Lives in China (2007–present)Updated August 23, 2020
What's it like to visit Xinjiang?
I recently visited Xianjiang for 3 days with my wife at the end of a trip through Gansu province following the old Silk Road out west. The final place we stopped by was an eastern Xinjiang City called Hami 哈密, or also known as Kamul.
In Chinese, Hami Gua 哈密瓜 means cantaloupe, a sweet, orange coloured variety of melon that originated from this very city. The locals are extremely proud of this fact, and rightly so, it’s incredibly sweet and unlike any of the versions I’d tasted before this trip.
Since this trip was soon after the pandemic restrictions began easing, security was tight getting into the city at the train station. The hotel staff mentioned I might have been one of only a few westerners that had actually visited the city since the lockdowns.
Nevertheless, it was actually easier than some of the smaller towns we’d visited earlier in the Gansu region, some which were eager to hold their 0 infection records. Luckily I’d prepared all the necessary documentation and medical test records which helped prove I was Covid-free.
The hotel had some free bikes to cycle around the City. They were excited to have us since tourism had taken a huge hit. Security was tight and most compounds, car parks, shopping areas and even restaurants requiring us all to have our bags scanned. We asked a number of locals their view on this. General sentiment was that it’s a nuisance, and when first introduced people complained constantly, but now the safety people feel is appreciated. Often people would remark how they feel Xinjiang is the safest place in China right now. To prove the point we were told by the hotel staff we didn’t need to lock up these bikes around the city.
We found some incredible Xinjiang bread by a local Uighur baker in the middle of the city. We had the onion bread (in the top left of the photo). Best way to describe it is like a really big kind of Bagel that was chewy on the outside but crumbly in the middle.
Dried fruit is a staple of the region. Some of these raisins were huge.
In this city people like to fry carrot in with their rice. Usually this is served with Lamb but we had it by itself.
This is the posher version, which also includes a variety of dried fruits.
On our way to pick up a hire car, we stopped by a local noodle restaurant. This one specializes in cold yellow noodles and “Liang Pi”, which is a type noodle where the flour used is separated into two parts. The “Pi” is a delicate low gluten noodle, and the spongey parts are the gluten itself. You can actually find this dish all over China but this was something quite special, in this humble little shop owned by a married couple.
After grabbing the car we tried go into one of the Uighur Princess temples in the City but they weren’t allowing non-Chinese in. We also went to the Yuan Dynasty temple down the road but received the same message. We then found the nearest police station to register to see if that would help, but there wasn’t much they could do.
On our way out the area we stopped by a local Uighur neighborhood to go poke around. Hami being close to the Gansu border in the east of Xinjiang is predominantly a Han city, but most of the public signage like roadsigns, schools, government buildings still had both the Chinese and Arabic scripts. We stopped by a Uighur neighborhood on the way out of the city to go poke around.
Buying a bottle of water, I had a chat with the shop owner. He said most of the residents here had benefitted from government programs to improve the housing and public spaces. Just out of shot of some of these photos, the non-renovated streets were older and less well-maintained than what you see here.
People here liked to hang these dried painted pumpkins outside their homes:
This roughly translates to “Ethnic groups must be as united as pomegranate seeds.”
Our first trip out the city took us to the desert to visit an ancient abandoned town. On the way, we went through orchard farms and passed large numbers of these grape drying sheds.
On the way we stopped by this Uighur family run restaurant in the middle of what seemed like nowhere.
The old lady was so sweet, she was happy to accommodate our request for a meatless dish and supplied ample melon too. I grabbed more water from the shop on the side. The owner of that shop couldn’t speak Chinese so she called to her daughter who was natively fluent. She said I was the first British person to have bought something from her shop.
There’s something really special about the noodles we ate in Xinjiang. They have a certain weight and density you don’t usually get elsewhere in China. Talking to the lady here, she said it’s to do with the quality of the wheat. Here are those freshly pulled noodles.
After an hour of this
Eventually the road started looking like this
A few thousand years ago, there was a town out here built into and around these rocks:
On the way back, we passed by some young police cadets training in the desert heat
The following day we decided to go to the other side of the city and up through the mountains there. The locals here say you can experience all 4 seasons in a day and you’ll see why. The day previous we were in what was essentially a vast desert, but once you reach the top of this small mountain, you’re presented with lush grasslands.
That yellow blob in the distance below is actually a mini desert with some sand dunes.
This is the view from the top of that dune where the grasslands meet the desert:
And on the other side the snow capped mountains on the same range we we just came from:
We got talking to a group of teenagers, mix of Han and some Uighur kids, who’d come up to the dunes to play. Surprised I could speak Chinese, one of the Han-looking girls attempted to teach me some basic Uighur but I failed miserably!
In these grasslands a number of different Chinese minorities live off the lands, but mainly Kazak Chinese. We spent the day with a guy who lives in the city but still has family living a semi-nomadic life, moving between two spots depending on the season. He took us to meet his uncle, aunt, their two working dogs and hundreds of cattle, horses and sheep.
Fresh spring water for the tea.
Xinjiang is not the easiest place to visit right now what with the geo-political climate, the heavy security and the pandemic, but the impression left with me is this particular Xinjiang City is incredibly diverse, more so than most other places I’d visited in China.
The original has lots of photos.