Urumqi, a city stuck out in the far West of China’s vast expanse, is a city at war with itself. Home of the Uyghurs, a Turkic people of the Muslim faith, it feels more like the Middle East than the Middle Kingdom. Welcome to Xinjiang!
Street signs are in Arabic, mosques and minarets pepper the skyline, tanks and armoured personnel carriers line the streets, roadblocks and checkpoints are scattered every few hundred metres and, even bus stops have their own police guard (yes, every bus stop, not just the stations).
Urumqi holds the record for being the furthest city from the sea (2,500km from the nearest coastline) and it certainly feels remote. I took the train from my city of Luoyang in central China and it was 30 hours before I stepped out into the cold winter afternoon, having boarded in shorts and tshirt early the previous day. Snow was fresh on the ground and a chill wind blew down from the Altai region to the North.
As I was on my way back to England I had a lot of luggage with me and the first order of business was to go to left luggage and drop my bags off. I wanted to explore without dragging them around with me before taking the overnight train to Yining at the border with Kazakhstan. All stations in China have pretty stringent security measures, much like airports in the rest of the world, but Urumqi was something else entirely.
I queued up for an hour outside the station to go through the metal detector and have my bags x-rayed and was then pulled aside for my bags to be opened and searched more thoroughly. Once inside the station I went to the right area for my train and then had to have my bags x-rayed again and another body search to get to the waiting area and left luggage. After being searched for the second time the police already had my bag and were waiting for me. I knew it would be about my Swiss Army Knife and pulled it out of the pocket I stored it in for easy access.
I have travelled all over China on trains with this knife and assumed they would just wave it through as they had done so many times before. But things are different here and already tight laws are enforced rigidly. I phoned my girlfriend in Chengdu so she could help translate and try and reason with the security people, but to no avail.
The knife in question was a gift given to me for Christmas in Budapest five years previously. It has travelled with me everywhere and is one of my most prized possessions for its usefulness on the road. I was not going to just give it up without a fight, so I asked them to give me back the knife and I was escorted out of the station, huge suitcase and bags in tow. Shit!
After a few minutes collecting my thoughts I decided to take a taxi into town and try and post the knife back to my address in Luoyang. I was angry that I wouldn’t have it with me on my travels as it would come in very useful but at least I wouldn’t lose it altogether.
I didn’t have a clue where the post office was but asked the taxi driver to drop me somewhere central and I would just walk around until I found one. It wasn’t easy lugging my bags across the usual six lane highways that bisect cities in China , and up and down underpasses which had police checkpoints stationed inside each one (more bag openings and searches) but I eventually found what I was looking for, China Post. Predictably, they were unable or unwilling to let me post the knife back so now I was at a total loss and in a very bad mood.
There didn’t seem any option other than to just throw the damn thing in a bin. I was likely to get into trouble just walking around with it, but didn’t really care at this stage and just wandered the streets not sure what to do. I’d obviously walked into the Islamic area as there were bearded men congregated outside mosques, with soldiers huddled on the street corners. Opposite the largest mosque there was an APC (Armoured Personnel Carrier) and a soldier perched atop pointing a .50 calibre machine gun straight at the mosque.
The area seemed run down and hostile. Even the school kids seemed menacing as group of them kicked a bottle down the road. I checked my map and headed back to the CBD and to a Burger King I had spied earlier.
I went inside the fast food restaurant and was surprised that even here there was a metal detector at the door and again, myself and my bags were searched by two policeman inside the restaurant. After ordering a burger in the most surreal place I’ve ever eaten, I messaged my girlfriend about my current predicament.
In a strange twist of fate it just so happened that she was in a lecture with a classmate from Urumqi and he would ask his brother to help me. He arranged for me to meet a friend of his ,hand over the knife, and they would post it back by courier, which should evade the search. It seemed like a bit of a mission, but I was now determined not to let the bastards win and so was worth one more shot.
We arranged a place to meet and I took a taxi the short ride to his apartment. Just as my phone ran out of battery, this guy asked if I was Steve, we shook hands and I gave him the knife, and with that he was gone.
It remains to be seen whether this worked (it didn’t) but I can’t say that I didn’t try. Save for the kindness of those that helped me, I was not in a hurry to ever come back to Urumqi and went back to the station to catch my train West (click here for information on the border crossing to Kazakhstan).
It seems that I am not the only person to have my patience tested travelling in Xinjiang. You can read how this couple had their penknife confiscated and were threatened with arrest for having basic camping/cooking utensils.
Update January 2020
Since my first fateful trip to Urumqi in 2017 I have returned to Xinjiang another 5 times. This is not through choice, however living in China and travelling frequently overland back home to England it’s unavoidable.
Each year the security gets tighter and on my last visit in August 2019 a Chinese border guard searched my phone for an hour and made me delete some memes which he didn’t see the funny side of.
So, be warned, and ensure you have nothing sensitive on your phone when travelling this region, especially if crossing the border into Central Asia.
Things to do in and around Urumqi
Although Urumqi isn’t a particularly great city for tourists, there are many interesting places in the surrounding area, which includes some absolutely stunning scenery such as Heavenly Lake or the Bezeklik Caves at Turpan.
Our partners at Get Your Guide can offer day trips from Urumqi (because let’s face it, there is not much to do in the city itself). Click on a tour to find out more!
Getting to Urumqi and Xinjiang
Urumqi lies 2,770 miles west of Beijing, however it is still quite possible to get there by train. There are two trains per day fom Beijing taking between 30 and 37 hours depending on which train you take.
Check out my guide to buying train tickets in China for more.
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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 and now resides in the tropical paradise of Sanya on Hainan Island.
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.
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