- SWAT teams are your friends
No, really. If your papers are in order and you’re not doing anything wrong, they’re there to protect you as much as anyone else. Coming from the UK, I find it unnerving and intimidating when faced with armed police – but I also understand that I am lucky enough to be in a position where I will not be targeted beyond the occasional micro-aggression with which any foreigner in China will be familiar. Once you get past that, the police presence is actually weirdly reassuring. Who on Earth would mug you in front of a policeman?!
- Checkpoints for days
Entrances and exits to railway stations, bus stations, between cities, random streets… Your passport should never leave your hand. Some are quick and painless, some take longer. A printed itinerary will always help – preferably in Chinese. The only thing to do is smile and be as forthcoming with help as you can to speed the process along.
- English will not suffice
In general, since English can be sparse, but also specifically in interactions with police at checkpoints. Come armed (bad phrasing) with mobile data and a translation app, or preferably a working knowledge of Mandarin. Failing all else, prepared phrases (written?) would do, such as “we will take a long time” to show bus drivers at checkpoints – it should reduce the likelihood of them forgetting to wait for you…
- Make a food checklist
I know I like my food but this applies specifically to Xinjiang – it is home to several delicious delicacies not available elsewhere. Top hits are Polo (抓饭), Mixed Noodles (拌面), Kebabs (烤肉串), Steak Bakes (烤包子), Uyghur Naan (馕) and literally any fruit (but especially melons from Hami and grapes from Turpan). Word to the wise, however: they like their spices.
- Don’t be afraid to join in
Uyghur culture is very friendly, and whether in specifically touristic setting or not, people often seem delighted to show you how to dance with them, taste local food, or try your hand at their musical instruments. We often feel awkward about this, but when beckoned over and encouraged enthusiastically my stance becomes clearer: the key, I think, is the difference between cultural appropriation and having said culture actively shared with you.
Kirsten, shortly after being beckoned over, given the hat to wear and shown how to play