Cherchen is a river oasis town along the southeastern rim of the Taklamakan Desert in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China. It is the largest town east of Khotan in southern Xinjiang.
This area has a truly ancient human history, based on the 3,500-year-old cemetery along the ancient Jade Road that traded with the earliest Chinese dynasties and the similarly-dated Bronze Age rock carvings south of town along another ancient trade route to what is now Tibet and a forgotten back door to central China.
More than a thousand years later, the area was ruled as the kingdom of Calmadana during the earliest heyday of the Silk Road. Its fortunes have since ebbed and flowed, mainly with the popularity of the southern trade route: sometimes abandoned, as when Buddhist monk Xuan Zang passed through in the year 644, and other times bustling, as when Marco Polo came by in 1273.
Cherchen has a surprisingly large modern center, with wide paved streets, traffic lights, modern hotels, modern restaurants, a hospital, a large central square, a commercial airport, a supermarket, a computer store, Internet cafes, and several large apartment blocks.
Visitors can also explore pleasant rural, Uyghur residential neighborhoods, including a large district just across the street from center of town. There are rural pasturelands, with flocks of sheep, and agricultural fields to wander about a bit farther from the center. The Uyghur bazaar is small but interesting, and the traveler can pick up a game of pool at one of a dozen tables at the bazaar entrance.
Cherchen does not see many foreign visitors, though it has a lot to offer. More than 60,000 Chinese travelers visited in 2005, but only 448 foreign visitors.
Some tourist information mentions poor roads and minimal transportation. But Cherchen County spent ¥8 million in 2005 alone on tourist infrastructure such as roads and ¥2.5 million in 2005 on tourism sights, and tourism spending continues apace so access and support will continue to improve.
Many foreign travelers coming through Cherchen are headed for Dunhuang, Xining or Golmud (and onward to Lhasa) through Qinghai Province. A 4WD vehicle is needed for just one leg of this trip, between Karghilik (350km east of Cherchen) and Shimiankuang, QH, (241km past that). This means, if you are taking a private tour, you have 4WD vehicles the entire way from Kashgar or Khotan or wherever you begin, so travel agents tell you the whole thing is a 4WD track. But you can go by bus, independently, on great roads, for every other leg, and take a 4WD public car, which leaves every morning from the Karghilik bus station to Shimiankuang. Northern Xinjiang was only opened to foreign visitors during the 1980s, but much of southern Xinjiang was still closed, except with special permission, into the 1990s. Prior to 1996, the roads to Cherchen were indeed in poor shape. Fewer buses took much longer to reach it, with frequent delays, the journey was less comfortable, and the accommodations, once one arrived, were limited. Today, however, there are daily long-distance buses east and west, including a daily bus to and from Hotan. The roads, now well-paved asphalt highways, are in good shape, both west to Niya / Minfeng and Khotan and east to Karghilik and, from there, north to Korla. One can also fly here.
- Khotan - 605km, daily bus takes 11 hours (also spelled Hotan or Hetian)
- Ruoqiang - 351km, daily bus takes 6 hours (also called Charklik)
- Korla - 708km, four daily buses take about 10 hours (also spelled Kuerle)
The most famous sights
- Ancient Ruins. The most famous thing about the city is an archeological find, mummies from the ancient Tocharian civilisation. These are about 4000 years old with Caucasian features. One man is about two meters, a woman near 180cm. The best place to see them, however, in the museum in Urumqi.
- Zaghunluq Ancient Mummy Tomb. Fourteen 2,600-year-old famous Indo-European Tarim mummies still lying in their original.
- Museum (In the Toghraklek Manor). A Uyghur architectural gem of a warlord's home containing a display of ancient Zaghunluq grave artifacts and a collection more recent farm and household items.
- Kunlun Square. A large town square.
- Ancient Ruins. Two small nearby ancient ruins, including Lalulik.
Sights farther afield
There are several sights farther afield, four in the cool, high mountains that rim the Taklamakan Desert to the south and a fifth deep inside that desert.
- Molcha River Rock Carvings (180km from town). Collection of thousands of petroglyphs along a riverside cliff face, depict ancient life, with pastoral scenes, spiritual belief, animals, dancing and battles dating to the Bronze Age and Iron Age.
- Wildlife Park (232km from town, two-day trip by safari). Enormous, verdant grasslands area, to see the endangered Tibetan antelope and a wide range of other wildlife.
- Hunting Park (Two-day trip).
- Tatleksu Jade Mine. Visitors can tour and, afterward, try their luck hunting for jade in the nearby river.
- Tazhong Oil Field (120km form town, overnight trip). Xinjiang's vast oil reserves in the center of the Taklamakan Desert can be toured by visitors.
- Uyghur Neighborhood (West of the Qianjing Market). Wandering in the Uyghur neighborhood with rural paths, giant grape trellises, colorful courtyard doors, and a sizable mosque.
Some challenges in visiting Cherchen
Though easy to reach, with modern facilities, and with much to see, Cherchen is still not an easy destination for foreigners:
- Sand storms, especially frequent in spring, continuing into summer but rare in the fall, can delay travel. Allow a few days of flexibility in your schedule and expect wind and skies hazy with desert dust, the breath of the yellow dragon. On the other hand, though fiercely cold at night in winter, the days are brisk but clear, and all transit and tourist sites are operating.
- Few people in town speak English. One of the managers of the Muztag Hotel speaks English well, but no one at the Cherchen / Qiemo County Travel Bureau does. Both a Mandarin Chinese phrasebook and one with Uyghur, such as Lonely Planet's Central Asia Phrasebook, will be helpful to visitors. Uyghurs make up the vast majority of the population but most do not speak Chinese well and, in any case, would be honored if you try to communicate in their native language.
- The town has an airport, though it offers only two weekly flights to and from Urumqi via Korla, and these may be cancelled if there are too few passengers. (There is talk of increasing these to daily flights in summer.)
- No English-speaking tour guides have set up shop here. You can easily travel independently to and around the town and to the main sights, so you don't really need a guide. If you prefer to have an English-speaking guide, however, you would have to arrange it in Kashgar, Hotan, Korla, or even Urumqi -- and few guides from elsewhere are familiar with Cherchen / Qiemo, so s/he would be serving mainly as a translator.
- Though there are several quality restaurants, none have English menus. Phrase books have a restaurant section that should get you through, as they will in the rest of Xinjiang, or you can actually go into the kitchen and point to what you would like. Street signs are in English, however, and the two museums have English signage.
- In the several good hotels the bathrooms are quite modern, but in this oasis in the desert, water supply and energy seem to be rationed. So you may have some hours without running water, and hot running water may be scheduled for only certain hours each day. This is the case in most towns in the south outside of Kashgar and Hotan. Ask at check-in about the water supply schedule.
- The one bank in town does not have an ATM and does not provide currency exchange nor cash advances on foreign cards, nor do any hotels in town accept foreign currency nor exchange currency. You'll need to bring all the RMB you'll need from Hotan or Korla.
- The local PSB (police) station does not have an Aliens Entry and Exit Administration office, so you cannot get your visa extended here. You can do this in Hotan and Korla.
Despite the challenges, Cherchen is a rewarding destination, with history and mystery to spare, along with surprisingly modern comforts.
Silk Road - The route between Dunhuang and Cherchen is probably the hardest in all of the Silk Road since public transit does not exist between the two points. Buses run from Cherchen to Charklik (Ruoqiang) taking about 13-16 hours. Between Charklik (Ruoqiang) and Qinghai Province requires the use of private jeep and/or minibuses to get you over the border so that you can pick up public transit either direct to Dunhuang or Golmud then on to Dunhuang.