Following the end of the National Day holidays in October, colleagues returned to the office filled with colorful stories of home stays in Yunnan, shared bus rides through Tibet and fishing in a quiet Jiangsu village. They weren’t the foolish types to go diving into local tourist traps heaving under truculent hordes during China’s peak travel season.
In particular, one colleague spent a month-long road trip exploring northern Xinjiang and we shared a long lunch trading notes. I travelled to both north and south Xinjiang in 2010, and stopped through Urumqi and Kashgar for my travels to Central Asia over the last two years. When I told him about how much fun I had in southern Xinjiang, he sighed a little and said, “Next time perhaps, I’m unsure how safe it is for me to be driving there.”
I hear that a lot from my Chinese friends. There is often a misconception about tourist safety – both from local Chinese and foreigners – in the region due to sporadic incidents of flared ethnic tensions between Chinese and Uighurs that have deepened over time. The attack by identified Uighurs in Tiananmen Square that took place a few weeks ago has no doubt reignited a great deal of negative press on Xinjiang. Most Chinese tourist tend to stay in the northern province or ‘北疆’ where there are less Uighurs and more Han Chinese, Hui Muslims and Kazakhs, compared to the south or ‘南疆’ where Uighurs make up around 70% of the population.
I have always encouraged my Chinese friends to visit Xinjiang, and to stay away from packaged tours speaking from tired and often one-sided versions of the history of Xinjiang. I had a marvelous local Han Chinese guide take me through Northern Xinjiang and a Uighur guide in Southern Xinjiang, the experiences were no doubt different but made it all the richer during my time there.
For those planning or just curious to travel to Xinjiang, I highly recommend Far West China written by Josh Summers who offers advice like “How to travel in Xinjiang during Ramadan”, “How to hike the Tianshan Mountains.” You cannot find a more comprehensive, user-friendly advice on how best to enjoy the region safely and sensibly.
If you visit Kashgar city, which is often the starting point of a southern Xinjiang journey, you tend to find more foreign tourists – not just Western but Asian as well – who would also be more willing to sign on with English-speaking Uighur travel agencies.
The objective of a journey in southern Xinjiang is often to visit the incredibly stunning Lake Karakul. Some may continue hiking and camping around Karakul if the weather permitted, others may continue along the Karakoram Highway to Khunjerab Pass that borders with Pakistan. It is the highest paved border crossing in the world with an elevation of 4,693 metres (15,397 ft).
Our journey along the Karakoram Highway was expectedly spectacular. The above photo gives you the sense of the expanse of the terrain in the fall – still waters and a few grazing cows in what appears to be steadily reclaimed land. It was an exceedingly pleasant lead up to our arrival at Lake Karakul which presented itself calm and undisturbed, yielding stirring reflections. At an altitude of 3,600m, it is the highest lake of the Pamir plateau, near the junction of the Pamir, Tian Shan and Kunlun mountain ranges.
We didn’t join a group hunkered down for a homestay evening, and thus missed what had been hyped to be breathless star gazing. We proceeded towards Tashkurgan county, which was on the way to the Khunjerab Pass. Interestingly, Tashkurgan is a heavily Tajik town, which made it slightly disconcerting when reminded we were still in China.
Our guide, more eager than foolish, advised us to continue our journey to the border crossing given that we were blessed with clear blue skies and warm sunshine. “You don’t know what tomorrow may bring,” he warned omninously. City folk that we were, we agreed.
Foreigners had to surrender their passports at the Chinese border checkpoint outside of Tashkurgan, while Chinese tourists obtained a border pass. We spent the next few hours climbing further towards the highest point on the Karakoram Highway. I marveled at no-man’s land and concluded it was near impossible to steal across the borders. If guns didn’t kill you, Mother Nature would.
What greeted us at the border was a most remarkable yet odd sight. On the Chinese side of the border, a giant fort stood grandly, manned by a young soldier of 18 years old from Hubei.
The poor fellow, looking less than threatening with his rifle and uniform, was trying his best to avoid having his photo taken with local tourists who didn’t take no for an answer. “It doesn’t matter, no one will report you, take a photo with us” a middle-aged lady whined, tugging at the young boy’s sleeve.
The Chinese side of the border was where the good infrastructure of Karakoram Highway ended, and dropped off into a mess of gravel and stone on the Pakistani side. There was no sight of a Pakistan border patrol either, except for a small concrete dome-like hut. A Pakistani businessman I met in Kashgar said that the Pakistan side of the highway was destroyed by floods in the last few months, and still has not been repaired. “Laughable,” he scoffed, “The Chinese roads are much, much better.”
A Chinese tour guide chortled when I mentioned it to him. He said, “The Chinese government is all about face. All our border crossings are well maintained, this shows others how great we are.” He shook his head, “It’s all about face.”