Fact or Fiction VI: Xinjiang, The Final Frontier

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Welcome back one and all to the May edition of Fact or Fiction. Those of you who read either of the last three will know, every edition I will have a guest and we will discuss a few of the big issues in China of the day. Every answer will have a “Fact” or a “Fiction” and some justification to go along with it.

Today my guest is Josh Summers, a writer with a passion for the province of Xinjiang. He and his wife arrived in Xinjiang in August of 2006 and for reasons unknown to them stayed for almost four years.  Their experiences in the province have been featured on sites such as the BBC, MSNBC and China Daily, but Josh takes most pride in the writings he publishes on his own site, Xinjiang: Far West China.

Although he moved back to Texas in March of 2010, he continues to focus on his adopted home back in China.  In May he released a Turpan travel guide and is almost finished completing two more guides for Urumqi and Kashgar.  The perks of life in America have already worn off after two months and he’s hoping to return again to Xinjiang in the future.

Today Josh and I are going to be discussing a variety of issues in the Westernmost region in the Middle Kingdom.  So join us for Fact or Fiction 6:  Xinjiang, the Final Frontier…


Fact or Fiction

1. The internet ban in Xinjiang went on far too long.

Glen: FACT

While I’m never a big fan of censorship, I get this one, really I do. Riots are bad and there is a desire to both limit the spread of information and to punish the offenders. But come on, 10 months? That’s a little excessive I think. I mean, the root cause of the riots is most definitely poverty, and how much economic damage was done by being so disconnected for so long?

Josh: FACT

You think?! To me, a couple weeks says “Hey, we’re security conscious and want to be careful”. 10 months says “We all failed economics class in school”. Now they’re having to play catch up with all these recent investment plans.

I agree that the root cause of this unrest is poverty, but more specifically the disparity between the income of your average Han and Uyghur. As is the case with most government policies around the world, it’s the small businesses that usually get hit the hardest and in Xinjiang there was no exception.

Well that was a pretty easy thing to agree on.  We’re starting off well, 1 for 1!

2. The proposed plan to turn Kashgar into a Special Economic Zone will be very beneficial to Xinjiang’s economy.

Glen: FACT

I mean, really you need to look no further than Shenzhen, which literally went from a mudbank to a metropolis in 30 years as a result of better policy, and good old fashion leaching from Hong Kong. While nobody really expects that to happen with Kashgar, there is still a lot of money that can be made trading with the ‘Stans, as all of them, especially Kazakstan and Uzbekistan are rapidly emerging economies, and Xinjiang is in a special place to benefit from it.

Josh: FICTION

I’ll seriously cry if Kashgar evolves to look remotely similar to Shenzhen! (no offense to any Shenzhen folks out there) I think that this statement applied to any province or city is true. Fill in the blank: “If you turn _________ into a Special Economic Zone it will be beneficial to _____’s economy”. So in that sense I agree with the statement – it will be beneficial to Kashgar.

Take the example of one other economic zone in Xinjiang. The Changji Hui Autonomous Prefecture, a small farming district to the north of Urumqi, was turned into an economic development zone years ago and factories have grown there faster than livestock. Most of the people who own those businesses aren’t Changji-natives, though. The city is now divided between wealthier business people who live within the city and pockets of the Hui people groups who live in small villages outside (near the factories where they can work). I believe that benefits the economy, sure, but not always the right people in that economy.

Let the venom start to flow!  We’re down to 1 for 2.

3. The government should stop tearing down Kashgar’s Old Town

Glen: FICTION

Kashgar's Old Town

That is, Fiction with a caveat. I think it would be foolish to completely demolish all of Kashgar’s Old Town, because quite simply: it’s awesome! However there is a difference between seeing the “traditional way of life” and having to live it. As great an experience as it is to walk through the old streets, the fact remains that peoples lives in there are very difficult. I know that I would much rather have central heating and working toilets than rustic traditionalism and I know that I’m not alone in that one. I think that some parts of the Old Town do need to be rebuild with new, modern buildings that give people a more comfortable lifestyle, but I hope that they keep enough to let curious people like me wander around in.

Josh: FACT

I look at it this way: governments all over the world can claim eminent domain (or compulsory purchase if you’re from the UK). They have the right to seize property without the owner’s consent for uses ranging from public highways to economic development.

I don’t think we can deny what the government has the right to do, but I think it is perfectly within reason to speculate on what should be done. I believe they should have asked residents of the area if they actually wanted to move. I think that despite any safety concerns, they should consider the social impact of tearing down the Old Town. There’s more at stake here than just the economy.

Looks like it’s not going so hot.  Let’s switch things up and talk about tourism, and have Josh go first.  1 for 3.

4. Xinjiang is the most beautiful province you have been to in China.

Josh: FACT

I’m very biased, I admit! I’ve visited quite a few provinces but have only lived in one. Personally, I’m drawn to Xinjiang for its diversity. It boasts the 2nd highest mountain in the world (K2) as well as the second lowest point in the world (Turpan Basin). I had the opportunity to ride camels along towering sand dunes and horses through sprawling pastures.

Xinjiang also boasts some of the most beautiful women in China. Now I’m a happily married man, but it baffles me that out of all the foreigners who come to China looking for wives, few make it out to Xinjiang. What’s up with that? The diversity here is mesmerizing!

Glen: FACT

Let’s see, I was almost pick pocketed, scammed by a crooked tour guide, got severe diarrhea and still had a fantastic time in my 10 day trip to Xinjiang last year!  (*cough* something I even wrote about on ChinaTravel.net *cough*).

I, like Josh, have visited several provinces, but only lived in one.  But unlike Josh, my “home province” is not what I consider to be the most beautiful province.  However that is not a slight against Jiangsu, it is a praise towards Xinjiang.  The mountains, deserts, lakes, and architectures make this a place that you shouldn’t miss.

Looks like the change did us good!  Both men love Xinjiang.  2 for 4.

5. Not nearly enough foreigners visit Xinjiang.

Come on, you know you wanna go there...

Josh: FACT

I’m torn with this statement. Every year tourism tends to trample another part of nature or exploit another part of Silk Road history. Change is inevitable, however, and if anybody were to ask me whether Xinjiang is worth the time and money, I would never hesitate to say ‘yes’.

Glen: FACT

I think that a lot of people buy into the safety issue more than they need to.  Xinjiang is a very safe place, certainly compared to locations in the West or around the world.  Sure it may not be quite as safe as the rest of China, but it’s certainly not a dangerous location.

Xinjiang is really the most foreign place you can go and still be in China.  It is so incredibly different from the China that we all know and (sometimes) love.  It is a great place to go if you need a “China Break” but don’t want to worry about passport regulations or changing money.

I guess this one was a bit of a gimme, especially given the last one.  3 for 5.

6. You would put Kashgar’s Sunday Markets as the #1 Xinjiang Sight/Activity:

Josh: FICTION

The Sunday Market in Kashgar is a must-see, no doubt, but over the years it has slowly begun to cater to, how shall I say…tourist needs. If you’re looking for a more authentic market I would head a few hours south to Hotan (Khotan) where culture hasn’t yet adapted to tourism. Of course, the more people that say that the more likely that market is to succumb to tourism needs as well.

If I had to choose one sight/activity in Xinjiang, I would stick with Kashgar but head a few kilometers west to the Id Kah Mosque. Particularly at the end of Ramadan. Thousands of worshipers gather at the mosque and after prayers continue the celebration with tons of dancing and good food. It only happens once a year, but it was absolutely the most awe-inspiring event I experienced there.

Glen: FICTION

Granted my experience in the autonomous region is far less than my counterpart, but my personal favourite area was Karakoram Pass.  As I said in my last Fact or Fiction entry (damn, I’m just plugging myself left, right and centre today!), it belongs in the same league as the Great Wall, seriously.

That being said, Kasghar’s markets are pretty darn close.  I have honestly never felt so far away from home as I did when I went to the Livestock Market in Kashgar.  I can’t say that I ever saw people literally trade goats for sheep, or had to dodge someone test driving a donkey.

And they continue to agree!  We are 4 for 6 which puts us in a tie for the most harmonious edition ever!

As always, what do the rest of you think?

Talk on Fact or Fiction VI: Xinjiang, The Final Frontier


7 Comments
  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Fact or Fiction: Edition VI | Lost Laowai China Blog -- Topsy.com

  2. Good piece. I enjoyed reading about a province in China I haven’t visited yet and now I’m hungry to see it. Maybe in the next few years after returning to Guilin first and the Li River and maybe Tibet or closer to Tibet in central West China, I’ll make it there too. My brother-in-law has been to the Silk Road a number of times.

    As for tearing down Kashgar’s old town, that’s going on all over China and if the Chinese do the same thing they’ve done in other cities, they will leave a few blocks to bring in the tourists. The rest will go and soon China will look more like LA or NY or SF than China–too bad. I like the old look even if the streets were crooked and narrow.

    I’ve enjoyed wondering those older streets than the modern replacements.

    What about the Internet control. It’s everywhere in China. Yet, Chinese get past China’s Net Nanny all the time. Are you telling me that the Net Nanny in Xianjing is better than the rest of the country? By the way, how do the Chinese control Internet connections that use satelight disks instead of cables?

    • Good questions, Lloyd. During the 10-months beginning in July 2009 it was darn near impossible to bypass the internet block. The connection was practically severed. I’m no internet guru, but I know my way around proxies and VPN’s…none of that worked at all. There were only two ways to get around: dial-up (which was finicky) and satellite (which was EXPENSIVE). One month’s satellite service was being sold in Urumqi for about 1500 RMB per month. That just ain’t worth it…

      Glad you enjoyed the piece!

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  4. Fun article! I’ve wanted to visit Xinjiang for awhile but haven’t really had the opportunity to plan a proper trip with work and all. I’m wondering–when would be the best time to travel there, weatherwise? I’ve been to Beijing a couple times now, but my first journey was in the middle of winter. Being in Tiananmen on a cold, windy day was really awful. Also, how useful is Putonghua there? I went to Chengdu recently and most folk refused to use their Putonghua, even with my girlfriend, who’s from Jiangsu.

    As far as the internet ban, that just struck me as wrong from day 1. Removing lines of communication serves really just to piss people off. It something you should only do to your enemies. Being locked in a box with no communication to the outside world when you know everybody else is still part of the 21st century has got to suck. On the other hand, I understand why it was done. I mean, I don’t agree with it, but look at Iran during last year’s election protests. Despite trying to keep out as many journalists as they could, people Twittered to the outside world, so we all knew exactly what was going on. Additionally, they had the “Twitter Revolution”, where protest group members were able to clandestinely communicate with each other through Twitter and the like. China is still an authoritarian nation, so it’s to be expected. Hell, looking back at Tiananmen, Deng Xiaoping really just opened up the playbook and said, “response to protest–send in the tanks.” It’s completely ridiculous and I don’t agree with it in any way, but that’s how they do it. By the way–I’ve never heard Net Nanny, that’s great. I’ve always heard Great Firewall of China.

    • Well Glen, what do you think? I’d say that anytime in September or maybe late October would be the best time. Just don’t go during the October holiday and you’ll be able to miss the crowds. July and August can just get so hot. Once November hits the weather has a tendency to take a nosedive into winter.

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