Like many foreigners who have been to Xinjiang, American student Pam Ariand is astonished at the great changes taking place in Uygur Autonomous Region in southwest China.
"Hamburgers were never seen here several years ago, but now you can easily find outlets of Kentucky fried chicken, pizza and many other western foods in Xinjiang," Ariand said in fluent Chinese.
In addition, the improved transportation network has greatly improved the people's daily lives in Xinjiang, which accounts for nearly one sixth of China's land, said Ariand, who majors in the Tajiki language and ancient central Asian history and culture at Xinjiang University.
The American girl recalled some inconvenience she had encountered during her first trip to this northwesternmost inland region of China eight years ago.
"In 1997, it took me three days to go to the southern city of Kashi by bus from the regional capital Urumqi. But now it only requires a one-day ride thanks to the improved road network," said Ariand.
"You can also go there by train or plane," she said, adding that most of her American friends had asked "Are there transportation services or electricity?"
According to the regional government, Xinjiang has invested 23.4 billion yuan (2.8 billion US dollars) in road construction over the past four years or so, bringing the road length to 86,824 kilometers by the end of 2004, almost ten times that of 1955 when the autonomous region was founded.
Railway construction and the opening of regular flights also have helped improve local transportation services and facilitate exchanges between this landlocked region and the world, said an official of the Xinjiang Development and Reform Committee.
Brian Swords, a native of Canada who now teaches English at Xinjiang Agriculture University, said he was "astonished" by the rapid economic and social development here.
"I had imagined I would see more horse-drawn carriages in Xinjiang, but I came here to see cars, buses and other modernized vehicles running on the roads of the region," Swords said about his impression of Xinjiang during his first trip here in 2000.
The number of motor vehicles reached 500,700 in Xinjiang by 2004, statistics from the committee show.
Xinjiang has been developing quickly since China adopted the "west development" strategy in 2000 with the purpose of boosting development in its western areas, especially ethnic autonomous regions such as Tibet, Xinjiang and Ningxia.
"Xinjiang has no longer been as backward as I had thought before," said Swords.
The gross domestic product (GDP) of Xinjiang reached 220 billion yuan (27.2 billion US dollars) in 2004 from 1.2 billion yuan (148 million US dollars) in 1955, with its per-capita GDP growing to 1,383 US dollars from 30 US dollars, according to statistics from the committee.
Xinjiang is the home of 19.6 million people from 47 different ethnic groups, among whom Uygur, Han, Kazak, Hui, Mongolia and Kirgiz are the main nationalities.
The diversity of ethnic customs and cultures and well-preserved natural scenery have attracted an increasing number of domestic and foreign visitors.
Stanislav Perkin, a visitor from Israel, is deeply impressed by the beautiful landscapes of the Halas Lake, a famous tourist destination in northern Xinjiang, and the peculiar costumes and dances of the ethic groups he saw in Kashi and Turpan.
"It is quite important to preserve the diversity of customs and cultures of different ethnic groups, which is one of the basic facets for our foreigners to know of Xinjiang," Perkin said.
According to the region's tourism administration, nearly 80 million Chinese and foreign tourists have visited Xinjiang since the region began to open to the outside world in the early 1980s.
Beside the cultural fascination, foreigners living here are also impressed by the growing national unity among the local people.
Azeem Inayat, a medical expert from Pakistan who works in Shihezi, a city about 150 kilometers west of Urumqi, said his colleagues who are of Han, Uygur and other nationalities always help and encourage each other in work, just like a big family.
Inayat, who has been working in the city for three years, said he regarded Xinjiang as the second hometown.
"I have visited many places in Xinjiang, where I see progress, development and unity," the Pakistani expert said.
"Xinjiang has great potential for development, and I believe it will have a bright future," he said.