• Exploring Xinjiang's Ancient Cities

    Wander ancient towns on the Silk Road, seldom visited by Westerners, on this unique cultural journey

    A visit to this fascinating border region with its plethora of cultures, languages, religions and ethnic groups cannot help but be fascinating. Our trip immerses you in all facets of ancient Xinjiang and the Silk Road. You will come away changed, more knowledgeable, and refreshed from getting off the grid. (This entire trip is below 6,000')

    best times to go: August - September

    departures: 4 scheduled datesview departures

    pricing: from $4,495 see detailed pricing

    Other Asia


Wander ancient towns on the Silk Road, seldom visited by Westerners, on this unique cultural journey

Nestled in the farthest western reaches of China, Xinjiang Province has served as a cultural and commercial crossroads for centuries. Several times conquered and reconquered by various dynasties, this land of tribes and clans of at least thirteen different ethnicities—including Uigurs, Mongols, Han, Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz (to name only a few)—is still rooted in tradition. They are the living heart of the ancient Silk Road, and their warmth and hospitality remains as timeless as ever. Traveling through beautiful landscapes of forest, steppe, grassland, and desert, and framed by the dramatic backdrop of the snowy Tian Shan Mountains, you’ll see firsthand a vanishing way of life and marvel at the cultural and natural riches to be found in on China’s “New Frontier.”

While there are other tour operators that lead trips into Xinjiang, ours is unique. We’ve put a strong emphasis on cultural encounters by combining visits to colorful markets, local artisans, and ancient villages with a couple of overnight homestays, folk performances, and a plethora of regional cuisines to offer you genuine and educational interactions with the local people. Topped off with a rare opportunity to camp in the Taklamakan Desert (only MTS offers this on trips to Xinjiang) and one night in a homestay, you’ll go home with an insider’s perspective of this raw, remote land the way few Westerners have a chance to see it! Our local guide is multilingual and well-versed in the history of Xinjiang and will provide you with plenty of insight into this textured tapestry of cultures.

From Beijing, we’ll fly to Dunhuang, the entrance to the Silk Road to visit the famous Mogao Caves, filled with well-preserved Buddhist art and the spectacular sand dunes nearby. We’ll spend time in the charming oasis of Turpan, filled with grapevines and women in colorful dress. The two ancient cities of Idkut and Yargul (7th century) will teach us about the Buddhist past of this land. Local families welcome us in Tuyuk, the oldest known Uighur village with it shamanist, Buddhist, and Muslim roots, where we’re quite likely to be the only travelers. An overnight train will bring us to the former Buddhist kingdom of Kuqa, where we’ll explore its famous Buddha Caves, its mysterious canyon, and the Juma Mosque. We’ll then cross the great Taklamakan Desert and stopover in Niya, an important hub on the Silk Road. In Hotan, we’ll visit a traditional clothing factory and a local carpet factory, which employs workers in the same fashion as they have for centuries. Riding camels and hiking, we’ll set off into the desert to camp for a night—freshly roasted lamb kabobs will await us by the campfire. The ancient town of Yarkent will draw us in to its labyrinth of alleys filled with craftsmen selling their work, and we’ll have a chance to visit Kashgar and its unparalleled Sunday bazaar—where you can easily do all of your shopping in one fell swoop!

Adventures of this kind require nothing more than an open mind and a willingness to explore the unknown. There’s nothing like stepping back in time to see ancient lands and diverse people to shake up one’s own perspectives.


Hiking, cultural touring, camel ride


  • Discover the intricate mix of ancient Silk Road cultures through the history, art, nature, and friendly hospitality of China’s Wild West
  • Wander through colorful markets and visit local artisans
  • Immerse yourself in desert culture on this unique cultural journey adventure that includes a night of desert camping—an experience you can only get with MTS
  • See the ancient centers of the Silk Road through the eyes of the locals on homestays, watching folk performances, and sampling the varied regional cuisines
  • Get off the grid to see some of the most dramatic and remote mountains and lakes in China, plus the vast Taklamakan Desert

Duration: 16 days Start Location: Beijing End Location: Beijing

Download Detailed Itinerary
  • Day 1 : Arrive in Beijing (This entire trip is below 6,000')

    Arrive in Beijing. Take the complimentary Hilton Capital Airport Hotel shuttle to the hotel to check in.

  • Cxj_day02_123_mogao
    Day 2 : Beijing to Dunhuang

    Today we fly from Beijing to Dunhuang. Visit the famous Mogao Caves, the best preserved Buddhist caves in China. Afterward enjoy dinner at the night market.

  • Cxj_day03_123_lake
    Day 3 : Dunhuang

    We spend the day sightseeing in Dunhuang and then take the overnight, soft sleeper train to Turpan.

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    Day 4 : Turpan

    Arrive in Turpan early this morning. Visit Karez irrigation system as well as the ancient city of Yargul. We have lunch at a local restaurant, then visit the local market.

  • Cxj_day05_123_gaochang
    Day 5 : Turpan Area to Tuyuk Village

    Today we visit Idkut (Gaochang) and Astana Tombs, before driving to Tuyuk Village, the oldest known Uighur town and very unique.  Homestay in Tuyuk.

  • Day 6 : Tuyuk Village to Urumqi to Kuqa

    Drive to Urumqi, then fly to Kuqa. Sightseeing in Kuqa.

  • Day 7 : Kuqa

    Today we will visit the Kuqa Grand Canyon and hike for 2 hours. Then visit Kizil 1000 Buddha Caves, which date back to the 11th century and match those of Luoyang, Dunhuang and Datong. 

  • Cxj_day08_123_camels
    Day 8 : Kuqa to Hotan

    Today we will cross the Taklamakan Desert, one of the biggest and most mysterious deserts in the world. Taklamakan means “those who go in will not come out” attesting to its emptiness and remoteness. Overnight in Hotan.

  • Cxj_day09_123_yurt
    Day 9 : Hotan to Camping in Taklamakan Desert (4,500')

    Today we will explore Hotan, visiting the Jade River and a traditional clothing factory where we can enjoy local culture in action before driving to the Taklamakan Desert for our distinctive desert trekking experience. We will ride camels and hike for a few hours before building our camp (our gear will be carried by more camels). For dinner, we will roast lamb kebabs over the fire before we settle into our overnight desert camping experience.

  • Day 10 : Hotan (4,500')

    Return to Hotan and our hotel to clean up before visiting a local carpet factory, where will learn how the local women have made carpets by hand for hundreds of years. Afternoon at leisure. Overnight in Hotan.

  • Day 11 : Hotan to Yarkent

    Drive from Hotan to Yarkent on the Southern Silk Road. enjoying lunch in a village along the way. Arrive in Yarkent.

  • Day 12 : Yarkent to Kashgar (4,200')

    Today we drive from Yarkent to Kashgar (approximately 5-6 hours). Along the way, visit the famous Uighur knife town of Yinggisar.

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    Day 13 : Kashgar

    Today we will rise early to catch the famous Sunday market, when the population of Kashgar swells by 50,000. This market is still one of the most amazing bazaars in the world and there is little that is not for sale here. You will see an overwhelming array of livestock, rugs, and clothing. Photo opportunities abound and you can lose hours in the labrynthine chaos. Next we will visit the Old Town where we will enter into a Uyghur home for a delicious lunch. Afterwards we will visit the Apak Hoja Tomb where there are 58 tombs and 5 generations buried. Our guide will relay the differing legends of the "Fragrant Concubine" related to this site.

  • Cxj_day14_bgstk_karakul
    Day 14 : Kashgar to Karakul Lake (11,800')

    Day trip to the stunning Karakul Lake on the Karakorum Highway to Pakistan.

  • Day 15 : Kashgar to Beijing

    Fly to Beijing and overnight near the Beijing Airport.

  • Day 16 : Fly home

    Fly home or to your next destination.

Download Detailed Itinerary

DATES: Best time to go: August - September Departures: Sep 9 - 24, 2014 Sep 30, 2014 - Oct 15, 2014 Aug 18, 2015 - Sep 2, 2015 Sep 15 - 30, 2015


2014 Prices

$4,495 (10-16 members)
$4,895 (6-9 members)

$1,000 internal airfare – Beijing/Dunhuang, Urumqi/Kuqa and Kashgar/Beijing - subject to change
$1000 single supplement

2015 Prices

$4,495 (8-16 members)
$4,895 (4-7 members)

$1,000 internal airfare – Beijing/Dunhuang, Urumqi/Kuqa and Kashgar/Beijing - subject to change
$650 single supplement

Properties shown are representative of the accommodations we use on this trip, may not be inclusive of all accommodations we use, and are subject to change.

Expert leadership is the key to an exciting, unforgettable experience. Our trips feature gifted leaders for whom leading trips is a true vocation. Besides showing you wonders you’d never find on your own, they make sure everything runs smoothly and safely without a hitch. They are knowledgeable about all aspects of your trip, and take great pleasure in sharing their insights with you. More than just guides, they positively elevate your experience by being teachers, companions, and the best of friends. You’ll be in good hands with them every step of the way.

photo credits: ©MTS Photo File


Itinerary for Exploring Xinjiang's Ancient Cities

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Activity Ratings


Many activities are optional and involve fairly easy travel. Trips may include short hikes of two to three hours or optional walks at low elevations. Includes less demanding sea kayaking and river rafting trips with Class I-II rapids.


More active trips involving hiking over moderate terrain, usually - but not always - with vehicle support and at elevations less than 10,000 feet, or trips with long hiking days, multiple sea kayaking days, wilderness camping, or other invigorating activity. On many trips, you can elect to skip a day's activity, depending on logistics. Includes more demanding sea kayaking trips and river rafting trips with Class III rapids.


Hiking and trekking over steeper or more rugged terrain or where elevations may exceed 10,000 feet - often several days in a row. Includes more demanding sea kayaking trips (4-5 hours paddling a day) and river rafting trips with Class IV-V rapids.

Ultimate Challenge!

Our most demanding trips: trekking over steep, rugged terrain at high elevations (no vehicle support) or with substantial altitude gains and losses; trips to remote, extreme wilderness; mountaineering trips. Includes our most demanding sea kayaking (5-7 hours paddling a day) and river rafting trips with Class IV-V rapids.


Departure Dates

Sep 9 - 24, 2014 Sep 30, 2014 - Oct 15, 2014 Aug 18, 2015 - Sep 2, 2015 Sep 15 - 30, 2015

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Emeryville, California 94608

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