Where the fark is Xinjiang? About as far from the China you know as you can get. It’s a land of deserts, nomads, mud-and-brick villages, Silk Road ruins and fields of grapevines, where the people grip tightly on to their Central Asian roots while the KTV karaoke bars and shopping malls continue to rise up around them. We visited this isolated province and, despite the hotel troubles, the bitter cold, and the logistical issues of trying to find transportation across 1,000-kilometre swaths of desert, we loved it. We will be back again when it’s warmer! Here are five reasons you should take the challenge and explore Xinjiang too.
1. The people
Xinjiang is China’s most diverse province, home to a colourful plethora of mainly Muslim ethnic groups that will make you rethink what it means to be “Chinese”. Walk through exotic Central Asian markets and hear the wonderful tounge-rolls of the Uyghur and Kazakh languages, see beautiful Hui women in colourful hijab, or tanned Tajik men with aquiline noses and green eyes. It’s people-watching at it’s finest, and while you stare at them they’ll definitely be staring back. The people we met were really curious about us as foreigners, but they were also incredibly kind when they thought we needed help. Aside from one rouge taxi driver, no one tried to scam us, overcharge us, or harass us. And had it happened, we probably could have asked the people around us for help.
2. The food
Uyghur food is something else. Picture all your hearty central Asian favourites pumped up with a punch of extra flavour and Sichuan fire. Lamb and horse meat, potatoes, vegetables, chickpeas, yoghurt and dried fruits are prepared and seasoned with cumin, Sichuan peppers, garlic, salt and black pepper. The end result is heavy, satisfying food that is absolutely bursting with flavour: Lamb shashlik, polo, dapanji chicken, samsas, suoman, manti, and spicy vegetable salads, served with hand-pulled laghman noodles or tandoori naan. Even the more traditional Chinese dishes we tried were tasty, farking spicy, and served to us in gigantic, gut-busting portions. We’re not big eaters but we can definitely say: The. Food. Is. Amazing.
3. The lack of other tourists
This part of the world’s second-largest country is still considered “off the beaten path”, and for good reason: this is about as remote as you can get. The provincial capital, Urumqi, is known as the major city that is furthest from any ocean. If you were to travel around by train instead of flying, it would take you twenty-five hours to get from there to the region’s biggest tourist draw: Kashgar. It takes a lot of time and commitment to tour around Xinjiang, but those who do are rewarded with the experience of being one of the only foreigners most people have ever seen. Be prepared for stares, for unexpected invitations, and for genuine hospitality. As a bonus, you will no longer be considered a walking ATM. Aside from a few domestic tourists, you’ll probably have most attractions to yourself.
4. The landscape
We didn’t see much of it because in November it was cold as fuck (on the worst day it was -12°C… in the afternoon!), but Xinjiang offers a landscape packed full of superlatives. It has the country’s biggest desert, the Taklamakan Desert, which in Turkic means “the place of ruins”, and which historically split the great Silk Road into two branches. Xinjiang is also home to the hottest place and the most low-lying place in China, the Turpan Depression. At 154 metres below sea level, temperatures here regularly reach 50°C in the summertime. So hot you can cook an egg in the sand—so they say. Turpan is also home to the Flaming Mountains, a red sandstone mountain range that was supposedly created by a monkey king, according to an old Chinese story. When you get sick of the heat and riding camels, you can head north to the grasslands and ride horses with the nomads and stay in a yurt instead, or to the deep southwest along the Karakoram Highway (the world’s highest paved international highway—another superlative) to the mountainous border with Pakistan.
5. Because the Chinese government doesn’t want you to go there
Xinjiang has had some “bad problems”, as most people put it. Namely riots and bombings. China doesn’t want foreigners in there, and will even go as far as to deny a visa request if they suspect someone wants to travel overland through the province. They do this not because it’s dangerous, but because it makes them look bad. The government goes through a lot of effort to control the “undesirable” aspects of Xinjiang’s ethnic minorities, and likes to boast that the motherland is diverse but unified. In reality, local people face discrimination in education and the job market, harassment by police, restrictions on movement, and sometimes outright targeting by the Chinese government. Tanks have taken up permanent residence on major intersections in Urumqi and Kashgar, soldiers patrol the streets with machine guns, and all major buildings, including hotels and bus stations, have X-ray machines, metal detectors and riot gear at the ready—in case more “problems” break out. What a way to live. Even Chinese from other regions think Xinjiang is a dangerous place not to be visited, so of course you should go there and see for yourself.
Tips for visiting Xinjiang
When you apply for a Chinese visa, don’t say that your itinerary includes travel to Xinjiang. The Chinese government has been known to reject visa applications if they suspect an individual may be travelling overland through the province. Unlike Tibet, Xinjiang does not require a permit.
The famous Kashgar animal market is held only on Sundays, and is busiest in the morning. It takes at least 25 hours to get to Kashgar from Urumqi by train or bus, so make sure you leave enough time in your schedule to get there and back. If you are travelling through Central Asia, heading from Kyrgyzstan to Kashgar then on to Urumqi is smarter than heading from Kazakhstan to Urumqi then on to Kashgar.
Many hotels in Xinjiang will not accept foreigners. Don’t be insulted or dismayed, as the hoteliers tend to be apologetic and happy to help you find another hotel. In general YHA China hostels seem to accept foreigners, as well as Chinese four star hotels and foreign hotel chains like Ibis, Sheraton, etc. We had luck finding cheap rooms at JinJiang hotels and at the Jiao Tong hotel in Turpan. Always try to bargain down the price as discounts are normal.
Xinjiang is China’s largest and most remote province, and distances between cities are enormous. While there is a high speed rail line set to open from Urumqi to Lanzhou this month (December 2014), at the time of writing the capacity of trains on the existing line is limited and tickets get booked out fast. From experience we urge you to book train tickets as far in advanced as possible. Major train stations in Xinjiang are crowded and chaotic at all times of the day, so if you book tickets yourself expect to queue for a long time. We went the easy route and booked tickets online through China Travel Guide.
Learn numbers in Turkish and practice a few Uyghur greetings. The locals won’t expect you to know their language, and the look of surprise and happiness on their faces when they hear it is priceless.