My Nightmare in Urumqi (Is Urumqi Safe?)

In this article I will describe the problems I have faced on my many trips to Urumqi and answer the question; is Urumqi safe? The short answer is yes, Urumqi is safe to visit however there are many inconveniences as you will find out below.

About Urumqi

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, Xinjiang

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 a t-shirt 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.

Tight Security

Swiss Army Knife

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, a huge suitcase and bags in tow. Shit!

Other Ideas

After a few minutes of 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 that 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.

More security


The area seemed run down and hostile. Even the school kids seemed menacing as a 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 policemen 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 for 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.

Oh Urumqi

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 from 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.

Need a VPN for China? Discover the best Virtual Private Network for travelling in China.

Check out my new article about safety in China. Is China safe to visit in 2021?

Dunhuang, Gobi Desert, China

About the author:

Steve Rohan is a writer from Essex, England. He has traveled to over 60 countries, lived in Armenia, China and Hong Kong, and is now living the digital nomad life on the road.

Steve prefers “slow travel” and has covered much of the world by train, bus and boat. He has been interviewed multiple times by the BBC and recently featured in the documentary Scariest Places in the World. See the About page for more info.

Where I am now: Yerevan, Armenia 🇦🇲

16 thoughts on “My Nightmare in Urumqi (Is Urumqi Safe?)

  1. Joatmon says:

    That’s a very strange article. I have never been to Urumqi myself and I am certainly not planning to, but the reasons you have given are utterly ridiculous. You’d have to be pretty deluded to expect to not run into any trouble at all, when travelling with a knife around China, especially Xinjiang. Knifes are just as much forbidden in the UK – I myself know some people who had theirs taken away by police before embarking on the Eurostar train for instance – so it seems pretty out of touch to write an entire article, which essentially only consists of you bitching about your precious knife and the “bastards” trying to take it away from you. I am sure Urumqi is a god awful place, but you don’t seem like someone qualified to provide an actual informed observation on that, other than your infantile whining. You’ve clearly wasted my time with this

    • Cornelia says:

      I just come from Urumqi in february 2020 during Covid.
      Everyone was very helpful and friendly. No kalaschnikow at all. My Swiss knife was taken away at Kashgar station. Normal. Everything was very difficult because of covid. But these poeple were wonderful and I thank them for assistance .

      • steve says:

        I’m pleased you had a good experience there. I have been back to Urumqi four or five times since and each time the security is worse. Last time they even went through my phone which I was very unhappy about!

  2. Joatmon says:

    okay I’m sorry if I was a little too harsh. The other content on your website looks pretty cool! Still, the thing with the knife and calling people “bastards” who are merely doing their job enforcing a law, which is (unlike many other laws in China) not too ridiculous kinda triggered me. Sorry if my tone was a little ruder than it should have been.

    • steve says:

      Thank you for the apology, but no need. You are entitled to your opinion. Perhaps I should scrap the article as it doesn’t really serve a purpose on the site save to moan. However, to clarify; I have travelled around China with that very same penknife and it’s replacement (crossing borders, and even entering Tianman Square with it), so I was just shocked that they were immovable in Urumqi when I had faced no issues before or since. Best wishes, Steve

    • Ed says:

      Chill, it’s just euphemism. The word ‘bastard’ is not to be taken literally if you read the context in which it was written in. It’s kinda like how you would say ‘Lucky bastard’ to a total stranger if he’d won against the odds in a game at the casino.

  3. Mei and Kerstin says:

    We just came back from our 1-month trip along the Silk road in China, and wish we had read your post before going. When we took the train from Liu Yuan (outside of Dunhuang) to Turpan, they also confiscated our knife at the train station. In fact, it was a camping set with a fork, a knife and a spoon! Like you, we had also traveled throughout China from Beijing to Dunhuang with that camping set and never had a problem until the moment we wanted to enter Xinjiang province. Our local guide in Dunhuang wanted to post us our camping set to Beijing (where we returned two weeks later for our international flight) or back to Europe but she couldn’t find any post office that would let her send our “knife” out of Gansu. Our feeling and experience in Xinjiang was equally “weird” and uncomfortable as yours… Anyway, glad we’re not the only ones who did not really appreciate Xinjiang.

    • steve says:

      Hi, thanks for sharing your experience and sorry that you faced similar problems. I’ve also just returned from the Silk Road and Xinjiang and found the latter as infuriating as ever. Hope you enjoyed the rest of your time in Central Asia though! Best wishes, Steve

  4. Andreas says:

    Ha! Sounds like my experience in the Detroit Airport (USA) in January of 2005 – and yes, I would certainly use the word “bastards” to this very day to describe the people who attended to me, even though they CLAIM they were just “following law and policy.”

    Just some quick background for anyone saying “Ugh, you idiot, why were you traveling through an airport with a knife?” Short answer, I wasn’t, it was in my CHECKED bag….the long answer:

    I was flying back home after a trip to Europe and Detroit was my Entry Point into the US, so I was forced to go through Immigration and collect my checked baggage – nothing unusual about that at all, very normal; however, here’s where it got weird…

    Unlike every other airport I have ever been in in the world, the Detroit Airport did not have the means (or at least pretended that they did not have the means) for me to directly, quickly, and easily check my bags on to my Final Destination – Spokane, Washington – without me hauling my bags (remember, these are my checked bags we are talking about) to my departure gate itself and checking them at the gate. Obviously this is very, very strange, because it means you would have to take checked bags THROUGH departure security screening…and the whole point of checking luggage prior to this is (or at least use to be……airports have been a mess since post 2001, really) so that you can pack things like knives, guns (in places guns are legal to possess), etc. that aren’t allowed past security screening. I had traveled the world numerous times over before this, and have since traveled the world numerous times over after this (never again going through Detroit!), and have never had this happen before or since… I just picks fights about my water with the security people, lol.

    I knew full well that what I was being told to do wouldn’t work, because it would require a security check, and my pocket knife would be taken. I explained this to the ground staff member who was “assisting” me, but to no avail. He said there was no other way to do it (which I still don’t believe to this day); so, just like I knew would happen, I had to go through security and have my pocket knife taken away (either that or be stuck in the Detroit Airport).

    And yes, they were absolute and complete bastards about it :)! I can relate to this kind of thing very well, Steve!

    How on Earth does this relate to Urumqi? I read your blog because here I am in my 5th year living in Eastern China, and my dream has always been to go to the extreme Northwest of China. My wife, however (an Eastern Chinese), won’t let it happen, lol (I am your classic run-of-the-mill world-traveling “post-1492 American White guy mutt,” just for reference sake)…but reading your story jogged my (very unhappy) memory of going through the Detroit Airport 15 and a half years ago :).

    • steve says:

      Hi Andreas, wow, that’s crazy that they made you take your checked baggage to the gate, and sorry to hear you lost your pocket knife too; bastards indeed!
      Where abouts in Eastern China are you based? I’m in Luoyang (Henan).

      • Andreas says:

        I’m in the outskirts of Kunshan City on the Jiangsu side of the Jiangsu-Shanghai Provincial Line….the line is literally the river out my apartment window – other side of the river from me is the provincial outskirts of what is politically Shanghai Province.

  5. syan says:

    Hi Steve,

    Interesting content here.
    One question tho, I was just wondering why didn’t the security at the train station just confiscate your pocket knife? Why would they even give it back to you?
    Hopefully my question doesn’t give away that I don’t travel so much.
    Thanks for taking your time.

    • steve says:

      Hi, thanks for your comment! They gave it back because I didn’t go proceed into the station and told them I was leaving to try and find another way to save it.

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