Update on Urumqi, Xinjiang After the Attacks

Update on the Urumqi, Xinjiang Attacks (Can I Still Travel to Xinjiang?)

May 24, 2014 | 66 Comments

As many of you know, these past few months have been quite difficult here in Urumqi, the capital of China’s far western region of Xinjiang. It seemed like a distant problem back in March when Kunming was struck with a violent knife attack but sadly came knocking on our doorstep in late April when the Urumqi train station was bombed.

This entire month of May has resurrected the type of tension not felt since 2009, and that was before yet another terrorist bombing attack claimed the lives of 33 39 43 mostly elderly, innocent people on May 22, 2014.

It didn’t take long for foreign reporters to land here in Urumqi and the world is now flooded with stories whose headlines shout words like “volatile”, “fear” and “crackdown”. The Uyghur people (pronounced wee-gur), Xinjiang’s primary ethnic group that is unfortunately tied to each of these tragic events, are slowly losing any international credibility with each terrorist act.

But I’m not interested in re-hashing what you can easily read online. As someone who calls Urumqi my home, I just wanted to share some updates on what’s really happening on the ground here in Xinjiang – things that most reporters either don’t see or don’t find worthy to report on.

If you plan on traveling to Xinjiang or if you have any interest in this part of the world, I think you’ll find my answers to these questions interesting…especially the last question.

A Uyghur man watches a truck full of Chinese soldiers pass by in Urumqi, Xinjiang on May 24, 2014

What’s Happening in Urumqi?

You know you’ve lived in Xinjiang too long when the sight of a massive, armored tank outside your local grocery store doesn’t faze you. Round-the-clock military guards standing behind protective steel cages has been a normal sight even before any of these things started happening.

It’s not like Xinjiang’s security forces let down their guard and were suddenly surprised by these attacks.”

In other words, it’s not like Xinjiang’s security forces let down their guard and were suddenly surprised by these attacks. How do you stop someone who is intent on sacrificing their own life?

Life must go on, though. Businesses are still open, buses are still running and transportation in/out of the city continues.

But despite outward appearance, things have definitely changed. I stopped by my local fruit market to buy some bananas and the friendly lady whom I have begun to know well these past few months asked me bluntly, “Are you scared?

Worried” I replied, “but not scared. You?

I’m not scared” she said defiantly. But the fact that she even asked the question – the first time I have ever been asked that here in Urumqi – was an indication to me that things have changed.

The guard at my community gate, a friendly Uyghur man who rides his rusty bike to work in his faded blue uniform just yesterday started wearing a protective helmet, vest and baton.

Early indications point to the fact that this year – a little over a month before we celebrate the 5th anniversary of Xinjiang’s deadliest riots – will prove to be just as pivotal for this region as 2009.

How is China Reacting?

Last Friday afternoon, just a day after the Urumqi bombing, I received a text message informing me of an impending city curfew. Translated, the text read:

Starting at 6pm this afternoon, traffic controls will be in place starting on Nanhu Road stretching down BeiMen, NanMen, JieFang Road, DaWan Road, Renmin Road, and HePing Road. All traffic will be prohibited from passing through and we ask that everybody detour around these roads.

For those who don’t know the road layout of Urumqi, this message basically lists every major thoroughfare that runs through city, meaning that a “detour” would have been a massive headache. At the time nobody knew what was happening to warrant such closures, but I later saw pictures of what occurred.

A Chinese tank rolls past the Urumqi International Bazaar in Xinjiang on May 24th, 2014

Trucks full of troops fill the streets of Urumqi, Xinjiang on May 24, 2014

A parade of troops and tanks in Urumqi, Xinjiang on May 24, 2014

A parade of troops through downtown Urumqi in Xinjiang on May 24, 2014

A massive display of force rolled through Urumqi while trucks fitted with loudspeakers screamed slogans of harmony in both Mandarin and Uyghur languages.

The front page of the Urumqi newspaper on May 24, 2014The front page of Saturday’s newspaper boldly proclaimed “Firmly Safeguarding People’s Lives, Property and Safety; Firmly Safeguarding Xinjiang’s Society, National Interests and Stability“.

The message was directed as much toward the citizens of Xinjiang as it was toward potential terrorists. In spite of how courageous my local fruit seller sounded today, she – like many people here – want their government to do more to protect them.

The Children’s Park here in Urumqi, normally a busting center of activity on a Saturday afternoon, was practically a ghost town. The park was open, but an imposing tank sat at the entrance with no less than 10 armed guards forming a perimeter.

Friday prayers at the local mosques continued as usual, albeit with quite a police presence. I expect that won’t be changing anytime soon.

My understanding is that yesterday marked the beginning of a year-long “strike hard” campaign. A whole year. If this first day is any indication, I believe I’ll be saying hi to that tank outside my grocery store for quite a while.

Is it Safe to Travel to Xinjiang?

I always receive a barrage of emails following an incident like this – and that’s not a bad thing. Many of you sent messages asking about the safety of me and my family. I haven’t been able to respond to all the messages yet but I do want to say a special thank you. You all have been a huge encouragement to me.

If you want to come to Xinjiang, you still can.”

The majority of the emails, however, ask one of two simple questions: Is it still safe to travel to Xinjiang? Is it still open to travelers?

Before I go into my answer here, it’s important to note that the US Embassy in Beijing recently instructed all staff to “defer personal travel to Xinjiang”. That speaks volumes and it would be foolish of me to say otherwise.

It used to be I would tell people that “Traveling to Xinjiang is no more dangerous than any other part of China. Just use common sense and you’ll be fine“. Unfortunately I can’t really do that anymore. These recent attacks, although premeditated and calculated, have targeted random people here in the city.

As much as I want to say otherwise, random is not safe.

My advice for now is to stay away for the next two months.”

Xinjiang has not, to my knowledge, closed its borders to travelers willing to come out here. It never happened back in 2009 and I don’t believe it will happen now. If you want to come to Xinjiang, you still can.

My advice for now, though, is to just stay away for the next two months. I don’t think you know how hard that is for me to admit. I HATE saying that. I love this region and despite conventional wisdom, I don’t plan on leaving in the near future.

But with a sensitive anniversary coming up this July and tensions at an all-time high, it’s frankly just a terrible time to be traveling here.

 ———————————————–

It is my hope and prayer that this is a temporary situation. Not for the sake of travelers, but for the sake of the people here – Han, Uyghur, Hui and all the other minorities, who deserve to live a life not haunted by fear and prejudice.

I believe it can happen. I have to or else I wouldn’t still be here.

About Josh Summers

Josh is a writer, musician and entrepreneur who currently resides in Urumqi, capital of China’s western province of Xinjiang. He has been traveling and writing about this region since 2006 and has no plans to stop in the near future.

Leave a Comment

  1. What a shame:( I hope that there are no more violent attacks and that it can be worked out peacefully.

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    Josh Summers on May 24th, 2014 at 9:50 pm

    For everybody’s sake I hope so too, Becky.

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    jin on March 5th, 2015 at 1:53 am

    Hi Josh, thank you for your blog. Xinjiang has been on my list for a while. i left two more in in china before i finally relocate. what is your take on the current state for single lady traveling alone in the upcoming couple of months? thanks

    Josh Summers on March 5th, 2015 at 2:44 am

    I’ve known plenty of single women who have traveled here just in this past year. I think it’s always wise to be cautious but I don’t think it should stop you from traveling out here!

    Hope that helps :)

  2. Thank you Josh for your on the ground information. It’s a very sad situation when a community and its everyday life become oppressed in this way. I admire your courage and commitment in choosing to build your life in this region and the solidarity you show to the people you so clearly love to live amongst.

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  3. We wish for you and all the peace-loving people in Urumqi that it will once again become the safe, friendly city we experienced for 5 days in May 2007. Can understand why you love the place.
    All the best.
    Joanne

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    Josh Summers on May 24th, 2014 at 9:49 pm

    Thank you, Joanne! Someday I hope you have the chance to visit again…when all of this dies down.

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  4. Thanks for your honesty Josh. A Silk Road trip is very near the top of my bucket list and I had hoped the situation might have been like the 6 weeks I spent wandering around Egypt right after the 2011 revolution – safe as anything, and no tourists. But it sounds like I had better defer for a while. Take care of yourself and best wishes to your and family.

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    Josh Summers on May 24th, 2014 at 9:47 pm

    Thank you Lesley. And I agree with you – don’t cross Xinjiang off your list, I just think it’s better to “defer for a while”.

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  5. Armored tank? Is that like a moo cow? Or a ducky wucky? Jeez, what is it about educated people that makes them revert to infantilism when anything military appears?

    PS tanks don’t have wheels, tanks have treads. It is left as an exercise for the reader to figure out what that mystery vehicle is.

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    Josh Summers on May 24th, 2014 at 10:49 pm

    Thanks for your comment Winkler…I think. I’m sorry if you don’t agree with my phrasing but I’m not going to change it. And I never knew there was a hard-and-fast rule that tanks, by definition, can’t have wheels. This one does.

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    Wes on May 28th, 2014 at 9:29 pm

    It’s an APC, or in this case simply an armored vehicle. Definitely not a tank, your wording in particular is wrong, there is no major cannon attached, nor could it even be considered an AFV. Maybe a scout vehicle. Your particular wording needs a bit of rework. It appears to be a BRDM derivative. Might want to call it an armored personnel carrier, that is a fairly good descriptor.

    Josh Summers on May 29th, 2014 at 5:23 am

    Thanks Wes. You’ve pointed out what I’ve had several other people tell me – technically it’s called an “APC”. Perhaps there is no “major cannon”, but I will say that it has some pretty hefty firepower. It is not, as you say, just a personnel carrier – they have plenty of those here too – this is an offensive weapon.

    Anyway, thanks for the correction, Wes. I appreciate your comment.

  6. My husband and I have been trying to get to XJ since Summer 2008 and every time we start planning a trip, something happens! So, guess we’ll delay it yet again, but know that our family appreciates your insight, travel resources, and all the love you clearly have for this amazing region that we can’t wait to come honor in person. Keep well and safe, please, Josh.

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    Josh Summers on May 25th, 2014 at 3:57 am

    Thank you, Erin! I can’t wait for you to come visit. Let me know when you do – perhaps we could all meet up over coffee.

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  7. What a pity, I’ve been planning and cancelling plans to go to Xinjiang for years now, I really hope the situation will get better for all those who want to go there and for all those who live “under pressure” at the moment.

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  8. Hi Josh,

    Great stuff, your love for the place comes through. As a journalist who writes on China from Singapore, this kind of writing can be useful to me…maybe you can even answer a few questions?

    Thanks regardless.

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  9. Thank you so much for letting us know how it really is to the western part of China. I hope things get better for the region and for you and your family. However, take your own advice if things get worse….

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  10. Josh,
    Thank you for your “on the ground” updates about this region. It really is a beautiful place with beautiful people/culture, I really must visit some day. Please stay safe!
    Regards,
    Steve M

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  11. I was there in 2008 and loved the place and the people. So glad I went and so heartbroken over what’s happened since. Hoping things improve and the people can come together. Stay safe.

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  12. Thanks a lot for this information! I’ve been dreaming to travel to Xinjiang for years now and it was finally going to happen this September! I havent bought my tickets yet and I dont know if I will (I still hope so), but thank you a lot for this information.
    I hope you stay safe and happy in Xinjiang,

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    Josh Summers on May 26th, 2014 at 1:54 am

    Eleonore…please don’t have too much fear because of this article! I highly encourage you to come out here in September, pending things settle down a bit. You won’t regret it – just be careful :)

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  13. Thanks for this. I have recently been researching west China and came upon this. Looks like I’ll have to come back later and see if things have cooled down.

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  14. I’m living just outside of Urumqi in Kuitun, and it’s so sad to see the change in character the region hhas had in the last few weeks. I just hope things can calm down for the sake of everybody. Even in the relative safety of Kuitun (there’s never been a major incident here) the mood has changed, there is more military and the Uighurs keep a very low profile now. The biggest visible change is that the dancing has stopped in the park in the evenings, and Uighurs don’t hang around anywhere for a long time.

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    Josh Summers on May 26th, 2014 at 2:43 am

    Very interesting, Tim. Thanks for the update from Kuitun and next time you’re in Urumqi shoot me an email.

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    Susie on May 29th, 2014 at 8:41 am

    No way! The dancing at night has stopped? That’d massively concerning. Is the park still as busy all day? Horrible to hear about the tensions in Xinjiang at the moment.

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  15. Dang. Planning to get there in late July, so I’ll keep an eye on here for updates between now and then. If I can settle my wife’s nerves enough to let me go, it could at least mean cheaper flights and accommodation…

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    Josh Summers on May 26th, 2014 at 2:44 am

    Personally, as long as things don’t escalate further, I think that late July will be a great time to come visit (although it will be hot, I warn you!)

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  16. I am a Chinese, and living in the south China. Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Maybe it is the SAFEST minority place.(according to the media I normally encounter)
    Have been to most parts of China. Xinjiang is the last part I have not been and I really want to visit. Glad to know this blog. and hope one day I can experience Xingjiang and her richness.
    best !

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  17. Glad to know that Josh and most people are safe.
    Hope that there would be better management in the future!

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  18. Josh,

    thanks for your frank and detailed update. It’s sad to see the trend this seems to be tracing. I worry about the fear these attacks have engendered will further the Han/Uyghur schism.

    From your perspective, is Xinjiang at risk of developing into an apartheid society?

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    Jack Foreigner on June 2nd, 2014 at 4:12 pm

    No, that’s not what Chinese do.

    It’s so funny how Westerners constantly project their own worst crimes onto other people.

    Just as an FYI, America has quite a number of Bantustans where once indigenous peoples wither but the country sees fit to go around the world warning everyone about the new Yellow Peril.

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  19. Finally found your blog again, Josh! :-)

    Thanks for your thoughtful insight. You know I’m with you in hoping and praying for peace for all here in Urumqi in particular and in Xinjiang in general!

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  20. Hey Josh, thanks for a great article!! You seem very thoughtful and experienced about Xinjiang…my family will be traveling there next week. We’ve still decided to go because our tickets are booked already (we’re worried tho!) do you have tips on staying safe? (Should we carry our passports with us at all times?) Are there any particular areas to avoid in Urumqi? We will be in Urumqi for the first day and then travel around the region.
    Ps- should one dress esp. conservatively in xinjiang due to Muslim customs?

    Thanks!!

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on May 30th, 2014 at 10:40 am

    I’m glad you’re still going to be able to make it! My advice is the following:
    1) Yes, always have your passports securely on your person (and keep a copy back at your hotel in case you lose it somehow).
    2) Never take a photo of the military you see walking around
    3) Just use common sense: don’t walk down a dark alley at night, etc.
    4) Dress conservatively if you want to enter a mosque but for the most part you’ll see that many people here are quite free with their dress (Han and Uyghur alike). Just be comfortable :)

    I hope that helps. Email me if you have any additional questions!

    [Reply]

    Robin on May 31st, 2014 at 4:00 am

    Thanks so much for the information Josh. I’m planning to go in August. Hopefully for everyone the situation will have improved.

  21. Hello Josh,
    first of all, I hope you are OK, you and your family, and the things are going better and better after these last terrible days. Even if it’s too much early to know the future. As a lot of people, I’m waiting for going to the Xinjiang since a lot of years. At the beginning of the year, I made my decision to travel here, but it was before the terrorist attacks. Today, I’ve not yet took my flight ticket, but I have not renounced. I know you can’t be sure about anything, but do you think it’s totally stupid to go to the Xinjiang from 15 august to the 1st september ?
    Take care and all the best.
    Cécile

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  22. Chucks I was reviewing your email planning my dream trip for this July. Good excuse for a second trip.

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  23. Thank you so much for this article. I am planning on teaching English in China and got a job offer from a kindergarten in Urumqi. I don’t want to travel around the globe just to be in danger and scared. I will rather look at places in the south.

    Good luck and thanks again

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  24. Thank you for those advises. Although, my 20 years old son decided to travel there. He planed a month trip from Xining (he is there today) to Kashgar, via Urumqi, and a way back to France (that’s why my english is that english) through Kirghiztan at the end of July.

    But it seems that the Irkeshtam border is actually closed, or was a week ago – http://www.eurasianet.org/node/6868. Since it’s very difficult to obtain some information about that – for him there (not chinese speaking) or for me from Paris – I wonder if you have any kind of information about that Irkeshtam pass, or where we could find some. And maybe you also have some advices for him.

    Thank you for helping.

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  25. how is it going NOW, i mean after the fasting month is over? i plan to travel at the end of this month. and how is the weather like? thanks

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  26. Just wondering if I could get an even more updated opinion from you – I am planning on travelling in Xinjiang in early February with a friend (also female) and we are wondering how cautious we need to be? Are things still in unrest? Would you advise us to be with a tour guide for our time there? – perhaps in order to be with someone more aware of the state of things and also to avoid travelling on public transport…
    Any thoughts much appreciated.
    Thanks!

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on December 10th, 2014 at 3:02 am

    Hi Clare! Thanks for your comment. Things have been mostly calm this fall and winter with the exception of a few incidents in non-touristy places. Caution is always advised but I really don’t think you have to be with a tour guide unless you really want to.

    No need to avoid public transport…I take it all the time :) I would just be careful heading to Yarkant, south of Xinjiang. That’s about it!

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  27. Thanks Josh for the informative article, appreciate the candor in writing about a place and people you love. Been thinking about heading down to Urumqi and Kashgar this time of the year in late Dec 2014 and recently read an article on how the local authorities have tightened security in preparation for Christmas and New Year, I believe pre-empting any potential violence. Would just like some updated opinion on how safe is it to make a trip down and would there be any road blocks to places outside the main city like Nanshan and Tianshan in Urumqi? Or in the case of Kashgar, Karakul lake area?

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on December 24th, 2014 at 12:43 am

    Hey Shane, thanks for the comment. I’ve read about this tightened security but frankly I haven’t seen it first hand. When you’re dealing with major cities like Urumqi and Kashgar, I believe you’re going to be quite safe. You might run into highway checkpoints but unless something terrible happens they won’t actually close the roads. Karakul and the Karakoram Highway should be fine as well, although depending on the weather may or may not be easy to traverse. Hope that helps!

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  28. Yesterday, I ‘discovered” URUMQI. And saw what a beautiful place it is. The buildings, grassy boulevards, fabulous sculptures and edifices from all over the world. The countryside, also is very beautiful, with monasteries overlooking lakes and waterfalls,
    I was just about to send that information to a relative who’s niece is living there to tell her not to worry about her so far from home, and then Today, I witnessed the horror or us warlike species. I will still send it to her. both of those sites. Human beings are so capable of horrific warlike actions. And also so capable of wonderful peace like ones.

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  29. Hey,

    . . .possibly travelling there during the summer.
    How are things looking this year so far? Still tense?

    Thanks,
    Fred.

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on May 5th, 2015 at 11:33 am

    Hey Fred, things are still looking great! Hope you’re able to make it out.

    [Reply]

    Fred on May 6th, 2015 at 4:50 am

    Thank you.

    Marc on September 24th, 2015 at 1:51 am

    Hello,

    I have booked tickets for Urumqi for the 1 to 7th of October. Ambassy advises not to go… How is the situation 1 year after 2014 events ?

    Thanks

  30. Hi bro I am in Urumqi I have a lote of questions for you please give your number or other things to contect you thanks

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  31. I am native from that region and I think I know things very well. My advice for these who want to travel but worry about security.
    It is not middle east of Afghanistan where westerns take hostages or become a target. Nothing will happen to anyone who is clearly western looking. You might have a chance of 0.0001% being in danger if you have East Asian look (you know what I mean). I think I don’t have to explain why I am saying that, read some news.

    Tips for travelers.
    1) be polite and respect the religion.
    2) make sure highlight you are a passing by foreigner
    3) females dress properly, don’t expose too much (people just look down you, nothing also will happen)
    4) you are safer in Uighur neighborhood than in other places (a wolf don’t bite another wolf: an Uighur proverb)
    5) speak native languages is your best asset (just learn to say hello, that is a long way to go)

    In short, it is safer than any US cities where some gun violence.
    Media puts too much their own ideas and makes people scary.

    Anyway, good luck!

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on December 14th, 2016 at 1:48 pm

    Thanks for your input, Arslan! I agree with all your tips – very nice.

    I’m not sure that I would say Xinjiang is “safer than any US city”…but I would be happy to concede that it’s often just as safe.

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