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Happiness First, Safety Second in Xinjiang, China 开心第一,安全第二

Ahhh, Xinjiang. The far away land where men throw headless goat carcasses in holes for sport. Xinjiang 新疆 is the westernmost province (of the 27) in China that borders countries most white people will never visit: Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan, north to south respectively. The territory spans an area the size of Iran, but has a comparable population to that of Shanghai, a place with about 0.4% of the land area (thanks google). Within it's borders span oceans of sand, luscious grasslands, alpine lakes, and +5,000m mountains from the Tian Shan to the Pamirs. It's enormous. With that said, it's nowhere near an ocean. In fact, the capital city of Urumqi is the furthest city from any ocean in the world. Could be the truth, could be disinformation from Beijing to get people to cross things off their bucket list. One things for sure, if you enjoy traveling inordinate distances over stunning landscapes with nominal comfort, this place is for you.

Tashkorgan, last town before Pakistan on the Karakoram Highway

Xingjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is home to over 10 million Uyghurs, who by far resemble Turks from Istanbul than Han Chinese from Beijing. But spanning such a large area, Xinjiang is also home to a number of different languages, lifestyles, and diets. From nomadic Kazakh families living in yurts in the Tian Shan mountains, to living in high-rises in Urumqi, the word is diversity. The coexistence of different interests, convictions, and lifestyles have come to a juncture throughout its long history as a major exchange point of goods and ideas on the Silk Road.

Relations between ethnic groups in Xinjiang and the People's Republic of China haven't always been peaceful. The diverse ethnic groups living in this area are so far removed geographically and culturally from Beijing, it took some time for the Chinese government to sufficiently maintain their status as the law. On busy street corners in Urumqi you can see tanks, armored cars, steel bunkers, and soldiers with automatic weapons...but it all appears a bit superfluous. Ostensibly, uncertainty about who has rightful sovereignty over this territory is less muddled. The humongous statue of Mao erected in the middle of Kashgar that has been knocked down twice, and rebuilt twice, serves as a visual reminder of who's in charge.

Despite it all, people seem content. Content with all of the armed bunkers on street corners and the uniformed intruders with automatic weapons. I mean, **cough ** a way of life here is being preserved, mostly unabridged by the political meandering of the PRC or any other unrepresented government. If anything, the migration of Han Chinese further supplements the diverse cultural landscape that already exists, all the while developing infrastructure and creating opportunity, in my opinion, for the benefit of everyone. If not for that, people like myself would probably never get the opportunity to travel to such a remote and foreign area.

Sailimuhu Lake near Kazakhstan. Little yurt community in the background

Xinjiang was a trip of firsts. It was the first trip I traveled alone. It was the first trip I made conversation with people who were also speaking a second language. It was my first sandstorm, first stay in a yurt, first 34 hour bus ride, first alcohol, and first time with altitude sickness. All but one of these is true. With such a distance to travel and over immensely diverse terrain, getting from place to place demands true grit from even the most patient and tenacious travelers. If you're interested in a bit of reading, Foreign Devils on the Silk Road is a great start. It details the exploits of famous 20th century German, Japanese, English and American explorers who traveled without the [relative] convenience of air, bus, or train travel. An Englishman named Aurel Stein takes the biscuit for the most absurd stories. From amputated toes to drinking camel urine, this man is an inspiration. While my stories are neither as graphic nor as intimate, there were times when I felt I might never get to hug my family again.

For example. From Urumqi, I spent a few nights in the northwest city of Yili, a Han Chinese island in a sea of ethnic heterogeneity. The vibe of the city center wasn't totally different from a small caliber Shanghai with vast swarms of people converging on the nearest Uniqlo. From Yili, I planned to travel south by bus, through the Tian Shan mountains and part of the Taklamakan desert to Kashgar. I missed my first bus due to a little time zone hiccup. Ok, Beijing time, not Xinjiang time.

Before departure the next day, I asked one of the drivers how long the trip would be, to which he responded with a vacuous look in his eyes, "shiliu ge xiaoshi" (16 hours). Remember I mentioned a 34 hour bus ride? Ya...I spent the latter 18 hours thinking I was almost there. You should have heard the groaning, the audible sighs, the incredulous looks directed at anyone who was willing to share in my painstaking misfortune (no one, obviously). The lone warrior that I am, I reflected on the fact that I would probably have a good laugh about it later.

The first ten hours outside the city were spent driving within a foot of the most precipitous cliffs I have ever seen. Literally at the bottom were buses turned piles of rusted metal and rubber charred black by the fire of an explosive thousand foot drop. Up, high in a bus, seesawing over the edge of a cliff, I did the only thing I could do to distract myself, read old texts from my ex-girlfriend whom I'm still in love with.

By hour 24, we arrived in the desert. Within minutes and out of nowhere, we found ourselves in the middle of a sandstorm. The broken, flapping top hatch of the bus that had been a minor annoyance, subsequently proved to be a considerable dilemma for everyone now that little granules of dust were flying up every orifice imaginable. The driver, who appeared to be either napping or had done this so many times could drive with his eyes closed, was operating the vehicle at full speed with maybe 5 feet of visibility in the storm. A brave passenger fixed the hatch, but no surprise to me when we plowed into the back of what seemed the only other car within 100 km. Not to worry, we met them at a security checkpoint and handled it like children fighting over candy.

We arrived in Kashgar a day and a half, and no less then six security checkpoints, later. I slid feet first into my hostel front door. Safe.

car vs. man


The food in Kashgar, mostly ethnic Uyghur, is a much anticipated change of pace from oily stir-fry in east China. Typical Uyghur cuisine includes heaps of raisins and grapes, nuts, kebabs, vegetables, noodles, and bread. Being the voracious tourist that I am, I picked two of everything during mealtime. Lucky for me that people speak Chinese, so I ordered without having to break out into the dreaded 'point and nod' dance.

Lengmian, a derivative of the classic lamian (spicy noodle) from east China, is a staple. All meat is prepared with the halal method. The noodles are hand pulled each morning, breakfast is accompanied by small symphony of older woman plucking apart dough like an accordion and aggressively whacking the middle down onto a board to stretch it out. It's kinda mesmerizing to watch them do something so skilled with the apparent indifference of tying a shoelace. The chewy noodles, the crunch of the peppers, onions, and green beans, the savory of the lamb, garlic, and roasted heat from the spices, marry for a fantastic combination.


I usually grab two (liang chuan两串) kebabs of mutton with my flatbread 'nang'. I found that a typical kebab has three pieces of mutton for every piece of fat. As a young boy, I never understood that the flavor of a piece of meat is mostly because of the fat content. The crunch of the char, the chewiness and savory taste of the fat, the spice from the chili powder and cumin, get together for a party in your mouth. I am drooling on my keyboard as I type this. Just one little piece of ambrosia was well worth all the anxiety of the trip. Usually kebabs (or just a huge slice of mutton) go with a rice pilaf that includes carrots, onions, oil, and sometimes even conversation with the locals. People are super friendly and always curious to know what the heck a white dude with long hair is doing at their restaurant.

For snacks, the possibilities are endless. You can find all sorts of nuts (especially almonds and walnuts) and dried fruits (especially raisins) eaten alone or made into little "power bars" with honey. I visited in August, and a favorite seasonal vegetable of mine was being used to make steamed dumplings, pumpkin! At some point you will cross a stack of roast dumplings made of a wheat flour coating, filled with mutton and vegetables, and slapped on the inside wall of a huge oven. This is the quintessential breakfast dumpling good piping hot.

steamed pumpkin dumplings

If you're feeling a little unconventional, no worries, Kashgar is not without its unorthodox goat head stew. This might have been one of the first dishes I tried at the night market across from the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar. Goat brains taste kinda exactly like what you'd expect, salty and mushy. You might also try a thirst quenching, yoghurt drink made with honey and ice. Sweet and delectable, it's not the contents of the drink that make it unconventional, but how they mix it. In an elaborate display of showmanship, vendors will chuck the semi-viscous fluid as far into the air as they can and catch it in the cup. Clearly a stratagem used to impress tourists, I have no shame in taking a reprieve from the summer heat.


Islamic headscarves, livestock markets, signs written in both Chinese characters and Arabic script, and disgusting pellets of dried horse milk for snacks, had me subsequently realizing why I came to Xinjiang...obscurity. There is a modus vivendi, a collective personality, here made from pieces of a puzzle polar opposite to my background. There's nothing better than throwing yourself in the middle of it and seeing what happens. Whatever culture shock I experienced in Shanghai was tenfold in Xinjiang. There were several things that struck me as peculiar (okay, f**king bizarre), and most often it was a chore the locals performed on the day-to-day. In the Tian Shan mountains, I watched a ten year old Kazakh boy butcher a sheep after drinking fermented mares milk for breakfast. Upon realizing my own shock at the situation, I looked down to see the little boy staring up, anticipating my reaction while gulping down his second helping of rotten, alcoholic milk (it wasn't that bad actually, kind of like kefir). Later that day, I impulsively tried explaining to the boy's 23 year old brother the concept of an Apple Iphone.

fermented mares milk

I spend a lot of time beating my chest about material possessions we don't need, the best hot sauce, Donald Trump's hypocrisy and everything in between. It's nice to converse with people who live a more wholesome life and cannot conceive of the various anxieties I have and vice versa.

Look here for some of the pictures I took during my travels.

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