Cruising along at speeds that would normally make my palms sweat, central-Asian pop beats rapping out of the car’s stereo, I am sleepily reflecting that crisp mountain air is just about as good as a strong cup of coffee when our guide says something in Uyghur to our driver. Next thing I know, we are careening down a bumpy side road (I use that term loosely) off of the Karakorum Highway, clouds of dust billowing up behind us.
Yusef swivels round to face us from the front seat, grinning. “A Tajik wedding! I can tell because of all the fancy cars!” The driver picks his way forward on the now nonexistent road. I see a small huddle of men in front of a group of simple clay houses, standing dourly around a fire. I am skeptical.
“Let me go talk to them first,” says Yusef. “Tajiks are either very friendly, or VERY crazy. You stay in the car.” He hops out of the cab; the men watch his approach. My boyfriend and I speculate on the odds that we’ll have to rescue our guide from the midst of a fistfight.
Tense minutes pass before Yusef hops quickly back into the car. I’m relieved to see he’s laughing. “This is a funeral!” As though that’s the funniest thing that could have ever happened.
“But there is a wedding on the other side of town!,” he crows. Before we can object to gatecrashing a second time, we’ve arrived (the town is not very big – again, loose usage of that word) at what is clearly a happier affair.
He schmoozes us an invite in seconds flat, teaches us how to say “Congratulations” in Tajik, and takes us on a tour and meet-and-greet as though we were visiting his own family. Before you can say “Mubarak” (Congratulations), I’ve become the unofficial wedding-photographer, we’re watching sheep being butchered for the wedding feast, and we’re posing at our own photo op with the blushing bride.
We even get an invite to return the next day for continued celebrations. An unforgettable morning during our trip and one of the big positives of traveling with a guided tour through Xinjiang.
Is a Tour Guide in Xinjiang for me?
If you have unlimited time – if you already know Xinjiang – if you really love adventure travel – then you can probably skip exploring the region with a tour.
If you don’t have endless amounts of vacation time, it’s your first time to the region, or you want to add another dimension to your travel experience, signing up for a tour or hiring a guide can help you get the most – maybe even more than you expected – out of your days in Xinjiang.
To add a bit of background: Xinjiang was our first stop in a two-month visit to China. We prefer to travel independently, but until about a month before arriving in China, we’d never even heard of Xinjiang. Not knowing what to expect in terms of infrastructure and knowing we could only spend a week in the province, we opted for a private tour in the hopes that we could get a decent taste of the province in this short amount of time. The package included a route recommended by the tour company, a dedicated driver and guide.
Xinjiang Tour Tips – The Bottom Line
For us it was definitely the right choice. Purely from a logistics point of view, there is no way we would have been able to see as much as we did had we attempted to plan a similar trip on our own. Beyond that, we were afforded a much more intimate glimpse into Xinjiang life.
Having a local guide, we could ask countless questions about any little thing that sparked our curiosity. We could communicate much more directly with people we met thanks to his translation. And of course we got to hear of his opinions and experiences from growing up and living in Xinjiang.
Before you run to sign yourself up for a tour though, here are a few things to think about:
- Buckle up: (*Not literally; no one in Xinjiang wears seatbelts!) Do your research before you get there. Working with a good company/team can make all the difference in the world. Also, don’t be afraid to take control of your experience when possible. Customizing your package before you get there, asking the guide to stop one more time to take even more photos, skipping something on the proposed itinerary because you’re just too tired. Although you’ve hired a guide, ultimately it’s your trip and it’s up to you to communicate what you need and want to make it work for you.
- Get Zen: Make sure you show up with the right attitude. The tour experience can vary depending on whom you’re traveling with. Guides are human; ours had plenty of idiosyncrasies and interesting viewpoints that we didn’t always necessarily agree with. I took these as a chance to glimpse the world through a completely different point of view and it only enhanced my experience. Most days there was no coffee (this may seem like a small thing – unless you are a coffee addict like me). Sometimes the state of the Chinese toilets sent me scrambling for a bush to pee behind. I’d been told that the tour could cater for vegetarians – “No problem!” Skip to a couple days into the tour when we were trying to sort out supplies for the desert trek: “The problem is that you’re a vegetarian.” The solution for all of this: get Zen!
- Enjoy the ride: Make sure you show up with the right expectations. That is, none. Maybe the weather will suck. Maybe you’ll wake up to the most spectacular sunrise you’ve ever seen. Maybe you’ll miss the Sunday market. Maybe you’ll happen upon an unexpected wedding and end up the guest of honor. Anything and everything is possible; expect nothing and see what surprises Xinjiang has in store for you!
Born and raised in the States, Jennifer spent six years living and working in Switzerland before she and her boyfriend Roman decided to start a new adventure and fulfill their dream of traveling the world. They are currently 14 months and eight countries into their big trip. Read more stories of their time in Xinjiang – including great photos – on their travel website.
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