The Silk Road

Urumqi to Hami

In 2008 Sakorn and I joined a tour of a section of the ancient silk road. We flew from Bangkok to Urumqi, which is in Xinjiang province in the far northwest of China about 1600 km. north of Lhasa. Urumqi has the distinction of being the city situated closest to the geographical centre of the Asian continent and is consequently the city located furthest from the sea. From Urumqi we travelled by bus to Turpan, Hami and eventually to Dunhuang in Gansu province. We returned along the same route stopping at Shanshan instead of Turpan. This page covers the section from Urumqi to Hami.

Heavenly Lake

Our first tourist spot was Heavenly Lake. Having come directly from Bangkok where April is the hottest month of the year, a visit to a frozen lake surrounded by snow-covered mountains was a big change.


Heaps of snow were a novelty.

Electric bus

As a conservation measure, electric buses are used to transport visitors from the car park to the lake.


A novel accommodation choice for those wishing to stay overnight is a yurt.

Street scene

Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, is a modern city with wide streets and brightly painted buildings. We had only a little time in Urumqi at the start of our trip. We saw more of the city when we returned.

wind farm 1

A windfarm provided an interesting break in our travel from Urumqi to Turfan. About 500 wind-powered generators provide clean renewable energy. A satellite view of this facility can be found on Google Earth at 43º34' N 87º 50' W. The number of generators seems to have increased since the satellite pictures were taken.

Wind farm2

The windmills seem to stretch forever fading into the haze in the distance.

Turpan street 

Turpan is famous for grapes. The main road in the city has a structure supporting grape vines which, in the fruiting season, have thousands of bunches of grapes hanging from them.

Donkey cart

Near Turpan is the ancient city of Gaochang. The site is quite large and the area of most interest is a long way from the entrance. Donkey carts take visitors around the area. It's a fast and bumpy ride.


The old city was established in the first century B.C. and was an important trading centre on the silk road. It was destroyed and abandoned during wars in the 14th century A.D. The buildings were made of mud bricks. 

Welcome at Turpan

We were welcomed at our Turpan hotel by a group of local dancers and musicians. 

Imim minaret

Also near Turpan is the Imin minaret built in 1777. It is named after Imin Hoja who was the head of the Turpan prefecture. The brickwork is magnificent.


The Turpan region has the lowest rainfall in China. Despite this it has been a thriving centre for grape growing for a thousand years. Turpan has been described as a green island in a sea of sand. The reason for this remarkable achievement is the karez, which is a system of underground tunnels which bring water from the foot of the mountains. The system was constructed by digging vertical shafts and then tunnelling to link the shafts. The shafts nearest the mountains are deep enough to tap into groundwater which flows by gravity through the tunnels to the area to be irrigated.  One estimate puts the total length of tunnels in the Turpan karez system at 5,000 km. all of which were dug with simple hand tools. Lines of shafts can be seen at 42.83N 89.27E using Google Earth. A new museum tells the story of the construction and operation of this irrigation system.

Flaming Mountain

Flaming Mountain, near Turpan, gets its name from the red sandstone at the top. This is the hottest place in China. 

Desert pan

A broader view.


A giant thermometer shows that, while this might be the hottest place in China, on the day we visited it was quite cool.


We also met our first Chinese camel. We would see a lot more later.

Oil pump

The area is also an important source of oil.

Black hill

From Turpan we travelled about 400 Hami. The countryside was dry and treeless, mainly flat but with some hills.  

Dark hills light foreground

There was considerable variation in the colour of the rocks.

Distant snow covered mountains

In the distance is the snow-covered Tianshan mountain range was in view for much of the time.

Melon lady

Hami has been an important place for 2,000 years. It was situated at the junction of two important trade routes. Hami, today is a thriving modern city. It is famous for melons. The Hami melon is a type of cantaloup. Other melons are also grown in the region. The statue in the background shows a woman holding a melon.

street scene Hami

Wide streets and colourful buildings are features of many modern Chinese cities.

street scene 2 Hami

Wide walkways also serve as parking areas.