Traveling to Xinjiang in Winter? Everything You Need to Know

Xinjiang in the Winter | Traveler’s Guide for What to See & Do

November 12 | 10 Comments

What is there to see around Xinjiang in winter? It used to be that Xinjiang tourism practically shut down between the months of November and March. Travelers were so few that most tourism sites shut down completely for the winter and weather often prohibited transportation to some locations. Things have changed, though, and there are now plenty of things to see and do during winter.

A traveler's guide for touring Xinjiang during the winter

While Xinjiang’s weather still plays an active role in what you can and cannot see, a lot has changed over the past decade in terms of winter tourism options. Not only is it possible to experience this different aspect of Xinjiang travel, it can prove to be a remarkable experience you won’t easily forget.

I often get questions from travelers asking me about traveling to Xinjiang in the winter – particularly over the Spring Festival break – so I thought it might be helpful to share a few thoughts on what’s worth seeing/doing in Xinjiang and how best to get there.

LEARN MORE: Do you need more Xinjiang travel information? Feel free to browse this website or you can purchase the FarWestChina Xinjiang travel guide to get all the travel information available in one place!

Northern Xinjiang | Winter Skiing Paradise

I’m going to go ahead and make a prediction here: by 2022, northern Xinjiang will become China’s winter sports mecca. The region already successfully hosted the Chinese National Winter games in 2016, which included a brand new winter sports complex near the capital of Urumqi.

There’s still a long way to go before Xinjiang is ever considered among the great places to ski in the world. That said, there’s still plenty of beautiful scenery and nice slopes to be had here. According to China Daily, there are over 200 ski resorts in Xinjiang, although I would caution that this is a very loose interpretation of the term “ski resort”.

For most travelers, there are really only three places you should consider skiing:

  • NanShan (Urumqi): Located only an hour south of Urumqi, there are plenty of places to ski. This is also where that new winter sports complex has been built. The skiing isn’t fantastic but it’s convenient. If you don’t have the time/money to go further north, it’s not a terrible option. You can see my video below from my ski trip to Nanshan. Also, it’s possible to hike NanShan during the winter.
  • Heavenly Lake: There is skiing near Urumqi’s Heavenly Lake which can be a great option. The scenery is gorgeous but it takes about an hour longer to get to Heavenly Lake than NanShan, potentially cutting your skiing time.
  • Altay: If you have the budget to take the flight north into beautiful Kazakh country, these slopes are more of the real deal. Ski tourism is still young but it’s growing and there is plenty of great opportunity.

Watch me ski the Xinjiang slopes on the FarWestChina YouTube channel!

Outside of winter sports, traveling north Xinjiang during the winter is doable but tough. Places like Heavenly Lake and Kanas Park are usually open but are prone to close unexpectedly after a strong snow. Expect very cold temperatures and virtually no other tourists.

Traveling by car to various places usually isn’t bad but again, it’s all dependent upon the weather. There is a train from Urumqi to Burqin (the closest city to Kanas) and flights from Urumqi to Altay that can be incredibly cheap in the winter (I saw them for 160RMB last week!).

There are some tourist agencies in Urumqi that can arrange a hiking or cross-country skiing tour through northern Xinjiang. The views of places like Hemu Village covered in snow are great but they come at a high cost in personal comfort!

Hemu Village in norther Xinjiang in winter

Click here for more beautiful winter scenery in Xinjiang!

Southern Xinjiang | Frozen Silk Road

The good news is that if you’re coming to Xinjiang to see the ancient Silk Road, it’s still open for business during the winter.

Keep in mind, though: some people are under the mistaken impression that the presence of the massive Taklamakan Desert in southern Xinjiang means that it won’t be cold during the winter.

Not so. In fact, the Taklamakan is considered a “cold desert climate” and is sometimes covered in a thin blanket of snow.

So let me walk through a few of Xinjiang’s more popular locations and give a clearer picture of what they’re like in the winter:

  • Turpan: Considering that much of what makes Turpan interesting is made of mud-brick, it’s going to be the same color whether in winter or in summer! Seriously, though, Turpan can get really cold in the dead of winter but most all of the tourist destinations will be open for business (check out my city page for Turpan here). I recommend hiring a driver for the day just so you never get stuck waiting outside for transportation. It’s also quite convenient to take the new high speed train from Urumqi to Turpan.
  • Hami: For most people I would recommend skipping Hami during the winter. Sites of interest within the city are few and the grasslands that are popular outside the city will be dormant and brown.
  • Kashgar: Definitely go to Kashgar! The weather is cold but still worth walking around outside. Taking a trip up the Karakoram Highway is hit or miss but there’s still plenty to see within the city – the Id Kah Mosque, Apak Khoja Mausoleum, the Kashgar Old City…the list goes on and on. If you do want to travel up the Karakoram Highway in the winter, you’ll need to hire a tour guide that can drive you all the way to Tashkorgan. All the yurts at Karakul Lake will be abandoned and unusable during the winter.
  • Khotan (Hotan): If you’re intent on taking a trip down to Khotan, I wont’ stop you. Daily life isn’t quite as interesting in the winter – which is part of the allure of Khotan – but you can always take a bus across the Taklamakan Desert on your way back to Urumqi.

Kashgar's Old City covered in snow

Photo credit: Kashgar Travel

Bottom line: It’s entirely possible to take a trip along the ancient Silk Road in Xinjiang during the winter, just make sure you’re well-dressed for the journey.

Pro Travel Tips | Xinjiang in the Winter

If you are planning a trip to Xinjiang anytime between November and April (yes, even as late as April), keep these tips in mind:

  • Getting a Taxi Sucks: Whether you’re in Urumqi, Kashgar or Turpan, expect that finding a taxi will be difficult. Hiring a car and driver during the winter isn’t a bad investment.
  • Expect Flight Delays: It’s not the cold weather, it’s the fog at the Urumqi airport. Delays, especially for morning flights, are common.
  • Dress Appropriately: This should be common sense, but I just want to stress how REALLY COLD it gets here in winter. This is especially true if you plan to travel anywhere up north.
  • Bargain Like Crazy: Tourism in Xinjiang has been slow during the summer months recently. Tourism during winter is dead. Which is good because that means everything should be discounted: flights, hotels, car hires, etc. Bargain hard!

I hope that helps. Remember to grab a copy of the FarWestChina Xinjiang travel guide before you come – I promise it will make your trip so much easier.

Have you traveled to Xinjiang in the winter? Leave a comment below with your experience!

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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  1. Hey there I’ve just discovered you’re website and it mages good reading — thanks. I live in Gz and have been after visiting Xinjiang for a long time.

    I’m an avid big-mountain mountain biker, interested in riding down hill not up hill. Is there any mountain biking scene in the ski resorts? Are the ski lifts open in the summer? If so, do you know if would they let a bike up them?

    If you have any contacts for anyone who may know anything about mountain biking in this region please share with me their wechat.

    Cheers,

    John

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on January 30th, 2015 at 8:08 am

    Hey John, thanks for the comment!

    Unfortunately, I don’t know whether or not the ski lifts run during the summer but my guess is no. I’m aware of some biking tours from Tashkurgan down to Kashgar if that would interest you.

    Otherwise, I suggest you reach out to a local travel agent like Old Road Tours (http://www.farwestchina.com/oldroadtours) and perhaps they might be able to answer your question better :)

    [Reply]

    Preston on February 7th, 2015 at 7:20 pm

    Hey John, last summer a Chinese friend and her son took me over to the Nanshan outside Urumchi for a hike. Her son is a mountain biker, and told me that he and other mountain bikers raced earlier in the year on the same trail we took. I think they pushed their bikes up rather than used a lift. If you’re interested I can probably put you in contact with him, though you’d have to communicate in Chinese, as I don’t think he speaks English . Email me [email protected] .

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  2. Hi Josh, Greetings from, Singapore/Malaysia .

    Just want to say thanks for the insightful site that has motivated me to travel to Xinjiang this March.

    Was wondering are the roads leading to Tian Shan open during this period (I’m seeing -10 or < this winter now)?

    Thanks

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on February 17th, 2016 at 3:23 pm

    Yes they are! My family took a trip to the mountains just a few weeks ago. :)

    [Reply]

  3. Hey Josh – how you doing? Congrats on the 2nd baby :)

    We’ve spoken briefly before – I’m on a cycling tour (now in India) and will be flying to Urumqi on Jan 24th. I couldn’t make it any later as my Indian visa runs out haha, but I am excited after seeing many of your recent photos of the area in winter!!

    Just wondering what your thoughts are on how good or crazy of an idea cycling through there from Feb onwards is? I want to see all areas really, and end up crossing the border to either Kazakh/Krygyzstan – do you think there’s any particular order of regions I should do to avoid the unbearable parts ? (Hopefully I’ll have 3 months if everything goes fine with Visa!)

    Tim

    [Reply]