There are some roads, called “heavenly roads” by travelers. If you see a road map, these roads don’t appear to be different than every other road in the country. Their official names like G318, G219, G314 or N35 have nothing impressive. But the lands that these roads pass through are so incredibly beautiful and full of stunning landscapes so that you want to stop literally every few minutes for photos and enjoyment. That’s what makes them “heavenly”. Let’s travel on one of these “heavenly roads” – the Duku Highway in Xinjiang, China, crossing Tianshan Mountains from south to north.
Basic facts about Duku Highway
Duku Highway is the road, connecting two cities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, from both the south and north sides of Tianshan. These cities are Dushanzi in the north and Kuqa in the south. From the first characters of their names- Du and Ku, comes the name of this road. Officially, it is numbered as G217, but due to the fantastic landscapes that this road passes, it is popular as “Duku Highway” and this name has become iconic for travelers. There are monument stones on both ends of the road, where you can often see tourist people taking photos and selfies.
Duku Highway length
The whole length of the Duku Highway is 526 km (I have measured it by GPS) and can be traveled by car without a stop for about 8 hours and a half (of course, if it is hypothetically empty). Officially, in many sources, you can see a length of 561 km, but it seems like it is old information, from the time before building the tunnels under the three passes. At that time the “original road” has reached the passes with additional curves that contributed to the length. Now the tunnels cut the length and the old sections of the road on the passes are abandoned (but probably still can be used by bikers, which is much better than crossing the dangerous narrow tunnels with a lot of traffic).
Duku Highway crosses the two main subranges of Tianshan- Narat and Borohoro passing through three mountain passes, reaching maximal altitude 3460 m in the northern Haxilegen Pass (although the road crosses all the three passes through tunnels) and two main river valleys between them. Along your whole trip on the Duku Highway, you constantly pass through and watch vast grasslands, deep gorges, splendid forests, snowy mountains, and local nomadic culture. No wonder that the road is “declared” as a”heavenly road”!
A guide of Duku Highway
Let’s focus on the Duku Highway and follow up on its route. No matter which direction you would choose, both can be very exciting. We personally traveled on it from Kuqa (south) to Dushanzi (north), so I will introduce it in this way.
The northern Tarim oasis chain
The Duku Highway starts from the long northern Tarim Basin oasis chain. This area is a strip between Tianshan Mountains in the north and Taklamakan Desert in the south. All you can see there is dry yellowish landscape, mixed with poplar woods, agricultural fields and some settlements (and small industrial zones) around. Two main roads are connecting Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, with Kashgar- an old road, a new highway, and a railroad. And these roads pass through several main cities- Korla, Kuqa, Aksu, to Kashgar. And Kuqa is our starting point.
Kuqa (Kuche, 库车)
Kuqa is one of the main cities in the northern Tarim oasis chain. It has a long history and there are many remains from ancient times. If Kuqa is your Duku Highway starting point, it would be impressive if you first explore the places of interest in the area.
First, you can take a walk around the city itself. The daily life of the local people, the Uyghur culture, all this is worth to explore. And the most beautiful spot in Kuqa is the splendid Kuqa Mansion- a historical palace, built in honor of an Uyghur warlord from the 18th century, who helped the Qing army to suppress a rebellion.
Then, if you have more time and want to explore deeply the area of Kuqa, as your Duku Highway starting point, you can also go outside the city and visit some mysterious ancient sites. They include Subashi Ancient City, Kizil Gaha (an ancient military tower), Kizil Thousand Buddha Caves and a few more.
Kuqa Grand Canyon National Geopark (库车大峡谷国家地质公园)
The road leaves Kuqa and heads on the north. First, it crosses the highway and the railroad between Urumqi and Kashgar. Then on the left side of the road, you can see a lot of restaurants and shops, where you can supply yourself with various things for your trip. And from there, you enter a dry yellowish rocky landscape, belonging to Tianshan’s southern foothills. This is Kuqa Grand Canyon National Geopark- an area with “yardang” type of rocks, formed by the dry winds. And there is also a canyon type of valley with sharped rugged rocks. All this is the first stop worth for photos and enjoying a stunning landscape.
Tianshan Secret Canyon (天山神秘大峡谷) (69th km)
Kuqa Grand Canyon National Geopark is not over yet. Its most essential site is ahead of you. The road crosses a long plain and enters another valley, with green plants along its Kuqa River, and rugged rocky slopes surrounding its bottom. Here the rocks are more reddish. And soon you arrive at the rocks’ most spectacular formation, the Tianshan Secret (Mysterious) Canyon (天山神秘大峡谷), called also Kuqa Grand Canyon.
This canyon is 7,5 km long. It has been hidden in oblivion for many centuries until it was rediscovered by a local herdsman in 1999. When you enter inside, you can really feel like entering another world and time. You walk inside a narrow corridor, penetrating deeper and deeper between the giant red rock walls. Its narrowest part is only 40 cm wide.
It has some history too. There has been discovered a cave with 218 Kizil murals, dating back from the time of the Tang Dynasty. All this is the reason this canyon to be ranked as one of the 10 most beautiful canyons in the world. And indeed, if you ignore the tourist crowds, you can feel like in an alien world inside it. Entrance fee: 50 CNY.
Dalong Lake (大龙池) (136th km)
The road proceeds on Kuqa River’s valley in a northward direction, gradually ascending. Gradually, the landscape starts to change. The green color begins to appear more and more and soon begins to dominate in the landscape. And the mountains also start to rise higher. Then, you can see the first high and gorgeous coniferous trees on the steep slopes.
More and more stunning views start to surround you everywhere. The road starts curving while ascends higher and higher. A beautiful waterfall appeals for stop and taking photos. Finally, you see a small lake on your right side. But the best view appears a little further. This is Dalong Lake.
It is an incredibly beautiful glacial lake, surrounded by alpine peaks, mountain tundra, and gorgeous coniferous forests. It is about 2,5 km long, and there is a panoramic terrace on the road over the lake. From there, you can make a short trek inside the breathtaking scenery in the area, or descend to the lake’s coast and enjoy its beauty there.
Tielimaiti Pass (铁力买提山口) (160th km) and the northern valley
The ascent proceeds. You pass by a mountain resort with a lot of yurts. And then it is time to “attack” the first summit of Tianshan- Tielimaiti Pass, which is the summit of Narat Range. Its altitude is 3545 m, but the road doesn’t reach its highest point. Instead, it crosses it through a tunnel at 3250 m.
However, it doesn’t mean that there are not enough stunning views to see there. The main attraction there is the multiple curves of the road on the slope. And this slope is really breathtaking, as well as all other giant peaks, summits and deep gorges between them around the road.
Bayan Buluk Grassland (巴音布鲁克草原) (261st km)
Now we cross on the other side of Tielimaiti Pass. First, the road descends by curves to a deep mountain valley. Gradually, the slopes of the valley begin to soften, covered by fresh green pastures. Here you can see a lot of sheep flocks, on the alpine meadows, covered with fresh grass and flowers in July-August.
Then, this valley gradually opens wider and wider, until it turns into a vast plain, covered by an endless grassland, and surrounded by far distant snowy mountains. This is Bayan Buluk Grassland, one of the largest and most beautiful grasslands in China. Its average altitude is 2500 m, which makes it quite cool in summer, and bitterly cold in winter.
Kaidu River and Swan Lake
And there is a river, curving, splitting and rejoining on the grassland. This is Kaidu River (开都河), which adds even more beauty to the picturesque landscape. The road passes through a short valley and reaches a small town- Bayan Buluk- a quiet and cold Mongol settlement, surrounded by yurts, pastures, and flocks of livestock.
There, before you enter the town, is the Swan Lake tourist site. It is established on the most beautiful part of Bayan Buluk Grassland, where Kaidu River’s curving branches are also mixed by wetland and many small ponds. Unfortunately, it is difficult for a foreigner to see it unless joining a tour group, or obtain a special permit from Urumqi. Anyway, you still can enjoy this kind of scenery east of the town, although not such large as Swan Lake.
Narati Grassland (那拉提草原) (322nd km) and the coniferous forests
East of Bayan Buluk Town, the road proceeds on the grasslands and along Kaidu River. Then it starts gradually descending with many curves on a soft labyrinth of valleys and summits, covered by green pastures and magnificent coniferous forests. You literally want to stop at every curve for photos and enjoy. Finally, the road reaches Gongnaisi River and crosses another road that connects Korla with Yili (road G218). There, on your left side is Narati (or Nalati) Grassland.
This grassland presents a little different kind of scenery than Bayan Buluk. It is situated in the valley of Gongnaisi River, which opens wide in this place. The pastures of the grassland are located on the bottom of the valley and are surrounded by gorgeous mountains, covered by splendid coniferous forests (on the south side slope of the valley).
Its most beautiful part is now turned into a tourist site with entrance fee: 90 CNY in the high season (summer) and 70 CNY in the low season. But even if you don’t want to spend money on it, Duku Highway is still full of similar kinds of scenery. So, go on.
Yuximolegai Pass (玉希莫勒盖山口) (365th km)
From Road G218, Duku Highway leaves Narat Range of Tianshan and enters Borohoro Range, proceeding northward, and again slowly ascending. Yuximolegai Pass is not on the main summit of Borohoro, but on its subbranch, called Yuximolegai Daban. Its altitude is 3415 m, but again, the road passes under it through a tunnel, at 3230 m.
The road first curves on valleys with pastures and coniferous forests, then the forests gradually disappear. In summer, you can see a lot of roadside vendors, selling honey and milk, and no “normal food” for a traveler. But at the pass, right before the tunnel, there are a few yurts with the best-roasted lamb that I have eaten, local yogurt, soup, bread, eggs, and some other delicacies. All this combined with stunning mountain views everywhere.
Tangbula Grassland (唐布拉草原) (401st km)
It is another picturesque grassland. Actually, it is not located on Duku Highway, but some 40 km aside from it, as a detour of the main route.
After Yuximolegai Pass, the road again descends gradually. Soon it enters another area with a stunning mountain mix of pastures and coniferous forests, following a river valley. And finally, it reaches Kax River and Road S315. There it leaves Yuximolegai Daban subrange and enters the main Borohoro massif.
And exactly at the junction of Duku Highway with S315 (called Qiaoerma), you can see a large “Duku Highway Monument”, as well as a local tourist site, related to the history of Duku Highway building, called Qiaoerma Martyr’s Tomb (乔尔玛烈士陵园). It memorizes 168 soldiers, part of the road construction team who died during the building work.
From this point, if you want to make a detour to Tangbula Grassland, you have to turn left, westward, on the Road S315, following Kax River. Soon the valley opens and widens until the picturesque mix of forests and pastures begins covering a large plain. This is Tangbula. It is somehow similar to Narati Grassland, but the forests in Tangbula are spread not just on one side of the slopes, but on the plain itself.
Haxilegen Pass (哈希勒根山口) (425th km)
From here, Duku Highway enters its most alpine section. It “attacks” the main summit of Borohoro Range of Tianshan, ascending with many curves to Haxilegen Pass. This pass has altitude of 3544 m, and the tunnel of the road under it is located on 3460 m altitude, which is the highest point of the road.
The scenery around the pass is really breathtaking. It is a typical alpine landscape, mixed with mountain tundra. Before you enter the tunnel, there is a panoramic terrace, where you can see a strange mountain peak with black rocks. Maybe it is caused by fire, but there is no wood or even grass nearby to burn, so it looks really weird. And when you go out of the tunnel, on its northern side, the road starts a dizzying descent on a deep gorge, surrounded by giant, almost vertical slopes. From here you enter the area of Dushanzi.
Dushanzi (独山子) (526th km)
There is a long descent after Haxilegen Pass, and finally, the road reaches a much “softer” and lower mountain area, at the northern foot of Borohoro Range, before going out to the Dzungarian Plain.
But that’s not all of the places that you can see on Duku Highway. Before you end your trip in Dushanzi, you can make a short detour (follow the road signs) to Dushanzi Grand Canyon (独山子大峡谷). This is gorge with fantastic formations on its slope, made by a strong erosion process.
Finally, Duku Highway ends in Dushanzi. It is actually a district, belonging to the nearby Kuitun City. There is nothing special in the urban area. Or maybe the most special point is the monument, marking the end (or the beginning, if you come from the north) of Duku Highway.
Transport on the Duku Highway
All this presentation of Duku Highway probably sounds great, but an important question is HOW to travel on this road, what transport can you use.
And indeed, transportation on the Duku Highway is not so easy. First- there is no public transport on this road. No buses. The reason is that most of Duku Highway is restricted for vehicles larger than 7 seats. So, you have two options- by private car or minivan, and by bicycle (or motorbike).
By car or minivan
This is a good option, but not so simple. First, you can’t rent a car in China and drive by yourself, unless you have a Chinese driving license. I have, so we rented a car in Urumqi and made a four-day circle route, of which Duku Highway was a part. It was very comfortable, but obviously, most of the foreigners don’t have such a driving document, so the only option for them is to hire a car with a driver.
Hiring a car with a driver
You can hire a driver in Kuqa, who can take you to Dushanzi, then he back with an empty car. However, it would be unreasonably expensive. So, a better solution is to hire a driver in Urumqi, then make a 4-5 days circle route: from Urumqi to Korla, then to Kuqa, and then on the whole Duku Highway to Dushanzi, then finally back to Urumqi (or on opposite direction).
It would be a bit expensive, since most of the drivers would require 1000-1500 CNY per day, not including the driver’s food and accommodation (which may increase the price with more than 200 CNY per day). But if you are a group of 6 people, hiring a 7 seat car, you can share the money, so it would be much cheaper.
How to find a car with a driver? Yes, it is not so easy, but if you stay in Urumqi, you can ask the hotel and they can help you. If you book your hotel by Booking or Agoda, you can ask the property in advance.
Of course, if you have a Chinese driving license, it would be much better. You can rent a car from Urumqi or Korla and make your trip. But it is not such easy. Some rent-a-car companies would refuse to give you a car because you are a foreigner, they are not sure about the travel regulations in Xinjiang, therefore they just prefer to not deal with you. Others may agree to allow you driving but would require a Chinese friend to use his/her ID to register for the car. But there could be still companies who would agree to borrow you their car.
The best rent-a-car company in China is Shenzhou (神州租车), although it may be a bit expensive in the high season. You can visit their website, but since it is supposed that foreigners normally don’t have a Chinese driving license, they haven’t translated their site in English, there is only a Chinese version. So, obviously, this self-driving option is only for foreigners who live in China, know Chinese and have good Chinese relationships (like me).
By bicycle or motorbike
It would be an exciting adventure, but quite long because again, Duku Highway has to be a part of a longer round route. Since the road has a lot of ascends to pass, you need at least 5 days to accomplish it by bicycle. And at least 12-15 more days to make a full circle from the place that you rent a bike (Urumqi or Korla), to the same place again.
You can find bicycles for rent in some bike shops, usually near the large parks in Urumqi and Korla. Normally, they would charge you between 30 and 50 CNY per day and will require some deposit (you can expect something like at least 500 CNY at minimum, but most probably over 1000 CNY).
You can travel hypothetically on Duku Highway by motorbike (if someone rides you because it again requires a Chinese driving license), or even on foot. It is allowed for foreigners.
By tour company
It is the least adventurous option. You can ask your hotel for a tour on Duku Highway and they would give you some options. The tour company will arrange all the travel permits for you, so you can enjoy the restricted areas in Bayan Buluk and other places nearby. Since you can’t travel by bus, they use vans for their tours. This option is easiest but maybe a bit expensive.
In general, the best starting point for travel on Duku Highway is Urumqi. Then, if you make a round trip that incudes Duku Highway, you can choose the direction as you wish.
If you travel on Duku Highway independently, it may be a bit difficult for you to arrange your accommodation. Yes, you can find hotels in Kuqa and Dushanzi. But most of the middle section of the road is located within Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture, which is not freely opened for foreigners.
So, you can’t find any hotels in Bayan Buluk, which would accept foreigners. The only option is the roadside yurts, which are technically not opened for foreigners too, but they are not such strict, and some of their hosts may agree to accept you.
Another option is just to bring your tent and sleep anywhere you can find along the road. In the high season, during July and August, you can see many adventurous travelers camping beside the road. Or, if you travel by car, you can just sleep in the car anywhere you can park it (as we did).
More about the travel regulations
As I mentioned above, Bayan Buluk and the whole Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture is restricted for foreigners. Yes, foreigners are allowed to enter and travel, but not allowed to accommodate and to visit the tourist sites, unless they get a special permit from the Urumqi travel department (or travel by a tour company, which would obtain the permit for them).
When we arrived in Bayan Buluk, we wanted to visit Swan Lake, but they told us that we have to buy tickets from the tourist center, at the eastern end of the town. We went there, but the local officer first asked me whether I have a travel permit from Urumqi. I said “no”, then he said: “Sorry, you can’t visit Swan Lake, and also you must leave Bayan Buluk within 30 mins, otherwise I am obligated to call the police and they would take you to the police station and ask you many questions.” He was very polite and apologetic, stating that “he didn’t create these rules, but no way, this is his job.”
On the other hand, it is unlikely that a policeman would stop you on the road and requires you to leave or back. There are two police checking stations on Duku Highway (not counting the checking stations on the exits of Dushanzi and Kuqa), one before Bayan Buluk (if you come from Kuqa), and one at Narati Grassland. In the opposite direction, there is one station at Qiaoerma junction, and the other is after Bayan Buluk. When we traveled by car (and I drove it), although the policemen saw me, nobody stopped us.
Duku Highway closures
Duku Highway crosses an incredibly beautiful area, which however has harsh conditions. Most of the road travels above 2000 m altitude. So a large part of the road is closed from October to May, for all kinds of vehicles. You can theoretically travel on foot only (or, for example, riding a horse) on the road, which is covered by snow. And in winter, the temperature regularly drops below -30 C.
Only some sections of Duku Highway are opened in winter- the section close to Kuqa, the section close to Dushanzi, and the area around Bayan Buluk town (people are living there, they still have to have access to the world, but via by Duku Highway).
Even in summer, the weather is very unstable in the high parts of Duku Highway, around the three mountain passes. When we made our trip, we passed the whole route for 2 days and the weather was sunny, except for the areas above 2900-3000 m altitude. There was heavy rain, sometimes even with thunders and flashes of lightning. And in Haxilegen there was even rain mixed with snow.
When we traveled on Duku Highway, this caused a mudslide, north of Tielimaiti Pass, which damaged the road. So we had to stop (together with many other travelers) and wait until the workers with their machines come and repair the road (which they did it for 6-7 hours). They finished after midnight, then we proceeded our trip. But actually, we used the situation to just spend the night in the car and not thinking about how to find a hotel.
All this makes Duku Highway not just a place with stunning landscapes and incredibly beautiful scenery, but also a place for adventures. Just like a saying says- the travel attractions are not just some tourist sites, but the whole road. And Duku Highway perfectly fits this saying, being deservedly named “Heavenly Road”.
Get some video impression of the Duku Highway:
Take a look at some travel books about Xinjiang!
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