The media is a scary concept; you hardly find positive news on the newspapers these days. When people think of Xinjiang, they only remember the terrorists, knifing incidents and the general instability that the media portrays. However, is it true that Xinjiang is dangerous, rife with terrorists and religious extremists? Here is a reality check:
Xinjiang was the safest province I have visited in China. There was literally a police station every 200 metres in the cities. Not to mention the countless checkpoints for vehicles going in and out of cities and the random roadblocks at traffic junctions. It was hard not to feel safe with police at every corner, or with metal detectors in every building (yes that includes your supermarkets and small eateries). In fact, I felt too safe. It was weird just living in an area like this. I was returning to my hotels much later at night simply because I knew there would be police to protect me.
Once I wanted to pitch a tent in the outskirts of a city at night. I thought I found a great area to pitch my tent – dark and secluded. Who knew that two minutes after I took my tent out, a man on a motorbike with a huge floodlight stopped 10 metres from me. Soon after, eight other men came running towards me, four of them with rifles and four with long batons. Reason? I was not allowed to pitch a tent anywhere near the city. Someone called the police and these nine men were dispatched to check out the situation. Like a security detail, they followed me in a police car for half an hour to ensure that I walked back to the city safely. Efficient indeed, maybe a little too efficient.
Despite all of these security measures, we cannot deny that there were still acts of terrorism in the region. Every now and then you would hear of extremists who knifed the police at checkpoints. However, these are mostly one-off small incidents that have no significant impact on the lives of the millions who live in Xinjiang. Life goes on, and it does as normally as it should be.
Safety comes with a hefty price tag though. As a province, Xinjiang spends the most on security, so much so that it is affecting its economy. The current focus of the Xinjiang government is to stabilise the province even if it means at the expense of the economy. Many businesses have closed and many Han Chinese have left the province.
Yet, the Uyghurs in Xinjiang remain resilient. They continue living in Xinjiang despite the double standards imposed upon them. Uyghurs live in estates that are fenced up and only passable through assigned checkpoints. They have to endure long queues at checkpoints while the Han Chinese breeze through them, simply because they need to be checked thoroughly. They have their passports confiscated so that the government can restrict their movements overseas. These are just a few of the many restrictions they face, but the Uyghurs continue to live the best way they can.
The strong Uyghur identity and culture are some things I really enjoyed while in Xinjiang. Xinjiang felt nothing like the rest of China, neither did it resemble any part of Central Asia. Xinjiang has its own unique flavour that is hard to describe: Middle-eastern in some ways, Chinese in others and sometimes even European. This is the beauty of Xinjiang and it is a pity that much of its beauty is mired by the talk of terrorism.
Moreover, the Uyghur people were one of the kindest and friendliest people I have met. Despite the prejudiced treatment they received, many still treated Han Chinese very well (or for that matter people who look Han Chinese). I could not count the number of times I was invited for tea or lunch, or shown around their humble abodes. Uyghur people are really keen to share their culture with you, if you take the initiative to ask. I had a great time learning Uyghur muqam music, which is a set of twelve traditional melodic compositions that have been passed down for centuries.
With all the generosity of the Uyghur people, it is hard to imagine Xinjiang being a dangerous place to visit. It is a pity indeed that even the Chinese have the misconception that Xinjiang is unsafe for travel. Many only travel to northern Xinjiang (Uyghurs live mostly in southern Xinjiang), although southern Xinjiang has its fair share of beautiful nature and culture. A blessing in disguise indeed, because you are saved from the hordes of Chinese tourists when you visit southern Xinjiang.
So is Xinjiang dangerous? I think it is important that we take media reports with a large pinch of salt. You cannot imagine how some people have such extreme views of the security situation in Xinjiang. I usually get the “are you not worried that you will die?” question from many Chinese whose concept of Xinjiang came only from the media. Well yes I should be worried, now that I look back at my trip in southern Xinjiang. I probably could have died from the crazy drivers that sped along the roads in the cities!
Are you concerned about the security situation in Xinjiang? Drop me a comment below and tell me how you feel about it. Also, do share this article so that more people are aware of the real situation over in Xinjiang!