Xinjiang Road Trip | Stunning Highway 216 | Xinjiang: Far West China

Xinjiang Road Trip | Stunning Highway 216

May 17 | 40 Comments

A view of the Tianshan from my Xinjiang road trip

The 2015 Xinjiang travel guide by FarWestChina.com

It all started with a single WeChat message, a kind of Chinese social media, from a friend that lived in Korla. I was planning to drive out his way from the capital of Urumqi and he insisted that my Xinjiang road trip include Highway 216.

He told me it was an extremely bumpy ride but the scenery was spectacular. I was skeptical, mostly because it would require more hours on the road, until he sent me a photo. At that point, there was no going back for me. I was determined.

I packed up my cameras, stocked up on some food and hit the road.

Xinjiang Road Trip: Easy vs Hard

When you look at a map, there are actually two primary highways that connect Urumqi with Korla: the old National Highway 216 and the newer Expressway 314 that connects with G30.

Urumqi to Korla Xinjiang Map

While the expressway is a longer distance, it’s a much faster route because the entire road is paved. It’s also a toll road that at this point in time costs 140RMB (~US$22).

On the other hand, G216 is a shorter distance but is entirely unpaved. Instead of going around the TianShan, this highway literally weaves its way through the valleys and up the mountain pass.

I’ll go into more detail below, but I suggest you first spend two minutes watching my video from the trip. Please give it a thumbs up if you enjoy!

Don’t miss more awesome videos! Subscribe to FarWestChina on YouTube.

The Danger of Highway 216

For the first 50 kilometers or so out of Urumqi, the drive through the countryside was simple and pleasant. Numerous flocks of sheep and goats dotted the rolling hills of grassland around me with the TianShan mountain range creeping up in the distance.

Entering the first valley leading into the TianShan, the road made an immediate turn for the worse. Avoiding potholes became my sole obsession, to the point that I almost forgot about the danger of the cliff.

Almost.

Coming around one of the turns, I looked up long enough to see a strange object a couple hundred meters below me in the valley. I parked my car (there were no other cars on the highway with me) and upon further inspection realized that an 18-wheeler had misjudged the cliff and plunged down to the river below. I can’t be for sure, but I don’t know how the driver would have survived that type of accident.

A crashed truck sits at the bottom of the valley

Barely had I entered the TianShan when this mangled mess of scrap provided a grim reminder that this was not going to be the easiest road trip I had ever taken. Beware the potholes. Beware the high winds.

Beware the cliff.

Welcome to the TianShan

My tiny little Honda Fit wasn’t made for this kind of journey – I realize that now. It’s the only car I have, though, so we powered through.

Approximately every 20 kilometers I couldn’t help but stop the car and grab my camera for a shot. Who knew how long the good weather would last and with each bend in the road came the excitement of gorgeous scenery and the fear that this might be my last chance for a beautiful shot.

But it just kept getting better.

View of Highway 216 and the Xinjiang Tianshan

I kept climbing higher in elevation and the towering mountains kept posing for photos that I couldn’t resist capturing.

A view of the TianShan in Xinjiang shrouded in clouds

Before the mega-expressway, this used to be the only highway that connected Urumqi with Korla. For decades, if not more, travelers and merchants would traverse this road between the two cities, one of only a few roads that connects northern and southern Xinjiang.

After about 4 hours of being jostled and bumped up the mountain, I came across a tiny collection of yurts (local tents) and a small sign that read “乌鲁木齐一号冰川” – the Urumqi No. 1 Glacier.

Visiting the Urumqi No. 1 Glacier

The entrance to the Urumqi No 1 Glacier in Xinjiang, China

A small gravel road branched off to where a simple pole blocked any traffic. As I came to a stop a young man stepped out from his yurt and approached the car.

“You want to go up to the glacier?” he asked in a heavily accented Mandarin Chinese. More than likely he was a Kazakh or other minority living up here in the mountains.

“Yes, I do” I replied.

“In that car?” he said with a grin.

“Yes, in this car.” At the time, I didn’t have any clue what I was getting into. “Can you open the gate for me?”

“200 yuan” he said.

That’s ridiculous. It’s extortion is what it is. But I decided to play his game. “20 yuan” I countered.

I saw a hint of a smile as he dropped his price in half. “100 yuan, special for you”.

“I’ll give you 30 yuan, and you know that’s a fair price” I told him.

“You can enter for 50 yuan, and I can’t go any lower” he said.

It probably wasn’t the lowest price, but I was happy with 50 yuan so I paid. He walked over and lifted the metal pole blocking the road. Not exactly the tourism infrastructure you might expect in China, but in the rural parts of Xinjiang this is often how things work.

Over the next twenty minutes my little compact car groaned and lurched, doing her best to climb the rocky path leading to the glacier. Thankfully the cliffs weren’t a dangerous drop, but it still felt like a risky drive.

The glacier came into view and I was in awe. It’s not the most magnificent glacier I’ve ever seen, but within the context of this particular road trip, it was the cherry on top of a wonderful drive.

A view of the Urumqi No 1 Glacier on Highway 216

It used to be a few decades ago that the two sections of this glacier met to form one large glacier but over the past few decades it has shrunk at an alarming rate. Such an alarming rate, in fact, that authorities in the region recently banned all glacier tourism.

As one might expect here in China, the result of such strong words was nowhere to be seen on the ground. Nobody was around to watch me walk up to the glacier and nobody would have known if I had tried to get on it.

Crossing the TianShan Pass

Passing back by the collection of yurts, I turned my car south toward Mount Tiangar. The gravel road now zig-zagged up the side of the mountain to the pass marked by a small sign. From here, it felt like I could see for hundreds of miles into the distance.

The view from the TianShan mountain pass on highway 216

After 5 hours of bumpy driving, I was now only halfway to Korla.

With the evening approaching and the sun hiding behind some clouds, I was now in a race against the end of the day. I didn’t want to get stuck driving this kind of road in the night.

Throughout the rest of the journey I passed very few cars. Most of them wisely chose to take the expressway around the TianShan. This is part of what I loved about the trip, though. For the most part, I was completely alone.

No cell phone signal. No rest stops. No signs telling me how many more kilometers I had left.

It wasn’t until hour 8 that I finally hit another paved road. I stopped to buy dinner and a drink and the locals just looked at me in bewilderment. “You just took Highway 216?” they asked.

“Yes. I did.” I said proudly.

Conclusion | Highway 216

For those who may want to take this trip for themselves, be advised that it’s not a common tourist route. At best, you’ll find travel agencies that will rent you a car and driver to take you to the Urumqi No. 1 Glacier. If that’s the case, I suggest you ask the driver to at least take you to the pass just beyond the glacier before heading back to Urumqi.

The entire road trip was approximately 346 kilometers. It took me 10 hours to drive, but I did stop many times for photo and video shoots, so it could possibly be shorter if driven straight through.

Overall, it’s a trip I’m glad I took…but I don’t know if I’d ever drive it again. After 4 hours of bumpiness my butt was begging for a break and by hour 8 my body was prepared for mutiny.

Over time, though, I’m sure I’ll forget the pain and the photos will draw me to once again consider crossing the TianShan.

The Xinjiang Tianshan and highway 216 in China

About Josh Summers

Josh is a writer, musician and entrepreneur who currently resides in Urumqi, capital of China's western province of Xinjiang. He has been traveling and writing about this region since 2006 and has no plans to stop in the near future.

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Leave a Comment

  1. Well done, Josh! Great story and pics!

    Agree with you, some locals in China are sly. They don’t hesitate to extort us (firs-timer tourists, especially foreigners) in big sum of money.

    I’ve ever read about an Indonesian traveler experience who got extort in Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan. It’s not fun when you got asked for money from a local who brings machete, right..

    Anyway, great share. I do like your experience.

    “It’s not just about the destination, but the journey”

    [Reply]

    Philip Bramley on May 20th, 2016 at 7:48 pm

    Phil

    and you get to “eat dog” along the way!

    [Reply]

  2. So fun! Brings back memories of my trip from Urumqi to Turpan. Beautiful scenery, but not quite the most comfortable-especially since the driver didn’t know how to use the heater. Kept it on full blast, maybe thinking it was the aircon, and you know how hot the Taklamakan desert is. Thanks for sharing your story. I hope I get there to see the views for myself someday!

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on May 25th, 2016 at 12:11 am

    I hope you’re able to as well, Abi!

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  3. I’ve enjoyed all your blogs about Xinjiang, Josh. I’ve travelled through Xinjiang myself and it is a lovely area, especially Urumqi. Regrettably I took the paved road rather than the short cut but on my next visit maybe I’ll have to consider it too. Korla is also very nice.
    In fact, although I am first a Russophobe and love visiting, China really captured my heart when I was there too.
    I certainly recommend anyone who is thinking of a visit to go and especially to the west and Xinjiang.

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on May 26th, 2016 at 10:54 pm

    Thanks for the comment, Richard! Hopefully you’re able to come back here soon.

    [Reply]

  4. Hi Josh…just seen your clip on road 216. Looks stunning. Would you recommend it for a cycle ride? Much uphill? Snow on road? Any villages or settlements on the road for food/overnighting/ water/ etc. Presumably there is very little traffic? Where would you advise a start for cycling the route? Take a Hou Xia bus from Urumqi and get off where the road branches off? Wolves/wild dogs? Many thanks

    [Reply]

    Jane on June 25th, 2016 at 1:52 am

    Hi josh…did you get this post of mine asking whether this road would be suitable for cycling? Maybe you thought it was a joke, but it is a serious question..particularly the bit about whether there are wild dogs/wolves in the area since it is largely abandoned to regular traffic. It looks as if it would make a wonderful trip…but I would be interested in your advice. Are there large stretches of uphill?

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on June 26th, 2016 at 9:53 pm

    Hi Jane, I apologize for a late reply. It’s possible to cycle but it would be a lot of uphill and it would be extremely bumpy. You would need a good mountain bike, not a road bike.

    Thankfully, though, I don’t think there are many wild dogs/wolves roaming around…at least I didn’t see any personally.

  5. We drove on this road accidentally guided by GPS. We drove at night with heavy rains, clouds and fogs in a small Nissan car. We started from Narat Grassland at noon and got to Urumuqi at 9:00am next morning with 3 hours rest in the car. I was still trembling thinking back! Your pictures made up for the sight we missed. But we probably will never get on that road again …

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on July 31st, 2016 at 5:44 am

    Oh my word, that’s terrible! I’m glad you guys made it through ok :)

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  6. Amazing place and I hope to be able to visit the glacier as you suggested. I have visited The glaciers in Alaska and will visit Glaciers in New Zealand before Xinjiang with friend from Maryland. I’m from California. How easy is it to get a car and driver to take us to this place when in Urumqy on Oct 10. We plan to spend a week in Xinjiang. Thanks!

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on August 5th, 2016 at 10:38 am

    It shouldn’t be too hard. Connect with one of the travel agencies here and they can arrange for a car and driver. Beware that it will take you a full day – it’s a good 3-4 hour ride out to the glacier!

    [Reply]

  7. I am interested in meeting up with some people in Kashgar and doing the KK Highway. Have been let down by a guide who now is not doing trip. I will be in Kashgar 16th June for a week. Any help appreciated

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on June 7th, 2018 at 11:45 am

    Hi Vikki, I’m guessing you’re going to need to just see who’s around when you arrive or you can join my private Xinjiang travelers Facebook group (a bonus for those who purchase the FarWestChina Xinjiang Travel Guide.

    Also, I would give some grace to the guide. I don’t know his/her particular situation, but for locals in Kashgar right now, nothing is “stable” and I would guess that whatever reason he cancelled on you for, it was out of his control.

    [Reply]




The 2015 Xinjiang travel guide is here!