Xinjiang is pretty hard to pronounce, let alone live in. The autonomous territory in northwest China is as big as it is intriguing, part of the ancient Silk Trade route (that links China with the Middle East) and so remote it's somewhere only the bravest of explorers end up seeing. Yet, it's one spectacular part of the world: both bewildering and incredibly beautiful. Oh, and fun fact: Bill Gates spent part of his honeymoon there. Yet the co-founder of Microsoft has nothing on Josh of FarWestChina.com, the author of a guide to the region that's informative and entertaining in equal measures. Here, he takes us beginners on a journey through Xinjiang – crazy anecdotes, amazing photography and all.
First off, what made you decide to teach English and then full on move to such a remote part of China?
Originally, my wife and I wanted to share an adventure together after getting married. For some reason, the only opportunity that was open for us was this weird place called Xinjiang (a name we couldn't even pronounce at the time!) in China's remote, western region. It didn't take long for us to fall in love with the gorgeous scenery, lovely people and Central Asian culture.
What's the biggest misconception you hear about the province?
Aside from the security concerns that plague most Central Asian regions, I would say that the most common misconception I hear from travelers has to do with the size of the region. It's BIG. As in, almost three times the size of France. People come here thinking they're just going to hop from one city to the next, which usually isn't the case. One trip I did to the southern edge of the province required a 32 hour train ride!
As a westerner, what's your biggest challenge about living there?
As a business owner who relies heavily on western-focused online social media, the internet has been a huge challenge. Not only are all of the major sites blocked (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube etc.), but the internet in our neck of the woods is unbelievably slow. At one point in 2009, they entirely shut down the internet for 10 months. It seems hard to believe, but I actually survived without internet for that long!
What's the weirdest thing that's happened to you there?
While traveling through a small village near the borders of Pakistan and Tajikistan, I ran across the most incredible game I've ever seen called "buzkashi". Men on horseback were galloping all across a large grassland and it wasn't until closer inspection that I realized the "ball" they were playing with was actually a headless goat carcass! It was absolutely fascinating to watch.
What's the best thing about living in Xinjiang?
Anybody who has traveled to Xinjiang will tell you that the food is second-to-none. The region is a melting pot of various cultures and each one of them brings their own culinary specialty to the table. Whether you try "Big Plate Chicken" from the Hui people, a special rice pilaf from the Uyghur people or a horse sausage soup from the Kazakh people, it's guaranteed to stick in your memory.
If you had just a few days in the province, what are the most beautiful, unique spots you'd recommend hitting up?
My two favorite spots are Turpan and Kashgar. Both of these towns were outposts along the old Silk Road and they are full of ancient history, Central Asian bazaars and Uyghur culture. I love wandering the mud-brick alleyways of the old quarters and soaking in the noise and smells of the evening festivities.
Xinjiang is known for having some of China's most breathtaking natural scenery, and while I love to explore this side of Xinjiang (as you can tell from my photos), I think that the people and culture are what make this region of the world so enticing.
What practical tips would you give to travelers wanting to explore remote, western China?
For those wishing to explore western China, I recommend you either set aside plenty of time (a couple weeks) or plan your schedule precisely. The region is just too big to "play it by ear". Figure out what you want to see, be it history, culture, or natural scenery, and then build your itinerary around those goals. I've been here since 2006 and I still haven't seen everything I want to see! Trust me when I say you won't be able to do it in just a couple weeks.
For more of Josh's work in Xinjiang, check out his YouTube and Instagram pages. Also, for those planning to travel to western China, you'll want to grab a copy of the FarWestChina Xinjiang Travel Guide.