Josh Summers lives in the far western province of Xinjiang, China with his family.
He has lived there since 2006 as a teacher, a student, a traveler and a businessman. Josh enjoys sharing his experiences in a part of the world that still remains mostly a mystery. He has spent years visiting the most remote parts of the Xinjiang region, meeting with some of the most precious local families and tasting the most wonderful local cuisine.
Interview by Dominique Musorrafiti
China-Underground: Why did you decide to travel to Asia? What about your first time in China?
Josh Summers: My wife and I first stepped foot in China in August of 2006. The heat was stifling and the jet lag was terrible. We had a total of 48 hours in Beijing before we were escorted to the remote western region of Xinjiang. Our new home. Initially, we made the decision to travel to Asia because we couldn’t find any other jobs that fit what we wanted as a couple. I didn’t have much interest in Chinese culture, honestly, and even my knowledge of Asian geography was embarrassing. We came for the adventure, but we’ve stayed this long because we quickly fell in love with this corner of the world and the unique people who inhabit it.
C-U: What cultural differences did you find at the beginning? What inspired you most?
J S: What makes Xinjiang so special is that it offers a personal glimpse of a number of different cultures. Obviously, we’ve learned a lot about the Chinese culture, but there’s also the Uyghur culture, Kazakh culture, and even some Russian culture. The very first thing my wife and I noticed was the incredible hospitality that each of these cultures displayed. Keep in mind that in the western part of China, foreigners are still a rare and interesting thing to local people. On a weekly basis, we would be asked to dinner and brought into different people’s homes. It was wonderful.
“For me, Xinjiang offers the appropriate balance of adventure and opportunity. I could spend another two decades here and still not have enough time to explore all the beautiful facets of this region.” China Digital Times
C-U: Can you share with us any story behind your travels?
J S: One of my favorite memories traveling around Xinjiang was a trip out to a friend’s childhood village during the big Chinese Spring Festival. We spend over 10 hours on buses that wander past gorgeous lakes and up into the Tianshan mountains. We were going so far out that one of our “rest stops” was literally stopping on the side of the road and letting everybody relieve themselves behind a rock. We stopped for about 15 minutes and didn’t see another car the entire time. When we arrived at our friend’s home, which was near the mountains that separate China from Kazakhstan, we were offered a nice room on their property that was heated by a stove filled with cow dung. It was small but ended up being very cozy. The time spent with our friend’s family was priceless. It was a beautiful time, despite not being extremely comfortable. I still laugh to this day when I think about my wife screaming at the farm hog that scared her while she was using the outhouse!
C-U: What motivated you to move to China? What are the pros and cons that you have faced?
J S: I was motivated by a sense of adventure. It’s amazing to me that there are still places in the world that are “undiscovered”, and I live in one of them! Obviously, this comes with a number of pros and cons. The pros are that I get to explore places that most people never get to see and be an ambassador to a place that receives very few foreigners. Life here is full of daily adventures, that’s for sure. On the flip side, we’re a long distance away from our families as well as any good healthcare. There are no Starbucks or McDonalds anywhere nearby and it’s hard to get imported goods. Oh, and then there’s the censored internet, which makes it extremely hard to do online business 😉
C-U: How the idea of FarWestChina came about? Why do you decide to focus on Xinjiang?
J S: At first, FarWestChina was a simple Blogspot blog (before Google got blocked). It was a way for me to communicate with friends and family back home what we were seeing and experiencing. I focused on Xinjiang because, well, that’s where I was at. As I began to see more and more people interested in what I was writing, I took what I was doing a bit more seriously. There’s very little good information available on the Xinjiang region and the little bits that I was sharing each week were turning out to be very useful to travelers heading out this way. I later took the information that I had gathered on the website to publish a travel guide for Xinjiang, which thankfully has been very well reviewed.
C-U: Can you tell us something about your website TravelChinaCheaper?
J S: If FarWestChina is laser-focused on Xinjiang, then TravelChinaCheaper is a site that has allowed me to write on broader, China-related travel topics. The target reader for TravelChinaCheaper is somebody who has yet to travel or move to China but is starting to do their initial research. What do I wish I knew before I first landed in Beijing back in 2006? Those are the things that I try to share.
“Becoming the first foreigner to get a driver’s licence in Karamay gave us freedom.” South China Morning Post
C-U: How much has China changed compared to your first travel? What are the main differences?
J S: Oh wow…so many changes. The list could go on and on, but I’ll just say that my favorite changes have been those related to train travel and those related to mobile payments. When I first arrived in China, I remember having to stand in line to buy train tickets and hoping that there were tickets even available. The earliest I could buy tickets was 10 days in advance, so I never knew if we were really going to be able to travel or not. Fast forward a decade and you can buy train tickets online in China up to 60 days in advance. It’s so much better! As I’m traveling, I also like the fact that now I don’t rely on cash as much as I used to. Sure, there are many places that now accept foreign credit cards, but the best change has been in mobile payments. I’ve connected my China bank account to WeChat and now I pay for pretty much everything using WeChat pay – which is how the locals do it as well. It’s an amazingly convenient payment solution that makes Apple Pay look antiquated.
C-U: Did your experience in China influence and change your way to see the world and people?
J S: Absolutely. I believe that any trip beyond the borders of your home country changes your perspective on the world. Living in China and understanding the culture better helps me to read world news better and interpret what is really happening (as opposed to just what’s being reported). I also believe that if ignorance breeds fear, understanding promotes open-mindedness. We often fear what we don’t understand, so the more we travel and experience different places and people, the more we open our minds to global differences and throw away our prejudice and stereotypes.
Photos courtesy of Josh Summers