Xinjiang Uyghur is a self governing region in China. Hence it is referred to as the Autonomous region of China. Xinjiang covers a large area that makes up approximately one sixth of the total geographical area of China’s territory. The area, despite its vastness the population of the region is relatively sparse. Xinjiang shares its southern borders with the Tibet Autonomous Region, the borders on the south east with the Qinghai and Gansu province, the border on the east with Mongolia , while Russia lies to the other side of the border on the north and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and India are on the western border. The region of Aksai Chin over which the nation of India claims sovereignty is administered by the region of Xinjiang.
Xinjiang (officially Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region; Uyghur： شىنجاڭ ; Chinese： 新疆维吾尔自治区 Xīnjiāng wéiwú’ěr zìzhìqū) is located in the North West of China, in the Mongolian Uplands. It is on the traditional Silk Road. The region has historically been populated by the Uighurs, a Muslim people more closely related to those in Central Asia than to the Han; however, in recent decades, the Chinese government has given money to attract Han to move to the region. Today the Han form the majority of the population in the north while the west remains dominated by Islamic minority culture. Mandarin has become the primary language used in most major cities (although Uighur is still an official language in the region). This has resulted in ethnic and religious clashes and tension in the area, and an active Uyghur independence movement.
Table of Contents
- Urumqi – the capital
- Cherchen (also known as Qiemo)
- Kashgar (Kashi)
- Khotan (also known as Hotan)
- Yarkand (also known as Shache)
- Hanas National Nature Reserve
- Karakul Lake
- Sayram Lake
- Tianshan Tianchi National Park
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.
The province is largely populated by mainland ethnic minority groups, such as the Mongols, Kazaks, Kyrgyzs and Uyghurs. 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% Uighur 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 with little intermingling. This division extends even to the time zone; ethnic Han use Beijing time (GMT +8) as a symbol of solidarity with Beijing, while ethnic Uyghurs use GMT +6 as a symbol of defiance against Beijing.
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 flattened in favour of Chinese-style streets typical of any other city in China.
In 2018, in reaction to a series of bombings and other violent acts by Islamist opponents of Chinese rule, the Chinese authorities have cracked down on the observance of Islam in Xinjiang, including by attempting to prevent Muslims from fasting during Travelling during Ramadan, and by forcing them to drink alcohol and eat pork. In 2018, the government banned children under the age of 16 from entering mosques or engaging in any other form of religious activity. Large detention camps have been built and numerous Uyghurs have been detained.
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.
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. Other languages include Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Mongolian, and Xibe (mutually intelligible with Manchu).
Get in to Xinjiang
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, Kiev 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.
Get around in Xinjiang
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 in 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.
Tours and excursions in Xinjiang
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 Uighur culture in Kashgar; enjoy amazing scenery of snow capped mountains on the Karakoram Highway; camel trekking into the desert near Hotan and live with nomadic people on the grassland in North Xinjiang