Xinjiang, the Far West of China is an incredibly beautiful land. Yet it is not a famous tourist destination, but rather an off the beaten path area. Although the tourist invasion is slowly increasing, by visiting it is too far from places like Paris, London, Venice, Taj Mahal, New York, and even the Great Wall of China. There are many reasons for that, and one of them is the travel regulations in Xinjiang, or at least what the foreigners have heard or imagine about it. And indeed, it is not as simple to travel there as in the other provinces of China. But it doesn’t mean that it is impossible or extremely complicated. Let’s learn more about it.
Travel experience in Xinjiang
Xinjiang has attracted me for many years, as soon as I learned about what this land has to offer. I wanted to cross it from west to east, on some of the Silk Road routes. I also wanted to explore it in details. But I have heard that it is not so simple and there are a lot of restrictions. I didn’t know is it safe, or is it easy to be caught by the police for something that I could be unaware, or just to be not allowed to travel here or there.
Checking in the airport
The first time I visited Xinjiang was when we back to China from Kyrgyzstan by plane. We landed in the capital Urumqi at noon, and we had several hours to our train to Changsha in the eastern part of China. Initially, we wanted to use these hours to walk around Urumqi and visit at least 1-2 tourist sites.
So, when we arrived in Urumqi Airport, we had more than an hour to go out, because I had to pass through at least two checks in and registration points. Finally, we went out of the airport and took a taxi to the railway station, because we wanted to leave our luggage there while walking around the city. But again, before arriving there, we were stopped by the police for another checking- again at least for 15 mins. And to enter the railway station itself, passing through a few more checkings, took us another 30 mins. So finally we just gave up and decided to rest inside.
Checking in the railway station
Then, one year later (July’2019) we were in Xinjiang again. This time we built our own itinerary, aiming at some of the most important and popular places there. Our first stop was Turpan, where we arrived by train, at Turpan North Railway Station.
At the exit, two local Uyghur policemen stopped us, and one of them told me to follow him to the nearby police station. He took our passports and gave them to a third Uyghur policeman who entered in his room and we had to wait outside. After 15 mins waiting he appeared again and tried to ask some questions- the reason why we come to Turpan, where will we sleep, when will we leave and where will we go next. These few questions took another 15 mins, because he couldn’t speak English, and his Chinese was very poor too. Anyway, they all were very polite and smiling, and finally, let us go.
Later, during our trip in Xinjiang, we had such checking whenever we enter a city and get on or off a train. There were checkings on all highways and lesser roads, so when we traveled by car, we had to stop in every checking and wait for the policemen to input all our passport information. Which was every time slowly, because it was always difficult for them to read something different than Chinese or Uyghur language.
Travel in the „normal” Xinjiang
So, what we knew is that most of Xinjiang, maybe around 80% of its area was under strong control, stronger than in the other parts of China. But that was all. Everything else was free for travel, and no matter how do you travel- by plane, by train, by bus, by car or by horse, just have to show your passport in a checking point and be patient. It is good to tell them your clear plan- when will you sleep, when will you leave, what is your next destination. But even if you can’t, that’s no problem, just it is possible to wait a long time.
When we passed through one of the checking points, a policeman there was very helpful, and he explained to us that there is a way to shorten our waiting in the other checking points. Just have to go to Urumqi and obtain something like a travel certificate. Then, when we show it in every checking point, we can wait only a few mins, instead of 15-20 mins. We were not in a hurry, so we didn’t try it.
However, there are some areas in Xinjiang which are not such easy to travel…
Special areas in Xinjiang
Fortunately, these areas are much smaller than the „free” travel area of Xinjiang. But at the same time, unfortunately, these areas are established in some of the most beautiful and breathtaking places of the province, which means: you can’t just go and enjoy this beauty freely!
Border areas of Xinjiang
Shortly, this is the whole strip of territory along the border between Xinjiang and all the other neighboring countries, out of China. In general, this territory has a special, strengthened regime of visiting and traveling.
But at least for now, it is not the same everywhere. Some border areas are more restricted than others. Especially those who border countries like India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, which are considered „riskier”.
Karakoram Highway in China
And one of the most beautiful areas in Xinjiang- the Karakoram Highway in Pamir, is located in such area. Until the last year, foreigners could travel there freely. But not now. From 2019 foreigners can travel there only by a licensed travel company. Yes, for many it can be sad and disappointing, but that’s the reality, at least for now.
The travel center in Kashgar
If you want to travel from Kashgar to Tashkurgan, you have to visit the travel center in Kashgar and apply for a travel company there, which can help you to obtain the necessary travel permit. You can’t obtain this permit by yourself. And they will tell you that you must apply for it at least 3 days before your trip to Tashkurgan!
However, usually, there are always some travel companies’ representatives who can reach you and tell you that they can arrange it for you faster, so you can go on a trip right on the next day. And they say the truth actually because this is how we traveled to Tashkurgan- we applied for this trip and on the next day, we were on the bus on the Karakoram Highway. And in general, their service was really satisfying.
But the price for foreigners is much more expensive than for the Chinese. The Chinese had to pay something around 550 CNY per person, and I as a foreigner had to pay 1300 CNY! Our children who have a foreign passport paid half of the price. And this was one of the cheapest companies, there were even more expensive offers!
Our trip to Tashkurgan
Then, following the travel group in our minibus, we made our 2-days trip to Tashkurgan. There are 3 checkpoints from Kashgar to Tashkurgan. The first is still in the lowland, the second is in the middle of the gorge of Gaizi River, and the third is just several kilometers before Tashkurgan. And the most serious check was at the second one (and our guide especially told us to not take photos there). But, since we were following the travel company, everything was normal, just like any other normal checking in the rest of Xinjiang.
Other beautiful places, located in the border area are Shipton’s Arch near Kashgar, Xiate Ancient Trail, Sayram Lake, and Kanas Lake. The situation about the Shipton’s Arch is the same. A foreign couple tried to reach it independently but were stopped and let them back to Kashgar.
As far as I heard, currently, in 2019, foreigners still can go freely to Sayram Lake and Kanas Lake. But not to Xiate Ancient Trail- even for Chinese, it is closed to hike independently, but only by a licensed company. They say that it is due to „safety precautions” because they claim that the trail is dangerous. But in fact, it is not more dangerous than the other famous trails in Tianshan, in the interior of Xinjiang.
Crossing the border to or from Xinjiang in China
There are some border crossings to the neighboring countries, as follows:
For foreigners, there is only one border crossing between Mongolia and Xinjiang. This is Bulgan-Takashiken. There are three more border crossings, but two of them are only for Chinese and Mongols, and the third is only for freight.
No border crossing from Xinjiang. Although there is a short border section between China and Russia on the Altay Mountains, nobody can cross it.
There are 4 border crossings which can be used by foreign travelers too, in both directions. And there are 3 more border crossings but restricted only for locals, or currently not in operation.
There are 2 border crossings between China and Kyrgyzstan: These are Irkeshtam and Torugart. Torugart is a famous pass, a dream for many travelers. But until now it remains very difficult to pass. Irkeshtam is a little bit easier but still complicated.
There is only one border crossing- Qolma Pass. It is opened for foreigners just recently and is complicated for crossing.
No border crossings for foreigners. There is one crossing- Wakhjir Pass, but currently completely closed for everybody.
There is only one border crossing to Pakistan. This is the famous Khunjerab Pass, on the Karakoram Highway. From 2 years ago it is highly restricted for crossing or just visiting.
Actually, this is Kashmir. Since Kashmir, bordering with Xinjiang is a disputed area between India and Pakistan, there is no border crossing.
Obviously, to reach the border crossings, you have to pass through the border areas. Various border crossings have various levels of restriction. We met a couple of foreigners who have entered China (Xinjiang) from Kazakhstan by train through Khorgos, without a problem.
Difficult border crossings
But some border crossings are really difficult. I mentioned Torugart between Kyrgyzstan and China. In 2018 we tried to cross it from Kyrgyzstan. But we were told that first, we had to obtain a permit in Kyrgyzstan side (which was easy). Then we had to contact a travel company (we found Silk Road Tours) in China, which can arrange another travel permit for Xinjiang side, and an expensive private car with a driver to wait for us on the border. It was too complicated so we gave up.
However, many foreigners have tried to cross it and were stopped and sent back. And as I know, now the situation is quite similar to Khunjerab between Pakistan and China. Until recently, it was possible to just reach the border and make a photo at this notorious mountain pass. Now you can’t unless you are preparing to cross it (with all the necessary documents and other travel details).
Besides, most of the border crossing are often closed, especially in winter. Their working time is highly limited, and the closures often happen without warning. Here you can see the map of all border crossings of Xinjiang.
Special autonomous areas
Yes, there is an area in the interior of Xinjiang, far from the border, which is not as the other „normal” areas. This is Hejing (和静), a Mongol Autonomous County, known as the „most bordered county in the world”. And some of the most spectacular destinations in Xinjiang are located within it- Bayan Buluk on Du Ku Highway, Tekes, and a part of Wusun Ancient Trail.
I have a Chinese driving license, so I can drive a car in China (including Xinjiang). After our trip on Du Ku Highway, I have read an article in a website which says that foreigners, even with a driving license can’t drive there freely, but must obtain a travel permit for the area.
Our experience on Du Ku Highway
At that time I didn’t know it and we traveled on the whole Du Ku Highway, from Kuqa to Dushanzi without any problem. Nobody stopped us. In fact, there is only one checking point near Narati Grassland. The policemen saw me, the driving foreigner, and didn’t even stop me for registration, just said to everybody to pass quickly, to avoid traffic jam.
No independent foreigners in the tourist sites
Yes, there was another problem in this area. We arrived in Bayan Buluk and wanted to visit the Bayan Buluk Grassland and Swan Lake. The people at the entrance told us that we have to go to the travel center and buy tickets from there. So we found this travel center, in the other part of Bayan Buluk town, and I entered inside for tickets.
But a policeman there told me that this area is not opened for foreigners. The only way to visit Bayan Buluk Grassland is to go to the travel center in Urumqi and obtain a travel permit there. Not only that, but he said that we must leave the town within 30 mins, otherwise he has to call the other policemen and to ask me a lot of questions. He apologized that it was not him who created these regulations, but we all haven’t a choice and have to obey.
So, we went outside of Bayan Buluk town, just a km outside. There we found a nice grassland with horses, sheep, and cows, and enjoyed the stunning landscape for almost 2 hours. No checkpoints around, nobody came to check me, we were completely free.
No hotels for independent foreigners
Before we traveled on Du Ku Highway, we were looking for a hotel in Bayan Buluk. There wasn’t any hotel there which could accept foreigners. We felt strange about it, and when we met the policeman, we understood why. Anyway, since the road was temporarily damaged by a small landslide, we spent the night in the car, waiting for the dawn to proceed.
So, to conclude- foreigners CAN travel on Du Ku Highway, Tekes and Wusun Ancient Trail (if not closed for other reasons), but CAN’T sleep in hotels there, CAN’T visit Swan Lake of Bayan Buluk Grassland (and maybe can’t visit other travel sites with entrance ticket too) independently, and are required just to move quickly. But since there is only one checking point, and normally no policemen check people randomly, foreigners can sleep in cars, in tents, even in some local yurts without problem (although technically it is not allowed).
Other travel limits in the „normal” part of Xinjiang
We faced such limits when we drove a car from Kashgar to Maigaiti N39 area of Taklamakan Desert. Basically, this area is free. There are 2-3 checking points, but they are just normal. Initially, our goal was not Maigaiti, but Karsu- another place at the edge of Taklamakan Desert near Kargilik (Yecheng).
But when we arrived at the last checking point before Karsu, the policemen politely explained that just that day there was a „special activity” in Kargilik, so foreigners are not allowed to proceed further. If I really want to visit Karsu, I was welcomed to come again several days later. But now I had to leave, and they advised us to visit Maigaiti N39, which was free to travel.
So we visited Maigaiti N39 instead. The road passes through a nice and beautifully decorated town, and we wanted to take some photos of the houses. Then, at that moment, a policewoman called us and warned us to NOT make any photos in the area, but only in the desert. There was another small checking point and the local Uyghur policemen didn’t register me, but also told us to not take photos.
Forbidden areas in Xinjiang
There are such areas too. You will not see them marked on any map, but they exist. Usually, these are military areas or secret areas of other kinds. Initially, we planned to visit an ancient village at the edge of Taklamakan Desert, called Luoburen (or Luobu Man), not far from Korla. But when I mentioned it to the Chinese girls of our Kashgar hostel’s personnel, they told me to forget to go there. It is completely forbidden for foreigners. They said that they indeed were there, but only by a travel company, and were not allowed to take any photos.
As I know, there are other forbidden areas in Xinjiang, mainly in the border areas, or near Lop Nur area. And since it is difficult to find any information which are these places and where you can reach to their entrance and be stopped by the local police. They will not arrest you, but just politely will tell you that it is closed and you have to back. That’s not a serious problem, unless you may lose precious time and waste money to reach the place.
The area at the border with the Tibetan Autonomous Region
It is another difficult area. You can see southern Silk Road highway from Kashgar through Hotan, Qiemo, and Ruoqiang to Xining. This road is opened for foreigners. But only several kilometers south of the road, and south of these cities, foreigners are not allowed to travel free. Although the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) is not another country, but a part of China, this area has even more strengthened regulations than the other border areas.
This area is, in fact, the wildest part of Xinjiang. Only one road crosses it, in direction to Lhasa in Tibet- this is the „heavenly road” G219, starting from Kargilik (Yecheng). There are only a few other roads which enter in the area, but not go too far and end in the mountain wilderness before even approach closely to Tibet.
If foreigners want to travel there, it could be possible only by a travel company, obtaining the necessary travel permit. But since these places are not a popular tourist destination like Tashkurgan, it would be much more difficult to find such a travel company. And it would be much more expensive. And that’s not all…
Special natural areas
There are also some special natural areas, which require more travel permits, and some hired personnel with you.
High mountain peaks
Every mountaineer and most mountain hikers know that. It is not only in Xinjiang, but everywhere in the world- the high mountain peaks are expensive. There is a mountain climbing tax which you must pay if you want to climb it. The higher is the peak, the price is more expensive and can reach even tens of thousands of dollars.
Muztagh Ata (7509 m) is well known as the easiest 7000-er, as it doesn’t require mountaineering skills and gear. You can just walk to the top, being aware only of the high altitude sickness and the harsh weather conditions. But again, apart from the fact that it is located within the border area of Tashkurgan, you must also obtain a climbing permit (which fortunately is not too expensive).
Most of the area right beside the border with the Tibetan Autonomous Region is not only restricted for foreigners like a „border area”, but also is a part of a natural reserve zone. So it also requires a special (and extremely difficult to obtain) permit, which is also very expensive.
If you want to climb Ulugh Muztagh, be ready for at least 3 travel permits. The first one is the border permit. The second- the natural reserve permit. And the third- the climbing permit. In total it may cost you more than 10 000 USD (as far as I know) if you can get all these permits at all. Then, you have to pay also for mandatory guides with you- for their salary and all other daily expenses. And since this peak is extremely difficult to reach, you can imagine what are you going to prepare for…
Aksai Chin is a small area, which is not completely forbidden, but is very complicated (and expensive) for foreigners to enter. That’s because it is a disputed area between China and India. It also borders the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
Since the „heavenly road” G219 from Kashgar (Kargilik) to Lhasa crosses Aksai Chin, this is the only way to enter this area. When you are inside, everything on your left and your right of the road is completely forbidden for foreigners. So it is possible to cross it only if you join an organized tour from Xinjiang to Lhasa.
Unclear and changeable at any time
Yes, that’s what I found when I traveled in Xinjiang. Normally, we foreigners would not be happy with these restrictions, and it is obvious. But at least we would like to know clear, in advance- where can we go freely, where we can go only under certain restrictions, permits, and other requirements, and where we can’t go at all.
Unfortunately, you can’t find any website or any other source of information, presenting all these regulations clearly. There is no such full information even in Chinese. Not only that, but most of the policemen, even the officials don’t know everything!
“Maybe” and “I think”
When we were in Xinjiang, we asked everywhere, every day various people- the personnel in the hostels, the policemen, drivers, even travel companies, questions like „Can we go there? Can we rent a car? Can we visit this or that place?”. And the answers were usually: „I think you can.” or „Maybe you can’t”. But „I think” and „maybe” doesn’t work for me, I still can’t plan a clear travel itinerary, based only on such proposals.
Even the officials not always know
Only when we went to the travel center in Kashgar, we were told for 100% certainty that foreigners can visit Tashkurgan ONLY by a travel company. And even there not everybody knew it!
Yes, I tried to apply for a travel permit independently, waited 10 mins on a queue and when arrived at the counter, the man said: „ok, give me your passport.” I was happy that seemed like I can obtain a travel permit to Tashkurgan and can travel there independently. He took my passport, started to input the data on his computer and when he found difficult to input some English words, he asked his colleague. He was almost ready with the permit. And then his colleague stopped him and said: „but he is a foreigner, you can’t give him a travel permit, he must apply for a travel company!” Yes, two officials working in this travel department, and even not all of them knew the regulations!
More ideas and proposals
I also talked with a guy from a travel company, asking him about various travel routes outside of the „normal” part of Xinjiang. I asked him about traveling from Xinjiang to Lhasa on route G219. And he told me something very strange. He said: „You can’t go there independently by self-driving. You can’t even go there by rental car with a local driver. But you can go there…by bike, by horse or on foot only! Because cars have to be registered, while bikes and horses- no.” And he was really serious.
He also said that if you just pass through this area transit, while traveling from Kyrgyzstan to Nepal via Xinjiang and Tibet, by foreign car, it is possible too! Of course, I strongly doubt what he told me, anyway, still kept it in my mind. Because I already knew that it is hard to find someone who knows the regulations 100%.
And not only that, but these regulations can be changed without notice at any time, unfortunately, toward more strengthening! Maybe this is the reason (or at least one of the reasons) why many people which is supposed to know the regulations, actually, don’t know.
Yes, why we foreigners can’t just travel freely and enjoy the stunning nature everywhere without limits? Just like in Western Europe or America? What wrong are we doing? We are just travelers, we would not harm anyone. We just want to explore this beautiful land, then leave without being involved in anything inside.
I had such questions when I was in Kashgar and wanted to make a trip to Tashkurgan. And maybe many foreigners have the same questions too. So I tried to ask the local Chinese- „why, for what reason?” If it has been free for us to visit Tashkurgan, why they changed it and created this new regulation for us?
And it was very difficult, almost impossible to get an answer. I live in China for many years already, and I know the Chinese traditional way of thinking. They don’t ask questions too much and don’t think too much (and no, it is not from recent years, it is a part of their culture since many centuries). If „someone from above” orders something, they just accept it.
Just accept it
So, why we foreigners can’t travel freely to Tashkurgan? „You just can’t, that’s it.” Is the normal answer. If I insist asking, they keep answering: „Just accept it, it is useless to ask.” In fact, they also don’t know, and don’t care „why”.
Anyway, after many attempts to get some answer, finally one of the policemen said something like this: „It is for your safety. Because foreigners walking free around Tashkurgan don’t know where is the border exactly. There were accidents in which foreigners have been caught on the border because they were lost.” I don’t know whether it is the real reason, but anyway, I couldn’t get more explanations from anybody.
No, don’t think about it! Yes, some „rebel thoughts” passed in my head. „Can I secretly go around the checking point and silently appear at the other side?” or „The mountains are so big and wild, what if I just „crawl” to the restricted zone behind the checking point? Nobody could see me. I am not doing anything wrong, after all!”
But no, that’s not what we may think. It is the same as you try to cross illegally through a border between two countries, without passport and visa, and not through a normal border crossing. And if they catch you, you will have serious troubles, like staying in jail or be accused as a „foreign spy”.
Understand the regulations
Yes, we are „not doing anything wrong”. But it is like you drive a car and cross on the red light „very carefully”, and pass successfully without an accident. Not only in China but everywhere in the world, although „you didn’t do anything wrong and didn’t harm anyone”, you will still be punished.
Because these regulations are designed for precaution. You may not do anything wrong, and many other foreigners too. But as it is well known, Xinjiang is a place with some tensions. I would not comment on who is right and who is wrong, because nobody is 100% white or black in Xinjiang. If 9 foreigners don’t do anything wrong, the 10th may do, trying to involve in these tensions. And if you can go freely in the restricted areas, why the 10th one can’t?
So, the best we can do is just to accept the reality in Xinjiang as a basic foundation of our trip. Then having them in mind, we still can enjoy all that this incredibly beautiful place can reveal!
Let’s get some more impressions of Xinjiang!
Check out some travel books about Xinjiang!
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