Karakul Lake in the far west of China’s Xinjiang province

If I told you there was a place in China where the people have green eyes and reddish blond hair, you’d probably think of expats in Beijing and Shanghai. In actual fact, this place lies more than 3,200 kilometers to the west in Xinjiang, a region that has an indigenous population, Uighurs, who are genetically closer to Europeans than east Asians.

That’s where I’ve just arrived and I feel like I’ve landed in another country. Instead of verdant hills and rice paddies, I find an epic landscape of jagged mountains, sweeping deserts and oases. Instead of pagodas and temples, I come across mosques and minarets in a region that only became a part of China in 1759. Their passports say they’re Chinese, but culturally the Muslim Uighur have more in common with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan, which all border Xinjiang to the west.

My first day I spend exploring Kashgar, key to the province’s history. I visit the old town, a crowded labyrinth of 500-year-old, ochre-colored, mud-brick houses whose architecture is instantly recognizable as Islamic to anyone who has seen the casbahs of North Africa and the Middle East. Some of the main streets open views of distant snowcapped mountains on the border with Pakistan, but most of the alleyways between the houses are so narrow that I can imagine Aladdin leaping from rooftop to rooftop.

A child in billowing harem pants and a pillbox hat does scamper past, kicking up dust as he goes, and I begin to feel like I’ve been swept into One Thousand and One Nights. Most of the local men wear either a rounded white skull-cap—the kind favored by Muslims throughout the world—or a embroidered, green, four-point hat that is typical of Uighurs here. Most of the women wear headscarves, veils and the occasional full-length black burqa.

Not everyone though has headgear. Our guide Abdul, for one, sports a slick black moustache instead of a long beard and doesn’t wear a hat because he counts himself as a “modern man,” although he still yearns to visit Mecca. As we stroll around the old town, his voice betrays a sadness. “Until a few years ago, half of Kashgar’s residents lived here.” In 2009, the Chinese government pronounced the old town structurally unsound. Many of the houses—up to 85 percent—have been or are being torn down.

The demolition of old Kashgar has stirred up controversy and Abdul is clearly uncomfortable talking about it. “The government says it is worried about earthquakes. But why is it doing this now? Many people think there are other reasons.” What Abdul is hinting at but will not say is that many Uighur believe their traditional way of life is being targeted.

The city has certainly seen great changes and there could be more to come if the authorities get their way. In May 2010, Kashgar was designated a Special Economic Zone, an area to be developed. For now, untouched enclaves remain. There are still streets where artisans work byhand as they have for millennia: the baker scoops out flatbread from his tandoor oven. An instrument maker carves a seven-stringed rawap, an exquisite sitar-like instrument. And the coppersmith continues to hammer out pots fresh from the furnace. It’s as if nobody told them that Kashgar is becoming the new Shenzhen.

My last day in Kashgar is spent in the livestock market—legendary for being one of the world’s largest, oldest and most chaotic. Sheep, goats, cows, horses and camels line up as far as the eye can see, their frantic movements producing clouds of dust around them. I dodge past the animals and join one of the hundred haggling sessions going on that day.

With all the bleating, neighing, braying and wheezing going on in the background, it’s difficult to hear the hagglers at first, all the more so since they begin the negotiations with mostly silent nods and hand gestures. But soon the debate heats up and an agreement is struck.

Today Kashgar seems untouched by globalized trade. A thousand years ago the town was at the very center of it. As a last-chance refueling station before traders headed west along perilous mountain passes to Pakistan and beyond, Kashgar was a vital stop on the Silk Road.

Leaving Kashgar and its mountain views behind, I instead head eastwards into an equally hostile environment: the Taklamakan, a desert so notoriously large and barren that its name translates as “go in and you will never come out.”

We drive three hours into this empty landscape, where signs of life are few. The road begins to crumble. I’m about to ask Abdul if he’ll recite a Muslim prayer for travelers for us when there’s a dramatic switch in the landscape.

Suddenly yellow nothingness becomes the lively green of an oasis, an abrupt transformation. We have arrived in Hotan, a spot mentioned in Marco Polo’s Travels. Beyond the trees and fields of its surrounding suburbs, most of the city consists of high-rises. There is, however, something that remains almost unchanged since Marco Polo’s day. Back then, Hotan was famous for its fine fabrics and today it continues to be an important center of sericulture, producing more than 150 million meters of silk each year.

Although there are some mechanized factories, most of the production in this town of 350,000 is done by hand. I visit the small Atlas Silk Workshop and learn how this magical material is made. In an open courtyard, I see large vats full of the remains of silk worms that have been boiled so the cocoons can be unraveled into long silk threads. Next to the vats, a woman squats on the floor operating a spinning wheel.

Inside the workshop stand six large wooden looms. A man in his seventies flings a shuttlecock from side to side between the threads at lightening speed, boasting, “It’s easy. I’ve been doing this since I was fourteen.” He then holds up the shuttlecock for us to examine, and with a winning toothless grin, informs us, “This is older than I am. It’s been passed down in my family for 263 years.”

In Kashgar and Hotan, I’ve ogled traders and artisans. Now it’s time to experience the Silk Road for myself. We follow the road deeper into the desert and meet a man waiting with a train of camels. In some parts of the Taklamakan the dunes soar more than 500 meters into the sky. The biggest I see on our two-hour trek are 100 meters, imposing enough. Within minutes of setting of, I drop down into the valley between two dunes and lose sight of the road.

It’s late afternoon and it’s 25 degrees Celsius. The sun is masked slightly by a sand haze. Within this sea of yellow, it is easy to fantasize about Marco Polo—that is until my two-humped steed stops to go to the toilet. My Silk Road reverie is soon restored when we set up camp under the stars and enjoy the warm desert breeze.

From here, travelers made the grueling journey across the rest of the Taklamakan, traversing by camel a 300,000-square-kilometer expanse of shifting sands and few oases until they reached western Xinjiang. We take the easy route and fly to Urumqi.

This modern city’s history barely stretches back beyond the 19th century when Beijing decided it should become Xinjiang’s provincial capital. In the last decade the population mushroomed as the Chinese government improved transport links in the hope of extracting Xinjiang’s rich natural resources. Waves of Han Chinese came from the east to seek their fortune and today they account for three quarters of the city’s 2.6 million residents. In Kashgar and Hotan the streets signs are written in Uighur, a script that resembles Arabic. Here, you’ll see mostly Chinese characters.

If you’ve come to Urumqi for ancient culture, you’ve come to the wrong place. But the provincial capital serves as a good base to explore northeastern Xinjiang. Two hours to the southeast the mud-brick ruins of Jiaohe city perch on top a high bluff in the middle of two rivers. At the back of the city are stupas and temples where faint outlines of images of Buddha are still visible.

Jiaohe is a fascinating glimpse into a period long before Islam came to the region. Fought over by local tribes for 1,500 years, Jiaohe was eventually given up in the 13th-century for the surrounding plains of Turpan.

Turpan still flourishes today. It shouldn’t though. This is one of the hottest, driest places on earth and by rights should be uninhabitable. Yet somehow trellises abundant with grapes line its streets. Looking north to the snowy peaks of the Tianshan mountain range gives a clue to unraveling the mystery of how the locals have made the desert bloom here. Around the same time as they built Jiaohe, they dug a series of wells at the base of these mountains to collect winter rainwater and melted snows in the summer. A network of hundreds of canals, built underground to prevent evaporation, collected water from the wells.

Covering more than 5,000 kilometers, these underground canals would be an impressive enough engineering feat for that fact alone. That’s before you consider that the irrigation system continues today to provide Turpan with enough water to grow and export over a thousand tons of grapes every year. Yet energy—coal, oil, renewable—is now the region’s main export. Driving back to Urumqi we pass innumerable fields, all pinned into place with wind turbines. Otherwise, things are as they have been for millennia.

First appeared in Travel + Leisure Asia on November 1, 2011.