The situation in Xinjiang has been alternatively dubbed an Orwellian dystopia, a cultural genocide, a murderous organ bank, and even ethnic cleansing. Rian Thum judges Xinjiang has become a police state to rival North Korea, with a formalized racism on the order of South African apartheid. In short, you don’t want to be an Uyghur (or Kazakh, or Kyrgyz), in China or abroad.
But the surveillance state also makes life difficult for hapless travelers who want to explore the region. That will be the focus of this article.
Since September 2019, it seems that the police has gotten instructions to lay off foreigners. There seems to be less interrogation for travelers, and no one has reported having spyware installed on their phone at the border in recent times.
Crossing the border
We have discussed Chinese border crossings in Xinjiang in depth on other pages, see the border crossing articles for Mongolia, Tajikistan (Qolma Pass), Kazakhstan, Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan (Irkeshtam Pass and Torugart Pass). If you need to locate these on a map, see the border crossing overview page.
For more details about border closure dates, see Xinjiang border crossings.
For your visa application, do not mention you are visiting Xinjiang.
Knives of any length are likely to be confiscated if found. Bags are x-rayed. You are fingerprinted and photographed when entering, but you do not have to give a DNA sample, donate blood or down a shot of alcohol (that’s only for Uyghurs). Retina scan only at airports for now.
Border guards might install a spyware app called Jingwang (citizen safety) on your phone. The spyware sends the government a user’s WeChat and Weibo chat records, as well as the device’s IMSI and IMEI, and even sends the user’s WiFi login details. Some people report not having Jingwang installed at the border. Jingwang will also not be installed when entering Xinjiang from an internal border.
Regardless, it is highly likely your phone will be scrutinized for illegal content – mostly pictures. You obviously do not want to have anything concerning human rights, the Dalai Lama, Uyghur culture etc. on your phone.
The Dutch government recommends you format your device before you enter China, and to not switch it on as long as you are in China.
Make sure you have nothing incriminating on your phone when getting out. The Jingwang app has also been installed on people’s phones on the way out. Not usual, but it has happened.
After Liuyuan on the G30 a massive checkpost guards the border with Gansu province. Pictures and fingerprints are taken.
Buses and hitchhiking
You will likely be pulled off every bus you get on for questioning. Hitchhiking on the other hand, is possible and in fact relatively easy; waiting times rarely exceeded 30 minutes. Signs are counterproductive. It is much easier to cross checkpoints if your driver is Han Chinese.
Hitchhiking has been reported not to be allowed from Kashgar to Tashkurgan.
Recommended whenever possible. No stopping for police checkpoints so timings are more reliable, but come on time because security checks may take some time.
Cycling is not so easy as you will often be forced by police to take a bus or hitch a ride once you hit a no-go zone or a have-to-go zone. There are a lot of places where cyclists are turned back. A good strategy to keep going is to insist and ask for someone to drive you through the town where you are not allowed to pass.
If you take the train you will need to disassemble your bike and put it in bags.
Let us know your tips and experiences on the forum: Cycling in Xinjiang
See self-driving in China for all the details.
Hotels, hostels and vacation rentals
There aren’t that many hotels in Xinjiang that take in foreigners. Do not expect bargains. Vacation rental properties listed on sites like airbnb and homeaway will not take foreigners.
Trip.com is helpful, though. If they confirm your booking and then find out the booked hotel doesn’t welcome foreigners, they will find somewhere else for you and cover any increase in price.
There is a way around this, though. We discovered that if a hotel does not accept foreigners the police can register you and thus you can actually stay in that hotel. However the police has to be informed that you are leaving before you get your passport back. But it’s a great way for low-budget travelers to profit from the really cheap hotels that are usually only open to Han Chinese.
Updates welcome in the forum thread for Kashgar accommodation. These hostels should take foreigners:
These hotels should also take foreigners:
- Nuerlan Hotel
- Kashi New Delhi Hotel
- Tianyuan Business Hotel
- Kashgar Seman Hotel
- Luxemon Qinibagh
- Lihao Hotel
- Hanting Hotel
- Radisson Blu
Updates welcome in the forum thread for Urumqi accommodation. The following have been reported to take foreigners, but there should be plenty of others.
Ziyou International Hostel seems to have stopped accepting foreigners.
Dap Youth Hostel definitely takes foreigners. It’s conveniently located and has a beautiful patio and English-speaking staff. We are looking for more options.
Elsewhere in Xinjiang
Places without hotels:
- From the Bulgan border with Mongolia until Urumqi there are no hotels that accept foreigners.
Places with hotels:
- Fukang: Tian Shi hotel (300+ RMB) can host foreigners, but only if they can show a plane or train ticket out of Fukang.
- Ji ergele
- Ruoqiang: 3 hotels take foreigners.
If you don’t stay in a hotel, you must head to the PSB and register, usually with the owner of the place in tow. (This is true everywhere in China.) Beyond question you’ll have a problem if the host is not Han Chinese.
Unless specifically stated, camping in Xinjiang is not allowed. It has been reported, though, that you are allowed to camp at Karakul Lake and in the Taklamakan, although we have not had any recent updates. It may also be possible to camp in the parking lot of a hotel. You are definitely not allowed to camp at Kanas Lake.
In August 2018 you could camp at Sayram Lake for 70 RMB.
It’s impossible to refill your camping stove in Xinjiang, as fuel supplies are strictly controlled. Get everything you need before you enter.
The taboo on camping combined with the lack of hotels that host foreigners presents a difficult situation for cyclists and budgeteers. Hide yourself well. Here is what happened to 2 campers who got caught.
He forced us to withdraw money from an ATM and put us in a hotel. He told the receptionist to deny us wifi access and took our cameras in custody. We were not allowed to leave the hotel till the police would pick us up. We were allowed to hitchhike out but a police car would follow our every footstep until we were stamped out. Of course they refused to give us a lift as they followed us anyway.
Experiences are gathered on the forum: Camping in Xinjiang.
Expect to spend at least 2 hours of your day at checkpoints for repeated passport checks, luggage control and questioning. Most people tend to average out at 4 checks per day, lasting from 5 minutes to 5 hours.
You may expect at least one checkpost every 100-150 km in northern Xinjiang and one every 50-100km in the south. Inside cities, checkpoints are everywhere.
Usually officers are very polite to foreigners. Secret police is less friendly, but you are unlikely to encounter them if you are a traveler without links to China or a Muslim background.
However, the continuous checks are universally reported to be very draining.
Talking to people
Interaction with locals is obviously very difficult as fear for consequences is widespread. The situation is different for Han Chinese, who are not persecuted. They might want to speak more freely.
Should you speak Chinese? Some people have recommended not to use it as you may be suspected to be a spy. If you have a Chinese wife, husband or child, it’s better if you stay out of Xinjiang altogether: you and your family (including minors) may find yourselves spending your nights interrogated by secret police in a highly unpleasant fashion.
Internet and sim card
A reminder: you are being watched. Just like much of the rest of the internet, many VPNs are blocked.
Buying a sim card takes time because your passport needs to be translated.
Wifi Master Key is a very popular app in China that lets users crowdsource login credentials for China’s ubiquitous hotspots. In China, about 50% of wifi networks use the password 88888888 (8 times 8).
Many areas are not accessible to foreigners but we don’t know which ones exactly. Here is what we know so far.
For the Karakorum Highway, be aware that you need a special permit (only tour operators can get one for you) to travel from Kashgar to Tashkurgan. However, if you have a Tajik or Pakistani visa, you don’t need the permit.
- You cannot enter Payzawat County from Kashgar (Gmaps / OSM).
- Kanas Lake: had 1 positive report, 1 negative.
- May 2018: 50km after Beitun behind Kanas airport where the S232 splits is a police checkpoint. We were stopped trying to cross it on foot.
- Wusu county. The main G312 between Khorgos and Urumqi is open, but the G217 and the town of Wusu are off-limits to foreigners.
- Shawan off the G312 is off-limits. Best to stay on the G30 around there. Hutubi could be ok?
- Road from Ruoqiang to Korla is closed to foreigners because Yuli county just south of Korla is closed to foreigners. To go north from Ruoqiang you have to first go west to Qiemo, then take an overnight bus on a cross-desert highway to Korla. Can be done without having to stay overnight in Qiemo.
- Turpan to Korla: the last stretch of the road to Korla is also closed to foreigners.
We have an old post up about Xinjiang off-the-beaten-path, but we are not sure which of these destinations are still open to foreigners.
Q&A and reports
We welcome all your questions and reports in our Xinjiang security apparatus forum thread.