Xinjiang [dead link] (officially Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region; Uyghur: شىنجاڭ ; Chinese: 新疆维吾尔自治区 Xīnjiāng wéiwú'ěr zìzhìqū) is located in the North West of China, in the Mongolian Uplands. It is on the traditional Silk Road. The region has historically been populated by the Uyghurs, a Muslim people more closely related to those in Central Asia than to the Han; however, in the 20th century, there was significant Han migration into Xinjiang. Today the Han form the majority of the population in the north while the south and west remains dominated by Uyghurs and other Muslim minority cultures. Mandarin has become the primary language used in most major cities (although Uyghur is still an official language in the region). This has resulted in ethnic and religious clashes and tension in the area, and an active Uyghur independence movement.
Starting around 2017, the Chinese government has clamped down severely in the region, subjecting it to extreme forms of digital surveillance and arresting an estimated hundreds of thousands of people for religious and ethnic activities.
The northwestern border region of Xinjiang, is lauded variously as a land of song and dance, melons and fruits, precious stones and carpets. Xinjiang was a key link on the Silk Road and a hub for east-west cultural exchanges in ancient times. The local folklore is rich and varied. The historical name of the region is East Turkestan. The region has passed between the control of various empires throughout its history—the Xiongnu early on, the Chinese Han (206 B.C. to A.D. 220) and Tang (618-908) dynasties, the Tibetan Empire, the Eastern Turkic Khaganate, the Uyghur Khaganate, the Mongol Empire (1206–1687), the Dzungar Khanate, and several other kingdoms in between. It came under Chinese control again after being conquered by the Qing Dynasty during the reign of Emperor Qianlong in 1755.
Following the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, it became part of the Republic of China, but had to deal with infighting among numerous Uyghur subgroups, as well as multiple independence movements. These were all defeated by the Han Chinese warlord Sheng Shicai, who controlled much of the area for the latter part of the Republic of China era. The northern parts of Xinjiang would later declare independence as the East Turkestan Republic with Soviet support in 1944. Chinese government control would only be re-established following the commmunist victory and establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949.
Like other parts of China, Xinjiang suffered greatly during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when religion and traditional culture were targeted for extermination and banned. As a result of this policy, all mosques were closed, and the local religious leaders were imprisoned. As part of the Cultural Revolution, many of the "bourgeoisie" were forcibly relocated and sent to perform manual labor in rural areas, resulting in a large number of Han Chinese being forcibly relocated from the eastern provinces to Xinjiang. Following Mao Zedong's death in 1976, and Deng Xiaoping's rise to power in 1978, as part of Deng's reforms, restrictions on religion were relaxed, the mosques were reopened, and traditional culture was allowed to come back. The Han Chinese who were forcibly relocated were allowed to return home, though many chose to stay and settle in Xinjiang.
The province is largely populated by mainland ethnic minority groups, such as the Hui, Mongols, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz and Uyghurs. Like Tibet, the demographic composition of the province has shifted over the past few decades. In 1949, Xinjiang's population was approximately 85% Uyghur and 8% Han Chinese; today it is about 45% Uyghur and 40% Han Chinese. This influx of Han Chinese has led to ethnic tension in the region that every few years culminates in violence, and there is an active independence movement among the ethnic Uyghurs. While you travel, you may take note of the fact that almost all cities with major Han and Uyghur populations are segregated into distinct districts. This division extends even to the time zone; while the official time zone is Beijing time (GMT +8), some ethnic Uyghurs use GMT +6 as a symbol of defiance against Beijing.
Traditionally, most of the ethnic groups in Xinjiang had been adherents of Sufi Islam, most of them being Sunni Muslims, but with a Shia minority. Attitudes toward alcohol have traditionally been more liberal in Xinjiang than in other Muslim societies, and there is a long tradition of winemaking among the Uyghurs. Saudi-style Wahhabi Islam has been making inroads since the 1990s, though this interpretation of Islam is controversial among Chinese Muslims.
Already Kashgar is feeling the effects of the railway line completed in 1997. This town at the centre of the Silk Road is seeing its winding mud brick streets becoming gradually widened, and its traditional buildings being modernised.
In 2018, in reaction to a series of violent attacks by Xinjiang separatists, the Chinese authorities have cracked down on local activities and religious practices. Large detention camps have been built and numerous Uyghurs have been detained.
Recommended reading for those interested includes Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang by James Millward and The Mummies of Urumqi by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. Most great game literature also covers aspects of Xinjiang's history. Blogs covering current events in Xinjiang include the New Dominion, the Opposite End of China, and Far West China.
As everywhere in China, the official language is Mandarin. However, many other languages are spoken in Xinjiang. The most common is Uyghur, a Turkic language similar to Uzbek but written in Arabic script, which is co-official with Mandarin within the region. Most government signage is bilingual in Uyghur and Chinese. There are also several Uyghur television channels, and Uyghur-owned restaurants usually have bilingual menus.
Other languages include Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Mongolian, and Xibe (mutually intelligible with Manchu). Traditionally, Uyghur has been a lingua franca among the diverse ethnic groups of the region, but that role is increasingly filled by Mandarin.
More than 50 cities in China have domestic direct flights to Xinjiang's provincial capital Urumqi, as have 14 cities internationally: Almaty, Moscow, Novosibirsk, Bishkek, Osh, Tashkent, Dushanbe, Istanbul, Baku, Dubai, Islamabad, Kabul, Kiev and Tbilisi. There are direct flights from Urumqi to prefectural centres like Kashgar, Khotan, Aksu, Koerla, Karamay, Altay, Yining (ghulja), Tacheng(chochak) and Hami(kumul).
Xinjiang is connected with the rest of China by Lanxin railway. Direct train runs from Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and most other cities. A trip from Beijing to Urumqi is scheduled to take slightly over 33 hours. There are also two international trains weekly to Kazakhstan.
Xinjiang is the biggest province in China. If you have more money than time, considering taking a flight between cities such as Urumqi and Kashgar might be a better option than the 22-hour train ride.
In most cities in Xinjiang there are shared taxi/minibuses that travel between cities. It is especially useful if you want to travel to smaller ones, visit a sight nearby, or go to border towns. Since they are public the price is often much less than taking a taxi by yourself. There will be a time printed on your ticket but they usually leave before if the car is full. You can find them at the intercity bus station, 客运站 (Keyunzhan), make sure to bring your passport.
During the Han and Tang dynasties, silk products and other goods were shipped to the capital city of Chang'an (present-day Xi'an), where the Silk Road started, and then they were transferred by a constant flow of caravans along the Hexi Corridor to Europe by way of Xinjiang, where three routes were used to avoid the Taklimakan Desert
You can visit the best preserved ancient city Ruins around Turpan; study Uyghur culture and language in Kashgar; enjoy amazing scenery of snow capped mountains on the Karakoram Highway; camel trekking into the desert near Khotan and live with nomadic people on the grassland in North Xinjiang.
At the risk of stating the obvious, Xinjiang is an excellent place to try Uyghur cuisine, which bears more similarities to Central Asian and Middle Eastern cuisines than to Han Chinese cuisine.
Lamb. Barbecued, grilled, fried, boiled, you name it, they eat it. Try it in Kǎo bāozi (烤包子), on a shish kabob called chuànr (串) or in certain places stuffed into naan called ròunáng (肉馕).
Naan. Náng (馕) in Mandarin. Comes in all sizes and will be sold on the street in every city - some plain, some with onion or spring onion added in. You can also ask them to warm it for you it has gone cold (if your Mandarin is rusty, gesture at the oven - it is much better warm).
Yoghurt is popular among the Uyghurs.
Watermelons. Ubiquitous small round tasty watermelons, in some cities at every second street-corner. Renowned throughout all of China.
Grapes & raisins. Particularly sweet because of the high amount of sunlight and low amount of water where they're grown, particularly in Turpan.
Walnuts, for which the region is known.
Melons. The city of Hami is famous among the Chinese for is Hami melons.
Wusu beer. Probably only 4% Chinese beer, produced in Wusu city, Xinjiang. Red Wine. In a region known for grapes, you can also find some OK wine. At least, it is much, much better than the Great Wall wine found elsewhere in China - though not quite up to international standards. If you spend more than ¥50 you should get something that's better than red water. The traditional Uyghur winemaking method continues to survive in the region around Kashgar.
In Xinjiang foreigners are only allowed to stay at certain hotels/hostels that have a licence for hosting foreigners. When booking online many will therefore write that you are required to have a Mainland Chinese ID-card to do so, if you are uncertain it might be wise to contact the place and ask first. In smaller cities such as Yining there are no hostels and only a handful mid-range hotels are available. As a tourist you are not allowed to stay in residential areas either, so have that in mind if you plan on couchsurfing or similar.
With an active and sometimes violent independence movement, Xinjiang has a reputation for being dangerous. The early 2010s saw high-profile bombings and attacks. The subsequent government crackdown is credited with reducing the risk of violence, though concerns about security remain.
Since 2014, China has effectively turned Xinjiang into a digital police state, layering the region with facial-recognition cameras, checkpoints, armored security, and police stations every several hundred meters in city centers. If you are considered a person of interest, such as a journalist, diplomat, or NGO worker, there is a high chance you will by followed by undercover police officers 24 hours a day. Calls and messages are monitored, cars and taxis are tracked by police, and discussing anything sensitive with locals could result in extremely dire consequences for them, including arrest and detention in a sprawling network of internment camps that outside groups estimate to hold up to one million people.
Xinjiang is home to a lively bazaar culture where anything and everything is traded. But hordes of people crammed into confined spaces also present a prime opportunity for pickpockets, who often operate in teams and can be very efficient at what they do. Be very careful with your valuables when you are out and about. As a foreign traveller, you are a prime target.
Be careful when paying with ¥100 notes in smaller restaurants or shops. The owner may switch the note with a counterfeit one and claim that you gave him/her a fake note. You should also check your notes when you are returned your hotel deposit.
Xinjiang borders eight countries, making it ideal for exploring the surrounding countries. Korgas and Alashankou lead to Kazakhstan, the Torugart and Irkeshtam passes lead to Kyrgyzstan, the Kulma pass leads to Tajikistan, and the Karakorum Highway leads south to Pakistan (which is closed). You can get visas for Kazakstan and Kyrgystan in Urumqi.
To/from Mongolia, Hovd Province.
Takeshiken (塔克什肯镇) – Bulgan border crossing
This border crossing links the western Mongolian province of Hovd with the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (新疆维吾尔族自治区) in the far west of China. This crossing is less frequented by all kinds of travelers, although it’s gaining more popularity owing to its geographical and cultural location.
It traverses the ever impressive Altai Mountains, a cordillera that gives name to the (rather disputed) ethno-linguistic group, the Altaic people. It is a broad term that frames together the Mongolian, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Turks.
From China (Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region):
Buses leave daily from Urumqi to Qinghe county (青河县), a small town 150 km from Takeshiken and it takes 8 hours during the day, at night 11 hours – 160 rmb (Takeshiken is administratively a part of Aletai Prefecture (阿勒泰市), Qinghe County). Then it’s 15 km more to reach the border, should be a quick ¥15 cab. After the border, a ride to Bulgan shoud be easy to find.
Start from the aimag (province) capital of Hovd. Go to the bazaar or market and see whose van is taking people to the town of Bulgan. Price is 25,000 Mongolian togrog per person and journey time is around 5 hours. Much less then what it’s mentioned in other online sources, due to a new paved road that has been built (by the Chinese). It is still another few kilometers to get to the actual border crossing so ask the same driver that took you here or somebody else in town take you there. It’s another 5000 togrog to get there.
There is a town half way to the border, called Jargalant. Beware if you get stuck here, there are a million mosquitoes waiting to suck your blood and it’s quite an unpleasant experience. Prepare repellants.