Traveler’s Guide to Xinjiang, Western China

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Former Traveler staffer Ashley Thompson is in western China. We emailed her to learn what she’s up to.

Children with their goats at the Sunday market in Kashgar.

Some of your status updates on Facebook mention seeing ram fights, Uyghur wrestling, and headless goat polo. Where are you and what are you doing there?
My new roommate invited me along to watch traditional Nowruz (Central Asian New Year) activities about an hour outside of Kuqa city.  Traditionally celebrated to ring in spring (March 21) on this day it was cold, windy, and dusty, as the sporting activities took place in the middle of the desert. But it was an incredibly memorable travel experience. Traditional sporting events included Uyghur boxing, ram-fighting, horse racing, and a wholly interesting spectacle in which horseback riders essentially play polo with a headless goat carcass. My friends and I ended up being a spectacle ourselves, as we were the only foreign faces among hundreds of Uyghurs.

How long have you been in western China? I have been in Xinjiang since early March studying Uyghur at a college in Urumqi.

Western China is not a “regular” travel destination like Tuscany or Paris. What is it like and what tips do you have for other intrepid travelers planning to head to western China, specifically, or a similar spot, off-the-tourist trail? It’s becoming incredibly easy to travel to–and throughout–the western reaches of China. And it’s only going to get easier, as China recently announced plans for rail connections between the provinces of Xinjiang, Qinghai, and Tibet. Currently, there are myriad bus routes–but bear in mind that most bus routes that cut through Xinjiang involve basically off-road desert driving. If you are wanting to go from the northern part of the province (Urumqi – the provincial capital and travel hub) and Kashgar (once the heart of the Silk Road)–it  is a 24-hour bus ride or a 33-hour train ride. Consider breaking up long journeys if you have time,  to get a little bit off the tourist radar. It’s usually pretty easy to find a reasonably priced shared taxi between smaller cities. Or, if you get motion sick, there are incredibly cheap flights connecting all the major towns now, typically only a few U.S. dollars more than train tickets if booked a month or so advance.

Keep in mind that English does not get you very far here. This is not Beijing or Shanghai. And in smaller cities (such as Yarkand, my favorite Xinjiang city thus far), even decent Chinese won’t prove useful for everyday interaction. Come with a Uyghur phrasebook in tow. If you’re going to linger a bit in Xinjiang Province, consider splurging on a Chinese-Uyghur-English electronic dictionary, which has thus far proved invaluable. They’re available at any of the Xin Hua foreign bookstores across the region.

For tourists, traveling in Xinjiang is a much different experience from the rest of China. As a fair-skinned, freckled brunette, I constantly stuck out as the foreigner while living in eastern China. That had its perks at times (I never got tired of doling out autographs), but it also was tiring and borderline creepy (I’ll never forget waking up from a pleasant nap in a park with a video camera in my face.) Here, though, if I dress with enough gold accessories and sport a fashionable headscarf, I can pass as Uyghur. Or Uzbek, Or Kazakh. Or Tajik. Ethnicities abound. I especially love soaking up the international atmosphere at the intoxicating bazaars. It’s fascinating, beautiful, and certainly at times, challenging.

How has your one-year stint at Traveler as a researcher affected (for good or ill) your subsequent travels? I’m definitely more mindful of my role as a tourist. I think more about the good or harm I can do while on the road. For example, while in Egypt last year I was constantly hounded for tips, from everyone from police officers to very young children. My friends and I came prepared with school supplies instead while traveling in more remote areas of the country.

Through my time at Traveler, I realized that the best travel stories, and the best travel experiences, don’t come from planning every little detail in advance. It comes from having an open mind and being up for anything.  Spontaneity on the road makes me oh-so happy.

Since leaving Traveler, you’ve traveled a bunch (and no, I’m not envious ;). What have your favorite travel destinations been? I’ve talked a lot about China so I’ll choose other places:

Aswan, Egypt–It might have been because we were there during the off-season, but Aswan was so sleepy and charming. Elephantine Island, in the middle of the Nile, offered an amazing look at traditional Nubian culture, as well as the opportunity to interact with some of the warmest, nicest people I’ve ever encountered. I also strongly recommend taking a felucca (Egyptian wooden sailboat) up (yes, “up”) the Nile for a day or two. Nothing I’ve ever experienced in life compares to spending the night in a boat on the Nile river. I slept soundly, save for the occasional middle-of-the-night call to prayer in a distant town.

Triglav National Park, Slovenia–For an outdoor enthusiast, or a lover of cheese, Triglav National Park is a dream. It offers great rock-climbing routes, canyoning, challenging hikes through the Julian Alps, and, oh yeah, a tourist cheese route, which takes you to local farms for an opportunity to taste fresh cheese and watch it being made Slovenian-style. My savvy travel mates found us an incredibly modestly priced private mountain cabin through Vacation Rentals By Owner (

You spent time teaching English in China, too. Tell us some highs/lows that you experienced while traveling in China. Previous highs: Trekking (and boating along) the easternmost portion of the Great Wall, which today divides China and North Korea; biking along the canals in Old Town Suzhou; touring tiny towns near the Tibetan frontier in northwest Sichuan.

This time around: Without a doubt, watching traditional Uyghur sports during the Nowruz festival; subsisting entirely off street food for days at a time–Xinjiang is the BEST place to do so; learning traditional Uyghur usul (dance) at a Uyghur night club–which is entirely tame and features one large (and lively!) dance floor in the middle of a large perimeter of dinner tables, where patrons nosh on kebabs and juicy watermelon, washed down with hot tea, fresh juice, or perhaps the occasional red wine. Taking a horse-drawn carriage taxi along the highway in Kashgar, as semi-trucks zoomed by. Weaving my way around Kashgar’s Sunday Livestock Market, where Uyghurs from Kashgar and surrounding towns come to buy and sell cows, horses, sheep, goats, chickens, and even handmade knives. Spending the night in a Kyrgyz yurt at the foot of the lofty Karakorum mountains. Exploring Yarkand’s Old Town, still active with Uyghur blacksmiths and carpenters.

Lows: Naively getting into one of Urumqi’s “black taxis” (technically illegal but everyone uses them!) only to realize the driver was not a local and couldn’t read Chinese–resulting in an unwanted hour-long tour of the city; waking up each morning with a different view (sometimes I have a mountain view, sometimes not) due to Urumqi’s hellacious pollution problem, especially in winter.

Photos: Ashley Thompson (opener) and Brad Jackson/National Geographic My Shot, taken at Sunday market in Kashgar (in post).

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