Note: This is a personal account of our travel, it only reflects our own experiences and does not judge the political situation in Xinjiang or the reasons and policies that have led to the current state of affairs.
We entered China with a sense of relief.
After months of traveling through Iran and Central Asia, communicating with broken English, non-existent Russian and hands and feet, coming to China felt like going home for Christmas. We would be able to properly talk to people, there would be real trains again (instead of bumpy bus rides) and everything was supposed to be easier. Except it wasn’t in the beginning!
We were particularly excited because we would enter China through the West, the vast Autonomous Region of Xinjiang. Even Kevin who has traveled China many times has never ventured so far out. We were expecting a Silk Road/Central Asia feeling, of course unique with a Chinese influence, natural wonders and amazing food. And for the most part, we definitely got to experience those. But we also had some of our most frustrating moments (and we were not the only ones) while traveling through Xinjiang including an insane privacy intrusion by public authorities (more on that later on).
Kashgar during the 19th Party Congress
Entering the country from the West, the first obligatory stop in China is Kashgar, an ancient city that was once a major trading center along the Silk Road. Our romantic hopes about Kashgar being a pleasant city were already confronted with reality when we had to cross a dozen checkpoints just to get into the city (more details here). But it seems like this would be the least of security measures we would get over the next few days.
Truth to be told, we entered Xinjiang with an awkward timing: It was exactly the time during the 19th Congress of the Communist Party in China (CCP), the most important political event in the whole nation and obviously the government used every card in its pocket to ensure a smooth event. And Xinjiang has a history of being an unsmooth region: As mentioned, we have no idea about the complex history in Xinjiang to pass any judgment, but the root of most issues seems to be the fact that half of Xinjiang’s population is Uighur, an ethnic minority in China who have their own Turkish language and are mostly practicing Muslims. in 2009, there was severe violence in Urumqi (the capital of Xinjiang) between Han Chinese and Uighurs, followed by terrorist attacks and more violence in 2014. There are some separatist energies in the province.
With that in mind, we checked into the Pamir Youth Hostel (the only decent accommodation option in the city) and were greeted by Jan, a cyclist we have first met in Tehran and then again randomly in Murghab on the Pamir Highway. What a surprise! It turned out that Jan wanted to cross to Pakistan through the Karakoram Highway, but the Chinese border to Pakistan was closed due to the National Congress and so he has been stuck in Kashgar for a couple of days and gave us a heads-up of what we had to expect.
The most obvious thing we immediately noticed were police sirens. So Kashgar has a police station about every fifty-meters or so and in between those fifty meters, there were police cars patrolling. And during the entire congress, every police station and every police car and every police motorbike had its sirens turned on. The never-ending weeeoooooweeeeooooweee nearly drove us mad.
On the next day, when we headed to some street-food stalls (with some really amazing food!) we were greeted by an entire battalion of soldiers parading through the streets, with weapons and armoured cars. On the sidewalks, civilians had apparently formed a militia with sticks and were equally patrolling. During our days in Kashgar, a lot of the shops were closed down or only opened their doors when you specifically knocked, so the otherwise charming city had a little sad feeling hung over it. This was a pity, because the old town of Kashgar with its mosques and small artisan boutiques looked as amazing as any city we have seen in Uzbekistan. With not much to do in Kashgar, we decided to head down the Karakoram Highway and then as fast as possible travel on to Urumqi.
Travel annoyances of Urumqi
Even before we got to Urumqi, we were encountering a whole number of problems. First of all, it was not very easy to get decent accommodation in the city because apparently, almost all hostels could not accept foreign travelers (a.k.a laowais). One hostel we called literally told us that during the Party Congress, they could not even accept ethnic minority visitors. In the end however, we got lucky and got accepted at the Fanchen hostel, which turned out to be the best hostel in Urumqi in any case (and probably one of the best hostels we had in China) with incredibly low rates and very creative design as well as helpful staff.
The train ride in and out of Urumqi were equally mindboggling. Train stations all over Xinjiang have a triple(!) security check, first before you enter the station, then to enter the station and then to board the train. You have to arrive two hours before a train’s departure to be able to safely assume you are going to make it. Airport security is nothing compared to this. Traveling from Kashgar to Urumqi, Nicole had a near nervous breakdown because the security officers wanted to take away her small Swiss army knife, as in Xinjiang, nothing would be allowed, no matter how small the blade. After a lengthy lecture by the police officer, we finally persuaded him to let us board the train with the knife tied up.
But we were not so lucky in Urumqi. Again, at the second security check, we got dragged out because of our camping knives. Kevin fell victim first and in his case, the police went even further. They claimed that Kevin’s camping knife was a “regulated” knife, meaning probably that even walking around with it was an offence. The police officer “persuaded” Kevin to voluntarily give up the knife while another officer added that if Kevin didn’t have a foreign passport, they would probably take him into custody. This seems slightly excessive really. It’s not like we were walking around with an automatic rifle.
Nicole also got dragged out and again, her knife was to be confiscated. While we were already despairing, another train station officer came to us and asked what was wrong. We described the situation and she offered to take the knife and then mail it to another address in China! Wow, there are really nice people in Urumqi! So we gave her the knife, but to no avail. As it turns out, you cannot post a knife from Xinjiang to anywhere in China (which does not make sense if you want to prevent knife attacks in Xinjiang). We are not sure, but it seems that the only way to transport a knife out of Xinjiang is by flying with checked-in baggage.
Already really irritated by the entire situation, we boarded the train and there, the weirdest thing happened. Shortly after the train started, we were confronted by two police officers who conducted an interview with both of us for a registration, which was apparently mandatory for foreigners and ethnic minorities in Xinjiang traveling in trains. This was extremely upsetting because although the questions were quite standard (name, address, occupation etc.) it felt absolutely discriminating.
But the real highlight happened near the end of the interviews where the officers asked to check our phones. They connected the phones to their tablet and asked us to give the tablet access to our phones to check if we had terror related material on our phones. Like what the hell? So Xinjiang police just walks around and checks phones because foreigners cannot be trusted? In any case, they couldn’t gain access to our phones because Kevin had an iPhone which are apparently naturally harder to break and Nicole’s Android was foreign produced and also harder to access. In the end, they were satisfied by taking our phones’ IMEI (a unique identification code which allows you to track the location of a phone).
Seriously, a lot of the countries we have traveled through cannot be described as “liberal” according to European standards (think Iran, Uzbekistan), but Xinjiang definitely took it to an entirely other level (note that this doesn’t apply to the rest of China). Don’t get us wrong, we still love China and have detailed our love for this country here and here and here. China is one of the oldest civilizations on Earth, it definitely has the best food on the planet and visiting Kevin’s family in Yichang and Beijing was one of our absolute highlights in the last month. And even in Xinjiang, we had great moments, for instance hiking the stunning Tian Shan mountains.
Tianchi and Mount Bogda (or the reason we might eventually go back to Xinjiang)
One might imagine that the amount of regulatory interference basically turns Urumqi into a dystopian city and that’s probably about right. But Urumqi is also a good base to explore some serious hiking opportunities in Chinese Tian Shan. The most famous of the peaks around Urumqi is Mount Bogda and we found some diffuse information about the possibility to do multi-day treks in the region, passing by the base camp and some glaciers. We even talked to the Xinjiang Mountaineering Association and a local tour guide, but the prices, even after we cut the camels (just why?) and offered we could cook our own food, were quite expensive. But this is definitely something we want to get back to, as with more people, obviously the cost decreases.
So we were stuck with the “normal” more touristy version, Tianchi lake. It’s the most famous alpine lake in the Chinese Tian Shan and fully developed, with shuttle buses, temples, boats and soon probably cable cars (and therefore extremely expensive). Still, the experience was amazing! Most people stay on the wooden paths around the lake, soaking in the natural beauty of the lake, but our plan was to keep hiking on from the south shore off the lake into the mountains and to camp there. We were not exactly sure whether you were still allowed to do so during the 19th Party Congress because apparently the Kazakhs normally offering accommodation around the lake were prohibited to do so during the congress. (We have no clue how that is supposed to increase the safety of Xinjiang). However, our contact from the Xinjiang Mountaineering Association had given us green light before.
In any case, the views were amazing and could easily hold up with anything we had seen before in Kyrgyzstan! So once the regulatory frenzy gets better (and the weather gets warmer), we will definitely try to string together some trekking tours through Xinjiang.
Information at a Glance
Transportation: Trains run between Kashgar and Urumqi. Make sure to be at the train station two hours before departure because of insane security checks. From Urumqi, the next destination further east is usually Dunhuang (敦煌). There are no direct trains going there though and you will have to board a train to Liuyuan (柳园).
Accommodation: For Kashgar see here. In Urumqi, try the Fanchen Youth Hostel (凡尘客栈), which offers tatami style doubles starting from RMB 100, has a very relaxed common area and clean facilities. Their laundry service won’t take your underwear and socks though. It’s kind of hard to find the hostel if you don’t speak Mandarin as the front door is permanently shut and you have to enter through a residential area.
written by Kevin and Nicole in Canggu, Bali