Sprawling across China’s far western expanse, Xinjiang despite being China’s largest province is also the most unexplored! This is where the Middle East meets China and with stunning results in food, culture, language and people. For those who want to explore China, Xinjiang should definitely be on your Asia bucket list. Here’s what to expect when you make your way to China’s “New Frontier”.
No permit needed!
So, unlike Tibet, you don’t need a travel permit to go to Xinjiang and you can freely catch transport from anywhere in China over to the far west. However, do remember travel in the far west is not like the rest of China, with security being much more strict across the entire province. Always have your passport on you when walking around as police will most likely ask to see your visa. They are looking to see that you don’t have a journalist visa as they are not welcome in this part of China.
You can’t stay in every town
As some of you might know, China has a rule that says hotels must have a special permit to be able to host foreign customers. In Xinjiang, there are some small towns such as Yarkand (this may have changed), which have tourist sites but no legal hotel for foreigners to stay in. To avoid being stuck and having a run-inwith the police (which would be a red tape nightmare) plan ahead or go with a tour group such as Young Pioneer Tours, who run a tour through Xinjiang every year.
Not everyone will speak Mandarin
China is made up of many different races, speaking many languages. Xinjiang is one of the special places in China where not everyone has picked up Mandarin as a universal means of communication. In the predominantly Han Chinese areas such as Urumqi, Mandarin speakers will have no issue at all. In smaller, particularly southern and Uighur-dominated areas many people only know some basic words and sometimes nothing at all. Instead, they speak, (you guessed it!) Uighur! It is a Turkic-based language similar to Uzbek and Kazakh with some Arabic words chucked in for good measure! Did someone say Salam?
Fun fact: the “Arabic-looking” script found on Chinese money is the Uighur language. The others are Mongol, Tibetan, Mandarin, Pinyin (Latin script for Chinese) and Zhuang.
Is it in a different time zone?
So, this will be the most confusing thing about travel Xinjiang. The whole of the People’s Republic of China uses Beijing Standard Time (BJS) which is GMT+8. Xinjiang, however, technically sits in a time zone that should be 2 hours different to BJS or GMT +6 (the same as Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian countries). How does this work? Well, there is local time and Beijing time. Most things will run on local time (2 hours behind Beijing). This means if you get up at 7am (5am local time) to go searching for some street breakfast food, not only will it most likely be dark, but nothing will be open. Head out at 10am (or 8am local time) and you will find the streets have come alive despite the time being closer to lunch than breakfast.
Be prepared for to be security checked to death
While travel in Xinjiang is extremely rewarding it can also be extremely frustrating, especially if you’re doing it solo (we absolutely recommend coming in a group). Checkpoints are placed throughout the cities going in and out of different districts, between towns and cities and even in the middle of the desert. Be expected to go through a checkpoint every hour or two hours. Have your passport ready and don’t try and skip passed the police as they take security extremely seriously here due to certain spouts of protest that have turned violent in the past.
Where should you go?
There are some absolute must-visit places in Xinjiang. Kashgar, the heart of Uighur country is a great starting point and is an absolute cultural mish-mash of east and west. Amazing food and great markets with many many years of history make Kashgar unmissable for any itinerary.
Kuche in the north has some great historical sites and some dramatic scenery. Explore the back streets of this sleepy little town and you will be pleasantly surprised by how friendly the locals are!
Turpan, known as China’s “Death Valley” is both China’s lowest and hottest place. Turpan hosts some amazing sites such as the flaming mountains and many ruins some of which are thousands of years old. Located a stones-throw from Urumqi, Turpan is essential!
These are just three of the main sites that we recommend visiting in Xinjiang.
If you would like to join YPT on our Xinjiang adventure contact us here or check out our Xinjiang itinerary online!
You can even make this a part of a larger silk road trip taking you through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan!