If you read the Lonely Planet guide to this city you will be warned about the number of thefts in the downtown area. All of the travel books suggest locking your backpack, carrying it in front of you, and keeping an eye on it in case someone tries to slash it. While I have never gone to these sorts of measures the truth is that you do have to watch your bag closely. One of my friends has had two cell phones and three wallets nabbed from her, someone else had their palm pilot taken. Thankfully I have only lost one cell phone, but there have been many other times I have felt a hand at my side.
It is most important to be careful on busy street corners or crowded buses, anywhere someone might accidentally bump up against you. Whenever I feel someone going after my bag, I slap his hand as hard as I can and yell in the local language, “this is not okay”. The thief does not want to be noticed, so he will quickly fall back into the crowd and try someone else’s pocket. If you are on the bus you may witness someone stealing from another passenger, if you confront the thief he might threaten you, the best way to intervene in the situation is to step on the foot of the person who is being stolen from, this way they will move and hopefully the thief will no longer be able to reach their pocket.
As foreigners we often get together and share our pickpocket stories. My friend told me the best one last week. She was on the street shopping when she felt the light brush of a hand against her side, she quickly moved, and looked down at her purse. The zipper had been opened a couple of inches. She quickly started checking the contents of her bag to make sure nothing had been taken. While searching through her purse she came across a pair of long handled tweezers that did not belong to her. When she pulled them out to examine them better a man tapped her on the shoulder. He then asked in Uyghur if he could “have those back”. My friend was so shocked that the man had the nerve to ask, and that she was actually able to understand him, that she gave the tweezers back without thinking. But if you give the thief his tool back he’ll live to pickpocket another day.
This is where I got my cell phone stolen, it may look like a peaceful part of town, but in turth it's a crime scene waitng to happen.