond the beaten tourist path of coastal show-cities, regional capitals and Yangzi cruises, and to soak up the remote, breathtaking beauty of Xinjiang. Undoubtedly the best way to travel – simply because of Xinjiang's size and still-underdeveloped infrastructure – is by car. My top two drives are listed below:
Urumqi – Turpan
The stunning desert oasis town of Turpan lies a mere 3.5 hour drive from the provincial capital of Urumqi. As you leave the big city behind, its green rolling hills give way to sculpted sand dunes around the time the Mandarin signs cede to Uighur. When you reach Turpan itself, stock up on water (it reaches 49 degrees centigrade in summer!) and head out to the Flaming Mountains: towering, red monoliths veering above you into craggy peaks, and explore the ruins of ancient desert city Jiao He.
Kashgar – Mt Muztagh on the Karkoram Highway
It's not for nothing that the Karkoram Highway is the stuff of backpacker legend. From the Uighur heartland of Kashgar, rise steadily through the foothills of red mountains similar to the Flaming Mountains of Turpan, then add a few layers as the altitude gets higher and the scenery opens out into snowy peaks, shimmering lakes and wide plains on which Kyrgyz herders tend their yak, goats and camels (yes, really). Stop for the night at Karakul Lake and stay in a Kurgyz yurt (accommodation and two meals a mere 50 RMB). In the morning, take up one of the locals on their offer of a motorbike up to Mt Muztagh's base camp before making the six-hour descent back to Kashgar for the justifiably famous night market.
Bio: Lucy McCormick lives in Chengdu, Sichuan province. When not writing or teaching, she spends her time climbing mountains, sipping bai cha in backstreet tea houses and dodging traffic – with limited success – on her bicycle.