Is Xinjiang safe? Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the troubled province in far northwestern China is often in the news, but for all the wrong reasons. I have travelled through Xinjiang on many occasions over the past six years on my way between China and home in the UK.
Here I will try and dispel some of the myths about travel in this region and tell you how I found the situation each time. So, is Xinjiang safe to visit? Let’s find out…
Please note: This article is about travel in the region and is not passing comment on the Uyghur separatist movement or China’s response to it.
Want to know about the rest of China? Check out my new article is China safe to visit?
A brief introduction to Xinjiang and the Uyghurs
Xinjiang feels more like its Central Asian neighbours than the Middle kingdom with its rolling steppe and deserts dotted with yurts, mountains and alpine lakes. The Uyghur people of Xinjiang are Turkic Muslims and are recognized as one of China’s ethnic minorities.
There is a separatist movement with some Uyghurs wanting independence from Beijing and to form an East Turkestan state, which the Chinese government is trying to crush (with relative success).
Terrorist incidents have occurred in the region with things coming to a head in 2014 and 2015. Since then, the heavy security presence in the region has seemingly managed to quell the violence. Sporadic outbursts of violence across China, linked to Uyghur separatism, are occasionally reported.
Where is Xinjiang
Xinjiang is located in the far north-west of China bordering Mongolia to the north, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Pakistan to the west and Tibet to the south. The city of Urumqi is some 2,700km from Beijing.
Do I need a Special Permit to Visit Xinjiang?
Unlike nearby Tibet, you don’t need any special permits to enter Xinjiang. It’s as simple as booking a train ticket or flight. If you have been to Xinjiang previously and planning on returning to China, it is best not to allude to your visit when applying for a new visa as there are stories of people being refused a Chinese visa due to visiting the region.
Is Xinjiang Safe to Visit?
It is perfectly safe to travel in Xinjiang and thankfully the rare terrorist incidents have decreased over the years, in no small part to the heavy military and police presence in the region.
Many Uyghurs are conservative Muslims so it pays to dress and act modestly when in Xinjiang.
Take the usual precautions when visiting markets and bazaars and don’t flash the cash or expensive camera equipment (the latter is likely to land you in more trouble with the security forces).
Police and Army Checkpoints
The reality is that you will likely face more problems with the police and military in the region than with the local population.
When travelling the region you will face multiple stops at police and army checkpoints. If travelling by bus or taxi, you will need to get out to be questioned and have your details taken. Be polite with the authorities who are usually armed to the teeth!
Is Xinjiang Safe for Using Public Transport?
Public transport is safe in Xinjiang due to the heavy police presence around every train station and bus stop. Allow at least two hours to check-in at the station in larger cities like Urumqi as there are many checks to go through.
You will not be able to bring any bladed items (including swiss army knives), aerosol sprays like deodorant or hairspray and anything that may be construed as a weapon.
There are frequent checkpoints across the region so you will need to get used to repeating the process as you travel.
To enter most buildings in cities like Urumqi such as shopping malls, restaurants, post offices and banks you will be searched and need to go through metal detectors.
When in cities or in Xinjiang’s border areas it’s best to avoid photography anywhere near soldiers, police, mosques or similar places where flashpoints can occur.
Chinese Border Crossing in Xinjiang
Expect more questioning if you are crossing in or out of China through Xinjiang. I have found on every occasion the police at the border to be suspicious and hostile.
On my last visit in 2019 my phone was confiscated and a security agent spent an hour going through my pictures and messages, asking questions about anything they thought was poking fun at China. There are recent reports of the authorities adding spyware to foreign tourists’ phones.
How to Get to Xinjiang
Xinjiang is easily reachable from the rest of China by plane and train. Urumqi and Kashgar are the major cities and transport hubs in the region.
Reaching Xinjiang from Neighbouring Countries
Entering China from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is a little more difficult with no public transport, but is possible. See Caravanistan for more.
What is there to see and do in Xinjiang
Travelling in Xinjiang is not for the faint of heart; however, the region is stunningly beautiful so makes it a great destination for adventurous travellers. The area around Sayram Lake close to the border with Kazakhstan is especially beautiful.
Capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Urumqi is an ugly concrete jungle with countless checkpoints and a very heavy police and army presence. The only reason I have for travelling to Urumqi is as a base for entering nearby Kazakhstan.
That said, there are a few points of interest including a nice park and temple overlooking the city with views to the Tian Shan mountains beyond. Urumqi can act as a useful base for exploring the region, but it’s not a tourist destination in and of itself.
Turpan is the second-lowest point on earth at 154m below sea level. It is also famous for its cotton and grape growing industries. Turpan is home to China’s tallest minaret, the Emin Minaret which is worthy of a visit.
Unlike Urumqi, the Silk Road city of Kashgar is worthy of a visit and it definitely feels more like Central Asia than China with its bazaars and minarets. Kashgar is also the start of the legendary Karakorum Highway which leads down to Pakistan and crosses some of the most beautiful scenery in China.
I often see Sayram Lake when taking the bus between Urumqi and Almaty in Kazakhstan and always wish I could stop there and spend time exploring this heavenly looking area.
Conclusion to Is Xinjiang Safe
So, is Xinjiang safe? The answer is a resounding yes, however, you need to prepare yourself for travel in a region that has suffered much unrest. If you can negotiate the checkpoints and delays, then Xinjiang offers a rewarding experience for adventurous travellers!
About the author: Steve Rohan, originally from England, has lived in China for over six years. He has lived in the frozen city of Harbin, the ancient capital of Luoyang, the tropical paradise of Sanya and Hong Kong.
He has travelled extensively across Europe and Asia, mostly by train, and has written about his travels for this blog as well as self-publishing his first book, Siberian Odyssey.