Why Visit Xinjiang?

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When I first decided to relocate to China to continue my ESL teaching career, my head was filled with the travel possibilities that I would be presented with living in one of the largest and oldest nations in the world.

Days spent exploring Beijing’s countless iconic sites such as Tienamen Square, the Forbidden City, and the nearby Great Wall; dining in cosmopolitan Shaghai; rolling the dice in Macau or exploring Hong Kong Disney; sunbathing in Hainan; or checking off any of my 10 different places to visit in China.

Then there were the other places within a short flight. I could spend some time in Japan or catch up with old friends in South Korea. I could jet off to South East Asia to do a little more scuba or have a jaunt up to Mongolia to get my yurt on. I could winter in Vladivostok or brave the heights in Tibet.

So, when I found I had a week’s vacation coming to me for May Day (or Golden Week), my mind raced with the possibilities. Originally my mind turned to the sun-dappled beaches and cheap cocktails of Hainan, but then my friend Kara had an interesting suggestion.

Why not visit Xinjiang?

I’d first heard of China’s westernmost (and largest) provinces after I posted my very popular 10 Different Things to do in China entry a few weeks ago. The most vocal comments were wondering why I hadn’t thought to include China’s mountainous and vastly different province. And truth be told, I hadn’t even heard of it.

After Kara’s suggestion, I knuckled down and did a bit of research. I found out plenty to make me excited about a prospective week in Xinjiang. Here’s just a sample of what I found:

  • Sharing borders with Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan; Xinjiang province has an incredibly diverse population dominated by the Central Asian minorities rather than the Han majority that rules over most of China.
  • Within a single day you can travel from densely built up urban areas to parched deserts and on into visually stunning snow-capped mountains.
  • You can see K2 (the world’s second tallest mountain) from Xinjiang.
  • Xinjiang’s Uighur people are renowned across China for their food – particularly lamb kebabs, naan, and a ‘deadly dessert’ which I’ll discuss later.
  • Uighar girls are considered to be among China’s prettiest. After all, they combine the best features of the Han with the dark skin and eyes of the Central Asian nations.
  • China’s Muslim population is centered largely in the province.

Couple this new-found knowledge with the glowing recommendations from a number of my readers and Twitter followers, and you had me hooked. It didn’t hurt that Josh from Far West China was on hand to give a little encouragement. It’s just a shame such a fantastic resource on China’s oft forgotten western province is blocked in China…

What the hell is Xinjiang?

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you hadn’t heard of Xinjiang. The majority of tourists seem to flock to China’s built up eastern coast. But to discount Xinjiang from your Chinese itinerary would be doing you a great disservice. You’re not just ruling out a land of startling natural beauty, but also one with a lot of history of its own.

How big is it? Xinjiang is larger than any one European country not named Russia. That gives you a pretty damned big area to explore, and while my own trip would focus almost solely on the area around Kashgar near the Sino-Pakistan border, I could have spent a month or more exploring and still not done the province justice.

And while the region is now experiencing a rapid introduction into 21st century Chinese culture, it is still possible to see the region as the predominantly Central Asian/Middle Eastern place that it was for a very long time. Whether I was wandering through alleys lined with vendors selling lamb & silk (not together, obviously) or hunkering down over a fire outside of a yurt in the mountains – I never really felt like I was still in China. Hell, we were often hard pressed to find somebody who spoke enough Mandarin to help us get by, let alone English.

Not that Xinjiang’s a simple hop, skip, and jump away from the east coast. My flight from Nanjing to Urumqi took almost five hours, and it was another ninety minutes from relatively modern Urumqi to the more isolated Kashgar on the western side of the country.

Not Quite China

While Xinjiang is rapidly being absorbed into modern China, it is a long way from feeling like the densely built up and commercial place that the western world is coming to know. Oh, there are still garish neon lights and China Mobile stores on every block – but these are interspersed by dusty market streets and livestock. It wasn’t unusual to see a pristine company car pulled up alongside a donkey drawn cart in Kashgar.

And while it exists roughly the same distance away from Beijing as Perth is from Sydney, Xinjiang still runs on Beijing time. This leads to some very confusing moments where you’re in bed at 11pm and still having sun filter through your curtains. Officially, the locals run on Beijing time – but it proved generally safe to operate on a two hour delay. Most things stayed open until the 11pm sunset.

Xinjiang is a somewhat (some would say completely) reluctant part of China. It’s officially an Autonomous region, but the dissatisfaction with Han dominated society is evident in the semi regular riots that occur in the region. Having spent a week in the region, it was somewhat easy to understand why the minorities that make up Xinjiang’s majority might not be satisfied with their lot.

It’s not just the rigid adherence to a Beijing time that frustrates the locals. The discrepancy between the standard of living between the native Uighur and the controlling Han is stark, and the Han government’s treatment of traditional sites in the region leaves a lot to be desired. In a later entry I’ll tell you about (and show you) the beautiful Golden Grasslands – a lush tract of land that has been taken from the nomadic people who called it whom in order to increase tourist revenue in nearby Tashgorkan.

Xinjiang presents a land of startling contrasts – not just geographically and ethnically, but also culturally. In the space of a week I experienced so many wonderful, weird, or downright confronting moments. It was a week I’ll remember fondly – food poisoning and all – for the rest of my life.

So, why visit?

Over the next fortnight I’ve got eight entries packed full of photos and stories from my week in Xinjiang. Ranging from crowded market bazaars to towering mountains, from breath-takingly clear blue lakes to the dry expanse of the world’s second largest shifting sand desert, Taklamakan – there really is no shortage of reasons to add Xinjiang to your Chinese itinerary, or even the focus of your visit.

But if I had to choose five, they would be:

The People

Moreso than eastern China which, like it or not, has a reputation with tourists as being somewhat rude and standoffish, I find the Uighur people (and the other ethnic groups) to be warm, open, and helpful. While there were obvious language barriers and the cultural differences one would expect when interacting with an Islamic populace, by and large people seemed genuinely happy that we were taking an interest in their region and it’s culture.

Our guide, himself a Uighur, often stopped to shake hands with people along the way and on multiple occasions wound down his window to ask a local for directions. Not once was he shooed away or greeted without a smile.

Posing with Uighur girls in Xinjiang
Kara and I posing with the female staff of Ruslan Restaurant, Kashgar

A highlight of the people for us (my friend Kara and I) were the wonderfully warm and inviting staff of the Ruslan Restaurant in Kashgar. Situated across from the New Delhi Business Hotel, the charming Uighur restaurant not only had fantastic food – but also had a staff that beamed with excitement at the prospect of Westerners in their establishment. Two in particular fawned and doted over us on both of our visits, and we left feeling more welcome than I’ve ever felt in a restaurant before.

The History

While it’s history might not stretch back quite as far as the more well known Chinese dynasties, there’s still no shortage of stories to be found in Xinjiang. From 40,000 year old mummies in the desert to ancient stone fortresses like that in Tashkorgan to Muslim sites such as Abakh Kojah to the long history of nomadic existence in the mountains of the region – there’s plenty to see and soak in.

Stone Fort in Tashgorkan, Xinjiang
The 1,500 year old ‘Stone Fort’ that gives Tashkorgan its name

Of particular interest for me was learning about the many smaller kingdoms that once made up the area and the way they related to one another. Hearing stories of political marriages with Afghani kings or about the ancient Silk Road traders who risked their lives in the perilous pursuit of wealth transported me to a time much harsher than my own. It was a real pleasure.

The Food

I should preface this by saying that the Xinjiang diet focuses pretty heavily on lamb – a meat I generally detest. My view of the meat was not changed by the visit. If anything, the mere smell of cooking lamb now makes me gag.

But when you look past that steadfast reliance on the meat, there’s still a wealth of flavors to be experienced in Xinjiang. I was particularly fond of what translates into ‘big plate chicken’ as well as a delicious dessert known as Doha. The former, a plate of chicken and potatoes served in a spicy sauce, is particularly good at the aforementioned Ruslan Restaurant. The latter – a so-called deadly dessert – is a delightfully chill bowl of shaved ice, yogurt, and sugar syrup that really hits the spot on a stinking hot day.

big plate chicken
The aptly named ‘Big Plate Chicken’ is a delicious Uighur specialty

I’ll do a separate entry on the foods of Xinjiang, but suffice to say – there was something there even for a picky bastard like myself.

The Desert

I have an enduring fascination with deserts. Having lived in the Australian outback on two separate occasions and seen first hand just how danger and beauty can be so intrinsically linked – I’ve long wanted to explore deserts abroad. The Taklimakan Desert, sometimes known as the Desert of Death, is a vast expanse of shifting dunes that dominates over 337,000 square kilometres of western Xinjiang.

Taklamakan Desert
Battered works on the fringe of the Taklamakan Desert (Desert of Death)

While it’s possible to take buses or trains that traverse the entire desert, day trips to the very borders of the desert offer some insight into just how tough the traders on the Silk Road had to be. With its shifting sands and hostile wildlife, it’s not hard to envisage just how good one of the oasis towns must have looked when they came into view.

It’s not quite the Sahara, but if you’re at all interested in deserts or desert life, the Taklamakan is a great option. And it should garner you mad cool points to say you camped a night in a placed labelled the Desert of Death, right?

The Mountains

While the desert was beautiful, it’s the mountainous terrain that really drew me to Xinjiang. Coming from the flattest continent in the world, the very idea of mountains is an alien one to me. Australia’s Mount Kosciuszko is a paltry 2,228m above sea level – placing it some 800m lower than Tashkorgan and close to 5,000 meters lower than K2 in the province’s far south.

Mountains behind the Stone Fort
Mountains loom over Tashkurgan’s Stone Fort in far west Xinjiang, China

And while my brush with altitude sickness was far from pleasant, I can say that the nausea and headaches were worth the stunning mountain views I was able to witness. The drive along the Karakoram Highway is laden with breath-taking vistas to take in, and my poor Canon earned its keep (and burned through three sets of cheap Chinese batteries) in attempting to take it all in.

The option is there to climb a lot of the mountains and I’m told areas of Xinjiang are popular for skiing and other winter sports, but simply seeing them was a real pleasure and totally worth the experience.

But wait, there’s more!

This is the first of an envisaged nine part series on my experiences in Xinjiang. I’ve got more focused entries on Kashgar, Tashkurgan, Urumqi, the Karakorum Highway, Yarkand and the Taklimakan Desert, Xinjiang food, Xinjiang sights I’ve yet to see, and Xinjiang’s burgeoning bazaar culture to come. Brace yourselves!


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