Asian Studies - Xinjiang Trip Summer 2012

Western N.C. to Western China: How five UNC Asheville students spent a month touring the Xinjiang Region

It was the trip of a lifetime for any Asian Studies student. Imagine spending three weeks revisiting the ancient Silk Road through a tour of Xinjiang, in Western China—exploring the history and culture of such exotic places as Ürümqi, Turpan, Yili, Heavenly Lake, and Flaming Mountain. That's how a group from UNC Asheville spent a month this summer, immersed in an obscure subset of Chinese/Muslim culture while travelling with student counterparts from Xinjiang University.

Five UNC Asheville Asian Studies Minors were selected to participate in an International Cultural Exchange Program (ICEP) in Xinjiang, China. Samuel Boehms, Connor Esterwood, Ashley Kent, and Nicholas Scavo are International Studies majors, while Duncan Barnes is an Environmental Studies major. The UNC Asheville students travelled as part of a larger 17-person group of students representing the UNC System; UNC Asheville represented the largest delegation of any university.

The program is jointly administered by The Carolina China Council in Raleigh, and Xinjiang University in China. All five students were selected to receive a 2012 ICEP Travel Scholarship, which covered the cost of the three-week trip to Xinjiang in the Uygur Autonomous Region of China. As part of their itinerary, they also had the option of visiting Beijing, which many students did.

For all but one, this was their first trip to China. As Asian Studies Minors, these five students had taken courses on China and Asia through an interdisciplinary curriculum that included Elementary Chinese I & II, East Asian Literature in Translation: Pre-1900, Great Chinese Writers, China Through Films, Revolutionary China, Democracy in Asia, and Religions in East Asia, just to name a few.

For more information on Asian Studies and International Studies at UNC Asheville, contact Dr. Agya Boakye-Boaten, Director of the Interdisciplinary & International Studies Program, at

Ashley Kent

Left to right: Conner Esterwood, Sam Boehms, Ashley Kent, Duncan Barnes and Nick Scavo at Heavenly Lake near Ürümqi, the capital of China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

“The high note of our trip was visiting the Heavenly Lake or Tianchi Lake in the Tianshan Tianchi National Park. The Heavenly Lake was about two hours away from Xinjiang University in Ürümqi. One part of the day trip that made it memorable was being able to travel with our Xinjiang student counterparts. Most of the Xinjiang students had never been to the Heavenly Lake, so both N.C. students and Xinjiang students took in the beautiful scenery for the first time together. After taking a boat tour and a hike through the mountains we ended our excursion away from campus with a meal in a Kazakh yurt. The yurts were beautifully decorated on the inside with bright decorated quilts and rugs. The meal provided by a local Kazakh woman reflected the Kazakhs peoples' high-protein and dairy-rich diet.

The trip to Xinjiang enhanced my education by giving me the opportunity to live within Asian society, allowing me to practice my Chinese language skills and engage with an Asian culture. This allowed me to exceed that level of knowledge by being able to experience Asian culture every day for a few weeks.”

Nicholas Scavo

While visiting an art class, Conner Esterwood and Nick Scavo volunteered to model for some quick figure sketches.

“In terms of distance, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China is about as far away as one can possibly get from North Carolina. As a representative of UNC Asheville, it wasn’t difficult to become enamored by the incredibly diverse culture of the region. The city of Ürümqi, basically the center of Asia, is situated at the intersection of countless cultures—blending elements of Han Chinese, Islamic, Kazak, Mongolian, and Russian culture into an incredible mixture of peoples.

The high point of the experience was befriending the students of Xinjiang University, students who showed us unbelievable kindness and hospitality. The relationships made are the kind that will last forever, and we were fortunate enough to learn from the differing backgrounds of each student. I’m coming home with at least 10 new pen pals and more than a handful of incredible stories experienced with the fun loving, devoted, and passionate students of Xinjiang University.

I now have a much deeper understanding of the social and political landscape of mainland China and hope to engage in further research to enhance the important experiential knowledge I gained from this trip.”

Connor Esterwood

“The best part of the whole trip was a small excursion to an ancient fort between Yi-Li and Ürümqi. This was probably my favorite part due to the lack of tourists. It felt wild and surreal, and my mind ran away with the thoughts of what went on there back when it was first constructed.

There are many things that I learned on this trip, but the most significant is the existence of the Uyghur people. I had never before this trip heard of them but in Xinjiang they are very present and their culture is very strong. We spent much time during this trip learning about Uyghur dance, food, and culture. This trip has given me a more accurate view of China and, in particular, its western border. I now have a firsthand view of China, which has changed many of the ways I look at this country. Asia is now no longer as far away as I once thought, and, in the end, this has affected my overall perception of it and its many countries.”

Duncan Barnes

Duncan Barnes visits the Bird's Nest Stadium in Beijing.

“The trip was an absolute once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. In just one month, we established lifelong friendships and came to understand a culture that is not only radically different from American culture, but surprisingly to all of us, different from the rest of Chinese culture as well. We experienced a diversity of culture that previously we could have hardly imagined and grew to appreciate Chinese and Uyghur cultural interaction."



Sam Boehms

“One memory from the trip that I will never forget was the time that one of the local students took us all out for a local ice cream only found in Xinjiang. I was just overwhelmed by the hospitality shown to us by the local friends that we made from Xinjiang University. They were eager to show us all the best that Ürümqi had to offer.

One of the most important perspectives I have gained from this trip is insight to the Chinese model of state governance and its influence on the development of society. Everywhere I looked I could see the quick pace of development occurring throughout the region. I quickly realized that the Xinjiang I saw today will be vastly different than the one that I might encounter 10 years from now. I also gained invaluable insight into the ethnic and political complexities of the people of Central Asia. This frame of reference has given me a new perspective on relations between cultures and the implications they have for the citizens involved.”