Is Xinjiang Safe? Travel Tips & Traveler Feedback

Is it Safe to Travel to Xinjiang? XJ Q&A #2

June 23, 2016 | 17 Comments

Is it safe to travel to Xinjiang?

The most commonly asked question from people who are planning a trip to China’s western region is this: Is it safe to travel to Xinjiang?

It’s a legitimate question, particularly since most of what you’ve probably read in the news or heard from friends seems to indicate that you’re putting your life in danger by making a journey to Xinjiang. But is that really the case? Is all of this overblown?

Below, I’m going to walk you through a brief history of what has given this region such a bad reputation, tell you what you can do to keep yourself safe and finally let you hear from other travelers who either live here or who have traveled here.

My hope is that by the end, you’ll be better informed about the situation in Xinjiang and confident in planning your trip to my favorite corner of the world. It IS safe to travel to Xinjiang…and here is how you know.

Why Does Xinjiang Get Such a Bad Rap?

When I first arrived in Xinjiang during the summer of 2006, the question of safety and security wasn’t even an issue. Little incidents had occurred here and there but the region didn’t carry the same reputation that it does now.

So what happened that initiated such a change?

My wife and I never felt directly threatened or unsafe.”

It first started in August of 2008, just five days before the Beijing Olympics were set to start, with an attack on police officers in Kashgar. Security around the region started to intensify but the situation really took a turn for the worse in 2009 with the riots in Urumqi. In both incidents, it’s still unclear exactly what happened or how many people were hurt.

A month after the Urumqi incident, I wrote a short article detailing the changes that were happening around me thanks to heightened security. The trust divide between the Uyghur and Han had widened to the point that many of my Han Chinese friends were scared to travel to southern Xinjiang or even to the Uyghur neighborhoods nearby.

Despite all that was happening around us, my wife and I never felt directly threatened or unsafe. In fact, over the past decade I have not read or heard of one report where a tourist has been directly or indirectly harmed in any incident around Xinjiang.

Is it Safe to Travel to Xinjiang?

So now that you understand better why this question is even asked, take a moment to watch this video to hear my response to the question of safety and security in Xinjiang.

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Is it safe to travel here? YES! Obviously you need to use common sense like you would anywhere else in the world, but there’s no reason to be looking over your shoulder in every city you visit. The Uyghur people are some of the most friendly you’ll ever come across.

The same goes for solo travelers (even the solo women) and those ethnic Chinese tourists. The best tool at your disposal is a simple smile – it has a disarming effect with most everybody you meet.

Tips to Staying Safe in Xinjiang

Because of all the changes that have happened in Xinjiang, there are a number of things you’ll notice are different when traveling here as opposed to the rest of China. Thankfully, you still don’t need a special permit to enter Xinjiang like you do Tibet but take note of these tips before you make your journey.

  1. Ignore the Military & Security Forces: A big difference you’ll notice in Xinjiang is the heavy presence of military and security forces. For those most part, this won’t have much affect on your trip…as long as you ignore them. Pointing a camera and taking a picture is a surefire way to get your camera confiscated or your memory card wiped.
  2. Expect a lot of Security Checks Everywhere: Whether you’re entering an airport or a mall, there’s a good chance you’ll have to walk through a metal detector and/or open your bag for a check. You’ll have a hard time getting that new Uyghur knife souvenir you bought through many of these checks, though, so make sure you keep those in your hotel.
  3. Always Have Your Passport: I’ve known some people who leave their passport in the hotel safe while they’re traveling but in Xinjiang, you should have it with you at all times. In fact, I recommend keeping a physical copy of your passport and visa in a separate bag just in case you lose your original. While traveling – especially in southern Xinjiang – you might come across a number of security checkpoints where they will require you to show your passport ID and visa.
  4. Arrive Early for Transportation: Because of all the new security measures, it’s a good idea to arrive even earlier for your flight/train. As an example, before you even enter the Urumqi International Airport, everybody has to scan their bags and go through a pat-down…not to mention the thorough security check before you enter the gate area. Same goes for the train station, so give yourself some extra time so you’re not running to catch your flight or train.
  5. Expect Delays and Possible Restrictions: Again, due to all the heightened security, it’s normal for travelers to get delayed for any number of reasons. I also get people who ask me whether such-and-such village is accessible to foreign tourists. My answer is always the same: it should be…but that doesn’t mean it will be. It’s all dependent on the mood or strictness of the security guard or local official that you meet.

In whatever circumstance you find yourself, the best way to stay safe in Xinjiang is to use common sense and to be flexible.

Traveler Feedback on Safety in Xinjiang

When it comes to safety in Xinjiang, you don’t have to take my word for it. I’ve received feedback from a number of travelers, including solo female travelers and those with families, who have been through Xinjiang. Here is what they have to say:

Chris Walker-Bush from Aussie on the RoadChris Walker-Bush
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt as welcome in China as I did while visiting Xinjiang. The farther west I went, the friendlier people became and the more excited to share their culture with me they became. My fondest memories of China were from my time in the far west.”

 

Ezma, a Xinjiang travelerEzma
“I spent 4 weeks in this area in August 2014. My two children ages 6 and 8 loved every minute. A trip to the heavenly mountain, night markets for kebabs, fishing trips and lots of playing with local children. As a woman with two young children we felt very safe.”

 

Eric Johnson from ShanghaiEric Johnson
“We (two families of six Americans) spent a week hoofing it across Xinjiang from its northeast corner to a mountainous pass into Kyrgyzstan which required special permission to cross. We used train, plane, and rental car (sometimes with driver, sometimes self-drive). From vineyards to glaciers, scenery was gorgeous, culture interesting, people everywhere welcoming. We never felt threatened in the least.

 

Maxime DossinMaxime Dossin
“Xinjiang is definitely safe for foreigners. I travelled by bicycle in 2013 from Mongolia to Central Asia and had problems only with police, as it was during June-July, when it was complicated in Turfan and Hotan. Policemen erased pictures on my camera, put me in a bus between Balguntay and Yining…but the Uyghurs and Hans were lovely.”

 

Rod PoirierRod Poirier
“I spent a  couple of weeks traveling alone from Urumqi through to Kashgar and on to Kyrgyzstan. While out in the region I neither experienced problems nor felt unsafe at any time. Best experience was the Kashgar market.”

Final Thoughts on Safety in Xinjiang

There are certain places you can go in the world where you are taking a sizable risk to physical safety in order to visit. Xinjiang is not one of those places.

Before you buy your tickets, check with your State Department to find out if there are any travel advisories for this part of the world (not a bad idea no matter where you travel). If there aren’t, then hopefully we’ve been able to convince you here that you are perfectly safe to travel to Xinjiang!

Be safe and enjoy your travels!

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. I visited Xinjiang for the first time of my life for 3 weeks in March/April 2016, mostly around the border regions to the western countries. I never felt unsafe or threatened, even while strolling around the streets of Kashgar and Hotan in the midst of the night. I enjoyed the hospitalty and friendliness of the locals and I’ll come back to Xinjiang for sure.

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    Josh Summers on June 24th, 2016 at 11:12 pm

    Thanks for sharing about your experience, Robert!

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  2. We have been to Xinjiang twice, without a hint of problems, Urumgi is a great big city with a good bus system and lots of taxis. And people smiling at you all the time. Yes, we lost a knife at train station but that was our fault. Turfan by high speed train was wonderful and the muesum there just the best! The 24 hour train to Kashgar was clean and the country side very different. The people in Kashgar were very welcoming and seemed to understand we were silly tourists and helped us if they could. The ladies at train station held up the security to have their picture taken with 2 red headed little boys! I will admit gray hair gets you lots of perks, both the Uyghurs and the Han have a deep respect for “elderly and you will get a seat on a very full bus. At no time will you be scared but just be careful like you would in Paris, pickpockets are there too!

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    Josh Summers on June 24th, 2016 at 11:13 pm

    Thanks, Annette! Who wouldn’t love those two little red headed grandsons of yours? :)

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  3. My husband and I have been living and working in north-east China since late February and decided to take our holiday in Xinjiang. It was a fascinating experience and well worth the three night train ride to get to Kashgar. Increased security is evident at stations and intersections, our vegetable knives were confiscated in Urumqi station and my sewing scissors at Kashgar. However, we never felt concerned for our safety, everyone is just going about their daily lives. The scariest bit of the trip was the condition of the Karakoram Highway, which is undergoing massive reconstruction between Upal and Bulungkol Lake and is truly appalling.

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    Josh Summers on June 26th, 2016 at 9:51 pm

    Thanks for sharing, Su! I’m so glad you had a good time and I know exactly what you’re talking about with that highway construction :(

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  4. I have heard a incident about Xinjiang in News but I was unable to know the safety and security of that region in detail.Your article helps me to know the-current situation of that region is safe to Travel.Keep on providing information.Really appreciated!!!!!!!!!!!!1

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  5. We were there two years ago just as the Army was deployed. We had no issues or concerns and enjoyed the extra security frankly. The tank in front of the KFC was a great picture, but the soldier watched me and waved his finger “no pictures”. As you have pointed out, expect lots of security checks at any building and mall you go into, and don’t bother carrying water around. Security will take it or make you drink it all. At the airport, even my 3-year-old was patted down, x-rayed, and had her tiny sandals removed, like the rest of the passengers. All in all, we felt very safe, had a great time, and would return in a minute. You advised me not to buy an Uyghur knife at all, and I didn’t. We will definitely revisit Urumqi and Xinjiang.

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on June 28th, 2016 at 10:29 pm

    I’m glad you had a great time, William. Thanks for the comment!

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  6. Just visited Xinjiang from 22 May to 3 June 2016… and I didn’t feel any obstacle related with security. We spend walking around Urumqi even nearly midnight and feel ok.

    It’s beautiful place and good food. I miss Xinjiang for sure.

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  7. on May 2016 I toured Xinjiang (Kashgar, Yopurga, Turpan, Urumqi) by myself with a driver and guide. I had no troubles at all. I found it very peaceful and never was there any uncomfortable feelings or any hint of danger. The people were quite friendly and I’d recommend it to anyone. I too enjoyed the Central Asia part of China without any downsides at all other than just narrowly missing a monster sandstorm in Kashgar the week before I arrived and another one the day I left. (Close call)

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  8. Thank you for your article. It is very helpful. I am planing to travel to Xinjiang in September. What the must go places? How long do you think at least to cover the most nice places? We want to take train along the silk road start from Guangzhou.

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on July 24th, 2016 at 9:40 pm

    Hi Hannah, great question and one that I can’t answer in a single comment. I recommend you check out the FarWestChina Xinjiang travel guide. You can download a free planning chapter from the guide using that link.

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  9. The insurgency occurring in Urumqi and southwest Xinjiang is a racial conflict between southern Uighurs and Chinese people. The target of attacks are not random. They are against the government, Han people, and northern Uighurs (June 2013 Shanshan attack).

    Has there been a single incident of non-Chinese tourists intentionally targeted by the insurgents? This background is important for understanding what kind of risk there is in traveling.

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  10. I visited Xinjiang and particularly Urumqi in 2012 and 2013; I had a wonderful time. Everyone was friendly and helpful; I was welcomed by all nationalities and I never felt threatened, worried or anxious – I never really even thought about it.
    There are see wonderful places in Urumqi – People’s Park, Red Hill Park, mosques, markets, and travelling not far outside the city the Heavenly Lake and centre of Asia monument.
    I also travelled across the desert to Hotan and along to Kashar, all of which should definitely be visited. And then there is the food – and whether Chinese or Uyghur, all delicious.
    When time and opportunity permits, I will be back.

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The 2015 Xinjiang travel guide is here!