Xinjiang (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 recent decades, the Chinese government has given money to attract Han to move to the region. Today the Han form the majority of the population in the north while the west remains dominated by Islamic minority culture. 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 province is largely populated by mainland ethnic minority groups, such as the Mongols, Kazaks, Kyrgyzs 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 with little intermingling. This division extends even to the time zone; ethnic Han use Beijing time (GMT +8) as a symbol of solidarity with Beijing, while ethnic Uyghurs use GMT +6 as a symbol of defiance against Beijing.
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 flattened in favour of Chinese-style streets typical of any other city in China.
In 2018, in reaction to a series of bombings and other violent acts by Islamist opponents of Chinese rule, the Chinese authorities have cracked down on the observance of Islam in Xinjiang, including by attempting to prevent Muslims from fasting during Ramadan, and by forcing them to drink alcohol and eat pork. In 2018, the government banned children under the age of 16 from entering mosques or engaging in any other form of religious activity. 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. Other languages include Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Mongolian, and Xibe (mutually intelligible with Manchu).
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 Uighur culture in Kashgar; enjoy amazing scenery of snow capped mountains on the Karakoram Highway; camel trekking into the desert near Hotan and live with nomadic people on the grassland in North Xinjiang.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.