Ever been to Xinjiang? Ever heard of Xinjiang? If you answered ‘no’ to either of these questions, you’re not alone.
Located in the northwest of China, Xinjiang (pronounced “sin gee-young”) is one of the country’s lesser-known regions.
Although it accounts for more than one-sixth of China’s total territory, the region has a relatively small population of about 21 million.
It’s also off the beaten track as far as international tourism is concerned. Tourists – as well as English teachers – often stick to the better-known cities like Beijing and Shanghai.
Josh Summers, a 31-year-old Texan man, moved to China with his wife in 2006 to teach English in Xinjiang. Almost 10 years later, they’re still there.
Josh has been teaching English in Xinjiang for almost 10 years.
I talked to Josh about his experiences in this far-flung and often misunderstood region.
Josh, can you tell us about your experience teaching English in Xinjiang?
My wife and I first arrived in Xinjiang in 2006 as first-time English teachers.
We had no teaching experience and had never been to China before, so to say that we were ‘newbies’ was an understatement!
As it turns out, we were two of only four foreigners in the entire city. Our Western faces easily stood out among the Han Chinese and Uyghur populations. It was an eye-opening experience but one that we learned to absolutely love.
We taught at a small private school as elementary and kindergarten teachers, living in government-appointed housing with a teaching load of about 20 hours a week.
The pay wasn’t great but at the time we didn’t know any better. Overall, I have no regrets – we loved the three-and-a-half years we spent teaching there!
Why did you choose that part of China?
We didn’t really choose Xinjiang, it just happened to fall in our lap.
It’s one of those ‘friend of a friend of a friend’ stories where somebody we knew had a connection with a professor who was associated with the school in Karamay, Xinjiang.
We were enticed by the romantic stories of adventure, the Silk Road and camels in the desert, so we agreed to come.
You'll see camels in Xinjiang.
I’m embarrassed now to say that when we first landed in Xinjiang we had absolutely no idea where we were or what we were getting into. We probably couldn’t have pointed it out on a map very easily.
We were just a newly married couple seeking an incredible adventure. Xinjiang definitely lived up to that hope.
How is Xinjiang different to the big metropolitan cities on the coast?
I’ve never lived on the east coast so I don’t know what the ‘real’ China feels like.
I do know that life is much more laid back here. Everybody takes a siesta in the middle of the day for a couple hours before heading back to work or school.
Outside of the massive capital of Urumqi, the rest of the cities in Xinjiang have a very small-town feel, even the ones that have over 500,000 people.
Perhaps the best way to describe most parts of Xinjiang is to say that it has the feeling that you’ve stepped back in time. It has a quality that’s hard to describe but it’s certainly different than the bigger cities along the coast.
What are some of the best things about the region?
What’s not to love!?
First there’s the food. Xinjiang has such a diversity of options and some of the most unique and tasty stuff you’ll ever put in your mouth.
The Uyghur flat bread, called naan, and the rice pilaf are incredible!
So too is what’s known as Big Plate Chicken. It is what it sounds like – a big plate of chicken – but it has a flavor unlike anything you’ve ever had.
Big Plate Chicken is one of the region's famous dishes.
Aside from the food, I love the mixture of cultures represented in Xinjiang. Han Chinese, Uyghur, Kazakh, Hui, Russian – it’s all here.
Sure, there are some tensions that come along with having such vastly different cultures.
However, as an expat here it provides the opportunity for me to learn about more than just the Chinese culture. It exposes me to almost all of Central Asia.
What are the schools in Xinjiang like?
Looking back through the lens of what I know now, the school I used to work at was a dungeon.
I didn’t know any better, though. I thought it was just China.
Nowadays, there are universities, schools and private institutions that have excellent facilities for teachers. I look around at the options now and think “Man, they’ve got it made!”
Still, if you’re looking to live in the lap of luxury, teaching English in Xinjiang might not be your best bet. It does give you adventure, though, and it’s a rapidly advancing region of China.
What advice would you give to someone thinking about teaching English in Xinjiang?
If you’re a qualified teacher with a university degree, TEFL certification and teaching experience, don’t settle!
(You can see the requirements to teach in China here.)
I see teachers here who make 4,000 RMB per month and others who earn 10,000+ RMB per month. Both are qualified teachers but only one knew that they were a rare commodity.
If you like nature, you'll love Xinjiang.
Schools here are desperate for teachers. They simply can’t find enough qualified candidates who are willing to move to Xinjiang.
Don’t be fooled – it is quite the move. Xinjiang is huge and it’s not like teaching in Shanghai where you can just jump on a cheap flight for vacation and go wherever you want.
Once you’re here, you’re here!
However, if you’re looking for adventure and the idea of quasi-isolation appeals to you, search out jobs and don’t be shy to negotiate a good salary if you’re qualified.
Is Xinjiang a worthwhile tourist destination for foreigners working in other parts of China?
100%, undeniably, absolutely, yes!
There are a number of foreigners who are fearful of Xinjiang due to the bad press it gets, but you’re really quite safe here in China.
Despite what you might have read about Xinjiang, no foreign traveler has ever been injured as part of the ethnic tensions. Most of the incidents you read about are hundreds of miles from where the tourist destinations are anyway.
Xinjiang offers a wonderful dose of ancient Silk Road for any history nut, as well as the awesome Uyghur culture.
It’s also one of the most ecologically diverse regions in the world. Xinjiang is home to China’s largest desert as well as the second-tallest mountain in the world.
There is so much beautiful scenery that it’s impossible for you to see it all in just a few days or even weeks.
Whatever you might be into, Xinjiang probably has it. Best of all, it’s not a big tourist trap yet, either.
You could also read my review of Josh Summers' awesome book about Xinjiang!