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Exploring Xinjiang, the Far West of China

Xinjiang is often called the Far West of China. Read my post to find out more about this province and you can find some rare pictures of the Tuva and Hasake ethnic minorities.

hemu village china

Xinjiang is China’s largest province and also one of the least densely populated. If China is a country generally misunderstood by most of the world, Xinjiang is even more so. Most of the province is inhabited by Muslims and unfortunately, due to some clashes between the local population and the police, it is often associated with terrorism.

The Chinese government reacts to terrorist threats with an iron fist: the Great Firewall of China, used for Internet censorship, is even tougher in Xinjiang and even Amazon is censored. In the whole province, the Internet connection is limited to 3G and when you enter into many hotels and restaurants there are often X-ray baggage checks.

Even though I myself know China quite well, I didn’t know much about this province. So I gladly accepted the invitation from the Xinjiang Tourist Board to visit the northernmost part of the province, on the border between Russian Siberia, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia. I have to say that although it was a short trip I was fascinated by the warmth of the local people who, while living in places with freezing temperatures (-20°C or colder) made me always feel welcome. This trip reminded me of how important it is to form a personal opinion based on facts and not on things heard from other sources, just as it happened to me visiting Jordan.

The Tuva and Hasake minorities in the Kanas Lake area

tuva family

I’m always happy when I have the privilege to share some moments with people who live in remote areas such as this family of the Tuva minority in the beautiful Hemu village. Hemu is considered one of the most beautiful villages of the entire province and I must say that its fame is fully justified. Unlike many other places in China where fake old towns full of shops have been built to attract Chinese tourists and where in reality nobody lives, the Hemu village is really inhabited by locals.

It vaguely reminded me of some Alpine villages. The difference is that the houses are not made of stones but entirely of wood. The population is divided mainly into two different ethnic groups: the Tuva, of Mongolian origin and Buddhist religion, and Hasake of Kazakh origin and Muslim religion. The two populations live in peace and try to maintain their traditions.

Here are some pictures of the Tuva men who celebrate the Chinese New Year according to their Buddhist traditions:

According to some recent archaeological discoveries, it seems that for the first time man has used skis in these mountains in the Altai region. Skiing was used to hunt and their use then spread throughout the rest of the world. It’s always difficult to say who truly was the first to create a tool or instrument but what is certain is that the local populations have a millenary tradition related to skiing. While I visited these areas I could even attend a couple of local ski races, something totally unexpected and not what you would expect to see in China.

Another tradition kept alive by the population of Hasake and Tuva is the horse racing on snow:

The landscapes in this part of China are, to say the least, wonderful.

altai xinjiang china

This is the Hemu village at sunrise, about -25°C…

hemu village sunrise xinjiang

A place worth visiting, in addition to the Hemu village, is Kanas Lake, which in winter is completely frozen and in every season offers very beautiful scenery. According to local legends, the lake is home to a monster just like Lockness in Scotland, but obviously with the shape of a Chinese dragon…

kanas lake

It is also possible to see some rare Camels, rare at least in this area of Xinjiang.

bactrian camel xinjiang china

At the end of this trip, I can only say that China never ceases to amaze me. Just when I thought I had seen enough, I discovered fascinating traditions and places. It is definitely worth exploring this country and going beyond the usual metropolises such as Beijing and Shanghai.

To conclude here is the incredible performance of a Tuva singer:

Useful info

things to do in xinjiang
  • The best time to visit Hemu and Kanas is probably Autumn when temperatures are not too low and you can photograph spectacular autumn landscapes. Obviously, there will be a lot of tourists. The winter instead gives the opportunity to visit these areas without tourists and see them completely covered by snow but it will also be very cold. In winter it is also possible to ski in the valleys (country skiing).
  • In the Hemu Village there are only a couple of people authorized to host foreigners. Generally in China, foreigners do not have permission to stay in local homes, especially in poor areas. A couple of kilometers from the village there are many hotels for all budgets.
  • Always bring with you your passport and be patient and friendly. The police will stop many times. These are normal practices and all you need to do is be kind and wait.
  • To book your hotel I recommend Trip.com since it has way more options than Booking.com.
  • Don’t forget to get a VPN before traveling to China, to access Internet.

Here’s my complete travel guide to China. Here is my guide to a far easier place to visit: Jiangsu province. Here’s an article about Xijiang: a place with a similar name but completely different. If you are fascinated by Central Asia don’t miss there two posts where I talk about some of the things to do in Kazakhstan and in Kyrgyzstan.

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