<C> A Diamond in the Desert

Written by May 11, 2008 11:28
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A Diamond Isn't Man-Made

Every day people travel hundreds, even thousands of miles to see with their own eyes pieces of art, architecture, or history. Sometimes it is found in a museum exhibit, sometimes it can be found stuck in a crowded city or nestled quietly in the middle of a park, but rarely will one be forced leave the city limits to view these man-made objects. In fact, many times the actual piece doesn't even live up to the hype surrounding it. I remember seeing the Mona Lisa in the Louvre and thinking to myself, "Really? Is that it?"

The truly spectacular things in life usually aren't found in a museum. Most of the time they aren't even near a city. The real diamonds, those destinations with the ability to take your breath away, are rarely stumbled upon. You must dig for them, search for them, journey for them. Cities cannot contain them, museums wouldn't know how to display them, and pictures, no matter how beautiful, just never quite do them justice.

Such is the case for Xinjiang's Ghost City.

Location: Xinjiang, China

Buried far back in the northwest corner of China you'll find XinJiang. When you look at a map it seems impossible to miss the province, the largest in China, yet very few people find the courage to venture this far. It accounts for one sixth of China's territory, a total of 1.6 million sq. km, but is very sparsely populated compared with most of China's provinces. Of the many beautiful gems found among the mountains and deserts of XinJiang, Ghost City is a sparkling diamond. Located 100km north of the city of Karamay, the rock formations seem to appear from nowhere amidst the never-ending desert you must cross to find it. While most of Xinjiang's tourist sites center around water (Kanasi Lake further north or Heavenly Lake near Urumqi), Ghost City is unique in its ability to captivate the imagination with nothing more than 120 sq. km of sand and rock as far as the eye can see.

Ghost City

Ghost City first received its name from the locals who heard eerie noises sounding like supernatural spirits. The wind, which is constant throughout the year, ceaselessly moans and whistles as it pushes through the unique formations that rise from the ground. Although the weather-sculpted rocks resemble large buildings or tall skyscrapers, there is, in fact, no city in this landscape. Thankfully there isn't even a paved road to be found in the park. Dirt roads catering to cars and buses wrap around the "city", but if you look close you'll find paths where pedestrians have ventured farther beyond out of sheer curiosity. During the warmer months you'll even find some people exploring the terrain on camels, mountain bikes, and four-wheelers!

As a tourist, the freedom and simplicity of this destination are very appealing. No guide babysits you as you walk around, no vendors haunt your every turn hungry to sell you worthless mementos, and no sounds of constant traffic disturb your peace. You can just...wander. One thing that Ghost City doesn't lack is space. If you're looking to be alone and you're willing to hike a bit, solitude surrounded by mesmerizing nature scenes is bound to find you. Meander through the valleys in the shadow of two tall rock structures or climb to a high plateau to find that perfect picture. Stare at the rocks while using your imagination to match a jagged rock with an animal or object. The locals have even named a few of the more oddly-shaped formations!

You're not in a race to see the next tourist site, so take your time!

Chinese Movies

Even though the picturesque view creates quite a lasting impression on visitors, most tourist don't first hear about Ghost City, they watch it. Many Chinese filmmakers have shot scenes both big and small with the Ghost City landscape as its backdrop, and various markers around the park pay tribute to where these parts of the movie were shot. Most of these films are known only within the borders of China, films which include "Warriors of Heaven and Earth" and "Seven Swords". Most foreigners, however, will only be familiar with one movie that has brought much attention to Ghost City: "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". This movie, which was nominated for ten Oscars and won four, gained worldwide popularity primarily due to its action-packed choreography and stunning cinematography. From the bamboo forests of the Anhui province to the Ghost City desert in XinJiang, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" unveiled the diamonds hidden within China's borders for all the world to see.

Near Ghost City - White Poplar Valley

In a nearby valley, cut deep by a river over many years, lies another phenomenon not quite as popular as Ghost City but still a site worth visiting. Just like Ghost City, it has the ability to creep up and surprise you when your mind has been numbed by the unending desert at which you have been staring. It is an oasis, a forest of beautiful white poplar trees sunk below ground level in a long river valley protected on either side by walls of weather-worn rock. Here you might actually catch a glimpse of an animal in an area that doesn't seem suitable to sustain life or enjoy a sound that not many people get to hear in a desert: running water.

Although this destination won't capture your attention for quite as long as Ghost City, it is a nice place to stop for lunch or a picnic. Plenty of small, local setups give you the opportunity to sit for tea, a kebab, or even a full meal. If you come at the right season and have the desire, a small business on the river organizes float trips down the river toward the city or even a bit of whitewater rafting, although the rapids it advertises are doubtful. Of course, walking around the area to soak in the sights and sounds should be enough to satisfy your desire to experience White Poplar Valley.

Diamond in a Rock

It's unlikely that the average traveler will be able to make their way to visit Ghost City, but if you think about it, that's what makes this so special. Most all travelers have seen the Great Wall and visited the Terracotta Warriors. They've walked along the Forbidden City as well as The Bund. But how many people have stood among ghostly towers of Ghost City or seen the sun rise over a desert plain and set behind a mountain? Come visit XinJiang and you just might.

You'd never expect to find beauty like this with rocks located in such a remote part of the world...but then again, rocks are exactly where you look for diamonds, aren't they?

Travel Information

Your first stop in XinJiang will most likely be Urumqi, the capital city. From here organized tours can be made almost anywhere in the province, but if you plan to make your way to the north of XinJiang, your best bet is to set up base camp in Karamay. Located a little less than 4 hours away by bus and 35 minutes away by airplane, Karamay boasts a clean and inviting district with plenty of hotels and restaurants to suit both the budget traveler and the high-roller. From here travel agencies can organize one and two-day tours of Ghost City, which is only an hour and a half away by bus, or you can take one of the many daily buses from Karamay to Uerhe, the small town nearby the destination.

Once you arrive at Ghost City and buy your entrance ticket, you can choose one of many different travel methods within the park:
1) Walk (free)
2) Drive - if you take a tour they will likely use the bus to travel around the park
3) Mountain bike - RMB 30 per hour
4) 4-Wheelers - between RMB 150-200 per hour. Note that the RMB 200 4 wheeler is able to carry two people.

Cost (2008)
White Poplar Valley: RMB 10
Ghost City: RMB 30
All inclusive (with lunch) one-day tour from Karamay: RMB 150

Most hotels can arrange your tour through a tour agency if you like. This can be extremely helpful since tour agencies within Karamay do not have an English websites and very few people in the tour agencies speak English.

 More Xinjiang Travel Reviews
1. Sixteen Hours of Sojourn SACHIN from CN May 29, 2007 10:05
2. Caravans and Cantaloupes JABAROOTOO from CN Feb 5, 2007 06:02
3. <a>Xinjiang Spy Games: Trouble on the Border ICTHUS17 from US Jan 31, 2007 23:01
Comments (1)


May 12, 2008 19:38 Reply


I'd love to go to Xinjiang, the Ghost City sounds, and looks, amazing. Thanks for sharing it, I'll put it on my growing list of places to visit :)

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