What was (and still is) going on in Xinjiang, China? — from a backpacker’s perspective

▮ Jerome Yang / 2019/08/18

A similar post I wrote earlier in Mandarin: 2018年5月,我的「新疆經驗」.

Imagine a place like this: it has unparalleled natural beauty, many splendid snow-capped peaks above 7,000m, breathtaking view of alpine lakes, valleys and desserts, as well as people of great hospitality. But meanwhile, you’re overwhelmingly surveilled by an authoritarian government. You see police around every street corner, and security check (with walk-through metal detector) is necessary when entering a store, a hotel or any public space. When moving from one city to another, you‘re stopped every 30km for a roadside check, and gas stations are fortified with barbed wire and barricades. Last but not least, you’re obligated to let the police install a client to scan the content of your phone, at least once a day.

Yes, such a place does exist on earth, and its name is Xinjiang, China. This is what I experienced there in May 2018, before the re-education camps and other de-extremification initiatives were uncovered by western media.

Horse-drawn carriages are still used near the bazaar in Kuqa

Gaotai residence, a traditional settlement in Kashgar soon to be eliminated

What makes Xinjiang so unique?

The word “Xinjiang” literally means “the new territory”, implying that it’s not part of the “core territory” or “inner land” of Han Chinese (the primary ethnic group of China). Historically, it’s been home to various Turkic-Muslim groups (Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kirghiz), as well as some Mongol and Tajik groups, which are culturally and linguistically connected to Central Asia. If you travel along the Silk Road from Central Asia to Xinjiang, like what I did, you’ll clearly see the cultural continuity between them.

In many ways, Xinjiang is more similar to Central Asia than the Chinese inner land

Is Xinjiang really part of China?

This question cannot be answered without a proper understanding of history.

Prior to 19th century, the concept “Xinjiang” didn’t exist. Today’s Xinjiang was part of the greater Central Asia, made of numerous small Turkic-Muslim nations. During some periods in history, those nations were subject to the Chinese empire while maintaining fairly strong autonomy. They simply paid tribute to China in exchange for recognition of sovereignty, and China had little interest in this remote and unproductive land.

However, the situation changed toward the end of 19th century. The Russian empire expanded into Central Asia and made some Turkic-Muslim nations protectorates. Meanwhile, Turkic nationalism began to rise. The situation forced the Chinese Qing Dynasty to strengthen their control of Central Asia. After several wars and treaties, Russia and China split this region, and the Chinese part of Central Asia was made a province called “Xinjiang” in 1884.

After then, the local Turkic-Muslim powers were gradually removed, although China’s control of Xinjiang was still quite loose prior to 1949. And the Uyghur identity was just about to form — keep in mind that before then they were just a bunch of culturally similar Turkic-Muslim states, not an ethnicity.

The Jiaohe ruin, an abandoned city-state on the ancient Silk Road near Turpan. As part of Central Asia, Xinjiang was made of numerous small nations like this, periodically subject to China.

Night market in Kashgar old town. Without the red lanterns, you probably wouldn’t think this was in China.

The Turkic-Han tension I experienced

Two trends took place in the 20th-century Xinjiang — (1) China constantly gained its control of Xinjiang, by eliminating autonomy and making it more and more like the “inner land” of Han Chinese; (2) the Uyghur identity began to form and flourish. Toward the end of the century, when the Han population in Xinjiang increase from 5% to 40%, it became inevitable for these two forces to collide. Several armed conflicts had taken place in the last decade, including the well-known July 2009 Ürümqi riots, where 200 were dead and 1,500+ were arrested; while it later became a “forbidding topic” under China’s Internet censorship, locals are fully aware and would not avoid talking about them.

On my way down from Tashkurgan, a Tajik-majority county near the China-Pakistan border, I was picked up by a Han gentleman who had moved from a inner land province to Xinjiang for almost 40 years. According to him, the Uyghurs are simply fiery and barbarous:

“… they were deadly aggressive! They went with knives, and killed whoever they saw. A troop sent by the government was even annihilated on the way!”

In his view, while the current overwhelming surveillance was very annoying even for him as a Han Chinese, he still considered it reasonable and necessary:

“It was similarly chaotic in Tibet few years ago! The government had to replace the military leader, with someone who was capable of suppressing the local revolts. Now Tibet is much better… the locals have calmed down, and many young people went to work in factories. Right now the government is doing the same thing in Xinjiang. Hopefully things will get better…”

A Han Chinese gentleman drove me down from Tashkurgan, a very remote county on Karakoram, the major maintain range between China and Pakistan, where the famous k2 is located.

Karakul, the most beautiful and tranquil spot on the Karakoram highway

A snow-capped peak of Karakoram

Discrimination: easier security check for Han Chinese

The first city I stayed in Xinjiang was Kashgar, the major metropolis in southern Xinjiang. I was astonished by how strictly security checks were done there. For example, when I entered the hostel where I stayed, there was a walk-through metal detector, and a female guard was sitting there at all time. This is a scene I had never seen anywhere else in the world, and neither have seen again since that trip. One day later, I was eventually more or less used to that. When I was touring the old town with a Han friend whom I met at the hostel, I was ready to go through the detector, but she stopped me.

“You don’t have to do that.” She said, “they only check the minorities. They don’t do that on Han Chinese”. So we went straight in and skipped the detector, and no police there said anything to us.

At that moment, I suddenly realized the existence of discrimination. While both Han Chinese and other minorities experienced inconvenience, the latter were treated more harshly than the former.

This was again verified when I went up to Tashkurgan. On the way, the bus was stopped almost once every 30km for security check. Right before we finally arrived at the destination, just about 0.5km way, we were stopped again! However, this time the police officer made it very plain: “alright, all the minority folks, please show your IDs!” And as expected, I was completely neglected because of my Han Chinese look.

Bus from Kashgar to Tashkurgan

Bus from Kashgar to Tashkurgan

Tashkurgan is named among the prettiest places of China. But despite its attractiveness, it’s a remote, poor county, and experiencing difficulties as the Chinese government imposed more and more surveillance on minority groups.

Distrust: drink your tea to prove it’s not gasoline!

I had a ver rough night in Aksu, one of the few Han-majority cities in Xinjiang. Since I didn’t plan to spend the night there, I had to find a lodge in the city. At every hotel I checked out, I had to walk through the detector and let the guard check my bad. There was no exception, as every hotel in Xinjiang was obligated to do so.

“What’s this?” A guard looked at the bottle of tea in the package of my backpack and asked.

“Oh, it’s tea!” I didn’t expected it, as it was a very common brand that you can find everywhere in China.

“Is it not gasoline? Drink it now and prove it to me!”

So I did. “What the heck is going on here?” I murmured in my heart. But that was not yet the worst. Only a few hotels in Xinjiang were allowed to take foreign guests, and some even told me that I had to register my name at the police station first. It took me 2 hours and even a visit to a police station to find a lodge for the night. It was post-midnight when I finally settled down that night.

The Han-majority city Aksu. Police was visible in every major intersection in this contemporary metropolis.

While passing security check, I was asked to drink from this bottle, in order to prove it was tea, instead of gasoline.

Hard life, for both Han Chinese and minorities

In another Uyghur city Kuqa, the old town was transformed by the recent security policy. If you have been to Central Asia, you probably know that the old town is a district made of many narrow and curvy side streets, among which you tend to find the most authentic culture of a city. So is the city Kuqa. However, what’s different is, since security check became mandatory, blockage was set at every entrance, and the house closest to the entrance was often turned into a security station. “This is now probably the safest gated community on earth.” I told myself.

Living here was hard, both for Han Chinese and other groups. When I took a shared taxi from Ulugqat to Kashgar, with a Uyghur driver and two other Han passengers, the entire ride was full of complaint. The Uyghur driver complaint how many hassles he had to go through every day, and the two Han Chinese said it was not any better for them. One young man told, if you’re a registered resident of Xinjiang, you’re basically trapped here — it’s very hard to get a permission to travel internationally, nor to relocate to another province of China.

While maintaining strong Turkic atmosphere, Kuqa experienced more changes recently due to the government’s de-extremification effort. The house in the middle was turned into a security check station, and you can see the shields as well as the soldier in helmet in the front.

Kuqa is still a Uyghur-majority city


Back to my time Kashgar. I was fortunate enough to be invited into a local household while strolling through the old town. The family didn’t quite speak Mandarin, but still welcomed us with homemade bread and tea. Just like people in Central Asia, they spent most of their time outside the house, on a platform with a low table and delicate, colorful carpets. We tried to tell them we are from Taiwan, and they still didn’t get it at the end, but the moment of hospitality and friend became the most unforgettable part of my time in Xinjiang.

When would Xinjiang change? When would all the inconvenience and unreasonable suppress end? I don’t know. The only thing I know is, the problems won’t be solved automatically when the Uyghur become more educated, or when Xinjiang gets stabler and wealthier (these are the reasons China uses to justify the re-education camps).

Cultural differences are what makes Xinjiang a great place to visit. As a backpacker, I’d love to see the differences be understood, respected and embraced, rather than suppressed.

A Uyghur boy in Kashgar old town

Turkic architecture is well-preserved in Kashgar old town, but the Uyghur culture is being eroded quickly.

If you’d like to go…

The hardest part is probably to get a visa to China. Particularly if you are visiting the “sensitive regions” including Xinjiang, you may be asked to provide a day-to-day itinerary of the entire trip. But once you get the visa, you shouldn’t run into any problem in Xinjiang, as long as you don’t look like someone of a Turkic ethnicity.

My most recommended cities are: Kashgar, Kuqa and Turpan, all of which are located along the northern rim of the Taklamakan Desert and accessible by train. Tashkurgan, the most beautiful part of my journey in Xinjiang, can be reached from Kashgar by hiring a pick-up track (5 hrs) or taking a bus (6–8 hrs, depending on how many security checks you run into).

Xinjiang is changing and being modernized, while many lasting problems are yet to be solved.