The Silk Road: Places to Explore

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Xinjiang

The vast Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, covering more than 1.6 million square km (640,000 square miles), is China's largest province. Even more expansive than Alaska, it borders Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Only 41% of Xinjiang's 21.8 million inhabitants are Han Chinese. About 43% are Uyghur (a people of Turkic origin), and the remainder are mostly Kazakhs, Hui, Kyrgyz, Mongols, and Tajiks.

Xinjiang gets very little rainfall except in the northern areas near Russia. It gets very cold in winter and very hot in summer, especially in the Turpan Basin, where temperatures often soar to 120°F. Visitors usually forgive the extreme weather, however, as they're charmed by the locals and awed by the rugged scenery, ranging from the endless sand dunes of the desert to the pastoral grasslands of the north.

Long important as a crossroads for trade with Europe and the Middle East, Xinjiang has nevertheless seldom come completely under Chinese control. For more than 2,000 years the region has been contested and divided by Turkic and Mongol tribes who—after setting up short-lived empires—soon disappeared beneath the shifting sands of time. In the 20th century, Uyghurs continued to resist Chinese rule, seizing power from a warlord governor in 1933 and claiming the land as a separate republic, which they named East Turkestan. China tightened its grip after the 1949 revolution, however, encouraging Han settlers to emigrate to the province to dilute the Uyghur majority, thus increasing ethnic tensions. In the last few years these tensions have blown up into full-scale social unrest. In 2008 and 2009 Uyghurs took to the streets in Ürümqi, Kashgar, and Hotan, protesting that they were not free to practice their religious beliefs. More than 200 people were killed. Chinese authorities say that the vast majority of the dead were Han Chinese, while Uyghur groups claim that a significant proportion of the dead were demonstrators shot by the police. Tensions boiled over again in 2010, when a Uyghur man detonated explosives in a crowd of police officers, resulting in at least seven casualties.

Renewed unrest in 2012 once again meant tightened security in the area, but no travel restrictions on foreign tourists were imposed.

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