The Ghost City
As I stood on the edge of a large rock overlooking the vast desert in northern Xinjiang, the wind howls fiercely around me. The sound it makes is unnerving and the sand it whips into my face is uncomfortable at times. There’s not a single human being in front of me for miles, just the huge rock formations like the one I’m now using as a lookout. It’s no wonder they call this place “The Ghost City”.
The province of Xinjiang, known as China’s “Wild West”, is one of the poorest yet most visually spectacular parts of the country. From the capital city of Urumqi you’ll have to travel roughly 250 kilometers (155 miles) to the north west to visit The Ghost City. Calling it “off the beaten path” is at the very least an understatement. All roads, although paved, run straight through the Dzungar Desert until it unexpectedly meets with a small city of towering rock.
The Ghost City of Xinjiang.
Xinjiang’s Ghost City
I’m embarrassed to admit that I was thoroughly deceived by the name “Ghost City”. There were no abandoned buildings nor squeaking barn doors that I was expecting for some reason. Rather, a collection of towering rocks shaped by wind and erosion stand in defiance of the desert it borders. The locals gave the place its name because of the eerie sounds the wind makes, and rightly so. With but a little imagination, it was easy to imagine these skyscraper-like structures turning into animals and ghostly spirits.
A bunch of rocks might not seem like a great tourist destination – and I admit that I too was skeptical – but there is more to this place than meets the eye. Depending on which part of the day you visit, the color of the rock and the clarity of the sky provide incredible views to both enjoy and photograph. If you’re more adventurous like I am you can hire a camel to walk you through the city or strap on your hiking boots and blaze your own trail up a few of the tall towers. Some entrepreneurs in Urho, the small city nearby, have been renting mountain bikes and 4-wheelers for those who are willing to pay a few extra RMB.
Camels are available to rent for exploring the desert.
One of Ghost City’s biggest draws for both national and foreign tourist, though, is its familiarity. Numerous films have shot scenes within this park and it’s likely you’ve seen at least one of them. Arguably the most famous movie to come out of China, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, used the Ghost City as one of its shooting locations and a stone marker near the spot identifies the area for visitors. Various other films, familiar mostly to Chinese audiences, were also shot using the unique scenery of Ghost City as its backdrop.
I think what most excites me about this place is the experience of it all: the desert, the small town, the cultural atmosphere.
For me this isn’t the final destination – I’m actually headed further north to the famous Kanas Lake – but it makes a great pit stop in my travels around the northern portion of Xinjiang. From what I can tell on my map, there are plenty more fun spots like this to keep me busy exploring, and if they’re all even half as unique as the Ghost City then this trip is going to be exciting!