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Xinjiang (新疆), also known as Sin Kiang and East Turkestan, is the largest political subdivision in China. It has been designated as a Uyghur Autonomous Region. The Uyghurs are Muslims of Turkish decent who speak a Turkish language and make up about 45% of the population. Although Han Chinese and Uyghurs dominate the stats, there are many other interesting minorities including Kazakhs, Hui, Kyrgzs, Mongols, Tajiks and Russians. Xinjiang is sparsely populated and covers vast distances.
The major sights in Xinjiang range from ancient trading center like Kashgar, to stunning mountains and glaciers of Tainshan. One can enjoy deserts and high mountain lakes or shopping at weekly bazaars in small desert oasis towns. Xinjiang has plenty to offer and is one of the most remote places in the world.
There is nothing brief about the history of Xinjiang. Until the formation of the Silk Road different nomadic groups dominated most of Xinjiang. The main group in the region was the Tocharians who were of Indo-European decent, Buddhist and spoke an Indo-European Language. Kyrgzs, Tibetians, Mongols, Kazakhs and Chinese took control of different parts of Xinjiang at different times.
In the 9th century the Uyghurs moved into present day Xinjiang, from Mongolia after the collapse of their own Empire. When the Uyghurs first moved into Xinjiang they were a mixed group of Buddhists. After their arrival into Xinjiang the Uyghurs interbred with the Tocharians and many converted to Manichaeanism but a few remained Buddhist. The Uyghurs in western Xinjiang started to convert to Islam as early as the mid 10th century but most Uyghurs were not converted until about the 15th century. How devote the Uyghurs are is a big question, they have been a very flexible culture and at different times they became Manichaeans, Zoroastrians, Buddhists or Nestorian Christians. Some to this day have remained Buddhist or interbred with Tibetan and Mongolian populations.
Different parts of Xinjiang were tribute states to China during different times, until the rise of the Qing Dynasty. The Manchus were able to conquer most of Xinjiang in 1759 and made it into the military state. During that time the Uyghurs revolted 42 times and finally won a short lived independence in 1864 and created the state of Kashgaria, which was recognized by the Ottoman Empire, Tsarist Russia and Great Britain. The Manchus returned with an overwhelming force in 1884 fearing Russian expansion. The Manchurians were financed by British loans. After the invasion they created the province of Xinjiang, meaning “New Frontier.”
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In 1911, when the Chinese Republic came to power they annexed Xinjiang and set it up as a province. The locals revolted twice and set up two different Islamic Eastern Turkestan Republics, first in 1933 and the other in 1944. The Chinese Republic government overthrew both of these Islamic Republics with assistance from the Soviets. In 1949, the Communist defeated the Chinese Republic and annexed Xinjiang. The Communist created Xinjiang into an Autonomous Region in 1955.
Since the Communist take over there have been many uprisings for independence or more autonomy. Some of them have turned bloody and a few bombs were set off in Northern Xinjiang in the mid 1990s. Many Uyghurs believe to this day they were conquered by the Chinese and should be an independent country.This is looking less and less likely as more Han Chinese move into Xinjiang. In the 1930s, Uyghurs made up more then 90% of the population of Xinjiang; today they are only 45%. Also, the central government in Beijing has been building more business deals with neighboring countries, which might be sympathetic to the Uyghurs cause, in an effort to prevent them from supporting any kind of independence movement.
Xinjiang is the largest political area in China. The area is divided into two basins by the Tianshan mountain range. To the south is the Tibetan Plateau, to the north and west is another series mountain ranges which border Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. The contrast in Xinjiang is stunning. The lowest point in the province is the Turfan Basin at 155 metres below sea level, while the highest peak is K2 at 8,611 metres above sea level.
The Tarim Basin in the southern part of the province is much larger then the Dzungarian Basin in the north. Starting roughly at Kashgar the Tarim Basin spreads out, historically dividing the Northern and Southern Silk Roads. The Tarim basin occupies more then 400,000 square kilometres of sandy desert. The smaller Dzungarian Basin lies north of Tianshan and south of the Mongolian Altai Mountains. Although lots of the desert is very sandy and rocky, due to a small gap in the mountains enough moisture forms to make most of the area into a semi-desert able to support some life.
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Xinjiang has domestic borders with Tibet, Qinghai and Gansu. Xinjiang also has international borders with Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. But due to inhospitable areas most of these borders form, people can only cross into the countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan legally. For more information please read the article: Overland Border Crossings In China
Xinjiang Time: Due to the distance from Beijing, Xinjiang has its own unofficial local time. Xinjiang’s local time is 2 hours behind Beijing time. Meaning that if in Beijing it is 7:00am, in Xinjiang they would say it is 5:00am. Remember that buses, trains, planes, post office and government owned businesses all run on Beijing time, while tours, restaurants, people and private businesses all run on Xinjiang time.
Being a heavily Muslim area all major Islamic holidays are celebrated. Due to the large Chinese population all Chinese holidays are also celebrated. The different local minorities celebrate their own holidays also.
China has three "Golden Week" holidays per year. People get a mandatory two or three days off work for each holiday, and workers' companies can grant them the rest of the week off, making each holiday a total of 7 days. As you can imagine, having almost 1.4 billion people with the same days off can make travelling at these times arduous to say the least.
Travelling during the Spring Festival/Chinese New Year is incredibly difficult. Chinese New Year is China's Christmas, so the millions of migrant workers and students flood back to their home towns. Everybody else takes the opportunity to spend their hong bao (gifts of money traditionally given at CNY) and go travelling. Most of the time, since you are only allowed to purchase train tickets 6 days in advance and must be present in the city of origin, sometimes only standing room tickets are available. Be aware! The Spring Festival is undoubtedly the busiest time for the Chinese transportation system. Flying will avoid the crowded trains, but book early and expect to pay higher prices. All the main tourist attractions will be crawling with tourists (worse than usual), so unless you like crowds, it's best to avoid it altogether.
Chinese New Year is based on the lunar calendar, so the date changes each year. The Chinese New Year/Spring Festival holiday is 7 days long and usually starts on New Year's Eve.
The two other national holidays are October 1st, National Day, celebrating the founding of the People's Republic of China and May 1st, which is International Labor Day. Almost all Chinese get the two holidays off and many take the opportunity to travel. If you want to avoid the crowds, fly, but it should get a lot less busy towards the end of the week.
Xinjiang is cold in the winter and hot in the summer. Due to its lack of humidity the weather does not feel that extreme. Just be careful because in the summer time the sun can feel like it is baking you alive, when temperatures frequently hit 40 °C or more. For northern Xinjiang and Urumqi, it usually starts snowing in October and during the winter temperatures can drop to -20 °C or less.
There are buses that go to Xinjiang from Qinghai and Gansu. If coming form Qinghai remember that you will have to arrange permits with the PSB. There are also international buses to and from neighboring countries.
Due to the large distances getting around Xinjiang can be very time consuming. There are train lines snaking across the middle and northern areas of the province. There is a train track all the way to Kashgar now. Unfortunately on the Southern Silk Road the only option is to take buses or catch flights to certain cities after leaving Kashgar. The buses can be basic and infrequent in certain parts of the province.
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Noodles, meat on a stick and bread is the man thing to eat in Xinijang. The food is fabulous with an interesting blend of Central Asian and Chinese flare. The big thing everyone should try is naan. Naan is a flat bread that is great and best eaten when dipped into a bowl of noodle soup. The kebabs are also stunning and delicious. At the fancier restaurants there are many great dishes. Just walk around and point at the things you want to eat.
In Uyghur culture it is rude to eat and talk at the same time. In the more remote areas expect people to give you strange looks if you eat and talk with your friends at the same time. Also restaurants tend to serve locals before serving someone from out of town. This can make for long wait. Lastly if you are a mixed gender group the women will be served last.
We have a comprehensive list of accommodation in Xinjiang searchable right here on Travellerspoint. You can use our map to quickly compare budget, mid-range or top of the range accommodation in Xinjiang and areas nearby.
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