The most commonly asked question from people who are planning a trip to China’s western region is this: Is Xinjiang safe for travelers (especially now in 2020)?
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.
Finally, I want to 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.
Are you planning to travel to Xinjiang? You should grab a copy of my FarWestChina Xinjiang Travel Guide, the most comprehensive, up-to-date guide on the entire Xinjiang region. I’m so sure you’ll find it useful that I’ll even offer you a money-back guarantee if it doesn’t meet your expectations!
Why Does Xinjiang Get Such Bad Press?
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 not entirely clear 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.
Lately, you’ve probably been reading stories about Xinjiang’s re-education camps. It’s a horrific tragedy for the Uyghur people and I condemn their existence as wrong, but again – it hasn’t posed any threats to foreign tourists. So far, the worst that has happened is questioning at a police checkpoint.
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.
So is it safe to travel here?
The short answer: 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.
WARNING: Having said that, I do want you to understand that what is happening to the Uyghur people is horrific. The result of this cultural genocide is annoying police checkpoints and restrictions on movement. Many travelers have noted that this heightened security put a damper on their travels and if you’re not expecting it, it could ruin it.
So why do I still promote travel to Xinjiang if it seems to support all the Chinese government is doing?
The simple reason is because I believe that the more people who personally witness what is happening and develop a personal connection to the Uyghur people, the better.
Fall in love with the people.
Share what China is doing with others.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.”
“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
Keep in mind: you will be stopped by police as you travel. You will likely be asked to show your passport hundreds of times while you’re walking around. You will get annoyed by the security state that is 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 China travel advisories (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 if you want more information on travel around Xinjiang, don’t forget to purchase a copy of the FarWestChina Xinjiang travel guide!