Xinjiang (Uyghur: شىنجاڭ, Shinjiang ; Mandarin: 新疆, Xīnjiāng), officially known as the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, is an autonomous region located in the North West of China. The region is the main home of China's ethnic Uyghur population, is the largest province in China, and shares borders with Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and the disputed Kashmir territory, effectively making Xinjiang a strategic gateway to Central Asia and South Asia.
Since Xinjiang's incorporation into China, the region has had a particularly turbulent history and since then, the region has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Putting the negative publicity aside, travel provides one the opportunity to explore and experience a culturally unique area in China, one that is predominantly Turkic-speaking and one where Islam is the main and dominant religion.
Xinjiang is often overlooked, but the region has a great number of tourist and travel opportunities. It is a popular destination for domestic Chinese tourists, who come here to experience the vastly different culture from their hometowns in the Han Chinese heartland. Ethnic Uyghurs place a strong emphasis on the Islamic tradition of hospitality, which is why you, as a tourist, may be showered with a lot of care and hospitality.
Also known as 北疆 in Chinese (lit. Northern Xinjiang), today predominantly Han Chinese, but historically a diverse region dominated by minority ethnic groups like the Kazakhs and Mongols
Also known as 南疆 in Chinese (lit. Southern Xinjiang), the traditional Uyghur homeland, and still predominantly Uyghur
- 1 Urumqi (also known as Wulumuqi) — the capital city and starting point for most travel in Xinjiang
- 2 Aletai — part of the Yili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture and the starting point for most travel in Northern Xinjiang
- 3 Cherchen (also known as Qiemo)
- 4 Hami — known for its melons
- 5 Kashgar (Kashi) — a predominantly Uyghur city and the cultural center of Xinjiang
- 6 Khotan (also known as Hotan or Hetian)
- 7 Turpan — a predominantly Uyghur city, known for the Emin Mosque and its iconic minaret, and for being China's main centre of raisin production
- 8 Yarkand (also known as Shache)
Politics and governmentEdit
Xinjiang is officially known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Mandarin: 新疆维吾尔自治区, Xīnjiāng Wéiwú'ěr Zìzhìqū; Uyghur: شىنجاڭ ئۇيغۇر ئاپتونوم رايونى, Shinjang Uyghur Aptonom Rayoni). It is one of five autonomous regions within the People's Republic of China.
Under Chinese law, autonomous regions are entitled to more rights and privileges — such as, but not limited to implementing their own economic policies and declaring additional official languages — but they have no legal right to secede.
Xinjiang is a melting pot of different cultures, with Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Han Chinese being the largest ethnic groups in the region. Xinjiang is one area where Han Chinese are a minority.
Uyghurs are the largest ethnic group in the region and make up 40-50% of the population in the region. Most Uyghurs live in Eastern and Southern Xinjiang and form the majority in cities such as Khotan and Kashgar. The vast majority of Uyghurs are Sunni Muslims.
Han Chinese are the second largest ethnic group in the region and make up 30-40% of the population in the region. When Xinjiang was formally incorporated into China, many Han Chinese were encouraged by the government to migrate to Xinjiang in search of better economic opportunities.
Kazakhs are the third largest ethnic group in the region and make up 6-10% of the population in the region. Most Kazakhs live in Northern Xinjiang and form the majority in cities such as Aletai. Kazakhs are one of fifty-six ethnic groups recognised by the Chinese government and virtually all Kazakhs are Sunni Muslims. The traditional Kazakh nomadic way of life, which has all but disappeared in Kazakhstan, is still preserved by some of the Kazakhs in Xinjiang.
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, which is also the name used by Uyghur independence activists. 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 officially 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 ethnic minority groups, such as the Hui, Mongols, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Tatars, Uyghurs and "Tajiks". Despite the official name, the Tajiks of Xinjiang are not the same ethnic group as the Tajiks of Tajikistan, though their languages are in the same language family as Persian. 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. Buddhism is also practised in Xinjiang, with the ethnic Mongol minority mostly being followers of Tibetan Buddhism.
Today Xinjiang is seen as a key part of China's Belt and Road initiative, and also known for its vast hydrocarbon reserves. 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 Uyghur Islamist 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. The governments of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and numerous other Western countries have formally declared the crackdown a genocide, though the Chinese government denies this and instead claims that it is a vocational training programme whose aim is to de-radicalise Islamist extremists.
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.
Xinjiang also administers the Trans-Karakoram Tract and Aksai Chin Plateau, which while controlled by China are also claimed by India.
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.
Kazakh is an official language in Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture in the northernmost part of the province, which is sandwiched between Kazakhstan and Mongolia. Unlike in Kazakhstan, which uses the Cyrillic alphabet, Kazakh is written using the Arabic script in China.
Other languages include Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Mongolian, and Xibe (mutually intelligible with Manchu). Some of these languages are co-official with Uyghur and Mandarin in certain specific counties and prefectures. Traditionally, Uyghur has been a lingua franca among the diverse ethnic groups of the region, but that role is increasingly filled by Mandarin.
- See also: China#Get_in
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, Kyiv 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 of 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.
Xinjiang is a very diverse province, and there are many opportunities for visitors to experience various minority cultures while travelling around. The Uyghurs are a sedentary Turkic ethnic group, and traditional Uyghur old towns are still well-preserved in the Uyghur-majority cities in like Kashgar, Khotan, Yarkand and Turpan. In the north, many of the ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz still retain their traditional nomadic lifestyles, and you can often see Kazakh and Kyrgyz herders and their yurts in the wide open spaces between towns and villages. The Kazakhs and Kyrgyz also have a tradition of hunting with eagles that you might be able to catch if you are lucky.
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.
Xinjiang is famous for Uyghur carpets, most notably the cities of Kashgar, Yarkand and Khotan. In northern Xinjiang, the ethnic Kazakhs also have their own distinctive carpet weaving tradition, which is shared with their counterparts in Kazakhstan.
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, same as in many other places all over China, 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 be 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 hold at least a 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.
If you plan on staying for long in China, you can even pay a visit to Tibet (provided you have a visitor's permit).
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 groups together the Mongols, Manchus, Koreans, Japanese and Turkic peoples.
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 than is 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.