By Yi Cen
“I’m often asked the best time to travel to Xinjiang,” grins Guli Anne, a local girl operating a grill eatery in a night market of Kashgar. “But Xinjiang offers different beauty in different seasons. Everywhere is a picture. My home of Kashgar is beautiful as well as is the Grape Valley near Turpan, Kanas Lake in Altay, the Pamirs Plateau and the boundless desert near Korla, just to name a few attractions.”
After skillfully sprinkling seasoning across a long row of lamb kebabs, Guli exclaims, “You can also taste various delicacies in Xinjiang like my lamb kebabs, roast eggs, baked buns stuffed with mutton and Big Plate Chicken. So, welcome to Xinjiang! This is a fantastic place.”
Blessed with abundant tourism resources, Xinjiang is home to an array of snowcapped mountains including Tianshan, Altai and Kunlun that offset various stunning plateau landscapes such as glaciers, waterfalls, lakes, rivers, forests, deserts, meadows and rare animals. A stretch of the Silk Road, the region facilitated passage of goods between China and kingdoms of Central Asia, South Asia, West Asia, Europe and North Africa along ancient transcontinental trade routes. It continues to present diversity in terms of ethnic and cultural attractions shaped by historical legacies such as is seen in the ancient town of Kashgar, the city ruins of the lost Loulan Kingdom and Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves dating back 1,500 years.
Qian Yi, a contract photographer with Sina.com from the eastern province of Jiangsu, has traveled to more than 20 countries as well as the North and South Poles. When she first set foot on the soil of Xinjiang in 2013, she fell in love with the land and has returned 17 times since, more than she has visited any other place in China. She is also enthusiastic about sharing her experiences and discoveries in Xinjiang through photos and videos posted online.
“Xinjiang is home to almost every type of landform found on Earth, and its wide array of foods are appealing,” Qian remarks. “It is absolutely my most favorite place to travel.”
Recent years have seen implementation of the program “revitalizing Xinjiang through tourism,” featuring efforts to promote all-for-one tourism, harness tourism resources, create excellent experiences for tourists, and make Xinjiang an attractive destination year-round. The region offers spectacular seas of flowers in spring, idyllic summer scenery supplemented by various aromatic fruits and picturesque forests of populus euphratica, and autumns highlighted by the mysterious Kanas Lake.
When silver blankets the land in winter, Altay, dubbed the “Snow Capital of China,” welcomes streams of ski enthusiasts seeking to push their limits on various slopes. “The temperatures and snow quality in Xinjiang are fantastic, and resorts stay open until 11 o’clock at night, which is really thrilling,” gushes Liu Jia from Beijing. Snow usually arrives in November in the Tianshan Mountains and stays until April, making Xinjiang ski resorts meccas for snow-sliding tourists of all stripes. Recent years have seen intensified local measures to advance infrastructure, services and product development to create a silver wonderland for snow lovers.
According to an executive with Jiangjunshan (General’s Mountain) Ski Resort in Altay, when the first snow arrives, his resort begins welcoming numerous skiers from not only Guangdong and Hainan provinces in the south but also the three northeastern provinces and even from outside China. They bring their own gear and stay near the resort for weeks or even months. Some have even bought houses in Altay.
Xinjiang’s “cold resource” is heating up the economy. The autonomous region plans to organize 120 ice and snow sports events and 319 cultural tourism activities from November 2019 to March 2020 to further boost local ice and snow tourism, according to the culture and tourism authority of Xinjiang.
A Splendid Land Not Far Away
Xinjiang covers an area about three times the size of France, hence the saying “You have no idea how big China is if you have never been to Xinjiang.” For a long time, however, the beautiful northwestern border region remained a less-considered destination for general tourists due to its vast territory, lengthy distance between cities, and underdeveloped transportation infrastructure which made intercity trips time-consuming.
Things started changing after the first segment of a high-speed railway line in Xinjiang opened on November 16, 2014. High-speed rail service cuts travel time between the regional capital Urumqi and Turpan in the eastern Tianshan Mountains down from three hours by normal train to 52 minutes, thus welcoming Turpan into the “one-hour living circle” around Urumqi. The new rails have also cut the travel time between Urumqi and Hami down from nine hours to three hours. On December 21, 2019, a C8769 train departed from Urumqi Railway Station and headed to Karamay about 320 kilometers away, heralding a new era in which five pairs of Fuxing bullet trains shuttle between the two cities every day at a speed of 160 kilometers per hour. The rail admitted Karamay to the “2.5- hour transit circle” of Urumqi.
“High-speed rails have become my top choice of transportation to Urumqi, given the speed, quality of service and punctuality,” reveals the operator of a specialty shop based in Turpan. “Now, I can make a round trip in a single day to see friends or meet business partners. The high-speed rail proves the old saying that if you want to become rich, you must first build a road.” In recent years, tourist arrivals in Turpan have soared, which has remarkably boosted the local economy, according to the shopkeeper.
November 2019 statistics from Xinjiang’s railway authority show that 30.75 million passenger trips have been made on Xinjiang high-speed railways over the five years since their launch. Following Karamay, Fuxing bullet trains will soon reach more cities and counties to facilitate transportation to popular tourism destinations such as Swan Spring Wetland, Kuitunhe River Valley Gorge, Ganjiahu National Desert Park and Sailimu Lake.
As the railway network is expanded and upgraded to close the book on Xinjiang’s history of inconvenient land transportation, air transportation has also improved, characterized by intensified connectivity between cities across the autonomous region and frequent domestic flights connecting the regional capital to every major Chinese city through a several-hour trip.
“Last year was a big year for Xinjiang’s tourism industry because it brought integrated development of culture and tourism and full implementation of the strategy of revitalizing Xinjiang through tourism,” explains Zhang Xiaoyu, vice president and secretary general of Xinjiang Tourism Association. In the first 10 months of 2019, Xinjiang received nearly 202 million tourist arrivals from home and abroad, a year-on- year increase of 42.62 percent, and generated a tourism revenue of 341.7 billion yuan (US$49 billion), a year-on- year increase of 43.39 percent, both record highs, according to Zhang.
Herder Yerbolat Chamqihan resides in a village in Burjin County, a pivotal area leading to the renowned Kanas Scenic Area. Seizing opportunities brought by tourism, his herding family transformed their courtyard into an “agritainment” destination a few years ago. “In 2017 alone, we earned nearly 80,000 yuan [US$11,475] through tourism, which we never expected,” reveals Yerbolat Chamqihan. “My family had subsisted on herding for generations, but we could barely make ends meet until this happened.” Thanks to support from the local government, he has joined a folk tourism association that offers rural homestays, folk customs experiences, thematic photography, catering and other services. So far, 16 households in his village have registered as association members and earn an additional 25,000 yuan (US$3,586) a year on average.
As tourism grows exponentially, homestays have emerged as an alternate accommodation option for tourists visiting Xinjiang and a new approach for farmers and herders seeking to shake off poverty. Some business-savvy villagers have opened shops to sell local specialties.
Meanwhile, thanks to lasting social stability in recent years, the night-time economy is flourishing in Xinjiang, exemplified by the establishment of a plethora of late-night markets and eateries. The Wuyi Xingguang Night Market in Urumqi welcomed more than 100,000 visitors on its opening night, and the night market of Hotan City receives 4,000 to 5,000 customers every evening, yielding a daily turnover of 200,000 yuan (US$28,700). Beyond cities, the night-time economy is also shining via bonfires in the Taklimakan Desert, shimmering stars above Kanas Lake and the glowing moon above Tianchi (Heavenly Lake).
According to Ma Jianyun from the employment division of Xinjiang’s human resources and social security department, tourism has increased employment and entrepreneurship across the region, especially among impoverished residents in southern Xinjiang. There, many have emerged from poverty by providing services at scenic spots, opening eateries or stalls in night markets, or producing and selling traditional handicrafts and other local specialties. In 2019, the bonus dividends from the region’s social stability continued fueling development of tourism as well as employment growth. In the first 10 months of 2019, the autonomous region created 50,008 jobs in poverty-stricken areas, 25 percent higher than its annual target.
Jin Zhun, secretary general of the Center for Tourism Research of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, is bullish about the future of tourism in Xinjiang. “Xinjiang is leading China in growth rate of tourism thanks in no small part to coordinated efforts by governments at all levels of the autonomous region to facilitate integrated development of culture and tourism,” he illustrates. “Xinjiang is poised to welcome a tourism explosion.”