By Hannah Zheng
Xinjiang, to me quite literally a new frontier, is a place I’d longed to visit. The largest Chinese administrative division (larger than Tibet, and nearly seven times the size of the U.K.), it sits in the far north west of the country, a melting pot of diverse ethnic groups, languages and customs, bordering such exciting and exotic sounding countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan amongst others. The ancient Silk Road cuts through the centre of the region, for me bringing to mind the most wonderful images of living history, of the centuries old connection between East and West and of the kind of place I’d expect Wilfred Thesiger to have written about.
I convinced my husband that a ten day child-free break would be the ideal opportunity to explore, and to see if we could meet any of the blonde haired, blue eyed Chinese I’d read about shortly after we arrived in Shanghai. I vividly remember the article from Shanghai Daily, describing a group of ethnically Chinese people with rogue Caucasian genes from way back when Marco Polo and countless others were travelling upon the Silk Road. And wow, what a trip! We travelled nearly 2,000 km over those ten days, from the provincial capital Urumqi to Tashkorgan (a stunningly beautiful ancient settlement just over the mountains from Afghanistan, mere metres from Tajikistan and just 100 km from Pakistan), via the ancient Silk Road towns of Turpan, Kuqa and Kashgar.
And so, in early June, off we went. I’d planned everything, my husband happy to take a backseat and remain in blissful ignorance about all that awaited us. As we moved along the tarmac ready for take-off at Pudong airport, he casually mentioned that his Chinese colleagues had asked why on earth we wanted to visit that region and had expressed genuine concern for his safety (he’s ethnically Chinese). It’s worth mentioning that due to the diverse ethnic make-up of the region, there are understandably tensions between its inhabitants, and even the UK Foreign & Commonwealth travel advice to China states that “You should take particular care and remain vigilant when travelling to or within Xinjiang, as most terrorist attacks within China take place in this region.” I’d read that any disturbances tend to be local and personal rather than indiscriminate, and so we chose to be comforted rather than alarmed by the strong police presence, and never felt anything other than safe whilst we were there.
It’s also worth pointing out that as Xinjiang is so far west, the region has its own unofficial local time zone, two hours behind Beijing time. It left us flummoxed for a while, even more so once we noticed that my phone had automatically adjusted to local time whereas my husband’s had not, and then amused – we quickly realized we had to check any pick up time, train time or opening hours twice just to be sure (tour companies and train stations usually use Beijing time, any hotel or reception staff always use local time). A perfect example would be our first morning, when we had to make do without breakfast, as our 8 am day tour left way before the breakfast buffet opened at 6.30 am!
The people we met were, without a doubt, a highlight of the trip, from the armed checkpoint soldier who asked to be our WeChat friend (as if we could refuse, did I mention that he was armed?!), to the driver who mentioned in passing that he had taken a group of Xinjiang officials on a tour of China (yes, the whole country, all the way down to Hong Kong and back, a monstrous feat of endurance), to our wonderful guide who spoke English, Mandarin, Uighur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz, all with a delightful sense of humour. I never imagined I’d be in a situation where my mandarin language skills were better than those of a native Chinese citizen, but I was frequently interpreting the heavy accented speech of our Uighur guides and drivers for my husband, who couldn’t make head nor tail of it. It was also wonderfully refreshing to study the faces of others as much as they enjoyed studying mine, and absolutely fascinating to see such variation in height, weight, hair and eye colour, facial features and dress of all those we came across.
So, where did we go and how did we do it? Well, we did a lot of planning on-the-hoof, as although I’d pre-booked accommodation via booking.com (an easy task, as not many hotels accept foreigners) we ended up cancelling most of those bookings. We had been hoping to hire our own car and drive ourselves across the region, and were a little thrown when no-one would rent us a car. It’s not prohibited per se, but with so many police checkpoints throughout the entire region (our record was 15 in one day), I can now appreciate just how much suspicion we would have encountered by driving ourselves. As a blonde foreigner, my husband was concerned that I’d be mistaken for a journalist, and this isn’t a region to mess around in. So, we made use of public transportation, even spending two nights on sleeper trains in order to cover some of the huge distances between towns.
We started off in Urumqi, the provincial capital. I’ve read some pretty scathing reports of Urumqi, and whilst there are some sights worth seeing, they won’t come even close to anything else you’ll see in the rest of Xinjiang, so there’s no need to linger long. Don’t expect too much from Urumqi, use it as a transit hub and you won’t be disappointed. At first glance, it resembles every other generic Chinese city, but then you notice Arabic prominently displayed on all street signs, naan bread and lamb skewer carts on every corner, and the clothes and headscarves of those around you.
Next time: more on Urumqi, Turpan (China’s Death Valley with scorching temperatures to perfectly preserve the ancient Silk Road towns), Kuqa, Kashgar and Tashkorgan, the most beautiful place in China that you’ve never heard of….