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Evolution of Xinjiang Tourism: A Photo Essay

May 19 | 24 Comments

One of my favorite tourist spots in Xinjiang is changing. Like Kanas Lake, Heavenly Lake, and Kashgar’s Old City – all beautiful gems of Xinjiang travel that have been swallowed up by tourism – the ancient city of Jiaohe in Turpan is being exploited, and it makes me sad.

I realize that this isn’t a Chinese problem. Tourism has this same effect all across the globe. I’m just a little disappointed to see it happening here in my backyard, in one of my favorite cities in China.

Click to see a video of Turpan’s Jiaohe City here

Below is a short set of photos that will take you through the evolution of tourism at Turpan’s Jiaohe Ancient City.

For those of you who might not know, Turpan is an ancient desert oasis that became an important stop along the old Silk Road. It was at one point the capital of the region until it was abandoned in the early 13th century.

The mud-built city, situated on a plateau between two rivers, has been well-preserved thanks to Turpan’s extremely dry climate and features residential areas, government offices, temples and burial sites. It truly is a blast to visit.

Changes in the way tourist visit Jiaohe are coming soon, but I find it interesting to note what changes have already taken place over the past couple decades.

1980s to early 1990s

Camels Trekking through Turpan's Jiaohe Ancient City Ruins

Photo part of the Turpan Museum collection

In the early 1990s, visitors would drive from Turpan city along a dirt road for almost half an hour before reaching Jiaohe. Upon arrival, camels would provide passage through the ancient sandy streets, likely one of the primary routes of transportation during the time the city was actually inhabited.

1990s to early 2000s

Tourist at Jiaohe

Once authorities realized the money-making potential of Jiaohe, a number of changes were made to the ancient city to make it more accessible. Streets were widened, brick roads were added and staircases were provided to allow guests to climb select structures.

Instead of camels, buses would drive visitors into the heart of the city where an old temple was used as a viewing deck. Very little oversight meant that visitors could do pretty much whatever they wanted or climb on whatever structure they wanted.



In the late 2000s, wooden pathways were built to provide even more direction for visitors. The viewing platform on the old temple was shut down in favor of a new deck located in the center of the city.

Jiaohe Security Cameras

Security cameras were added to make sure that visitors didn’t stray from the paths, which they often did. Should you happen to leave the path, the “Voice of God” will serve a warning (a number of hidden speakers were installed throughout the city as well) and if you persist a staff member will come to escort you out.

Even the hills surrounding Jiaohe have cameras installed to make sure visitors don’t try to get a good birds-eye-view of the city. I’m not entirely sure why they won’t permit this, but again, should you try to climb the nearby hill, a man on a motorcycle will come driving up to escort you away.

The current parking lot of the Jiaohe Ancient City in Turpan

As of 2015, a parking lot at the foot of the Jiaohe entrance is where visitors park their car or get off their bus. Vendors selling hats, water, ice cream and Mao memorabilia (notice not a single Jiaohe souvenir) line up near the entrance.

In 2014 the price to enter was 40 RMB (US$6.50). In 2015 the price to enter is 70 RMB (US$11). In 2016 that price is expected to double, because …

The Future of Jiaohe

New Entrance to Jiaohe Ancient City in Turpan

… a new tourism and ticket center is being built about half a mile southeast of the city.

Once completed, tourists will have to stop here to buy their tickets and then hop on a mandatory shuttle running the half mile to Jiaohe. On its way, the shuttle will likely stop at an “Ancient Uyghur Village” (interestingly built only 8 years ago) before dropping visitors off at a vendor-infested entrance.

Needless to say, if you have a chance to visit Jiaohe in Turpan before next year…DO IT! Grab a copy of the FarWestChina Xinjiang travel guide and make your way out here soon before these and many other changes go into effect.

My Soapbox on Tourism in China

Forgive me, but I have to take a moment to vent my frustration here.

Tourism all over the world is a double-edged sword, I realize. On one hand it can provide much-needed money for preservation while on the other hand it can completely suck the life out of a destination if not kept in check.

As recently as a decade ago, foreigners fueled the tourism industry here in Xinjiang. We loved the Uyghur culture and the adventure of trekking through mostly uncharted territory. For the most part, we didn’t mind the dirt roads or the rough accommodation, since that was what we came to experience.

In an effort to reach Xinjiang, they ended up transforming it.”

At some point in the 2000s, however, China’s tourism machine discovered Xinjiang. Tourist groups from all over China began to head west, and these groups expected more than what was already being offered. For this reason, roads were paved, massive ticket booths were built, and monstrous 5-star hotels were constructed.

In an effort to reach Xinjiang, they ended up transforming it.

The good news is that Xinjiang is more accessible than ever. Whether you prefer a cheap hostel or a luxurious hotel, the region is being set up to accommodate both. This also means that much of the charm that made Xinjiang special is being slowly drained away.

Like I said, it’s a double-edged sword that, at least for the moment, is making me quite unhappy.

About Josh Summers

Josh is the author of Xinjiang | A Traveler's Guide to Far West China, the most highly-reviewed and comprehensive travel guide on China's western region of Xinjiang. He lived, studied and run a business in Xinjiang, China for more than 10 years, earning recognition for his work from CCTV, BBC, Lonely Planet and many others.

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  1. You put this issue so accurately regarding doubles worded issue. From these photos I see that Jiaohe ancient city has lost its authenticity and attraction some how due to massive built up of these little things. The size and dimension of these unimportant elements have pushed the primary focus of this site down. It is pity. I can’t see harmony in the later photos. I have been there in the early 1980s and 1990s, it was better, truly like an ancient city. Now too much artificial stuff, not necessarily match the original site and environment.

  2. Hey Josh we know you are a muslim sympathiser.,but sorry to burst your bubble, the only way Xinjiang will be of interest to Westerners with common sense, is if your Islamic darlings are under control. Know what I mean!

    Josh Summers on May 21st, 2015 at 2:22 am

    Not really, Frank. I don’t think this has anything to do with religion. I’m talking about history and tourism here. I’m afraid your bigotry is clouding your ability to interpret what you’re reading.

    Try reading this again and then let me know what you think. Specifically, please point out to me where I use the words “Muslim,” “Islam,” or anything related to either. Thanks!

    Frank on May 21st, 2015 at 4:35 am

    Hey Josh,
    First of all you are doing a wonderful job with your blog in regards to Xinjiang, secondly I am not a bigot ( a term used by those who cannot argue and would rather label someone as an easy way out). Uyghurs are muslims/islamists..can you name me one who is Christian,Bhudhist or, I assume atheist like yourself? you cant..You see when you say Uyghur,you don’t need to mention islam or muslim..because Uyghur is muslim with all its sharia law and caliphate aim.. Am I getting through to you now?. Dont forget their handywork in Xinjiang and various parts of China recently.., thirdly I am what you would call a realist, not politically correct.

    Josh Summers on May 22nd, 2015 at 2:17 am

    The dictionary definition of bigotry is “intolerance toward those who hold different opinions from oneself.” It was not a rhetorical easy-way-out, I’m just calling it what I think it is. Just because you don’t like the word doesn’t mean it’s inappropriate.

    So, perhaps to clarify, what do you think should be done with Muslims people in China or whatever country you’re from?

    Frank on May 22nd, 2015 at 4:20 am

    Realist is partly defined as:
    “Somebody who only considers things as they are or appear to be, and avoids ideals and abstractions” (from the French ree alist ( the first e has an augmented accent).I understand you are a writer and musician amongst other things, therefore our difference in logic, nevertheless I enjoy our communication., although I respect your opinion whilst not necessarily agreeing with it.

  3. I relied heavily on Josh’s tips when I went to Xinjiang several years ago. Could not have enjoyed the trip half as much without his “insider” tips. If you have any desire to see one of the last non-touristy places in the world, buy his book and go now. I will be buying it on Kobo because their DRM says we own the book, unlike Kindle’s rental.

    Lastly, on Jiaohe , I saw it on a clear winter’s day when there were no other visitors for hours and could linger to my heart’s delight imagining centuries gone by. A precious spot-not to be appreciated in the limited time proffered by a tour group.

    Josh Summers on May 21st, 2015 at 2:22 am

    Thank you, Ida! Glad you had a chance to have the place to yourself :)

  4. I totally feel you on the “Chinese tourism” soapbox. China finds ways to destroy any sort of sentiment located at cool places.

    “Oh this is a special and/or beautiful place people like to visit? How much more will they like it if there’s a 5 star hotel? A system of buses or trams to take them conveniently from place to place without getting separated from there tour guide? Don’t worry, if they stop to take a selfie they’ll hopefully be able to still find the rest of their long brimmed red hat wearing luxingtuan by the cackling sound of their tour guide’s loud speaker (for hearing over the loogie hawking). Are there ethnic minorities around? Kick em out! unless of course we can somehow build a walkway through their houses and get them to look ethnic for the guests so that we can charge money to get pictures taken with them…”

    I think I need to get out of the middle kingdom for a spell…

    Josh Summers on May 21st, 2015 at 2:26 am

    Haha! Yea, Steve, I completely understand what you mean but maybe you do need a break from China for a bit ;)

    Steve McQueen on May 27th, 2015 at 1:30 am

    You’re right on that. Headed out in 3 weeks. Love the site, keep up the good work. Would love to make it out to XinJiang if I come back to China.

  5. I checked the pictures I took in Jiaohe in 2012 : there was not a single security camera and there only were some paved paths which blended well in the site. I remember that the few visitors ventured everywhere and there were arguably too few guards to stop them from degrading the site by climbing on too fragile structures.
    In the searing summer heat, the site was awesome and seemed only marginally altered for tourism purposes. I am glad I saw it that way.

    Josh Summers on May 21st, 2015 at 2:31 am

    That’s great, Laurent! Although I do wish that the cameras and guards weren’t always on patrol, I’m also glad that people are no longer climbing all over the structures.

    Frank on May 21st, 2015 at 5:02 am

    The cameras are not there for people climbing structures sunshine!. .Laurent vous etes Francais, musulman ou simplement con?.

    Josh Summers on May 22nd, 2015 at 1:59 am

    Actually, that is exactly what they are there for, Frank. Again, being Muslim has nothing to do with it since 95% of the people who visit here are Chinese or foreign tourists.

    Frank on May 22nd, 2015 at 4:23 am

    The cameras are there for security, lets not pretend otherwise.

  6. I sympathise. I, too, was there in 2009. Tourism for Chinese tourists is, sadly, extremely unsympathetic to real history or to real nature. Josh knows my feelings (and they are shared by many) on the appalling “developments” on Heavenly Lake near Urumqi making wild nature safe and easily consumed. The same thing with the mock minaret near Urumqi’s Grand Bazaar, which resembles Uzbekistan but not Xinjiang (but, hey, it’s the “Silk Road”, and the Chinese tourists will lap it up!) Ditto the knocking down of some of old Kashgar and the building of a sanitised version. Worse than Epcot – a complete Disneyfication of a real culture.

    There is, of course, a double-edged sword to unthinking Western tourism too. I understand that the ruler of Morocco promised that Fez would never be modernised so as not to spoil its photogenic appeal to tourists. I also understand that the residents of Fez are upset that this means no modern sanitation, etc. etc.

    It CAN be done, but it’s not cheap. They did it in Djenne in Mali. They dug up the sun-baked mud streets, put in plastic piping for fresh water and sewage removal, and replaced it invisibly to the tourist eye. Photogenic AND a huge improvement in the life and health of the residents.

    In Mali it took foreign charitable investment. In China, sad to say, the authorities have some development money and, it certainly seems, no souls.

    Dare I say it? [Ironic:] It’s capitalism, red in tooth and claw. But at least it is the people’s capitalism…

  7. I am watching Santa Fe turn from an ancient 400 year old American city with great historical value, into an overrun, casino decayed Disneyland. I noticed the markets in Guilin, the rice terraces with the Yao women and throughout the Dong villages that “products” were being sold that are manufactured machine embroidery with “designs” that were become universal for Chinese souvenirs. At the Tibetan Project in Santa Fe, the same bags and designs were being sold. I wondered how this worked. Government representatives must observe what designs sell the best at the markets and they are mass producing them for the villages, where embroidery previously was hand done. Is there a vast catalog of products that these villages buy to sell from their stalls? The old ways are definitely falling into creative blight and are losing their value as “real.” I am sorry to see this in your area. In New Mexico, the most ancient Chaco Canyon sacred world site is now on the list for fracking, which causes earthquakes and will make this site crumble to the ground so people can have oil to drive their cars to view the destruction. Where is the real experience any more. Humans seem to believe “progress” will bring some comfort, but it never does.

  8. Hi, I’ve decided not to go to Jiahoe because of these security cameras, the fact that I get the impression one has to stay on dictated paths, and all the ‘tourist infrastructure’ that the govt has built there.
    Also, I read if one even goes on the hill next to it, a security guard will ride a motorbike to ask you to leave. Wtf are they thinking?

  9. Now too many artificial things do not necessarily match the original site and the environment.

  10. Hello Josh,

    Have you some update about the JiaoHe Ruins, is it becoming a tourist trap, or is it worth a visit now?
    Thank you,

    Best regards

    Josh Summers on April 19th, 2017 at 1:11 am

    Hey Matt, it’s definitely being converted into a tourism hub, but I don’t think that should deter you from a visit. It’s an amazing historical place no matter how much crazy tourism junk there is.