Big trouble in Western China: what it’s really like to travel in Xinjiang
Xinjiang is often billed as an exotic and mysterious part of China. Tourist literature goes heavy on its historical roots as part of the Ancient Silk Road and it was this romanticised rhetoric that we fell for too. In reality, independent travel in Xinjiang is anything but straightforward.
Mountains in Xinjiang, China

ust as we’re finishing our meal of laghman noodles some police officers arrive and, like everyone else in the restaurant, they’re surprised to see us. Great, we think, maybe they can point us in the direction of a hotel for the night. We approach them and ask (via a translation app). One of them makes a phone call and within a few minutes another police officer arrives and gestures for us to go with him in his car.

Great, we think, he’s going to show us where to find a hotel.

We’re wrong. He actually takes us to the police station for questioning.

Welcome to Xinjiang!


Men walk their sheep and cattle home, along a dusty road in Xinjiang, China.
Men walking their animals home in Tashkurgan County.


The mirage of the Ancient Silk Road

Xinjiang is often billed as an exotic and mysterious part of China. Tourist literature goes heavy on its historical roots as part of the Ancient Silk Road and I guess it was this romanticised rhetoric that we fell for too. We embarked on our travels around the region with an element of wide-eyed wonder.

However, any whiff of mystique or charm evaporated as soon as we crossed the border from Mongolia. Three hours spent emptying and repacking our backpacks five times, waiting for officials to trawl through all our electronics and SD cards and then being grilled about what we intended to do with that suspicious can of camping gas took the shine off our initial excitement.

Despite our hopes and enthusiasm for Xinjiang what we experienced was a region on lock-down; where security checkpoints and police stations are easier to find than restaurants and hotels, where an ethnic minority is subject to racial profiling on a daily basis and where the price of accommodation and entrance fees to historical sites are inflated.

As independent travellers this was one of the most challenging places we’ve ever travelled to, so here’s our account of what it’s really like to travel in Xinjiang China.


A man stands with a cow at a livestock market in Kashgar, Xinjiang.
A man and his cow at Kashgar’s Sunday livestock market.


What’s behind the current problems in Xinjiang?

Xinjiang is in the news a lot at the moment because of discriminatory treatment against the Uighur people, a Muslim Turkic ethnic group, who account for around 45% of Xinjiang’s population. The annexation of the region took place in 1950 and since then the relationship between the Uighurs and Beijing has been problematic.

The population of Han Chinese citizens living in the region (they now make up 40%) has been rising steadily, a move encouraged by the Government to help dilute and assimilate the Uighur population.

In recent years tensions have escalated with uprisings and attacks taking place, such as one on a market in Urumqi in 2014 that left 31 people dead. China has since stepped up its efforts to extinguish any opportunity for dissent, some reports have even likened the situation to a Chinese version of apartheid.

A quick Google search throws up plenty of news stories about travel restrictions imposed on the region’s 11 million Uighurs, certain banned Muslim names for Uighur children and DNA samples being collected from citizens.

Even more worrying though are suggestions that thousands of Uighurs are being sent to re-education” camps, which is leading to some families being separated and children ending up in orphanages.

This is the context and climate in which we visited Xinjiang and it’s important to mention because it had a big impact on our time in the region.


Close encounters with the police

Let’s skip back to why we ended up in the police station and what was the first of many encounters with the Police during our month in Xinjiang.

Earlier that day we’d crossed overland from Mongolia and arrived to the border town of Takashiken. Our plan was to get a ride to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, around 6 hours away.

Some locals we met were heading to a town half way to Urumqi and offered us a ride. We figured we’d stay the night in a hotel and finish the journey to Urumqi the next morning. Arriving at the halfway point in the evening, we bid goodbye to our new friends and set off in search of some food. Well, you know what happened next.

In the police station the lack of a common language left us totally confused about what was happening. We waited in someone’s smoke-filled office while ever more police officers gathered around the doorway to peer in at us.


A police man rides a scooter with his daughter in Xinjiang
The streets of Xinjiang are full of police and uniformed citizens.


A few minutes later a mobile phone was thrust towards us, with one of the officers’ English speaking friends on the other end. A ridiculous back-and-forth conversation ensued with the phone switching between us and the officers while the friend on the phone translated.

Why are you here?
How did you get here?
You’re not allowed to stay here.
You must leave the town now.
No, there are no hotels for foreigners here.
Please leave the town…

Two hours later and we still didn’t get to the bottom of why exactly we weren’t allowed to be there, but this was our first indication that in Xinjiang, spontaneous, off-guidebook travel is not straight-forward.

The police wanted us to take a taxi to Urumqi, but the cost to travel 300km at midnight was way out of our budget, so we refused. In the end they decided to try and find someone to drive us to Urumqi, so at 12:30am we and two police officers were standing at a checkpoint by the side of the road.

That’s right, the police were trying to hitch a ride for us.

After 30 minutes of this futile exercise we pleaded with them (again via a translation app) to let us leave. “Pretend we ran away!” we implored them. A defeated nod from one of the duo emboldened us and we grabbed our bags and hurried towards a hotel we’d spotted. We woke up the owners and they gave us a room for the night.

Lesson learned – don’t ask the police for help in Xinjiang.

The next day we made it to Urumqi to discover we’d arrived in the middle of the, week-long, 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. A quinquennial gathering that also happens to be the most important event in Chinese politics. To say that security was tight would be an understatement.

The Great Chinese Firewall had been reinforced with steel. All VPNs and foreign phones were blocked and many of the hostels and hotels available to international visitors were not allowed to host them during the Congress period.


Police stand guard next to a meat stall in Kashgar, Xinjiang.
Police stations are the easiest thing to find in Xinijiang.


Check-point central

Our initial run-in with the police may have been unusual, however, as a foreigner in Xinjiang there are plenty of occasions when engaging with the police or security officials is unavoidable. For example, at train stations.

Urumqi station, involves four separate checkpoints before you can actually get inside; that’s four separate ID/passport checks, bag searches and body scans. We travel with camping equipment, including a swiss army knife and cutlery. On our first journey, after much pleading and explanation, they eventually let us tape up our swiss army knife to take onboard. However on our second and final train journey our cutlery was confiscated. Camping equipment and trains aren’t compatible here.

If you want to visit a park, a restaurant or a bazaar you’ll usually have to pass through a security check point – basically, anywhere there might be a large congregation of people will involve passing a security check. Metal fences and barbed wire are a regular feature of the decor here, making parks and bazaars look more like prison yards.

You’ll never struggle to find a police station here because in most towns and cities there’s one at every intersection. The red and blue flashing lights on the sides of the buildings become a permanent fixture in your peripheral vision.

On an overnight bus journey from Qiemo to Hotan, passing through the vast Taklamakan desert, our bus stopped at more than eight check-points (we stopped counting at eight). Each time we had to leave the bus and present our passports to the police.

Police officers or security officials who can read the Latin Alphabet are rarer than hen’s teeth so we spent ages on translation apps trying to answer questions so they could fill in their registration books. To top it off, a group of bored personnel would often gather around to stare and giggle at us.

By the sixth or seventh stop our patience was wearing thin.

But the temporary hassle for us, is a daily reality for Uighur people. At every stop we had to get off, Uighurs did too, to present their ID cards, pass through a face scanner, a body scanner and occasionally an iris scanner.

Han Chinese passengers on the other hand rarely had to pass through the check-points and could just wait on the bus.


A man walks across a shaft of light in a kitchen in Hotan.
An open kitchen in Hotan.


At times the police were unnecessarily aggressive and hostile towards Uighurs; we saw people shouted at for not standing in line properly or mistakenly joining the wrong line. It often felt like officials were looking for an excuse to show people who was in charge.

A couple of times during our trip we were given rides by some Han Chinese residents and on these occasions we enjoyed the luxury of being waved through the checkpoints. One couple admitted to us that they are rarely asked to stop and show ID.

Hotan was probably the most hostile place we visited in Xinjiang and the site of another run-in with our old friends the police. This time we were leaving the main bazaar when six armed police officers came rushing towards us shouting “Ni-hao!” to get our attention. They surrounded us and began firing questions in Mandarin. In the end they gave up trying to explain what they wanted and let us go.

Police frequently stopped us on the streets, asking us questions in Mandarin, which we could never answer. As our trip went on we played dumb and pretended we didn’t hear them calling after us anymore. We met plenty of other foreigners who were stopped and questioned, or in one case detained, by the police while in Xinjiang too.


A man asleep in a dormitory bed in Xinjiang, China
A dormitory in Korla.


The hotel game

With the exception of Kashgar and Turpan, every town we visited in Xinjiang (seven in total) involved a torturous game of find the “international” hotel. As a general rule of thumb in Xinjiang, any hotel with the word “international” in its name can accept foreign guests. But having tested this theory we can confirm it isn’t 100% foolproof.

Often we wouldn’t even get to set foot inside a place before some over-zealous security guard was frantically waving us away through the window, as if we had the plague. Add to this the problem of trying to read Chinese characters when you don’t know the language and finding hotels here without booking in advance is a headache.

In Hotan, a town with more police stations than we have seen anywhere else in the world, we spent a few hours trying to find a hotel that accepted foreigners.

Tired and defeated we stopped at a coffee shop to plot our next move and ended up chatting to the Han Chinese owners. They didn’t hold out much hope of us finding a hotel that night and offered to let us sleep on the couches in their store. The only condition being that we were discreet, they could get in trouble with the police for letting foreigners stay.

The next morning when we finally found one of Hotan’s illusive “international” hotels the price was way out of our budget. In fact, all accommodation in Xinjiang is much higher than the prices we paid in other parts of China. We also ended up avoiding most regular tourist sights because the entrance fees seemed too high. Even many of the mosques here are paid entry.


A street vendor in Xinjiang, China, wearing a police vest and helmet
A vendor in Hotan wears the mandatory flak jacket and helmet.


Convoys, anti-terror drills and citizens on patrol

At certain times during the day a slow moving convoy of police and military vehicles parade through city centres with sirens blaring. Like a not so gentle reminder to residents that we are here and we are watching you. Sometimes the convoys consisted of just a few police cars and motorbikes and sometimes they involved dozens of fully armoured tanks with machine guns. The personnel in the convoys always looked bored, many of them scrolling through their phones from behind their guns.

In restaurants and at food stalls we got used to the sight of the waiter or waitress arriving to take our order while dressed in a flak jacket and safety helmet. It’s not because the owners are afraid that they might be robbed, but because many restaurants and shops are required to have a part-time police officer on staff.

In the kitchens the knives are chained to the walls, just in case someone decides to grab one and use it as a weapon.

However it was the daily anti-terror drills, not the convoys and combat attire, that intrigued us most.

One afternoon we watched as a police officer walked past a row of shops blowing a whistle, soon after people spilled out of their businesses wearing their flak jackets and helmets and clutching wooden batons.

The officer barked orders at the assembled cast of shopkeepers, waitresses and hotel receptionists and they began thrusting their batons in a set of defensive moves.

We saw the drills being performed across different towns and it was always a bizarre sight to behold. A kind of modern-day China version of Dad’s Army.


Men walking through the streets of Yarkand, Xinjiang
The streets of Yarkand, where a large part of the old town was being demolished.


Don’t talk to the foreigners

On the whole we found it very hard to engage with Uighur people during our travels, they seemed standoffish and a little rude. The reason for this became obvious after an encounter we had in Yarkand, a city in the south west of the region.

A teenage Uighur boy pulled up next to us on his bike “Where are you from?!” he exclaimed. We were stunned because so far no Uighurs had approached us, let alone spoken in English. He was excited to talk to us and practice his English, which he had taught himself. You see, he’s not allowed to learn English at school, Uighur children only learn Mandarin and are not allowed to speak Uighur in school.

I want to travel when I’m older, but it will be difficult because of the travel restrictions for Uighurs.” He explained. “I really want to talk to you more, but people are watching and they might report me. I should go.” He glanced over his shoulder at a woman standing in a doorway across the street. “Can we connect with you on WeChat?” We asked. “I can’t. Being in contact with foreigners might get me in trouble.

It’s ok, we understand. Thanks for stopping and talking to us. Most people don’t.

They are probably afraid to talk to foreigners. My father told me that it wasn’t always like this here. He remembers when people’s doors were always open and then the troubles happened and now all the doors have bars on them.” He lamented before riding away.

To see an intelligent kid like this, fearful of what trouble an innocent conversation could bring and already aware that his future plans may be limited because of his ethnicity was depressing.

We had seen how Uighurs’ phones are scanned and the data downloaded to be analysed by the authorities, so he was wise not to be in touch with us on social media.


A lake along the Karakoram Highway in western Xinjiang.
A lake along the Karakoram Highway in Western Xinjiang.


Is visiting Xinjiang worth the hassle?

The realities of travelling independently in Xinjiang meant that everyday we encountered frustrations or difficulties – far more than we had the space to mention in this piece.

The natural beauty and fascinating history of the region is certainly unique and worth exploring, however with this comes a whole host of issues that tarnished the experience for us.

Also, being tourists in an area where a whole section of society is being suppressed and discriminated against, because of their ethnicity, does not sit comfortably with us.

There were occasions when local people helped us out, with finding hotels, translating for us, explaining where we weren’t allowed to go or giving us car rides. They were always Han Chinese, never Uighur, almost certainly because they didn’t fear recriminations by interacting with us. Their help meant that some days didn’t end in complete disaster and their generosity made a huge difference to our trip.

Perhaps travel in the area would have been easier via a guided tour, where transport and hotels are arranged for you, but for anyone who prefers to travel independently, visiting Xinjiang’s silk road is anything but smooth.


Take a look at our accompanying photo essay to see why we were drawn to this vast region of China.


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Please note: this post is based on our personal opinion after a month of independent travel through Xinjiang. Everyone’s experience will be different, this account is based on ours.

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