My wife and I were packing for another vacation getaway on the motorcycle when a single phone call ruined our travel plans.
“Turn on your TV,” my friend told me. “There’s some scary stuff going on in the capital right now.”
We did as he said and both stared in shock, unwilling to accept that massive ethnic riots in Ürümqi were killing hundreds of people in China’s western province of Xinjiang, our current home. We knew that any more preparations would be useless. Travel, at least for this next week, would not be wise.
The events of that evening changed more than just our current travel plans though. The riots changed the way we lived and traveled in Xinjiang, period. The internet had been completely shut off , international phone lines were down, and new security measures were put in place to secure the region.
For eight months following the riots, my wife and I dealt with these frustrating circumstances and still managed to explore new parts of the beautiful province. Here are some of the things I learned during this time in Xinjiang.
1. Opening a Sina Account is the Only Way to Use Email
It wasn’t until six months after the initial riots that email became a practical means of communication again. The government announced that Sina.com.cn, a Chinese-language news portal, would be the only email provider to send and receive messages within the province.
My excitement over this new development was short-lived, however, when I realized that my entire address book was stored online. Sites like Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail were still completely blocked and I never realized how much information that I kept I stored online until I no longer had access to it. On my next trip outside Xinjiang, I printed out a list of all my email contacts so I could add them to my Sina account.
Because nobody knows when full email access will be restored, it’s best to have what you know will work. If you plan on visiting Xinjiang, open a Sina account before leaving and set it up so that all your emails can be forwarded there during your tip.
2.Living Without Internet Is Doable
When I first found out that the internet had been completely blocked, I wasn’t immediately alarmed. China is well-known for its “Great Firewall” that censors unwanted material, but the proxies and programs available to avoid this block are numerous.
Unfortunately, something about Xinjiang’s internet situation is different. Almost every option to circumvent the block, both free services and paid private networks, fails to work. The work-arounds that are available are usually very difficult to find and extremely expensive. A satellite link I saw in Ürümqi ran about $300 per month with a $500 set up fee!
For eight long months I learned to live isolated and globally uninformed. Eventually I was able to check news on major Chinese sites or book flights on Ctrip.com, but updating my website or communicating with family was almost impossible.
3. Guidebooks Can be Invaluable
Having no internet meant it was impossible to access online travel guides and forums while in Xinjiang. While planning a visit to Turpan, a popular Silk Road outpost, all research for what I wanted to see and where I would stay had to be done well in advance.
This was one of the few instances where I found those hefty travel guides to be worth their weight. I found that both the Lonely Planet and The Rough Guide have detailed Xinjiang information in their China editions that many other books don’t cover. Although they may have taken up valuable room in my bag, these thick books proved useful on more than one occasion when I found myself in a tiny desert oasis with few other travelers and no internet recommendations to guide me.
4. Taking Photos Can Get You in Trouble
The most visible change I noticed after the July riots was the increased police presence in popular tourist towns such as Ürümqi, Turpan and Kashgar. Groups of police were stationed at almost every street corner for a few weeks after the incident, and even now they can be seen in small patrol groups.
A good friend of mine had her camera confiscated and the memory card erased after accidentally taking a photo of a patrol near Kashgar’s Old City. She was given back her camera but had unfortunately lost all the pictures she had taken up until that point.
Lesson learned: Little boys playing in the street like their picture taken; camels in the desert like their picture taken; police and military do NOT like their picture taken.
5. The News Shouldn’t Stop You from Traveling
The most important lesson I learned over the past four years of traveling in Xinjiang is that news has a way of creating unnecessary fear. Both the Uyghur and Han people, the two sides of last year’s ethnic riots, are beautiful people groups that are a joy to get to know, even if they don’t always get along with each other.
Safety is a valid concern, but I would have missed out on so many beautiful cities in Xinjiang had I allowed fear to dictate my journey.
After only a short time, I completely forgot that I couldn’t access the internet or send an email. I got used to the added security and the highway checkpoints. It all became part of the experience of living and traveling in Xinjiang, and I believe the value of what I learned surpasses the inconveniences I faced along the journey.