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.
This scarcity of foreign tourists may be due to the minimal tourist information previously available in English. These sparse blurbs mostly describe out-of-date information about poor roads and minimal transportation. Even recently-updated China guidebooks still, unfortunately, reprint the same tired, archaic lamentations.
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.
The most famous sights
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.
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:
Even with these limitations, however, 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 to do in all of the Silk Road travels 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.