To get a sense of the vast physical distance between Beijing and Urumqi, the capital of China’s far western Xinjiang province, all you have to do is get on a train – as I did a few years ago.
From platform to platform, the journey took 45 hours. It wound through farmer’s fields and coal-covered industrial cities and eventually the Gobi desert before depositing me on the other side of the country, in another world entirely – a world of minarets and muezzin calls, of lamb kebabs and nomadic pastoralists. In my case, I didn’t stop there. I got straight on a bus and rode for another 24 hours along the northern lip of the searing Taklamakan Desert, deeper and deeper into the heartland of the Turkic Uyghur people that have lived in this incredibly harsh climate for centuries.