Xinjiang: China’s Wild West

It’s odd to begin my travels, and my travel writing, with Xinjiang Province, China. For one thing, it’s so far out in western China–it took my friends and I a whole day’s worth of flights, including one layover in Urumqi, to reach the city of Kashgar–that it has its own unofficial time zone, two hours behind official Beijing time. For another, Xinjiang has more in common with Central Asian / Middle Eastern countries than it does with Han China… and there has been a (recent) history of deadly conflicts and riots to prove it.

Grand Bazaar, Kashgar, Xinjiang.

Grand Bazaar, Kashgar, Xinjiang.

Nevertheless, my friends and I made plans to spend their week-long Dragon Boat Festival holiday in Xinjiang, spending most of our time in the super-far-west city of Kashgar and the surrounding area (Karakoram Highway, Karakul Lake), with Turpan, in the east, tacked on at the end before they had to go back to their work in Shanghai.

Xinjiang–what a place! A place where the desert dust settles in minutes on your bedsheets and cameras. Where women wear headscarves to cover their hair, some even with a totally opaque veil obscuring their face. Where night market snacks consist of baked lamb meat buns, donut- and pizza-shaped bread the length of my forearm, and giant hunks of goat cartilage.

How meat skewers are cooked.

How meat skewers are cooked.

Our first "meal" in Xinjiang! Lamb skewers. Mmmm.

Our first “meal” in Xinjiang! Lamb skewers. Mmmm.

My friend and her plate of goat... cartilage-something. I'm not sure what part of an animal that is!

My friend and her plate of goat… cartilage-something. I’m not sure what part of an animal that is!

If there’s one city that best represents what you hope to find in Xinjiang, Kashgar is it. (No one goes to the capital, Urumqi, except as a stopover to better places. Seriously.) Kashgar is so representative of Xinjiang and Uighur people culture that the huge Mao statue in the city’s People’s Park still remains (whereas Mao statues in most other Chinese cities have been quietly removed) in order to remind the Uighur people that although Beijing is thousands of kilometers away, its political might is not.

Devotee at the Id Kah Mosque.

Devotee at the Id Kah Mosque.

A trip to Kashgar is about roaming the crazy-colorful bazaars, people-watching, and bargaining with stall owners over the price of what they claim are handwoven silk scarves (but are probably not). It’s about seeing the smoke rising from a rack of lamb kebabs cooking or a crowd around the latest food stall that’s been set up and having no fears about food poisoning or traveler’s diarrhea and just deciding to go for it. That’s how I discovered dogh, a delicious sweet icy drink that, ahhh, I still think about. The deservedly famous Grand Bazaar (busiest on Sundays but open every day) is like a mini-city itself, with “neighborhoods” selling furs, colorful silks, Uighur instruments, shoes, spices–and, outside, an odd dusty alley with pile after pile of old shoes. Were they for sale?? I didn’t ask.

Clothes...

Clothes…

Spices...

Spices…

Um, sneakers?

Um, sneakers?

The shoe aisle of the bazaar, apparently.

The shoe aisle of the bazaar, apparently.

The man selling dogh from the stall he set up in the bazaar.

The man selling dogh from the stall he set up in the bazaar.

When I tell other travelers I just came from Xinjiang, the first thing they usually ask me is, “Is it safe there?” To which I say, yes! Okay, to be absolutely safe, I probably wouldn’t have wandered around Kashgar by myself, and if I had gone there as a solo traveler I might’ve tried to hook up with other travelers at my hostel. But as long as you’re respectful and don’t think you get special treatment because you’re a traveler, you’ll have a great time in Kashgar. And really, I’m pretty sure that advice applies to anywhere you go in the world.

I will write about the stunning Karakoram Highway, Tashkurgan, and Karakul Lake another time!

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